Franzen, Twitter hate, and the brilliance of Black Twitter

Attention conservation notice: Like haiku, there is an art to Twitter, and lots of smart people using it in a smart way. Don’t let haters discourage you from selecting and reading.

Jonathan Franzen gets a lot of attention no matter what he does or says, and he scarcely needs any more from the modest likes of me. For the record, I became annoyed with him when he was nasty to Oprah, and that annoyance became full-fledged dislike after reading through page eleventh-billion of his overhyped, yucky novel Freedom. Prior to that, I had very much liked the Corrections, but ugh, Freedom. He’s since been in the news telling us all about his love of bird-watching and his dislike of various sundry things like Twitter. For somebody who kicked sand in Oprah’s face, he’s awfully fond of telling us we should be killing off cats as a policy so we can save birds for him to watch from his perch of literary celebrity. I’ve begun to suspect the Oprah episode of being a stunt designed to do exactly what it did: increase his visibility as a serious, rather than popular, artist–in other words, a very special kind of celebrity. If it was a stunt, it’s worked awfully well. This is, of course, in concert with the fact that he’s a talented man as well, even if he chooses to employ it in such messes as Freedom.

The origins of much recent Franzen-angst has been his recent excerpts from his newest book in the Guardian, the Financial Times, and the Paris Review. (Yes, this weekend I got to see him featured prominently in both the FT and Paris Review when they showed up). While much of the reaction to Franzen centered on his comments about Twitter, the excerpt contains condemnation for Facebook, Jeff Bezos, and digital discussion more generally. (You can buy all of Franzen’s stuff on Amazon, btw).

I find myself agreeing with much of his angst about the time we spend on screens, but his vehicle for this angst, a footnote-laden essay about Karl Krause, is an unnecessary and labored pretense at most points of the essay:

One of the developments that Kraus will decry in this essay – the Viennese dolling-up of German language and culture with decorative elements imported from Romance language and culture – has a correlative in more recent editions of Windows, which borrow ever more features from Apple but still can’t conceal their essential uncool Windowsness. Worse yet, in chasing after Apple elegance, they betray the old austere beauty of PC functionality. They still don’t work as well as Macs do, and they’re ugly by both cool and utilitarian standards.

Say what? huh? This Apple/PC thing that bothers me because it’s cool/not cool binary is exactly like the ideas of an obscure German writer none of you have heard of because of its cultural meaning/embeddedness/inthingymeness in exactly the same way the Viennese speak German! So there! (Tell me again about how highly edited you are.)

The rest of the essay makes somewhat more sense, though the analogies are still strained: Krause disliked various types of journalism and popular trends, and Franzen is basically saying “What Karl Kraus said” to all of us out here publishing raw stuff. So Franzen sets up a tradition of contrarianism, which is fine. I was a big fan of Christopher Hitchens and that was his schtick, only he managed to pull it off without boring me with footnote digressions about himself which Franzen’s essay also indulges in. Yech.

Otherwise, he does have a point: All this raw stuff out there means that we’re not all being read, and since we aren’t being edited or vetted, particularly, on these self-publishing outlets, the chance for the stupid to appear right along with the sublime is high.

Sure. I routinely post things here I later retract as people challenge me on them. That somebody might be an explorer of ideas via words in public strikes him as terrible. It obviously bothers me less. I don’t think communication necessarily makes us smarter or dumber. We have to do work no matter what we choose to do with our writing or reading, and both require us to make choices about how we spend our time.

The reaction to Franzen’s grump has ranged from funny to fawning. Jennifer Weiner notes in a funny, acidic, and spot-on` essay in the New Republic that:

The literary world, Franzen lamented, rewards “yakkers” and “braggers.” Not even his peers are safe, not with prestigious writers being “conscripted” into “Jennifer Weiner-ish” self promotion. The horror! The horror! The … oh. Wait. Never mind.

She goes on to note, fairly, that Franzen is more than amply rewarded by the literary world:

Perhaps Franzen’s recent name-check was payback for when I implied that he was the face of white male literary privilege, or for pointing out that he’s the kind of writer who goes on Facebook only to announce that he won’t be doing Facebook, with the implication that he doesn’t have to do Facebook, because the media does his status updates for him. Or maybe he just really, really hates “The Bachelor.”

Less of a takedown, Lydia Kielsing from the Millions is obviously a Franzen fan:

The fact remains that most of us on Twitter, even the best and most robust tweeters, will never produce anything so huge and engrossing as Jonathan Franzen’s novels.

Er, maybe. Certainly he’s produced some fine writing.

What all of these writers are missing is that Twitter can be both serious and smart as well as fun (Weiner’s comment); like paintings done in miniature, the ability to educate, amuse, or challenge in 140 characters is an art, and it’s an art form that some writers use very well, given far less exposure than Franzen gets for his every prosaic uttering (and I don’t care how brilliant you are, we all have prosaic utterings). Black Twitter as category has its problems (how do you classify, for one, but then, you don’t need to unless you are wonky), but regardless, Twitter has definitely become a forum where Black writers have created and circulated ideas–and important ones at that–even though the media requires brevity. Black Twitter is hardly a ‘secret’ as Buzzfeed calls it in this write up (nothing that the chronically otherworldly and unhip me has heard of can be a secret), but overlooking these writers on Twitter, or a priori discounting the media, strikes me as both racist and silly in a general sense. There are smart people saying smart, important things–you just have to curate carefully like you do everything else. Here is an intro on HuffPo Live, with lots of cool young people.

Follow and learn. (My favorite: The Root (follow @TheRoot247). There’s an aggregation on Tumblr, too, so you can see the writers that are using the hashtag to select some to follow and learn from.)