So this past week, on a lark, I got Matt Zeitlin to send me a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s “Perchance to Dream”, his defense of the novel in an era where it’s no longer, technologically speaking, necessary. I knew it was going to be a tough sell. I don’t read fiction and share Steven Johnson’s belief that television and film are making us far smarter. I expected Franzen’s piece to smack of Ludditism and condescension, rather than an honest grappling with the argument of people like me that text is an inferior way of telling stories to video.
I expected all that, but I also expected he’d try to make the piece something more. He doesn’t. Instead of aiming to write a real defense, he decides to pathologize those holding any other positions in this debate. Here’s his explanation of the Internet:
It seemed clear to me that if anybody who mattered in business or government believed there was a future in books, we would not have been witnessing such a frenzy in Washington and on Wall Street to raise half a trillion dollars for an Infobahn whose proponents paid lip service to the devastation it would wreak on reading (“You have to get used to reading on a screen”) but could not conceal their indifference to the prospect. It was also clear to me why these ruling interests were indifferent: When you hold a book in your hand, nothing will happen unless you work to make it happen. When you hold a book, the power and the responsibility are entirely yours.
Did private industry and the government develop the Internet because it’s a transformative innovation that has challenged millions if not billions of lives for the better? Of course not. They wanted to kill books, because books give people power, whereas it’s impossible to have one’s own interpretation of a film or television show. Except that Franzen doesn’t actually believe this, because Franzen does not believe that individuals should have power or responsibility at all:
That all these trends are infantilizing has been widely noted. Less often remarked is the way in which they are changing both our expectations of entertainment (the book must bring something to us, rather than our bringing something to the book) and the very content of that entertainment. What story is there to tell, Sven Birkerts asks in The Gutenberg Elegies, about the average American whose day consists of sleeping, working at a computer screen, watching TV, and talking on the phone? The problem for the novelist is not just that the average man or woman spends so little time F2F with his or her fellows; there is, after all, a rich tradition of epistolary novels, and Robinson Crusoe’s condition approximates the solitude of today’s suburban bachelor. The real problem is that the average man or woman’s entire life is increasingly structured to avoid precisely the kinds of conflicts on which fiction, preoccupied with manners, has always thrived.
Here, indeed, we are up against what truly seems like the obsolescence of serious art in general. Imagine that human existence is defined by an Ache: the Ache of our not being, each of us, the center of the universe; of our desires forever outnumbering our means of satisfying them. If we see religion and art as the historically preferred methods of coming to terms with this Ache, then what happens to art when our technological and economic systems and even our commercialized religions become sufficiently sophisticated to make each of us the center of our own universe of choices and gratifications? Fiction’s response to the sting of poor manners, for example, is to render them comic. The reader laughs with the writer, feels less alone with the sting. This is a delicate transaction, and it takes some work. How can it compete with a system that spares you the sting in the first place?
So the problem with modernity is that our lives are too…good? That there isn’t enough conflict? That we don’t have the kind of pain created by forced communitarianism of the past? Ignoring that this plainly isn’t true–somehow the television and film industries keep rolling despite their apparent lack of subject matter in Franzen’s eyes–Franzen refutes it mere sentences later. “In the long run, the breakdown of communitarianism is likely to have all sorts of nasty consequences,” he bemonans. Well, what are they? Write about them! Franzen complains that this has been turned into a “disease” not worthy of discussion. Well, if it’s worthy of discussion, discuss it! He has things to write about. It’s just that he can’t do it nearly as well as other media can.
Then Franzen flips again and starts talking about the need to be a “social isolate” to write well, praising literary recluses past and present. And there’s the rub. Franzen likes the life of a novelist, but he hates that it is being usurped by the commoners. That philistines like you or I can live free of societal constraints which he can then mock. It’s the same problem he has with women and racial minorities, who he blithely equates with pre-packaged brands at supermarkets. We’re not members of the tribe, and we’re chipping away at its privileges. And that makes him very, very, uncomfortable.
P.S. To be clear, if people want to write novels for each other and read them, fine. I have no problem with that. I don’t find much use for them but I’m not one to judge how other people spend their time. But as a society we continue to operate under this absurd notion that novels are somehow “better” for you than other media, or an inherently higher form of art. That’s ludicrous and people like Franzen who propagate it are silly.