On Perchance to Dream

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.

8 thoughts on “On Perchance to Dream

  1. When you get a chance, read the chapter entitled “Orwell on cruelty” of Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. I’m curious to know what you think..

  2. 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.

    See, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable position, but my main objection to this post is that you make the exact inverse argument in the first paragraph: that film is now “better” than literature.

  3. See, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable position, but my main objection to this post is that you make the exact inverse argument in the first paragraph: that film is now “better” than literature.
    That’s a personal opinion. I don’t expect English departments to stop teaching novels in favor of films, if only for the historical value of the former.

  4. Steven Berlin is on my list of people to take out for a drink, but I don’t think its fair to claim that television and film make anyone smarter. Rather the stories being told through them can force us to think harder which may result in a boost to mental capacity.
    Old school programming or cinema that focus on one or two characters and one plot don’t challenge the mind. However, recent developments (starting with St. Elsewhere, but really coming full circle with things like The Wire and Battle Star Galactica) that involve fifty plus characters and nearly as many plot points challenge the mind.
    I’d argue that many new story telling technologies — from the oral story to the novel all the way through to the telephone or Tweet — can bump a collective sort of intelligence for a time, but as these story telling technologies become pervasive their mental nutrients become null.
    Johnson admits as much towards the end of his most recent book, Invention of Air, as he describes how the factors that catapulted Joseph Priestly to an elevated state of multi-disciplinary productivity are no longer sufficient two centuries later.

  5. I have no strong opinion about film fiction versus novels for adults. There are great movies and there are great novels. I think that there is more content in one novel than in one movie, but on the other hand it takes much longer to read a novel. I don’t see either as “higher” than the other; after all, movies are essentially plays and plays are high art. I guess people are more likely to celebrate kitsch in movies than kitsch in novels, but that is not a fundamental aspect of the issue.
    Two things though. First, lots and lots of television and movies for small children is an incomplete upbringing and a misplaced priority. There are millions of semiliterate families across the world for whom the television is the great baby-sitter. Predictably, semiliteracy is passed on to the next generation. A lot of these families expect schools to teach their children how to read, but this by itself doesn’t work very well. Moreover, I know of hardly any small children who don’t like fiction in some form, and only relatively few who care all that much about non-fiction.
    Second, the printed or e-printed word is a vastly better medium for non-fiction than television and documentaries, especially television news. TV news leaves people ill-informed, biased, and aggravated. Even great documentaries aren’t all that great compared to books, even though they may add something in some cases that the books don’t have.

  6. Good point Greg. A healthy diet is a diverse diet… especially for the young. But I think this remains true for life. The more diversity in media that you consume, the healthier you’ll be.
    Moderation / equilibrium tends to win out in the long run.

  7. I can’t seem to find a link to your argument “that text is an inferior way of telling stories to video,” and would be v. interested to view it.

  8. The person who reads and contemplates and discusses War & Peace is more intellectually exercised than the person who watches and contemplates and discusses the new Battlestar Galactica.
    I defy you to show otherwise. In fact I don’t see where you have presented any argument at all. This entire post strikes me as a rude pronouncement rather than any kind of reasoned point.

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