Jonathan Franzen: why bother?

We’ve entered late August. The days are growing shorter and cooler. Before you know it, the first leaves will start to change, and autumn will be with us. If you’re keeping your ear to the ground, though, you’ll note another season, just as certain and predictable, is coming near: Jonathan Franzen season.

The internet does not like Jonathan Franzen. Jonathan Franzen has a new book coming out. And so it follows, as the night the day, that we’re in for a lot of pro forma Franzen hate pieces. They’ll all be written in the same tired idiom, the worn out snark that you’ve been consuming by the gallon since 2004. They’ll make the same rote claims about privilege and publishing. They’ll play to an audience that is made up largely of people who are expected to dislike Jonathan Franzen and who in fact take disliking Jonathan Franzen as part and parcel of the social culture to which they belong. In other words, there will be no challenge to their presumed readership. These pieces won’t be bad because they’re mean, or because they degrade our capacity for empathy, or because they’re cheap. None of those usual complaints. No, it’ll be bad because they’re boring. Worn out. We’ve all heard it ten thousand times. Whatever about that vocabulary once seemed fresh and cutting now seems rote and predictable. We’re dealing with a class of young writers for whom that style has been the assumed language of the internet since they started reading online, which means that many of them use it not because they want to but because they figure that’s just what you do.

What is the value of writing a piece on the internet about how you don’t like Jonathan Franzen in 2015? What in that genre could be done that hasn’t already been accomplished? Why bother?

You might imagine that I’m a Franzen fan. Well, I thought The Corrections was a good book, it’s true. Didn’t care much for Freedom. His thoughts on contemporary fiction, as epitomized in his essay “Mr. Difficult,” are as offensive and wrong to me as literary opinion can be. Ben Marcus’s takedown of those ideas is one of my favorite magazine pieces ever. The general notion that artists should be elbowless crowdpleasers, eager to flatter their audience, drives me completely insane. I’m not a Franzen partisan. I have no interest in protecting the reputation of a wealthy and successful novelist. I am a partisan, however, for a culture industry that is something more than the endless sifting of personalities — goodies and baddies, the cool and the uncool, the savvy and the chumps, the complimented and the ridiculed.

When the Entourage movie came out, the result was as predictable as you can imagine. The internet hated it, and hated it for perfectly predictable reasons. And you know, if you had forced me at gunpoint to see that movie, I’m sure I would have hated it for the exact same reasons. But I was struck by the utter exhaustion of it all. Everyone knew what the internet would think about the Entourage movie. The tropes were all the same. It felt like everyone, writers and readers alike, was going through the motions, but nobody could just decide to opt out. I guess it’s just another example of the taking of the media, only it’s a matter of style and attitude rather than subject matter. Somehow that makes it so much worse.

Why does the internet bother telling itself the things it already knows about itself?

Complaints about the contemporary economics and culture of online writing are ubiquitous and tiresome. I write more of them than I should. I’d much rather identify what I like than what I don’t. And I’ll tell you: I think there’s more talented writers regularly writing online right now than ever before. It’s just that the economic structure they’re caught in compels them to write the exact same things. So let me identify a piece that I read that avoided all of the things that I’ve grown tired of. This Stassa Edwards piece for the Awl is just a beauty. It’s subtle, deeply researched, quiet. It has no punchline. It teaches you things while avoiding the dulling, clumsy, ham-fisted “A+B=C” school of essaying that editors are infatuated with today. It’s deeply political without seeming to  fit into any obvious political lane. It displays loving craft without being crafty. And it deploys irony in the pursuit of sadness rather than comedy. More than anything, it made me say to myself “this is not a feeling I thought I would feel in reading today.”

I’m just a greedy, undeserving reader, and you are free to ignore me. But god, please, stop churning out pieces that fall along the same predictable political lines. No more of the same sarcastic hit pieces. No pieces where, when I see the headline and your name, I can guess every beat you’re going to hit. No more adults complaining about the banal daily indignities of human life that everyone has always had to deal with. Say a thing that another person in your exact position at your exact publication would never say. Surprise me. Challenge me. Make it new.