Folks, I’m mad as hell this morning.  It’s my fault.  I have the day off and I told myself I was going to get some extra zzzzs this morning, but when my husband roused me with a goodbye kiss at 7, I rolled over and looked at my phone.

Waiting for me there was an odd text message from my sister.  “Oh my god I want to die.”

I texted her back immediately and told her to please expound, but it was 7:00 in the morning, and this message had come the night before. Naturally, the only way to check that she was still alive, was to go to Facebook.

The good news, my sister is still alive and well, and the text message was unrelated to her actual desire to live.  The bad news?  Facebook got me.

Facebook got me with Franzen (shakes fists at the heavens).  Franzen.  I thought this meme died weeks ago.   But here he is again in the Atlantic.

I can barely muster the energy to argue with this man and his love of moral certitude.

But I will try.

I am a writer and reader of fiction. I love it.  It is an amazing art form.  I do not however, operate under any illusion that the novel saves the world. It makes lives better, it improves our ability to empathize.  Fiction is awesome.  But a) do I think the internet is REALLY a threat to it?  and b) do I give it as much power as Franzen.  The answer to both is a resounding no.  In fact, storytelling is innate to our being.  Just because we change the medium doesn’t mean it dies.  Listen, I got my MFA at the height of the “novel is dead” panic.  It’s still not dead.  I still read from paper books.  And I think technology making literacy more possible is great, even if that means I have to read some illiterate’s Gawker comment or Yahoo question in the process.  I mean, we wouldn’t have this if it weren’t for the terrible combination of idiocy and the internet:

But seriously, maybe that person came from a very sheltered family and didn’t know about baby making — and maybe, just maybe “kavya” also learned to read on the internet — or is just learning English.   Because  sometimes we like to write people off as stupid when they are just stretching their linguistic boundaries.  Have you stretched yours lately?  (Franzen majored in German, so we know he does.)

That is ultimately my problem with Franzen’s quasi-luddite rants:  they’re sooooooo….presumptuous.  So sure of everyone else’s purpose and experience, when the variety of experiences  on and uses of the medium of the internet is vast, nearly infinite.  Yes, a good percentage of people on the internet are watching porn, it’s true, but Franzen’s characterization of the use of the medium is so narrow.  And it is  without acknowledgement of the (possibly small) breadth of  Franzen’s own use (and understanding) of the internet.  For example, he says:

But the Internet in general—and social media in particular—fosters this notion that everything should be shared, everything is communal.

Really Franz, is that what the internet is telling you?  You must be a privileged fellow if it speaks so directly to you.   I suppose the first time you walked into a public square you took your clothes off because that was the notion it fostered?

The notion it fosters is the notion you subscribe to by virtue of the people you surround yourself with in the digital space.  You obviously hang out with old people who don’t know how to use Facebook and have public meltdowns on it instead of, I don’t know, posting funny gifs of white people dancing badly or that awesome piece about Dave Chapelle (<–it is indeed awesome and you should really be reading it instead of any of Franzen’s rants, or this rant about his rant).

What really gets my goat is that somehow, in all of this, Franzen also gets to decide what is human and what is not.  This is ridiculous.  Frankly, the stuff that’s happening on the internet–the good and the bad, all of it– is human.  There is nothing outside of our humanity on the internet.  You just don’t like what you see, and I can understand that.

Sorry that housewives are reading your novel, JFranz, that’s just terrible.

Look, at the end of his rant, Jonathan Franzen admits that this is all really about limiting intake of the medium, and I respect that.

And again, the Internet and social media are so seductive, are so immediately gratifying in that addictive-substance way, that you can get carried away from yourself rather easily….we have to start to identify undesirable aspects of technological development and say no to them.

Agreed.  Absolutely, I will give you that John.  But why use that as an excuse to disparage a medium that has no force behind it but humanity?  Why follow Karl Kraus down his anti-technology rabbit hole.  I mean, that man lived in the 20th century, a time during which some of the best things came of technology.  Here’s a short list:

Discovery of the bacterium that causes whooping cough
Air travel
Traffic lights
Anti coagulants
Heart surgery
Birth control
Electric beater
Diabetes treatment
Cure for Rickets
Tuberculosis vaccine
Cure for Scarlet Fever
Cure for Strep
Artificial respiration
Pap smear, for uterine cancer
Scotch tape
Elelectric razor
Sliced bread
Polio vaccine
Beer can

English: An old Genesee Beer can found in the ...

Old Genesee Beer can  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll stop at beer can.  Because that’s great!  The 20th Century was great!  And technology was not a problem.  The 21st Century is crazy, it’s true, but technology is not the problem.  We are.

You know what, Jonathan, I’ll give you this:  there is one thing on the internet that has been a threat to the completion of my novel.  Just one thing that might very well ruin my chances of winning a Pulitzer:


You and this long diatribe about how terrible the internet is!  And yet that is where I read this piece by you and where I linked to it and where you will generate the sales for your latest book.  The internet says you are worth somewhere around $70 million.  I am not sure if that is true, but if it is, I can guarantee that the evil internet helped you get there.

(You see what I just did there?  I pulled a Franzen on you Franzen. I blamed you for something that was completely under my control.)

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10 responses to “FFFFFFFFF….Franzen!!

  1. These people aren’t so much Luddite as traditionalist. If they were Luddite what is now happening would truly cause problems to their very livelihood. But it isn’t, all it’s doing is causing ire to rise in much the same way as when trad guitarists went over to electric.
    I’ve heard it likened to the shift after the Gutenberg, but again that seems to over egg the pudding somewhat.
    How education is delivered now will become unrecognisable. There are moves afoot with Coursera and Udacity and a good few others but as yet they haven’t found a way to monetize. They have cracked the Credits and Weighting issue. But once the higher ed market really opens up then you’ll hear squawk’s.

  2. Hi Christine, I kind of feel like your fire against Franzen is a little strong and perhaps misguided. Throughout his piece, he never puts forward a stance that is anti-technology, or suggest that he would like to return to some zone before technology, no does he regard the internet as a purely malevolent thing. I think he’s really siding with Kraus with regards to his critique of positivism and the belief in some teleology hidden within technology that we must obey, or that we might be slaves to. It’s not that technology is inherently bad, but when human life abides by rampantly capitalistic desires, the need to exploit every new thing goes unquestioned and these new exploits are quickly re-labeled from possible to necessary without any second thought. It seems to me that he’s not lamenting the death of the novel so much as he’s regarding his appreciation for a fellow traveller. (I mean, there’s a whole paragraph on why the Internet is great…!) I imagine writing this book now rather than earlier is wiser because in a sense he has solidified his name in our current cultural firmament and so he can reckon with the likes of Kraus.
    The only moment where the “end of the novel” does come up is when he mentions Delillo remarking on it. And it’s here that I think Franzen and you more or less agree. The distinction he makes is between the crowd and the individual, and according to Franzen, people will still strive to be persons…and as such will still strive to tell stories. Stories certainly become less interesting when we’ve heard them before, in the same tired language, with the same tired cliches. I think it’s safe to say that gifs, buzzfeed, and the like, are really just distractions from real thinking, problems, concerns, and what a deeper experience of today might be. Buzzfeed is a surface effect that certainly registers as something that happens in our life, that we might check for momentary relief or simple distraction, but what does it bely that our modes of distraction are now filtered through sites like that? What does it mean that perezhilton gets so many hits? Or that we are constantly searching for videos of cute cats? I think the internet is full of symptoms, but without anyone making a thoughtful diagnosis. That seems like a writer’s job.

    • Ajay, this is just a rant. It’s true that it would not hold up in a court of law. I knew going into this post that I didn’t have the time to do a point by point argument the likes of which a student of media studies might do for a thesis. But I did want to express my annoyance. So, I ranted back.

      Basically his myopic, unstudied characterization of internet users, based on the mere existence of such things as cat videos and facebook party pictures, and his speculation about how they are used based on how he uses them, well, it bothers me. He is not a sociologist by any measure, and yet he is kind of putting that hat on. But, I don’t want to don that hat to argue back.

      I prefer someone like Clay Shirky to take on the real argument, and thankfully, it looks like Clay has:


      I would like to say that I am not “constantly searching for videos of cute cats.” Are you? No, you and I are having a thoughtful discussion about the medium that has perhaps the broadest reach humanity has seen. That is interesting. More interesting than Franzen difficulty with resisting looking at party pictures on Facebook.

      I would have preferred that Franzen wrote more clearly about his own struggle with technology. That would have been interesting to me.

      You say the internet is full of symptoms. I think you give it a lot of credit. I would have said noise. But I disagree that no one is making a thoughtful diagnosis, or to fulfill my analogy, finding the signal in that noise. There are a couple of people doing that: Clay Shirky, for one. Nicholas Carr is another.

      Some others I am less familiar with – Chris Anderson & Kevin Kelly

      They are writers, so I would agree that writers (of a certain kind) are important in understanding what internet usage means, if anything . But, I would go further and say that I think it is the job of someone who is willing to dedicate their time to the study. And they must base their critiques and analysis on studies and statistics and demographics and psychology and history.

      No writer who wants to finish his novel has time for that. Franzen’s bold statements based on anecdotal evidence have left him in the ring with scholars with whom he can’t really keep up.

      But to be fair, their novels probably suck.

      I have to go now. Because my novel (on a society that gives up technology. Oh the irony) needs my attention.

      I sure wish Marshall McLuhan were here to see this.

    • incidentally, I agree with him more in this interview. His way of talking is more approachable and introspective, while his writing rubs me the wrong way. Anyway, I have dedicated too much time to him now. I must get back to my work. I want to engage more with this, but it does not get me to the destination I am trying to reach.

  3. Thanks for the link and the authors. I’ve only read Kevin Kelly, who I have mixed feelings about. Contingency doesn’t really figure much into his world view on things…but What Technology Wants is still a great read, especially the first half. His book on complexity is way cooler. I’ve only read sections since it’s pretty epic, but even chapter by chapter I’d recommend it. Good luck finishing your novel!

    I guess I like rants. I mean, I love Kanye West, so I must. 😉

    • haha, funny. We just watched his rant. At times nonsensical, but mostly just a good ole rant.

      Thanks for engaging; I haven’t read What Technology Wants, but it’s on my list. I guess I should get to it 🙂

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