Franzen and the Twitter Bog

September 23, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 21 8 min read


Last week was all about Jonathan Franzen’s latest jeremiad against modern life. Scathing remarks have been produced in a fury of clicking, all of them unlikely to be read by the Franzen. I read so many angry lunchtime tweets before I had an opportunity to read the offending essay that I was concerned Franzen had really said something irredeemable in print. What to make of this inscrutable psuedo-burn, tweeted by critic D.G. Myers?

(For the record, I’m a one, and I read Sinclair Lewis.)

I read the essay, and it’s grumpy and pessimistic and offends Salman Rushdie. (Somewhat confirming Franzen’s general point about the bogus tendencies of online things, the Guardian helpfully posted an SEO-laden synopsis of the article, on the very day the article was published on its own site.) And people were pissed, because it reminded them of last year, when Jonathan Franzen called Twitter irritating and dumb, and once again they were inspired to create humorous vengeful posts.

Jami Attenberg, who originally brought the worlds’ attention to Franzen’s hatred of Twitter and related cultural phenomena, made the best argument for its fundamental injustice by pointing out that Twitter hate is a luxury that striving writers can ill-afford.

…he doesn’t understand that a lot of writers have to use the medium as a promotional device as well as a way to build networks. He doesn’t have to do anything! He has a publicist who probably has dreams about him every night, whether he has a book coming or not.

The phrase “check your privilege” is a staple of comments in some of the online spaces I frequent, and it’s been one of the most valuable things I’ve learned from the Internet. I read all the young adult classics about being a good person and not judging others and walking a mile, but it took the utter disdain of world-weary comment warriors for my or anyone else’s good intentions to make me realize that I just do not get it. And that’s important.

Jonathan Franzen can’t have absorbed this message in quite the hard-knocks way of the Internet if, as he purports, he avoids spaces where people refresh comments until their eyes bleed and yak and brag and constantly remind one another that they don’t know shit about shit. But I don’t think a person with Franzen’s prodigious gift for transmitting nuanced and painful family feeling can be a totally oblivious person. I don’t think that he misses the toadiness of the young man he describes, the hater with a rage boner and a handful of loose change flung into the German gloom. I don’t think he mentions being a millionaire strictly to be an asshole (but maybe).

After all, as it is written in a seminal Franzen text, from the mind of Chip–a man who feels “culturally anxious,” when he encounters a drug he’s never heard of, who hates cell phones “mainly because he [doesn’t] have one”:

Criticizing a sick culture, even if the criticism accomplished nothing, had always felt like useful work. But if the supposed sickness wasn’t a sickness at all–if the great Materialist Order of technology and consumer appetite and medical science really was improving the lives of the formerly oppressed; if it was only straight white males like Chip who had a problem with this order–then there was no longer even the most abstract utility to his criticism. It was all, in Melissa’s word, bullshit.

When grumpy Gary, brother of Chip, insists on forced family mixed grilled evenings around the dinner table–when he’s not wrong about the value of this practice, but so unlovable and dictatorial in its pursuit as to render it bullshit–I think Franzen demonstrates a subtlety that is perhaps lacking in his public pronouncements. Especially unsubtle is Franzen’s approach to Twitter. However, if he is not subtle about Twitter, like Gary and family dinner, he is not really wrong about it either. He just doesn’t know all the ways that he’s right.

In her immediate response to Franzen’s sneer at her tactics of self-advancement, the novelist Jennifer Weiner remarked that Twitter is less about promotion than fun: “It’s like having 24/7 access to the world’s best cocktail party.” Jennifer Weiner might need to check her privilege: the metaphor is more apt if you are Jennifer Weiner, and thus likely to be invited to really great cocktail parties and have people want to talk to you at them. Kate Zambreno, writer and Twitter presence (@daughteroffury), had a Franzen rage flameout last week, in the course of which she asserted, “twitter is a fundamentally literary form. it’s about constraint, the fragment, dialogue, having a public discourse.” (September 14, 2013).

I agree that Twitter is literary, although in content rather than form. In fact, there is a lot going on on Twitter that a novelist of Jonathan Franzen’s gifts could really make something of. It is a primordial cave of human frailty and need. (Speaking of human frailty, I could not at all relate to Zambreno’s hatred of Jonathan Franzen — I like his novels too much — and this was oddly shaming, since I respect her position on things. Like many women, probably, I sometimes feel myself a profound hater in the body of a very friendly, obliging creature, alarming myself with the speed that my reactions to people catapult from really low-down, mean-ass hate to an almost sickening level of obligingness, as though I were one step away from offering up my womb as a receptacle for everyone’s cares. Jonathan Franzen is a hater, but evidently feels no corresponding need to oblige. If I identify with Franzen’s novels, his impotent hatred, if I don’t spit at him in his smug Empyrean remove; am I a pathetically obliging supplicant to the great man?)

I occupy the strange and, I’m sure, relatively common position of finding Twitter terrifying and thanking the Lord for it on a regular basis. Twitter has been instrumental in bolstering the popularity of The Millions. When any of us have a hit, insofar as a book blog can bring the hits, it is largely thanks to Twitter; last year our editor Max showed characteristic genius in enlisting Nick Moran to helm our social media, and it has been an unqualified boon for the site. Nick is one of Twitter’s greats, demonstrating an athleticism born of  savoir faire and genuine friendliness. He is the guy at the cocktail party who really wants the party to be fun — he brought wings that he made, and they’re delicious, and there are enough for everyone:

Even with Nick’s soothing presence, there is so much to hate on Twitter, which somehow encompasses both sides of the Emily Dickinson dichotomy: “I’m nobody!  Who are you? …How dreary to be somebody!/ How public like a frog/ To tell one’s name the livelong day/ To an admiring bog!” On Twitter, the Nobodies have seized hold of the mic and managed to occupy the bog. I’ve been on it for three years and as a participant I basically suck (I tweet; the people unfollow), and so I have done a lot of observing, both in order to build confidence and improve my game, but also because participation in Twitter feels mandatory for people who care about books and writing and want people to read the things they write about books. Sometimes, Twitter yields some unexpected friendliness and exhilarating exchange. Sometimes, though, these little highs feel so wedded to weird high school feelings of wanting to be accepted; sometimes, I feel sure that a more loathsome and unhealthy pastime has never before been conceived.

Jacob Silverman wrote on the hugfest that is literary Twitter, and perhaps this state of extreme geniality is the only possible reason that people tweet so many things that have the potential to be mortifying. There is a whole tweet catalogue!  There is the tweet, which everyone can recognize, of nearly insane banality: “First coffee of the day” or “It’s rainy out.” Sometimes these are couched in slightly spunkier vocabulary, but they are nonetheless remarks to which there is literally no response. Several degrees up from this, but in the same family, is the office chitchat Tweet, things like “My leg is still bothering me,” that are more in the vein of sharing personal information of marginal interest, if not relevance, to the tweeting public. There’s the Andy Rooney: “What’s the deal with turtlenecks?” Or the Performance Art tweet, which sometimes I get a kick out of:

coverThere’s the self-deprecating Tweet, huge among the people I follow, and taken equally by men and women right out of Bridget Jones’s Diary. This is the tweet you employ if you are wearing sweatpants ALL DAY or you just ate a whole loaf of bread or you have bacon on your neck or are in the act of demonstrating some other goofy, relatable human weakness. There is the arch or self-aware tweet of insane banality, which in fact is a regular tweet of insane banality but with more anxiety issues woven up in it. There is the satirical tweet referencing the thing that everyone is tweeting about (“Tweet in which I tweet about Miley Cyrus”).  There is the conversation held between friends who are also public figures because they all worked together at a Gawker property or similar, and everyone can see it but not really be in it, and wish that they could. There is the prestige tweet, dispatched from BEA or AWP, which can range from totally innocuous or useful reportage to the insufferable deployment of Twitter when an email would suffice, as in: “Great seeing you just now, @literatimember.”  And then, finally, there is the sad king of tweets, the Tweet pathetique. Stay on Twitter long enough and you will see one of these really devastating revelations of personal weakness, something like “Ten thousand followers and no reply?”

Some people are so used to Twitter, or so dextrous at it, or so unafraid of looking silly that they don’t see it this way. They may say to me that I need to check my emotional problems, grow up, and not hate on Twitter just because other people are bold enough to really live on it, to make real friends and send thousands and thousands of crafted snippets from their brains into the universe in a completely unweird, unselfconscious way. And that all sounds really nice. My own tweeting follows some kind of manic, possibly biological cycle. A feeling of need to be fun and interesting on Twitter, coinciding with a brief flare of feeling jaunty and cavalier and like I have grasped the form and could communicate something of no possible import to any human being without it being weird. A misguided Bridget Jones from one of these episodes:

If I were Jonathan Franzen I would hate me too. Me, I really like the Favorite, which just a way to say “I am here and I admire you,” when you don’t necessarily have anything else to say — it is the wallflower’s tweet.

In spite of all this, I wouldn’t leave Twitter. There’s a medieval Turkish poem I’ve quoted before at The Millions: “What can the ignorant know of us? Greetings to the ones who know.” The only tweets I don’t almost immediately regret are the ones where I link to a piece of writing that I liked, written by a person on the Internet. And what can Jonathan Franzen know of that? What can he know of the other best part of Twitter: the frisson of having your own essay tweeted by a person you think is smart, or even when someone says something mean about you because a thing you wrote made them mad? What can he know of a nobody’s momentary triumphs? What can he know of two nobodies, sending cautious friendly tweets at one another across the bog?

coverThe 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. I like his novels so much that I picked up The Corrections just to refresh on prose and found myself blasting through forty pages of agonizing Gary/Caroline menage before remembering that I had shit to do. So I don’t so much begrudge him his millions and his National Book Award and his dudgeon. We have our mediocrity, our neuroses, his books, and for a few moments a day, each other.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. How can you write a response to Jonathan Franzen’s essay without digesting his remarks about Karl Kraus? The knee-jerk, self-congratulatory tone of this post suggests that Franzen’s vital questions about what happens to individual to individual communication and the very real and unvoiced anger that lies beneath all this passive posturing aren’t being considered at all.

  2. Lydia, if you want a reason to hate Jonathan Franzen, try mine: his despicable, bad faith takedown of William Gaddis, a writer whose shoes (I could proceed higher, but I won’t) Franzen isn’t worthy to wipe. Go back to that piece now and tell me that what doesn’t jump out at you is the projection and the subject-changing self-justification (apparently the New Yorker commissioned Franzen to write an objective piece about Gaddis; they got his explanation for his boorishness during l’affaire Oprah). Oh, and then there’s the “Status”/”Contract” distinction, which is wrong in so many ways it would take a book to straighten out (don’t worry, I’m working on it).

    I’ve been waiting for someone in this latest foofaraw to say that Franzen has finally become what he accused Gaddis of being. That won’t be me, because I don’t believe any becoming was necessary. Franzen is anathema to me (in the strict Catholic sense) until he recants “Mr. Difficult.” When the Church held sway that would have meant sackcloth and ashes in the public square. Today I guess it means Twitter.

    Oh, wait—

  3. Just because Jonathan Franzen thinks he speaks for American literature on the whole, and basically American society as a whole, doesn’t make it true. Please stop indulging him. He is a mediocre writer and puddle-deep “thinker” who, incidentally, has done much more damage to literature, from his crass anti-art bully pulpit, than Twitter or Facebook ever have. That an ego-crazy writer who made a conscious decision to sterilize his fiction in order to sell more copies is considered a Great American Novelist is the true sign of the apocalypse.

  4. Hm. I don’t know half of the bold names in this piece, but a comparison from a more low-brow form of entertainment came to me…How come when Louis CK hates on technology and various forms of modern communication (in a funny, but ultimately very serious way), everyone is lining up to s his d? Poor Franzen.

  5. Like Mr. Cappio above, I wrote off Franzen after his chickenshit takedown of Gaddis, but I have to say that I kind of agree with his latest rant, which is so much more than just a simple takedown of Twitter. And I also have to agree with A. Brown about Louis CK’s remarks, which while mildly amusing, don’t have nearly the import or depth of Franzen’s argument. And if what Franzen has to say about Twitter makes you that angry, then you are clearly the type of person who uses Twitter way too much. I mean seriously, get a grip.

  6. For what it’s worth, I don’t use social media either. I just can’t for the life of me understand why anyone takes anything Franzen says seriously. The guy is has mastered the art of self-promotion and marketing. Every “essay” he writes serves 2 purposes: to stroke his massive ego (“Salman Rushdie should know better”) and to advance the Franzen Brand (Brilliant American Curmudgeon / Genius Novelist). Posts like these are akin to intellectual criticism of a McDonald’s ad. Just another distraction from talking about the actually-talented writers toiling away in the shadows.

  7. I’m honestly beginning to think twitter does break our ability to read. He doesn’t mention being a millionaire in the essay. The context of the comment is him, as a young man, hoping to get back to Krauss after finishing the novel he’s working on – a novel he is hoping, in the way of every young writer, will make him famous and a millionaire. It just happens that a novel actually did. Although, I’m not sure it’s even that novel [Corrections] he’s talking about working on here, since if he’s just gotten married it’s the early 1980s and he’s working on Twenty-Seventh city. That novel certainly didn’t make him rich and famous.

    Personally, I love this thing that Franzen is doing: jumping into the absurdity of the internet lit-wind-tunnel, saying something poignant that digs at our own insecurities about how we interact with world and spend our own free time, and then leaping off into the distance to let the twitter town-criers shout angrily at the air.

  8. This is a great article. I really enjoyed reading it. I’m not a big fan of the Twitter, but it does prove useful now and again. We have to follow the times, since most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to be left behind.

  9. I first read Jonathan Franzen’s “The 27th City” back in ’88 and liked it. Over the years I’ve found a lot of what I know about his personality distasteful and whatever I think of his books, I guess I sort of disliked him as a person until recently, when the hatred toward him expressed online (a lot of the Franzen-hate in the so-called “alt-lit” webspaces seems to predate any of his comments on social media) has made me start to like him more.

    But, really, who cares about any of this? It’s basically time-wasting shit, like this very comment. If you are reading this comment, you probably either have too much time on your hands or are too stupid to understand you could be doing something much more productive.

  10. Twitter is all too readily used to bash, to express anger. It may be that there are too few who appreciate Franzen for what he is: a literate misanthrope, a ready target, one of the few modern novelists who can exist in the spotlight (even though he appears to fully hate the spotlight). Why the emphasis among today’s Twittering literati on consensus and joviality? When the same folks write fiction in which consensus and joviality is expressly banished? Claire Messud basically said an author who creates a likable character is a putz – yet Jonathan Franzen is an unlikable character, and people hate him for it. I’m confused. Let the man be a crank. He gets conversations going and conviviality never does.

  11. Twitter is not “a primordial cave of human frailty and need.” It just isn’t. It’s a website. You go too far, madam.

    “Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for personal apocalypse.” Not sure about that. Sounds great as a thesis, but pretty thin. Also: “whose” essence? Really, Franzen?

  12. Franzen’s tirade just shows his lack of knowledge about the subject of social media. In actuality, social media is being used to PROMOTE literacy. For example, on Facebook, there is the opportunity to rate books one has read, and there’s also the chance to interact with some authors who don’t consider themselves too high and lofty, and so superior to their readers. In addition, one can promote the books among one’s friends and acuqaintances and increase readership of high-quality books I’m so thankful I have never wasted any hard-earned money on Franzen. I will stick with wonderful, savvy authors such as Ruth Ozeki and Erik Larsen.

  13. Not all social media is the same. The problem with Twitter is that one has to use the hell out of it to make it work. The most successful people on Twitter spend a lot of time on Twitter. Not only is it a time suck, but the sheer volume of production demands one be prolific at exposing himself at will, because he can only Tweet so much about his books and thoughts on literature. That’s where the inane “day-in-the-life” stuff enters the equation. That’s the problem, if you will, with Twitter. It’s not like updating a blog once a week or posting a status here and there. If Twitter is not–at the very least–a part-time job for you, you’re doing it wrong, because it demands one sacrifice both his time and psychic space in troubling ways.

  14. Have any of you ever bought a book because of what the author wrote on Twitter? Because it seems to me that you’d have to be into the author first. You follow the author (because you liked their book). I’m only asking because I seriously don’t know the answer.

  15. “…he doesn’t understand that a lot of writers have to use the medium as a promotional device as well as a way to build networks. He doesn’t have to do anything! He has a publicist who probably has dreams about him every night, whether he has a book coming or not.”

    I remember Attenberg’s comments above when she made them and they made no sense to me then, just as they make no sense to me now.

    Just because you HAVE to use twitter as a “promotional device” doesn’t mean you can’t criticize it, or dare I say it, even hate it, and it certainly doesn’t mean that someone else should refrain from criticizing it out of fear of hurting your tender feelings.

    What kind of argument is that?

  16. Franzen does have a massive ego to hold on to. Read what he wrote about women writers. Maybe it’s better not to take him too seriously. Twitter goes on despite everything.

  17. Second on Nick Moran, I am also an unabashed and shameless fan. Think Mr. Moran was born to pass along his inspired “bon mots” on Twitter, would much rather listen to him than Franzen, that’s for sure. Would also suggest “Overheard in Dublin” for some inspired tweeting and “good craic” from the loquacious Liffey folk, as well as the hilarious satire tweet: “Fifty SHEDS of Grey.”

    (Come to think of it, I think Oscar Wilde would have loved Twitter if it had been around when he was in his prime)

    I am referring above to Ms. Kiesling’s comment:

    [Last year our editor Max showed characteristic genius in enlisting Nick Moran to helm our social media, and it has been an unqualified boon for the site. Nick is one of Twitter’s greats, demonstrating an athleticism born of savoir faire and genuine friendliness. He is the guy at the cocktail party who really wants the party to be fun — he brought wings that he made, and they’re delicious, and there are enough for everyone:

    “I’m officially declaring today the first day of sweater season. Bust those pullovers out the closet, y’all. Make sure they’re de-pilled.”]

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