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