“There is infinite hope, only not for us.”
Jonathan Franzen began his New Yorker piece, “What if We Stop Pretending“ with this quote from Kafka. Franzen was referring, of course, to climate change, a topic he has been obsessed with for several years. His outlook was depressing: we wouldn’t be able to save our planet, and the symbolic expressions of unrealistic hope—ride your bike to work and the climate won’t get hotter—only served to deny the imminent disaster.
Not surprisingly, he was butchered on social media soon afterwards. People called him a “climate fatalist.” This new label was only one of many other labels people had given to him. When he warned that Internet utopianism was a lie technological oligarchs had fabricated to manipulate users, people mocked him as a “technophobe.” When he handed out 10 rules for novelists on Literary Hub, young people turned up their noses at his “elitist” and “condescending” attitude.
During my recent self-quarantine, The Initium Media in Hong Kong asked me to interview Franzen about his engagement in the public discourse. I had mixed feelings about the assignment. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the last thing I needed was for someone to take away whatever remaining hope I’d been clinging to. Nevertheless, I dialed his phone number. We talked about his experience in the crisis, the unsolvable problem of death, the notion of literary salvation, freedom of thought in the digital age, and humanity. I had expected to meet a much angrier man, bitter and cynical from everything that Twitter had said about him. Instead, he was patient, calm, and sincere. He was curious what I was doing in his hometown of St. Louis.
I find Franzen’s views sobering, rather than depressing. He rejects wishful thinking, but I do find a profound sense of hope in his words. “Freedom of thoughts persists,” he told me, when I expressed concern over the pressure to conform on social media, “but whether we are able to express them and whether we dare express them is a very different question.” Moreover, since death is unresolvable and disaster unavoidable, we might feel more urgency than ever to hold onto what we love. As he wrote in “What if We Stop Pretending,” “As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.”
The Millions: I happened to read your latest essay collection, The End of the End of the Earth, during my recent self-quarantine. The wide-ranging topics in the book—from climate change, to technology and oligarchy, to bird-watching—feel all the more relevant and sobering. How have you been handling the Covid-19 pandemic?
Jonathan Franzen: I’ve been declining all interviews about the pandemic. I can talk about my personal experience in the last six weeks, but the essence of the crisis right now is total uncertainty. Uncertainty about the virus and its transmission, even more uncertainty about how it’s going to play out economically and politically, and I’m no more clairvoyant than the next man. All I can tell you is that Santa Cruz was one of the first communities in the country to do a shelter-in-place order, and that Kathy, my spouse-equivalent, and I are following the rules. The county still has fewer than 100 cases, so I think the measures have been effective. We’re suffering, along with everyone else, for not being able to see people. I’m also suffering because I can’t leave the area to go bird-watching, not that I expect anyone to cry about that. But I can still go to my office, which has its own bathroom. I’ve been working away, trying to finish my new novel. In terms of my work, the crisis has probably been a net gain.
TM: Have you been using technology to connect with people lately?
JF: There’s been more email than usual, and I already spend a couple of hours a day doing email—the last thing I need is more of it. I’ve also done some Zooming, which I find tiring and really unsatisfactory. I’d much rather talk on the phone. To me, the devilish thing about the crisis is that it helps Silicon Valley, which I don’t think is anyone’s friend, unless you have money invested in it, in which case I guess it’s your friend. Trapping people in their houses, making them spend even more time on screens, forcing all the local businesses to close—it’s like a wet dream for the tech companies.
TM: Currently we are experiencing a sudden expansion of technology. Does that make you even more concerned about the future?
JF: My feelings about digital technology haven’t changed much since the middle of the ’90s. I thought it was hypercapitalism then, I thought the utopian rhetoric was a ridiculous lie, and now it’s even more hypercapitalistic. Now we have good evidence, like the presidency of Donald Trump, that these technologies, particularly social media, have on balance made the world a worse place, not a better place.
TM: Looking on the bright side, some people argue that the crisis actually helps us prepare for bigger disasters like climate change. Do you share that view? Why so and why not?
JF: It’s too early to say. My thinking about our climate situation has been evolving over the last six years. The point I finally came to, last summer, is that the fabric of our world is very fragile. Political institutions are fragile; international relations are fragile; the global economy is fragile; the natural world and its systems are fragile. All these systems are going to be hugely stressed in the coming decades, as the climate worsens dramatically. Out of that recognition, I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the value of local community. We’re going to become ever more reliant on what’s close to us, and the pandemic is a kind of stress test: How is your local community responding? Are people obeying the rules? Are people being kind to each other? Are people supporting individuals and businesses that are in trouble? Where is your food coming from? Maybe it’s good that we’re asking these questions now, good that we’re getting a little taste of the future. But a novelist is the wrong person to ask whether something is good news or bad news.
TM: I really enjoyed the talk you gave at Google in 2018. You said that technology imagines that it is going to solve the problem of death, but that literature doesn’t think it’s a solvable problem. So, what’s the beauty of unresolvable problems?
JF: The problem of death is emblematic of a number of other intractable problems. Like, the fact that people can be both very good and very bad, which seems to be a fixture of our species—under certain circumstances, people become entirely bad. Or you cherish your spouse but you’re attracted to that neighbor of yours. Or your loyalty tells you to do one thing and your conscience tells you to do the opposite. You can mitigate some of these problems technologically, or politically, but you can’t actually solve the problem of death; you can’t even solve a problem as simple as boredom in a marriage. And that’s where literature comes in. Its earliest roots were intertwined with religious narratives, which also take on the permanently tough problems. The point of the narrative isn’t to make the problem go away. It’s to represent it, to recognize it, to fully inhabit it, to make something beautiful out of it, and to connect you to all the other people who’ve ever struggled with it.
TM: You also mentioned on a number of occasions that literature saved you. Could you elaborate on the notion of literary salvation?
JF: What would I have meant by that? I don’t think it literally saved my life.
TM: I suppose it’s not that we take refuge in the beauty of literature?
JF: Not so much. The moment I come back to is when I was 21 and went home to St. Louis. I hadn’t spent a holiday with my family for two years, and suddenly the literature I’d been reading at college made sense. It wasn’t just something you studied at school. It was a way to understand what was happening in real life. I could suddenly see the levels of meaning in a simple sentence that my mother uttered. I’d been listening to her all my life, but now I could construct a story about where the words were coming from. I could read the coded messages, and I’d been given that key by reading literature. Did it “save” me? No, but it gave me a way forward. Part of it was trying to be a writer myself, because I was grateful to the authors who’d given me the key and I wanted to give something back. But it was also a way of being in the world—of being attentive to the hidden levels, of not being so quick to judge other people. Maybe that’s what I meant by being saved.
TM: It also occurred to me that, in the past, people used to resort to religion for answers to the problem of death.
JF: Technology took over for religion and became its own kind of religion. People still have an unshakeable faith in the goodness of social media. People continue to believe that electric cars will avert catastrophic climate change. Billionaires believe they won’t really have to die, because tech will find a fix for that. As I said in the Google talk, it’s just so dumb. What exactly are you going to be doing when you’re 9,000 years old? That’s what you want? Really? Think it through for five seconds!
TM: You warned about the polarizing logic of online discourse, and the pressure to conform on social media. What do you think of the role of freedom in our digital age? Are we as free-thinking as we think we are?
JF: One thing I learned from my immersion in the literature of East Germany and the Soviet Union is that freedom of thought persists. With any kind of repression, there’s punishment for saying things that aren’t acceptable. The beautiful word is “anathema.” And so much is anathema nowadays, maybe especially on the left. You’re simply not allowed to utter certain things, even if they’re true. But censorship doesn’t mean that everyone stops thinking. It just means they become very cynical, very careful whom they speak to candidly. And I find this weirdly hopeful. It’s hard to sustain a totalitarian system because, at a certain point, the disconnect between what people are saying officially and what they’re thinking privately becomes so huge that the whole thing just becomes silly and falls apart. So I’m not particularly worried about freedom of thought. My own self-appointed job, as an essayist, is to try to give voice to what people are afraid to say publicly, ashamed to say publicly.
TM: You describe the role of an essayist as a firefighter. “While everyone else is fleeing the flames of shame,” your job is to “run straight into them.” Would you say more about the risks you are taking? Are they worth the effort?
JF: There are definitely things I’m sorry I said the way I did. A trivial example: In the mid-’90s, I wrote a piece making fun of the utopianism of Silicon Valley, and I had a throwaway line about what a ridiculous idea online dating was—how dismal it was to imagine a relationship that started that way. And now something like half the couples I know met online. There are lots of little things like that—you take a risk and you get it wrong. More recently, the risk has been total incineration on social media, but that’s not all that big a risk for me, because I don’t read the stupid things people are saying, and it’s more than offset by the response I get from people privately, on my public email account and in letters that come in the mail. If you only looked at Twitter, you’d think my last climate essay, in The New Yorker last fall, was universally condemned. If you read my email, you’d think the opposite.
TM: In the piece, “The Essay in Dark Times,” you talked about the lesson you learned from Henry Finder, your editor at The New Yorker. There are two ways to arrange materials: one is “This followed that,” and the other is “Like goes with like.” The second method sounds fascinating. Would you say more about your nonfiction writing process?
JF: I mentioned Henry’s lesson because it’s valuable. You can either organize material according to category or you can tell a story, and you want to make sure you’re always doing one or the other, if not both. The more fundamental question is: What makes me want to write something? Typically, at some level, I’m angry about something. Sometimes it’s injustice, a literal injustice, or a crime against nature, or the underappreciation of a writer I think is great, Edith Wharton, Christina Stead. Sometimes I’m trying to correct a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding of our climate situation, a misunderstanding of me personally. But most often, I think, I’m angry about simplifications. There is such a thing as moral simplicity—slavery in the United States was purely wrong, and so was the discrimination and racism and oppression that followed it. But most things are not so simple. When I hear politicians and activists and online screamers acting as if things were simple, leaving out important facts, it makes me really angry.
TM: Like you once said, you have skin in the game. You write what you care about.
JF: You’re right. But I have the luxury of that. If I don’t write a single piece of journalism or a single essay all year, it doesn’t make any difference, because I also have my novels.
TM: How do you evaluate subjectivity in nonfiction writing?
JF: Almost by definition, an essay is subjective. If I produce something purely objective, I’ve failed as an essayist. I actually never intended to be an essayist. It was Henry Finder who saw something in my first piece of reporting, a couple of subjective paragraphs, and he said I should do more of that. It’s safer to stick to facts, because they speak for themselves. With subjectivity, there has to be a tone, the sentences have to work on the page. The subjectivity has to earn the right to be in the piece. In “Essay in Dark Times,” I made a comparison between the anxiety I felt in Ghana in November 2016, about not seeing as many birds as I’d hoped to see, and my anxiety that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get enough electoral votes to win the election. Kathy was afraid I sounded like I was self-absorbed and didn’t take seriously how terrible it was that Trump was elected, although in the very next paragraph I talked about how terrible it was. I decided to leave the comparison in the essay, partly to make fun of myself and partly to convey the frame of mind of a person who’d been chasing birds for two weeks and was obsessed with seeing more of them. It just seemed kind of interesting. Even if it didn’t reflect well on me, I wanted to record what I was thinking, which was this strange conflation of Hillary’s Electoral College problem and my checklist problem.
TM: But obviously not many people share your passion about birds. So they may find the analogy insensitive.
JF: That would be too bad. I meant it to be ridiculous.
TM: Do people usually get your irony? Or do they usually perceive it in the wrong way?
JF: It happens all the time. I once called Michiko Kakutani the stupidest person in New York City. She’s given wonderful reviews to every novel of mine, but I was told that she’d trashed my book The Discomfort Zone. One of my friends reported screaming at her review, “She has no sense of humor!” And I was like, oh my God, did she really think I was serious? The book is full of stuff that could only have been meant ironically. I realized that if Kakutani, who’s the opposite of stupid, can miss the humor, then anyone can miss it.
TM: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed about the author-reader relationship over the years?
JF: The fundamental relationship is that I write something by myself and you read it by yourself. Through the magic of printed words on a page, we feel a connection. And that is still the fundamental relationship. In the social realm, writers are much more accessible to readers now than they used to be. I’m definitely more accessible, not on social media but through the public email account. I have some kind of personal connection with a lot more people, and I try to remember that this isn’t the important relationship. It isn’t me with the page and the reader with the page. But if I’ve had a hard day, and I come home and hear from somebody who seems to have been moved by something I wrote, it makes a difference. And it’s nice to be able to thank that person. I don’t write long replies, but I try to have a moment of person-to-person feeling, the same as I do in a signing line. I only have 30 seconds, but I want to be present as a person. It’s probably the ’70s in me, the Midwesterner in me.
TM: What’s the biggest difference between yourself as an essayist and as a novelist?
JF: To do a novel well is much, much harder. You enter an obsessive state that’s going to last for a minimum of two years, and the number of problems to be solved is three orders of magnitude greater than with even a long essay. With an essay, you start with a topic, and you either have something interesting to say or you don’t. If you do, then you know that, with enough revisions, you can get there. Once you get the hang of it, once you’ve got a voice, an essay isn’t that hard. But the novel just gets harder and harder. The more levels you master, the better you see how many more levels you haven’t mastered. It’s just really hard.
TM: Do you feel more alone when you are writing a novel?
JF: If you stretch that out temporally, yes. With this novel that I’m almost done with, I’ve only had two readers, and even they only get a chunk of material every two, three, four months. So, for long stretches—big stretches of a year—I’m completely on my own. With an essay, I get immediate feedback from the editor, and pretty quickly it will show up in print or online.
TM: I usually close my interviews by asking great authors to give suggestions for young writers, but I want to try something different here. I’m not a bird lover. I didn’t ask any questions about bird watching. But like many critics, I read the birds in your writing as a symbol. Birds reveal how inhumane we have become. Do you have some suggestions for those who want to be more humane, especially young people?
JF: That’s a big question. I do think reading a good novel is a way to be reconnected with one’s humanity. If you’re young and you don’t know what a good novel is, it’s a good way to discover your humanity. So, that would remain my first suggestion. If you don’t immediately know how to read a novel, I think studying with a good teacher, or talking about something with a book club, or just having a friend who you can read the same book with, can deepen your engagement and help you see all the levels of meaning available in a novel. So that would be one thing. The other thing would be to open your door and go outside. Even though you think you’re being very human and connected, texting, Instagramming, Facebooking, all that stuff, there’s a point of diminishing returns. You’re not actually getting that much from the screen, it becomes a kind of compulsion, and much of the discourse is either trivial or fake. Paradoxically, one way to find the self is to walk away from it. Even if you just go to a city park and spend time with a tree and look carefully, look at the bugs that are on it, the birds that are in it, it can be incredibly restorative. That would be my other suggestion.
The Chinese translation of this interview appeared first on April 19 in The Initium Media.