What’s Wrong with Jonathan Franzen’s ‘What’s Wrong with the Modern World’?
First there’s the title. It reminds me of “The Secret of Life,” the awful title of the awful article Andrew McCarthy’s awful character finally gets published in the awful “St. Elmo’s Fire.” It’s a title that’s too stupidly general. What’s wrong with the modern world? That’s a wide target, boyo. At the same time you think, “Well, how can Franzen not hit that one?”
He manages. A lot of his targets are my targets, too: modern technology, the Internet, “cool,” the pauperization of freelance writers, the marginalization of almost everything I once considered central to the culture. So he should be speaking for me. Yet for most of the essay he doesn’t speak for me.
Franzen is attacking the early 21st century through the writings of Karl Kraus, an Austrian satirist, who attacked the early 20th century. Franzen’s first target? Those Mac vs. PC ads. Seriously. It’s a form and content argument, a “cool” vs. “uncool” argument, and Franzen places himself squarely among the uncool Microsoft/PC people. He backs the content of the PC, its utilitarianism, over the meaningless form of the Mac. He writes:
Simply using a Mac Air, experiencing the elegant design of its hardware and software, is a pleasure in itself, like walking down a street in Paris. Whereas, when you’re working on some clunky, utilitarian PC, the only thing to enjoy is the quality of your work itself. As Kraus says of Germanic life, the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned.
Until it crashes.
That's a joke but it's a true joke. Mac is not only better in form but in content; in code. The Mac is both more beautiful and more utilitarian. But then Franzen isn’t really talking about the product but our interaction with the product. He’s apparently saying it’s harder to see ourselves against the beautiful; it’s easier to see ourselves against the plain or ugly. Meaning Franzen should be happy with the way our modern cityscapes have developed. We should be able to see each other well now. Hey, you. I know you.
Franzen keeps taking these cheap shots. His complaints are monumentally small and of the straw-man variety. He criticizes Salman Rushdie for “succumbing” to Twitter, which apparently means being on it. He’s disappointed in those who hold up the Internet as somehow positively “female” and “revolutionary,” when other people’s misinterpretations of the Internet are not the problem with the Internet. He writes:
You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it 2 billion now?) “individualised” Facebook pages may make you want to say them.
Facebook pages? He’s not even using the right words. He’s attacking our way of seeing a thing even though it’s not how we see the thing.
Here’s another unworthy straw man:
To me the most impressive thing about Kraus as a thinker may be how early and clearly he recognised the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress. A succeeding century of the former, involving scientific advances that would have seemed miraculous not long ago, has resulted in high-resolution smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos into litre bottles of Diet Pepsi and shouting “Whoa!”
Louis C.K. has done a better job, a more human job, parsing this divide.
OK, so Franzen gets better the further he gets into the essay. Here, for example, is something he writes that I can get behind:
... we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and emailing and Tweeting and posting on colour-screen gadgets because Moore’s law said we could. We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children “passion” for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep up with it. The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability – and who wouldn’t want them? – we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety. We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.
That’s getting at it. I like this quote from Kraus:
This velocity doesn’t realize that its achievement is important only in escaping itself.
That’s getting at it even more.
I like the tail-end discussion about the privileged anger of both Kraus and Franzen. Kraus is to Franzen as George W.S. Trow is to me. We all need our previous-generation curmudgeons.
Then Franzen does a back-and-forth thing with Amazon.com, and Jeff Bezos, and the destruction of the thing Franzen holds dear: the physical book, and book culture, and book stores. He delivers the line that’s the most-quoted from this piece: “In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.” He writes this:
Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world.
Except that world is the world, and it’s almost always been the world, and we’ve always been to the side of it. Franzen doesn’t seem to get that. The world of America is a world of selling, of business, of getting ahead. It’s a world of competition. It’s a ruthless world of by any means necessary. If literature is marginalized now it just means it’s more marginalized now. It’s not just marginalized by movies, and radio, and television, as it was in Franzen’s youth, but by everything on the Internet, which is almost everything in the world. It’s almost embarrassing to be here, really, and doing what I’m doing, writing this blog, writing these words, because what’s the point? The other day at a party, a friend said to me, “I’ve been reading your blog lately” and my immediate reaction was one of embarrassment. It was almost as if he’d said, “I saw you standing on the street corner lately, shouting.”
He ends well. Franzen begins horribly and ends well.
Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal. I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending. But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments, and the Amazon basin was intact, and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows.
Well shouted, Jonathan. And from a better street corner, too.
Franzen, B.B. (Before Bezos)