Sunday, September 15, 2013

Franzen vs. Bezos -- Battle of the Titans

Jonathan Franzen is a writer whose work harks back to the good old days of the belle lettres when The Great Writer acted as a social oracle reflecting the concerns and currents of thought of his or her day. Franzen's novels, unusually for mainstream publishers, live up to their hype, and his ambitions as a satirist are matched by his talent and acuity of observation. So I like him. And he's my age exactly, so his generational anxieties and experiences basically match my own, although the temperament and bourgeois outlook of his characters, their comfort and passivity, don't always sit well; so sometimes I find his books, honestly, hard to get through. But I admire him and his talent and what he does with his success, which is to sit down and apply himself again and again to the task of the great man of letters and chronicle the age through the filter of his own sensibilities.
Which is why I feel the need to respond to his article in the Guardian Review on Friday announcing his latest novel and using the occasion to vent on the state of play in the publishing industry. In the article, Franzen reveals the roots of his writerly motivations - his anger as a young man at his perceptions of the failures of popular culture, bad headlines and typos in newspapers over breakfast in his apartment in Somerville as metaphors for a general failure of realization. As time went on, sustaining a career as a novelist necessarily meant letting go of some of his anger at modernity and its shoddy status quo, and starting to enjoy a more placid, less emotional breakfast, presumably. But now, writes Franzen, he is poised to take up his lance again and ride Quijote-like to face the enemy of humanity and all that it holds dear, which he has identified as Amazon head Jeff Bezos.
My contention is that Franzen is essentially a grump complaining about the fact that the rug is being pulled out from under his comfortable and well-established feet, willfully ignoring the complicity of mainstream publishing in its own demise.
Point one: Franzen doesn't like the rise of ebooks and social media and the fact that writers as a class are having to take their acts on the road, so to speak, in search of readers. Okay, it would be nice to not have to do that, but it's not necessarily a bad thing to have to work to make contact with an audience beyond the boundaries of the page.
Point two: Franzen decries the Amazon customer reviews as amateurish and prone to being falsified. Yeah, like newspaper reviews are not both of these as well. Again, Franzen's perspective is not in touch with reality, although he himself admits as much in the closing paragraphs of his article when he says that "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."
His own sheltered social circumstances are that of an incredibly fortunate, incredibly successful writer and of course any change to the status quo will be perceived as a massive threat to his well-being.

I have no illusions that the changes wrought by Bezos on the publishing industry herald a new golden age for the written word. In fact, I share Franzen's frustration with the shoddy nature of most books, the sheer glut of crappy entertainment in the form of genre fiction. But who are we to judge how people seek escape and solace? Serious writers who are persistent will eventually find an audience, even if many if not most will never be remunerated for their work. And hasn't it always been this way.

It is absolutely disingenuous for someone of Franzen's status to not recognize the enormity of his good fortune and the potential benefits of widening the appeal of books to a mass audience as opposed to an elite who then trickle their tastes to the masses via an entirely coopted reviewing/book-marketing industry -- the aesthetic equivalent of trickle down economics.

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