Jonathan Franzen, like any curmudgeon, is eminently easy to make fun of. From his hyperbolic denunciations of social media and e-book readers to his passion for birds to that whole Oprah thing… he’s an easy target.
So I was extremely excited about seeing him speak in person this past Thursday. I even live-tweeted some quotes, which I knew would probably annoy him intensely considering he called Twitter “unspeakably irritating”:
“What is fiction if not a purposeful dreaming?” – Jonathan Franzen
— Nathan Bransford (@NathanBransford) June 22, 2012
I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Franzen the writer, but could not have a more different worldview than Jonathan Franzen the social commentator. Where Jonathan Franzen loathes e-books I see vast potential, where he fears social media I’ve made it a career, and where his worldview and human nature is rather bleak with a touch of anger, I’ve been described as being “posi-core.”
And yet, after seeing Franzen speak… I finally think I get where he’s coming from.
The moment that made it click for me was almost a throwaway. He was talking about that feeling you have after you’ve stayed up an hour too late reading a book, and how much better you feel after doing that than when you’ve stayed up too late watching the World Series of Poker.
I honestly have no idea why that made it click for me, but for some reason it did. I think what makes Franzen tick is a fear of noise.
What’s apparent from hearing Franzen talk is how deeply he thinks about everything. He was reading his remarks, but was still thinking about his words as he was talking. He isn’t afraid to let twenty seconds go by as he thinks about how he will respond to a question. He is extremely self-aware and is constantly self-examining his motives and hangups. He opened his talk by saying, “I’m here because I’m being paid to be here.”
There’s a palpable Franzenian weariness and almost exhaustion in all this thinking. He said of his process, “When I’m writing I don’t want anyone else in the room – including myself.”
But I can see why someone who thinks so deeply and intensely about things would be wary of social media, which he referred to dismissively as “that stuff.” I can see why someone who enjoys deep thinking would also be passionate about bird watching, with its waiting, long treks, and elusive moments of glory.
And you know what? If this is what he believes (I don’t presume to speak for him), he has a point.
We do live in a world of tremendous distraction. We have all but eliminated boredom. Every stoplight is a moment to check our e-mail, every wait in a supermarket line is a chance to sneak a peek at Twitter, every time our dinner companion uses the restroom is a chance to Instagram.
I intentionally try and just sit and stare out the window on my bus rides to and from work in order to refocus my eyes and let my head clear, and yet I rarely make it the whole way without checking something on my phone.
Societal pressures are on more and more work, more and more content, more and more connection, more and more communication.
Where is the pressure for more and more thinking?
Franzen’s process takes time. He takes years to write books. The initial plot of The Corrections was practically a caper. Then he took some minor characters and rewrote it to feature them. Then he took another seemingly minor character and rewrote around that. It seems like the only thing the final draft shared with the first was the title.
Franzen thinks. I think he fears a world where people don’t.
Jenna St. Hilaire says
Loved this. So. Much. Thanks for posting it.
While I can't speak for Franzen, I can certainly own up, myself, to a fear of noise. Much as I value and enjoy technology and social media, it took me forever to convince myself to get on Twitter, and then I had to swear off it because it constantly broke up my mental processes.
Being the noise-fearing, contemplative type affects my reading style and relationship to ebooks, too. While I do read on my Kindle, it's endlessly frustrating because I don't like to just read one novel and move on to the next, I want to re-read parts and think through the story. It's hard on a Kindle to just flip back a few pages and go over a scene again, or to hunt out the particular section of the book that I'd like to re-read–perhaps five or ten times–after I've finished. If I didn't think to add the bookmark in the first time….
And all that's in spite of my wholehearted belief that ebooks are awesome, that they provide a lot of great opportunities for readers and writers alike.
I suspect that while the distracting world of connectivity has both benefits and dangers for everyone, it's uniquely hazardous to us introverted, meditative folk, and we just have to put hard limits on the noise levels in our own lives.
Though I must admit that for research, the perilous Internet is an introvert's paradise: nearly all the information you could ever want, without once picking up the telephone. 😉
I fear a world where people don't exercise and take care of themselves.
I fear a world where people don't get out. When I recently traveled to South America, I saw more Europeans than Americans, and I wondered why.
I fear a world where people spend too much time thinking and not enough time doing. Life is worth living, and while planning is nice, you still gotta execute.
Christina Carson says
It's be a long time since I've read a blog that has so delighted me as much as yours on Jonathan Franzen. It is not often we see someone willing to open his heart and mind to what he might otherwise dismiss. It was both impressive and encouraging, for I, like Franzen, tend to see a good bit of darkness on the horizon, that we do need to explore and make conscious choices about. Hats off to you, Nathan. What a fine example to your readers.
Very, very well said. He's a brilliant writer who produces amazing fiction. If turning off the noise is his secret, it's a message worth listening to.
I've got absolutely no idea who Franzen is, but I so get this post. I think we live in a world where we know so many things we might never have known before — but we don't get to explore. Things come at our beck and call, but there's no need to discover any beautiful gems. We don't have to scour through old dusty books; we only have to sit on Pinterest for a couple of hours.
I kinda wish for rainy days with a fire place and an old bookshelf filled with lots and lots of books.
Fanfreakingtastic Flower says
You commute to work? Huh. I figured you worked from home.
I appreciate that he is a thinker.
I appreciate that he takes his business seriously, I really do.
However, I could do without the dripping disdain and judgment behind some of his comments. We all do what works for us, and if we don't, it probably isn't working.
I'm completely cool with him not liking social media, but I'm a little tired of hearing about it (however, it's not all his fault that I hear about it so often).
What I most appreciate is that you say he takes time before answering questions. That is just plain old smart.
Andrew Leon says
Well, I agree with Franzen. I just did a few posts about this kind of thing, one of which was specifically about thinking and how we don't do it anymore. Or, at least, how solitude and thought are held in such low regard.
I think it's an introvert/extrovert conflict, and we live in an extrovert society, so people who think are seen as weird.
Taylor Napolsky says
I think you just need to have the online presence, like have a blog or twitter account. But you don't necessarily have to update it all the time. Your time would definitely be better spent reading or writing.
And if an unpublished author had made the same comments he would be labeled cynical and difficult to work with.
Being critical of social media in general, and Twitter in particular, would be a death sentence to any unpublished author. Any literary agent, upon seeing this, would likely not even bother to read the author's submission.
But because this is Jonathon Franzen speaking, the rules are different.
Whenever I visit the website of a literary agent I see the suggestion that, as an author, I'm supposed to be able to 'seed and nurture a social media campaign' to support my book.
In my lifetime, I have never ever bought a book because I was influenced by somebody's social media campaign. In fact, when I see that, it turns me off.