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.