March 13, 2012

JFranz lays into Perec


Oh, Jonathan Franzen. Does your foot just really like being in your mouth? Fresh from making weird and irrelevant comments about Edith Wharton‘s ugliness, he’s chanced for a sly jab at Georges Perec. We’ve all seen the characteristically imaginative and progressive observations he made about Twitter last week:

Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose… it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters… it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.

The #JonathanFranzenHates hashtag that this inspired (emoticons, because it takes 600 pages to accurately convey emotion; the sun, penicillin, and NATO) has been doing the rounds of the internet for the past week. What hasn’t really been discussed is that he’s also either betraying a total ignorance of Oulipo, or deliberately taking a swipe at it. He can’t have said “writing a novel without the letter “P”‘ without thinking of Perec’s La Disparition, or A Void, can he? Immediately after the above he said:

People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.

He seems to be suggesting that formal experiments like those conducted by the Oulipo can never constitute serious writing. Anyone who’s read A Void or Life: A User’s Manual, or in fact anyone who understands that humour, experiment, farce are potent modes for fictional works, might be baffled by this. And then there’s that word ‘irresponsible’, so Franzen that for a moment I wondered whether it was self-parody. There is indeed a turgid, almost Victorian moral didacticism in his novels that feels exactly like an author labouring under the weight of his own assumed authority and responsibility; it’s totally at odds with everything celebratory, inventive and Oulipian.

And then, you know, there’s also the argument that we might not all be constantly engaged in an effort to write a 600-page novel, but might like to, you know, converse and share ideas. Somehow it seems unlikely that the past week’s Twitter trolling has converted Franzen to the platform, or convinced him that a serious message can be delivered with levity and humour.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.