September 16, 2013

On the horrors of agreeing with Jonathan Franzen


Even broken novelists are right twice a day.

It will happen to everyone at some point. Maybe it’s because you’re aging. Maybe you feel stuck in a life you never meant to build; the things that once delighted you have taken on the look and taste of wax. Maybe, for whatever perverse reason, you have always hated cats and/or DFW.

You never meant to do it, I know, but it’s happened. And now, hard as it is, the best thing is simply to own it and move forward.

Say it with me: I agreed with Jonathan Franzen.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can work to get ourselves past this dark moment.

Franzen is a curmudgeon, and increasingly, a fan of denouncing things. The safest reaction to his essays, almost always, is to treat him as you would any other yeller-at-clouds: to smile and kindly look the other way. But the man is of such a profile by now that he tends to leave a pretty big wake of commentary behind him when he breaches in online fora, and often you cannot help but be pulled in.

Admitting your agreement is the first step to making it safely out of this well of shame. But there are other steps can you take to speed the healing process.

1. Be specific about your agreement.

You obviously don’t agree with everything Jonathan Franzen has said during his latest rise to the surface of public commentary. You’re not insane. But maybe there was something that made you nod before you stopped in horror at what you were doing. For instance, The Guardian has just published an introduction by Franzen to his recently translated book of essays by Karl Kraus. Mixed in with some fascinating excerpts of Kraus, and some commentary on the man and his idiom, is the usual batshit Franzeniana. But nestled within that is this gem:

Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring. And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers, because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (“Overnight free shipping!”).

If you are a frequent reader of MobyLives you know that we are inclined to agree. But that very true if characteristically sour sentiment is sandwiched nauseatingly between two gravelly bites of extremist luddism/misanthropy. It behooves an inadvertent-Franzen-agree-er to say, loudly, “This part and no other; well, and maybe the Kraus bits; and maybe the last paragraph. But that’s all I need!”

Or, as Matthew Cheney puts it in his reckoning with Franzen’s curmudgeonry, “It’s not that I don’t think we’re doomed and our culture insipid. I do. But…”

2. Forgive yourself

Agreeing with Franzen does not make you a bad person. It does not make you a hypocrite to think, for instance, that twitter is degrading discourse (you and he are quite wrong), but to find insufferable his efforts to become a disgusted cynic in the way of Kraus. Don’t imagine that your agreement somehow makes you culpable for all of his overreaching opinions. It’s okay. You are, likely, still a good person. (Unless you also enjoy his fiction in which case you are going to hell. Sorry!)

3. Ask forgiveness of others

Particularly of cats. This mantra will help: “Birds are vicious miniature dinosaurs. They are terrifying and they have it coming. Birds are vicious miniature dinosaurs …”

4. Make an honest effort to change

Put down your binoculars. Get in line. Stop making self-deprecating jokes about your Subaru. Stop trying to make eye contact and shrug at other people while you do your Zumba. Feeling superior does not exempt you from the comfortable hell we’ve built, whining is the opposite of salvation, and Hot Topic is a shop in the mall.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.