Check it out: Amanda Hess’s analysis of Jonathan Franzen’s recent essay in which he screams at the children to get off his lawn, and to take their Twitter-machines with them:
Franzen blames the Internet for eradicating “the quiet and permanence of the printed word,” which “assured some kind of quality control,” in favor of an apocalyptic hellscape punctuated by “bogus” Amazon reviews and “Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion.” Back in Franzen’s day, “TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments.” He goes on: “It wasn’t necessarily a better world (we had bomb shelters and segregated swimming pools), but it was the only world I knew to try to find my place in as a writer.”
Wow. Not too many white people can openly express their nostalgia for segregation or apartheid and get their 6,500 word essays published in The Guardian! But that’s not all: apparently, guys like Franzen really are victims! Of something. The important thing to know is that Jonathan Franzen can no longer “find his place. . . as a writer” in our modern dystopia. But the pre-internet world doesn’t seem all that awesome in his telling:
And then there is the tale of the German chick, told to pinpoint exactly the moment Franzen became an angry person. “I’d come from Munich and was waiting for a train to Berlin, it was a dark grey German day, and I took a handful of German coins out of my pocket and started throwing them on the platform,” Franzen writes. “There was an element of anti-German hostility in this, because I’d recently had a horrible experience with a penny-pinching old German woman and it did me good to imagine other penny-pinching old German women bending down to pick the coins up, as I knew they would, and thereby aggravating their knee and hip pains. The way I hurled the coins, though, was more generally angry. I was angry at the world in a way I’d never been before. The proximate cause of my anger was my failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn’t actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part.”
There’s an “element of anti-German hostility in this,” sure, but the more relevant portion of Franzen’s anger is directed at women. Literature’s preeminent dude-bro took out his frustrations at a girl he “decided” not to have sex with (isn’t that how it always happens!) by fantasizing about old women destroying their bodies as they scrounge after his discarded fortunes. Franzen writes that he learned to overcome his youthful anger when he became a novelist, and was moved to empathize with other humans in the service of great literature; “to imagine what it’s like to be somebody you are not” is the “mental work that fiction fundamentally requires,” he now understands.
Most of us do this mental work without even the promise of a lucrative book contract! I think it’s called being human. (See also Jennifer Weiner’s response to Franzen in The New Republic.) I’d like to be nostalgic for the days of segregated public pools and when women couldn’t talk back in any public medium, but that would really tax my skills at imagining what it’s like to be somebody I am not.
Besides, I have to save that mental energy for writing about the eighteenth century.