Why Jonathan Franzen is wrong about novelists and Twitter

In his essay last week, Jonathan Franzen complained about the "yakkers and tweeters and braggers" who publicise their books through "Jennifer Weiner-ish" self-promotion. Now, Jennifer Weiner replies.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com.

Last week, Jonathan Franzen, the best-selling, award-winning literary novelist who’s known for the excellence of his books and his bold stands against Oprah, Facebook, e-books, iPhones, and overly generous assessments of Edith Wharton’s looks, unburdened himself of a rant. The dense, lengthy piece, excerpted from his new book, was modestly titled “What’s Wrong with the Modern World?” In it, Franzen bemoaned high-class writers like Salman Rushdie succumbing to Twitter. The literary world, Franzen lamented, rewards “yakkers” and “braggers.” Not even his peers are safe, not with prestigious writers being “conscripted” into “Jennifer Weiner-ish” self promotion. The horror! The horror! The … oh. Wait. Never mind.

I’m not entirely clear on what Weiner-ish self-promotion includes, or how it might be different than what other writers are doing—which is weird because, as its foremost practitioner, I should know. I’ll start by assuming that JWSP includes being on Twitter … where I’m hardly alone. As Franzen must know, Salman Rushdie is not the only literary writer who’s succumbed. Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific tweeter, Margaret Atwood a sly one. Susan Orleans tweets about her chickens, Ruth Reichl tweets about her breakfasts, and Gary Shteyngart says that if he hits 30,000 followers, he’ll get a set of steak knives, a la Glengarry Glen Ross.

Funny stuff, true, but, as a promotional tool, Twitter’s not the greatest. Writers don’t use it to spam cyberspace with news of their new book’s publication, or great reviews, or the reading they’ll be giving next week—not unless they want to find themselves with three followers, scorned by readers who follow writers for content, not commercials.

Most writers are on Twitter not because it’s a good way to sell books, but because it’s a good time. It’s like having 24/7 access to the world’s best cocktail party. You can, it’s true, use it to remind people that you exist between publications, or tell them when your new book arrives, but Twitter’s more about the conversation than the sale.

Maybe Franzen takes issue specifically with my use of Twitter, which falls into two broad categories: urging mainstream publications toward more inclusive book coverage and live-tweeting “The Bachelor.” Neither preoccupation has done much for my book sales, so neither one is truly self-promotional.

Maybe it’s personal.

In 2010, I coined the hashtag Franzenfreude. It was very bad German for a very real problem: When Franzen’s most recent novel, Freedom, was published, newspapers and magazines devoted thousands of words to the book and its author, while giving other literary books far less attention, and, in some cases, ignoring commercial works completely. Perhaps Franzen’s recent name-check was payback for when I implied that he was the face of white male literary privilege, or for pointing out that he’s the kind of writer who goes on Facebook only to announce that he won’t be doing Facebook, with the implication that he doesn’t have to do Facebook, because the media does his status updates for him. Or maybe he just really, really hates “The Bachelor.”

In his essay, Franzen reserves his respect for “the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement,” the ones who “want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word.” But as long as there have been books, there have been writers who’ve preferred yakking and bragging to quiet and permanence. In the 1880s, there was Oscar Wilde on lecture tours. In the 1960s, there was Truman Capote on “What’s My Line?”

These days, there is Jeffrey Eugenides. Eugenides has appeared in book trailers alongside James Franco, he’s posed in Vogue for a feature on Edith Wharton. He’s shared memories of David Foster Wallace with New York Magazine, his “media diet” with Details, and his Oscar picks with the New York Times. Then, of course, there was the Times Square billboard, where Eugenides’s publisher juxtaposed a shot of the author in a billowing vest underneath the word “Swoon-worthy.”

Other literary writers’ self-promotional efforts go even further. Acclaimed novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro writes blog posts for positivelypositive.com (“We’re here every day to help keep your Positivity Tank topped off.”) Pedigreed authors like John Irving and Nicholson Baker tout their books on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Gary Shteyngart wears Google Glass to his therapist’s office and writes about it for The New Yorker.

All of this probably makes J-Franz want to drop-kick an old German lady’s Kindle. But Franzen can hardly complain about Jeffrey Eugenides-ian self-promotion. He and Eugenides are friends. They share a publisher and the same kind of capital-L Literary reputation. Imagine the unpleasantness at The Paris Review holiday party!

The fact is, Franzen’s a category of one, a lonely voice issuing ex cathedra edicts that can only apply to himself.

Other literary writers have won prizes, or Oprah’s endorsement. Other writers have appeared on Time’s cover, or have been able to shun social media, but only Franzen’s done it all. From his privileged perch, he can pick and choose, deciding which British newspaper gets the honor of running his 5600-word condemnation of self-promotion that ends with an unironic hyperlinked invitation to buy his new book. Few—no—other writers have it so good. For the rest of us—commercial and literary alike—there is social media for fun, ads and tours for publicity, billboards and book trailers only if we’re lucky.

Franzen can choose to be horrified by what he sees as shocking new developments on the literary landscape, instead of modern writers continuing the long-time practice of getting their books into readers’ hands by any means necessary. But he cannot pretend that literary writers have been ensorcelled into a headlong rush for clicks and “add to carts,” pure souls who’ve been corrupted by exposure to commercial Philistines with itchy Twitter fingers. If Franzen’s being honest, he’ll acknowledge that the problem isn’t just writers like me—it’s also writers like him.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com.

Jonathan Franzen at a Mexican literary festival in 2012. Photograph: Hector Guerrero/Getty Images.
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era