In a long essay promoting his new translation of essays by Karl Kraus, literature’s curmudgeonly darling, Jonathan Franzen, writes:
In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?
There’s already a slew of blog posts (e.g., this one and this one) assailing Franzen for daring to question the utility of Twitter, the coolness of Apple products, and the informational bounty of Google. There’s no doubt that Franzen is being a spoilsport, but still, it’s hard to feel that snark like this is anything more than frivolous trading in the market of coolness—that is, exactly the kind of jockeying that Franzen objects to.
For what it’s worth, I disagree with Franzen’s assertion that Twitter is corrosively dumb and damaging to public discourse, but while one’s tolerance may vary, who could dispute that it is, indeed, a shallow form of social engagement? Even when I disagree, I appreciate that Franzen is one of the few writers out there thinking seriously about confluence of commerce and culture and the political implications thereof. After all, it’s not fun or cool to think about growing inequality or the growth of predatory lending, but it’s healthier to do so than not.
The biggest reason I enjoy reading Franzen is that he’s one of the few writers out there worth talking back to, but in the case of Amazon, I wholeheartedly agree.
- Matt Tanner