By now, if you vaguely follow news of the writing world, and perhaps even if you don’t, you will have become aware of the kerfuffle around Jonathan Franzen’s latest curmudgeonly diatribe, published in The Guardian last week, in which he waxes eloquent, in 39 paragraphs, no less, on much that is wrong with modern life, especially the plethora of phenomena (such as Twitter), companies (such as Apple) and people (such as Jeff Bezos) who in his view exemplify the general shallowness of society.
Nestled in his commentary, there are some nuggets of what many will recognize as truth. It is too bad that they are dissimulated in an overwhelming salvo of irritation and general grumpiness regarding “yakkers and Tweeters and braggers” and the likes of Jeff Bezos of Amazon who “may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.” (For an amusing read on the horror of agreeing with Franzen, read this.) On the very same day that the Guardian piece came out, there was a response which some viewed as spot on, while others, including a very well-spoken commenter using the handle “Ivan,” pointed to as precisely embodying Franzen’s critique. “Ivan” comments that “Franzen writes the type of unabashedly old-school creative literary/cultural critique that many of today’s smart folks ‘don’t have the time’ to read anymore because they’re too busy backstroking through the shallow pleasures of, you know, blogs. Wrapping his argument in a thoughtful historical comparison, he maligns the speed, form, instant gratification, and coolness embodied by our technoconsumerism– a germane topic.” One could argue with the part about “the shallow pleasures of, you know, blogs,” but Ivan goes on to ask quite validly whether the article’s writer has “even had time to process, or if is he “actually being paid to be pithy, sardonic, digestible and prolific at the expense of being thoughtful, astute and fair.”
But enough already about Franzen. He is of course not the first “literary” writer (we’ll get back to the reason for those quotation marks later) to issue scathing denunciations of technology or social media (which of course were wildly propagated to thousands, if not millions, of people–or should I say users?– among those selfsame media). Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford, in his tremendously popular blog, wrote in Feb 2012 a post titled “Why are so many literary writers technophobic?” in response to a spate of articles and interviews on this topic. In this post, he mentions, among others:
(Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons.)
Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan complaining about social networking “Who cares that we can connect? What’s the big deal? I think Facebook is colossally dull. I think it’s like everyone coming to live in a huge Soviet apartment block, [in] which everyone’s cell looks exactly the same.” (Interestingly, or perhaps not, Jennifer Egan has a Twitter account, with over 8,000 followers despite only 8 Tweets.)
(Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons)
Zadie Smith writing of Facebook: “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.” (Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons)
Ray Bradbury’s 2009 response to the suggestion of an ebook version of Fahrenheit 451: “To Hell with you and to Hell with the Internet.” (And lo! Two years later, the ebook came out. One could argue about whether Ray Bradbury is a “literary” writer or not, but he’s certainly part of The Canon.
(Photo by Alan Light, Wikimedia Commons)
Each of these outbursts prompted much discussion, commentary and writing. The most beautiful of which (at least among the pieces I encountered) was Alexis Madrigal’s response to Zadie Smith, delving deeply into the intersection of technology, communication and relationships. If there is one link you click on with the intent of reading it fully, make it this one.
These statements, while they spark interesting debate and prompt many to exercise their writing muscle, do a disservice to today’s new “literary” writers.
(Now I address the use of quotation marks, before getting rid of them. There is a massive and ongoing debate regarding what “literary” actual means. The debate is thought-provoking, fascinating, exhausting and, I think, essentially pointless. Some say the word “literary” denotes a lack of plot, that it is writing for the sake of beautiful words strung together. Some say it is idea-driven, not character-driven. It is “serious” writing. It is undefinable, but you’ll know it when you see it. Etc. To me, it is simply writing that makes one think, writing where the choice of words matters, writing that has an aesthetic value beyond the story itself, but that nonetheless can–and often does–have a wonderful story, memorable characters, a surprising yet inevitable arc. The writer April Line aptly points out that what one thinks about the literary fiction world is where one sits in relation to it.)
Here is a fact: Literary writers in the 25-45 year age bracket have come of age, at least career-wise, in a new era, when opportunities for seeing one’s work published by “traditional” publishers (and getting paid for it) have slimmed to almost nothingness, and when the dollars put forward by publishers for marketing and promotion of one’s work, even with a publishing contract, have dwindled drastically. An anonymous comment on Nathan Bransford’s post hits the nail on the head: “I love Franzen, but he writes a book a decade and laughs all the way to the bank. Who on earth has that kind of a sweet deal? If I were him, or John Iriving, or any other of those authors who’ve found a great thing and have milked it for years, I’d be against technology, too.” (I don’t think the term “milked it” here is fair, given the true greatness of these authors’ writing. Franzen is a wizard with words. I may not have liked any of the characters in The Corrections, but every single sentence in that book sings. It’s writing at a very, very high level. Nonetheless, I agree with the commenter’s general sentiment. Such opportunities are far from available for the vast majority of good, strong, worthy writing that is produced now.)
The aloof, disconnected literary writer
The pontifications or blustery explosions of established literary writers, no matter how well-written and based on kernels of hard truth, solidify the image of such writers as aloof and disconnected from the general population, from the realities of day to day life of the general population (which is ironic given that much of their work focuses on the very human experiences of the average person.) They propagate the notion that literary writers craft their Great Work–full of gorgeous writing, searing imagery, stunning insight into the human condition, true art–from up above in an isolated ivory tower, that they are ethereal, evanescent, a collection of ideas. And therefore they risk solidifying the publishing industry’s prejudice against unknown or debut literary writers because they illustrate the lack of “platform” or “reader engagement” which these days, whether one likes it or not, are two of the things that publishers look for to drive book sales for new authors. To the publishing industry, then, “literary” becomes equivalent to “un-sellable.” At least, I clarify again, in the case of new authors.
So what are upcoming literary writers to make of all this?
Those who have come of age, at least with regard to their literary development, at a time of intense proliferation of social media, when many if not most of their friends are active on a minimum of two or three platforms. An age in which blogs offer a means to get one’s work “out there” without depending on the one-in-ten-thousand chance that their essays might end up being purchased (yes, for money) by an established publication with a wide readership. Would such writers discredit themselves by having a social media presence and (gulp!) engaging with people through blog posts, Twitter, Facebook and Google+? Are they then not truly literary? Will they never be accepted by the circle of authors who routinely review each other’s works in the New York Times Book Review? Are they wasting precious time that could be spent on our own Great Work?
Here is what I fear: that because literary writers are not on social media, the assumption will be that any writer on social media is not literary.
A friend of mine whom I met when our older children were tiny is a well-reviewed literary writer. She is lovely, smart, funny. She and I have had conversations, while the children smooshed Play Doh together, during which we laughed, saw eye to eye on many topics, generally “connected” well. She is someone who would no doubt post interesting links, have thoughtful observations and commentary to share on social media. Except she is not there. Even her web site is outdated. She has two published books. I don’t. Coincidence? It does make a girl wonder.
In this, as in many things, I am a hybrid. Several agents and editors have termed my first novel “literary.” And yet, I confess: I enjoy social media. I see where it has value. I use Facebook to maintain a connection with friends around the globe, and I use Twitter both to keep abreast of topics of interest to me, and to connect with others doing the same. For me it is about community, and finding a comfortable place in it. I find great satisfaction in conversations with strangers about topics close to my heart. It gives me energy to hap upon someone–a person out there in the great wild world, someone I would otherwise never encounter–who makes me laugh, or sees something the same way I do, or points me to a beautiful piece of writing or an artist’s photography. I like to write occasionally in a conversational style, or to write about un-literary, mundane things such as food or children, things that resonate on a simple level with many people. I like to post photographs. I embrace the term “literary” but refuse to be bound to it or by it.
Perhaps we are turning a corner, one in which there can be a happy medium, in which one can be a hybrid, a writer of literary fiction who is also known and liked as a person, who has an active online presence and whose writing has a far reach. Not that he is a shining example of an author who is well liked as a person, but Salman Rushdie’s response to Franzen’s “disappointment when a novelist who [he believes] ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter” was encouraging. Rushdie tweeted “Dear #Franzen: @MargaretAtwood @JoyceCarolOates @nycnovel @NathanEnglander @Shteyngart and I are fine with Twitter. Enjoy your ivory tower.” But I am not sure we are there yet. Rushdie names a handful of literary writers, and there are some others (Erica Jong, Sherman Alexie, Teju Cole) who engage in social media. Teju Cole, in fact, has a wonderful “small fates” series that he posts on Twitter, using the constraint of 140 characters to storytelling advantage. (Click here for a useful piece on why Twitter is good for writers, which lists several reasons without even going into the whole connect-with-your-readers bit.) However, these are established writers of literary fiction, who can afford to engage minimally with people via social media, who can have 48,000 followers but only follow 50 people. (I suspect they might just not have time for more, being busy teaching, giving keynote addresses and of course writing.)
Making art and feeling fine
What gives me hope for myself is that there appears to be a new wave of literary writers who are very active in social media. The writer Cathy Day points to it in the course of an interesting discussion on April Line’s post: “The independent literary community is BOOMING with energy, seriousness-of-purpose, and plenty of entrepreneurship–and it thrives and is sustained almost completely BECAUSE of social media. These literary writers need no support group. Over the last few years, I’ve taken my cues from them: Roxane Gay, Sean Lovelace, Dan Wickett and the folks at Dzanc Books, Matt Bell, Amelia Gray, Kyle Minor, Chad Simpson, Amber Sparks, Bryan Furuness, Chris Newgent. And Kelly Link, who runs her own press, is in this community, too. (…) The indie community is decidedly and proudly literary, often experimental, but until there’s more room for them at the tippy-top of the literary pyramid, they are happily ensconced somewhere in the middle, making art and feeling fine.”
Have you heard of any of them? Perhaps, perhaps not. They all have books out, they all write thoughtfully, they are all committed to their craft. They’re feeling fine, and I’ll take my cue from them, too. But it sure would help if some of those at the helm of the literary writing world didn’t issue disparaging statements regarding the practices of those who are still trying to make it.