Why Jonathan Franzen's social media fear indicts the entire publishing industry
The publishing industry rarely lets female authors forget that their fiction taints the genres they write in. Romance is universally denigrated. Men who write Young Adult fiction often receive baffled to offended reviews in response, and the recent influx of women writing fantasy has necessitated the creation of entirely new subgenres: urban fantasy, paranormal romance, etc.
In 2012 anthology A Book of Horrors, editor Stephen Jones argued that the new genres, the women who write them, and the “non-traditional” audiences who were buying them were “usurping the traditional horror market with an avalanche of disposable volumes.”
Jones’s basic criticism has existed for as long as women have been writing fiction. “The writer of it is, we understand, a female... we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment,” wrote a reviewer of Frankenstein in 1818. Dismissing the book, the genre, and the mode through which the woman finds a voice is an easy shortcut to take to simply dismissing women themselves.
“‘Girl genius’ is not a phrase in our language,” wrote Katha Politt in 2010. Politt was referring to criticism sparked by a debate that feels much older than its three-year-run: Jonathan Franzen vs. Women on Twitter, particularly “chick lit” author Jennifer Weiner. Through her vocal insistence that women’s voices are not a hegemony, Weiner has ironically come to represent the whole of women’s fiction in frequent debates about the genre. In Franzen’s case, she’s also become the whole of everything wrong with Twitter.
Franzen represents literature’s aspirations to be high art and the eager hope that it still means something to win a National Book Award. He also, by his own admission, represents white male literary privilege. Weiner, a Princeton graduate, represents longevity, commercial success, and the frequently overshadowed and undervalued contributions that women make to literature.
Were it not for Twitter, Franzen vs Weiner would not exist. In 2010, after Franzen’s novel Freedom won him giddy praise from critics, including a Time magazine cover, Weiner began a discussion with author Jodi Picoult about the gender politics of book reviews. During the chat she coined the hashtag #Franzenfreude.
Weiner’s complaint was not with Franzen as a writer but with Franzen as the embodiment of the privileged white male writer that critics love to laud, often at the expense of other worthy minority writers. In turn, Franzen deemed Weiner’s opinionated use of her Twitter platform to be unpalatable, the embodiment of the kind of writer/reviewer/blogger who seeks to use Twitter to promote her voice alongside the male literary establishment. Social media and book bloggers have driven the call for representation and equality within the industry. In fact, Weiner’s and Picoult’s initial conversation around Franzen in 2010 ironically sparked widespread recognition that even though women buy more books than men, the vast majority of critically recognized authors, the reviewers who laud them, and the books reviewers choose to read, are still white men.
So it should, perhaps, surprise no one that in Franzen’s view of modern society, the women, the genres, the books, and the tweets all have to go.
Last week, in an essay modestly titled “What’s Wrong with the Modern World,” Franzen took to the Guardian to issue a diatribe berating the cult of Apple, obsess over whether or not things are still cool, and depict Amazon as the literal embodiment of evil. In the middle of the screed, he references Weiner as an example of everything he finds wrong with the modern publishing industry’s emphasis on social media at the expense of literary merit and goes on to rope Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones into what he calls the “infernal machine of technoconsumerism.”
Franzen’s comments held an undertone that disturbed others. He seemed to embrace his own privilege as a kind of necessary burden that he must bear if he is to call out the mediocre masses for inducing within him “the privileged person's anger at the world for disappointing him.” Franzen notes that the work of his role model Karl Kraus maintained “an agreeable barrier to entry” that kept the less-educated mob and proletariat from being able to understand and comment on his work. Franzen argues that the Web has erased this barrier and that now the social book blogging community reigns within publishing, filling the literary sphere with the “noise” of “phony reviews.”
Franzen’s rant conflates this “yakking” mass of bloggers with “the human and cultural costs of Amazonian hegemony.” But the freedom of online speech is not remotely comparable to Amazon’s unfettered monopoly and stranglehold over the publishing industry. Struggling new writers, no matter how much self-promotion they do, are inevitably suffering from fewer outlets in which to make their voices heard—a phenomenon that renders Franzen’s elite status especially choice.
Franzen could have used his platform to discuss the actual evils of Amazon’s cutthroat business practices. Instead, he places the failure of modern publishing, not on its alienating lack of diversity and its inability to fight the government-backed power of Amazon but on the ill-gotten gains of writers who don’t agree that Twitter is “dumb.”
Franzen doesn’t just conflate social media with the publishing apocalypse. He does it in a gendered way, chastising male author Salman Rushdie for “succumbing” to Twitter, while failing to mention any of the many notable female authors who’ve similarly adapted to the digital age, almost as if their failure to resist the social media machine was inevitable. He also scolds literary magazine n+1 for deciding that the nature of the Internet is “female,” although throughout his essay he equates being angry at social media with being angry at women: at women who won’t sleep with him, women who are poor, women who start important Twitter conversations about whether Franzen is part of a publishing boys’ club.
In the New Statesman Tuesday, Weiner responded to Franzen’s rant by noting that several undeniable members of Franzen’s pre-millennial literary elite, like Margaret Atwood and Franzen’s friend Jeffrey Eugenides have all willfully embraced the promotional aspects of modern publishing. More to the point, a quick glance at Twitter’s literary titans reveals that the voices of male authors on Twitter dwarf those of women. Neither literary giant Atwood nor Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James can muster a million followers between them, and their numbers are by far the largest of the crop of notable female authors with Twitter followings. Meanwhile, Rushdie’s Twitter platform exceeds theirs, and John Green and Neil Gaiman both have nearly 2 million followers. Weiner, whose Twitter has only 75,000 followers, recently updated it to explain that she was currently “specializing in Jennifer Weiner-ish self promotion.”
She also noted that when she submitted her response to the New York Times, they turned it down because they didn’t want to get involved in a personal “feud,” though Weiner felt her piece was more about Franzen vs. Twitter than Franzen vs. Weiner. Alas, Weiner’s de facto status as spokesperson for All Women Writing Fiction seems to have muddied the issue; when the New Republic published her article, they similarly conflated Franzen’s take on Twitter with a take on Weiner.
By becoming an accidental representative of women’s fiction, Weiner has made herself the target of Franzen’s ideas on modernity. So while Franzen rants about Internet noise, Weiner has become known as much for her Twitter-based “feuds” with other writers as for her writing.
And all the while, a fake Twitter account for the vest Eugenides wore during his media-happy photoshoots still has has more Twitter followers than the real Twitter account of one of this year’s National Book Award finalists.
Photo via universidadcatolica/Flickr