Why Jonathan Franzen is Wrong About E-books

Jonathan Franzen print apocalypse
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Jonathan Franzen print apocalypse
Life after the print apocalypse? (Photo Credit: A.Z. Kilani

No, Jonathan Franzen, e-books aren’t the end of longform reading or deep thought — they signal a return to the participatory nature of art, pre-Mass Media.

Once again, author Jonathan Franzen has prescribed the cure for what’s ailing society, except the cure isn’t really a cure at all. In a recent article in The Guardian (“What’s Wrong With the Modern World”), Franzen laments the end of “the quiet and permanence of the printed word,” and suggests that in the digital age, “individual to individual” communication is gone.

While “What’s Wrong With the Modern World” is an interesting and well-written essay, it exposes Franzen’s narrow view of technology. He also makes some sweeping generalizations about the effects of digital publishing and social media, claiming that it is only through print media and physical contact with other people that we can have purposeful dialogue about big ideas.

Many excellent writers have already weighed in on Franzen’s claims. For example, see “An Open Letter to Jonathan Franzen” at The Virginia Quarterly Review blog or “Hush Up, Franzen!” at Salon.com. I won’t go into details on what each of these writers covered. I have some of my own thoughts on Franzen’s view of technology. In general, I understand the sentiment, but disagree with his dismissive approach.

Don’t Blame the Medium for the Message

Franzen’s focus is on preserving a past he thinks is better than the present. For him, it’s having media (print books and real newspapers) that serve as a buffer between his protected literary world of deep thinkers and the “work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers” he claims flourish in the new literary marketplace. He blames Amazon for this, claiming that self-publishing only perpetuates more yakking.

Underlying Franzen’s argument is his misguided belief that a shift in the means of delivering art and literature (in this case, the shift to digital delivery systems) undermines the art itself. Then, Franzen assumes that because the delivery system has changed, it will only lead to instant gratification and shallowness:

As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring. And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers, because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (“Overnight free shipping!”).

El escritor norteamericano Jonathan Franzen de...
Jonathan Franzen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Does this scenario sometimes play out? Yes. But we’re in the middle of the shift; we can’t see what’s to come very easily. Just like 19th Century publishers complained the steam press, a new publishing technology, churned out low-quality stories and sensationalized prose (penny dreadfuls!), digital publishing is producing stuff (call it whatever you want) at a faster rate than we’ve ever seen before.

Even though those new technologies printed low-quality stuff, they also produced Dickens, Poe, Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne, George Eliot, Twain, Douglass…I could go on, but I won’t. You get the point.

Franzen has a narrow view of publishing history, and he seems to think digital publishing is somehow different from every other shift in the publishing process. He can only see Jeff Bezos and Amazon mass-producing the rejected slush pile of the traditional publisher. He can’t see that over time, art that will last and move beyond the moment will rise from that slush pile — perhaps even more so than before.

E-books are the New Mass-Produced Hardcover

Let me go back to the 19th Century for a minute. The steam press sped up the printing process and brought about printing on a mass scale. For the first time, both newspapers and books could be printed quickly. This industrial-level production of books left expensive bookbinding technologies behind and produced what later became our modern hardcover book.

Today, the former cheap and easy-to-print technology is the established, “traditional” technology. It’s considered “expensive” and cumbersome when compared with digital publishing. People choose hardcover books because they want to display what they read on a bookshelf. Some people choose hardcover books because they want to preserve a print culture they see as worth preserving.

History shows something that Franzen fails to acknowledge: technologies change, but distinctions between good and bad writing or art stay. Once e-books become the normal reading medium (or, perhaps they’ll be replaced by something else), there will still be good books and bad books. People will still talk about books. The way they talk about books might change, but literary culture is sticking around for a while.

So, unlike Franzen, I’m not too worried about the future. I choose to read on devices and in print. In fact, e-books have their own charms. Maybe in a generation or two we’ll read articles praising immersive, longform reading technologies like tablets and e-readers and lamenting whatever is coming next (perhaps computhors?)

Don’t Worry, Read However You’d like

Franzen also complains about online literary magazine n+1’s analogy that print is “male” and the internet is “female.” He calls this analogy denigrating, yet he fails to see the argument: the Internet is communal, participatory, and decentralized; print is hierarchical, patriarchal, and centralized. What’s printed on the Internet changes every second, but print requires a level of curation that makes decisions for its readers. Mass media, in general, is always at odds with networked publishing on social media, blogs, etc.

At the same time, the Internet allows us to read and curate our reading however we want. Yes, there is a lot of fluff out there, and yes, longform reading (as we used to know it) doesn’t get the attention it used to. Still, I’d take choice, freedom, and less control over being told by someone I don’t know what is or isn’t “good taste.” I’d also take the conversations that come of reading and writing on the Internet, even if I have to put up with the occasional troll or some company’s attempt to profit off my interaction with annoying ads.

Franzen and his like miss that point. Of course, things are going to change at a rapid pace, but that’s OK — let’s see what comes of it.

(Oh, and I should mention: even though I’m not really a Franzen fan [Freedom was meh], I did enjoy parts of The Corrections and his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Full disclosure.)

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.