WRITING ON THE ETHER: What’s Wrong With Franzen?

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.com, The Metadata Handbook, Thad McIlroy, Renée Register, Jonathan Franzen, Karl Kraus

Table of Contents

  1. Fish in a Barrel
  2. Firing the Retro-Rockets
  3. “Buy My Book!”

 


The Metadata HandbookThe Metadata Handbook

A Book Publisher’s Guide to Creating and Distributing Metadata for Print and Ebooks, by Renée Register and Thad McIlroy

This is a one-stop guide for publishers—large, small, and independent. An essential resource for 21st century publishing, The Metadata Handbook covers:

  • How metadata for books operates in the real world
  • Metadata fundamentals and the history of metadata for books
  • Metadata standards and best practices
  • Essential metadata elements for print and ebooks
  • The basics of ONIX for Books, including ONIX 3.0
  • The basics of EPUB 3 metadata options

Available in paperback, PDF, EPUB, and Kindle formats at www.themetadatahandbook.com


Fish in a Barrel

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.com, The Metadata Handbook, Thad McIlroy, Renée Register, Jonathan Franzen, Karl Kraus

Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen “warns ebooks are corroding values” (The Guardian, Alison Flood) and says “ebooks are damaging society” (The TelegraphAnita Singh).

And now you can follow this link to pre-order his new October 1 release, The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus—as an ebook.

The author somehow is able find it in his heart to accept your money for that oh-so-impermanent format he has criticized so profusely in the past, the ebook.

And that ebook is purveyed to us from the very mountaintop of the “contemporary technoconsumerism” he newly decries: Amazon.

Let this be a lesson to us all. Even after achieving highest literary honors, you can still lose it when it’s time to say…”buy my book!”

The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen’s latest in a long line of tirades against all things “modern” is headlined Jonathan Franzen: What’s Wrong With the Modern World.

Did you ask Franzen to tell us what’s wrong the the modern world?

I didn’t, either.

No, the chutzpah native to the creature, it seems, is such that he finds it necessary from time to time to deliver himself of a few incendiary comments about how we’re all going to hell in a Hustle bag.

This time, in his essay at The Guardian,  he wants to tell us that Viennese fin-de-siècle essayist Karl Kraus has “a lot to say to us in our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment.”

“Technology-crazed.” Crazed. Did I mention melodrama?


I’ll just offer you a few quick excerpts here, leaving you to decide whether to subject yourself to the full and fulsome experience of a complete read.

Having critiqued the inherent mistakes of the old Mac-vs.-PC commercials in terms of how “characters in novels need to have actual desires,” Franzen then arrives at this:

One of the worst things about the Internet is that it tempts everyone to be a sophisticate – to take positions on what is hip and to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the positions that everyone else is taking.

19 September 2013 Metadata Handbook excerpt 1Funny, I find the Net to be crawling with something other than sophisticates. I must be hanging with the wrong crowd-sorcerers.

Having told us that Kraus “could sound like an elitist, [but]  he wasn’t in the business of denigrating the masses or lowbrow culture,” Franzen then writes:

It’s not clear that Kraus’s shrill, ex cathedra denunciations were the most effective way to change hearts and minds. But I confess to feeling some version of his disappointment when a novelist who I believe ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter. Or when a politically committed print magazine that I respect, N+1, denigrates print magazines as terminally “male,” celebrates the internet as “female,” and somehow neglects to consider the internet’s accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers.

Those were Kraus’ “shrill, ex cathedra denunciations,” right?

Before Rushdie “succumbed” to Twitter, right? Succumbed.

So Franzen is ready to take on the Krausian burden. Stand by for more shrill, ex cathedra denunciations. Here’s one, or three, or fifteen:

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?

Consider that “what Amazon wants” business. Franzen now knows what Amazon “wants?” He’s what, in the boardroom? In Bezos’ office closet? 


He’s not only biting the hand that feeds him (and many more authors and their readers) but he’s also chewing the legs off the market that supports him. He sells his books on this Amazon-of-the-Apocalypse, the corporate desires of which he claims to know. And he sells them as ebooks, not just holy print.

Speaking of which, he writes:

So the physical book goes on the endangered-species list, so responsible book reviewers go extinct, so independent bookstores disappear, so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion, so the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon: this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers.

Jennifer Weiner Twiiter bio Jennifer Weiner-ish self-promotionFor the record, the above-mentioned Jennifer Weinerish One goes right for it in What Jonathan Franzen Misunderstands About Me at The New Republic:

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…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.

And “shrill, ex cathedra denunciations,” did Franzen say?

While torching for print, he’s burning up a lot of people’s patience, and with a tone that gets awfully close to “poor me”:

Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing — that’s reassuring.

Back to Table of Contents

Firing the Retro-Rockets

Franzen boomerangs back to us right at the end of this diatribe, but not before getting to thermonuclear warheads. He calls the Nook “a superior e-reader” and mentions “Chinese-made ultra-low-cost porch furniture at Home Depot.” As I said, it’s a long piece.

19 September 2013 Metadata Handbook excerpt 2And in a sudden realization, perhaps, that the ground is coming up awfully fast below him, Franzen writes:

Whether I like it or not, the world being created by the infernal machine of technoconsumerism is still a world made by human beings.

Ah. And? And now we read what I suppose I’d like to have seen him lead with. Ahead of the shrill, ex-cathedra denunciations, not after:

Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal. I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form[ed] an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending. But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments, and the Amazon basin was intact, and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows.

That sets up what I think is the most important couple of lines in his 5,600-word essay. Franzen is still talking about the world he was born into in 1959:

It wasn’t necessarily a better world (we had bomb shelters and segregated swimming pools), but it was the only world I knew to try to find my place in as a writer.

Feel him coming down?

And so today, 53 years later, Kraus’s signal complaint – that the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past – can’t help ringing true to me.

19 September 2013 Metadata Handbook excerpt 3Now, at last, more feeling than fight, anxiety over accusation:

Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for personal apocalypse…As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity.

Okay. This we get.

I’m reminded of Paola Antonelli’s exhibition at MoMA, Design and the Elastic Mind—how much sheer change, she asked, can we embrace? Are our minds stretchy enough to keep accommodating what Franzen now is calling this “accelerating rate of change?”

This was also one of the key inquiries of Anne Bogart’s poignant evocation of Marshall McLuhan in The Medium. (Bogart’s A Rite with Bill T. Jones has its New York premiere, October 3-5, at BAM.)

So…what has happened here? What’s wrong with the not-at-all-modern, 54-year-old Jonathan Franzen?

Back to Table of Contents

“Buy My Book!”

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, author platform, blog, blogging, journalism, TOC, #TOCcon, Author (R)evolution Day, #ARDay, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, Foyles, #FutureFoyles, London Book Fair, #LBF13

Dennis Abrams

The Kraus Project is essays, in the original German and in Franzen’s translations, with Franzen’s commentary in notes. As a Publishers Weekly review has it, “Several footnotes extend for pages, turning Kraus into background music for scholarly speculation and ruminations”  from Franzen.

 

Publishing Perspectives’ Dennis Abrams has excerpted some of Franzen’s Guardian essay in Franzen Says Amazon Presages the Apocalypse

 

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.com, The Metadata Handbook, Thad McIlroy, Renée Register, Jonathan Franzen, Karl Kraus

Edward Nawotka

In a comment, Edward Nawotka, Publishing Perspectives’ editor in chief, writes:

Kraus was writing in the midst of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which looked invincible at the time, but came to a demise during his lifetime. Franzen would do well to consider this when talking about Amazon. Empires come and go, come and go — and not infrequently the ones that look unstoppable fall the fastest.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.com, The Metadata Handbook, Thad McIlroy, Renée Register, Jonathan Franzen, Karl Kraus

Jennifer Schuessler

Jennifer Schuessler at the New York Times, in Jonathan Franzen Assails the Internet (Again), writes:

Jonathan Franzen, the sometime critic of Oprah Winfrey, Facebook likes, non-birdwatchers and overly difficult novels, is at it again.

She rather charitably refers to Franzen’s aria as a “curtain raiser” on the new book and writes:

Mr. Franzen may despise the ephemeral social-media slipstream that conveniently blasted news of his book out into the world. But how much is timeless dead-tree literary discourse really paying attention to him or other literary novelists of his generation?

Less kind, but maybe more fun: the HusdonHongo.com workup of a little test for you. You’re presented with a series of comments and asked to decide whether each is something said by Franzen or “randomly chosen YouTube comments condemning saggy pants.”

Frazen Gripe vs. Saggy Pants from HudsonHongo.com

 

For example, you’re asked to choose whether Franzen or a YouTube comment about saggy pants gave us this: “(The Internet/Pants sagging) is the antithesis of the imagination. It leaves nothing to the imagination.”

That’s how crazily Franzen has nipped on over to the cliff’s edge of public opinion. Is he unaware that he’s on the verge of making himself a laughingstock on some issues with which we could use some serious help? He’s the one in need of help now.

The pile-on of criticism, by those whose pants are sagging and otherwise, is probably earned. Those shrill, ex cathedra denunciations in the essay, you know; they may not work as well today as they did for Kraus in Vienna.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.com, The Metadata Handbook, Thad McIlroy, Renée Register, Jonathan Franzen, Karl Kraus

Maria Bustillos

A bit of a rescue effort, and a good-hearted one at that, lies in the writings of Maria Bustillos at the New Yorker in Jonathan Franzen, Come Join Us! 

She writes:

Franzen is a nostalgist, and he wants to preserve the traditional values and practices of the book world at all costs, and can therefore come off sounding pompous about “high culture.” Plus, he is, as he admits in the essay, a little off when he characterizes certain matters of contemporary coolness.

Bustillos can’t stop running into the obvious contradictions, either. She concedes, “Comparing Windows Vista to Vienna before the First World War is something of a stretch.” And: “He may be a dork, but he’s absolutely and preëminently and kind of magnificently our dork.” (To which I want to say, “Speak for your own dorks,” Maria, but I respect what she’s trying to do.)

Somehow, she manages to say that Franzen is off-track, and that even his writings are “endearingly weird,” but that he’s “the only American novelist of my generation (that I know of) who writes with absolute clarity, conviction, and meaning about the world I live in every day.” We may not all live in quite so “endearingly weird” a world.

19 September 2013 Metadata Handbook excerpt 4I’m still with Bustillos, however, firmly. For one thing, she makes an excellent point being joked about online by many: Franzen isn’t hearing this debate.

I believe that Franzen gets into these scraps because his detractors haven’t the slightest fear that he will reply. He won’t: he has no Twitter handle, no Tumblr, no online persona at all.

And most importantly, she ends by calling on Franzen to jump onto that ivory elevator and head downstairs. Bustillos wants him to “come online and talk with everybody.” She writes:

Yes, there are many bad things about the Internet, but serious criticism is alive and well there…There are thousands upon thousands of passionate constituencies online—political, social, literary—many of them eager for the participation of as many principled, serious artists as care to come out and talk. Come on in, Mr. Franzen! The water’s fine.

Holding your breath? I’ll bet Bustillos isn’t either. But it’s a generous gesture she’s making and it’s the stance that wears best and most healthily on any good community—brushed aside by Franzen or not. I’ve stopped to ask myself whether I’d be comfortable if Franzen read this Ether: yes. Bezos is said to have kept an empty chair at the table in some meetings to represent the all-important customer. We can do the same for Franzen. Mindfulness is not a bad thing here.

And can we love this author again? After yet another time-eating, noisy blowout about his attitude? It’s up to each reader.

Still a talented fellow, no question. But Franzen has become high-maintenance in a way that’s damaging his own reputation.

If anything, we end up looking at an example of what appears to be a disconnected author, at a time in which we stress an author’s reader connection and development of community engagement.

This is a writer who’s afraid, you’ll remember, that “the Big Six publishers [will] get killed and devoured by Amazon.”

Rather than reading Franzen riffing on Kraus?—I’d love to read Kraus’ take on Franzen.

And how about you? The gracious Bustillos writes, “The whole thing struck me as eminently silly in the first place.” Is the Franzen fracas simply silly? Or is it more serious? What does it tell us about writing today?

Back to Table of Contents


The Metadata HandbookThe Metadata Handbook

A Book Publisher’s Guide to Creating and Distributing Metadata for Print and Ebooks, by Renée Register and Thad McIlroy

This is a one-stop guide for publishers—large, small, and independent. An essential resource for 21st century publishing, The Metadata Handbook covers:

  • How metadata for books operates in the real world
  • Metadata fundamentals and the history of metadata for books
  • Metadata standards and best practices
  • Essential metadata elements for print and ebooks
  • The basics of ONIX for Books, including ONIX 3.0
  • The basics of EPUB 3 metadata options

Available in paperback, PDF, EPUB, and Kindle formats at www.themetadatahandbook.com


Main image: iStockphoto – erzetic | In Karl Kraus’ Vienna

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Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

View posts by Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.

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