Jonathan Franzen’s Scorn for Social Media Keeps Him From Making a Difference
Why attitudes about the internet make “The End of the End of the Earth” fail—and Olivia Laing’s “Crudo” succeed
I used to think Jonathan Franzen had the potential to change the world.
I found Freedom on a shelf in a hostel in Croatia. I read it on dark night buses through the countryside as I traveled Southward, and across a hemisphere, finishing it in a powerless hostel in Manila during typhoon Hiyan. I was at a low point in my psyche and with the world, the most emotionally isolated I’d felt in five years. The book alternately sent me into panic spirals, questioning the entire foundation of my relationships, and clarified beliefs about the larger world that had been obscured by years at an isolated college in the desert. I was shaken to my core, but I came out of the experience with a sharp focus on how I wanted to build relationships and relate to society.
For years, I defended Jonathan Franzen from his crew of dedicated haters on the basis of this experience. I knew he was an avowed hater of social media, a thing that I, despite many arguments to the contrary, loved. I believed there was a compromise — that one could roll their eyes at his curmudgeonly tendencies while appreciating his work on behalf of the environment, and I thought that his work could encourage people to engage seriously with the threat of climate change.
This month, Franzen publishes his first book since Purity, a collection of essays: The End of the End of the Earth. It’s a title that fits with Franzen’s grim outlook, which, unfortunately, is probably a correct one: without major and unlikely changes, the earth that we know will soon be unlivable by our current standards. Franzen’s obsessive climate knowledge combined with his sizable platform theoretically puts him in an excellent position to communicate the alarming facts of climate change. But from the beginning of The End of the End of the Earth, it’s clear that Franzen’s disdain for the modern world kneecaps his ability to respond to a collapsing society and a dying planet.
Franzen begins the book with an essay-on-essays, “The Essay in Dark Times.” We’re treated to a new iteration of the old “Webster’s dictionary defines…” trick, in which Franzen breaks down the etymology of “essay”:“something essayed — something hazarded, not definitive, not authoritative; something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience and subjectivity — we might seem to be living in an essayistic golden age.”
But Franzen does not, actually, believe we are living in an essayistic golden age. Rather, this is his segue into one of his favorite topics: his distrust of social media.
“The presumption of social media is that even the tiniest subjective micro narrative is worthy not only of private notation, as in a diary, but of sharing with other people. The U.S. president now operates on this presumption. Traditionally hard news reporting, in places like The New York Times, has softened up to allow the I, with its voice and opinions and impressions, to take the front page spotlight, and book reviewers feel less and less constrained to to discuss books with any kind of objectivity.”
I’ll put aside the fact that this is a book written in the first person. Franzen makes accurate points about how Twitter and Facebook have affected policy and privacy, but his ideas about how they’ve affected the average human narrative (in a word, badly) are not particularly well argued. His defense of the essay over the tweet is that the essay’s roots are in literature.
When I read this, I thought: “Okay. Is that it?” That is indeed his entire defense, at least as outlined in that particular essay.
He implies that sharing thoughts on social media is useless without considering its positive alternatives: that social media carries its own narrative about our time, that the collective consciousness can understand things that a person wrestling with a problem solely in their head cannot. I’m not suggesting that tweets are better than essays or books, only that ignoring them altogether can disable a person from understanding the full spectrum of human communication and collective understanding in the year of our lord 2018.
This is a peril of being so cut off from the general population — Franzen has stated in the past that social media is the thing that separates people from each other, that he loves to watch people argue on the street because it means they’re experiencing a real emotion. But cutting yourself off from social media might have a worse effect — if you have no idea how your peers outside of your intellectual group of friends are thinking, how can you hope to reach them through your art?
What if Twitter and blog posts are not meant to eradicate essays and books, but are rather an alternate way of communication? There’s value in the person micronarrative, in its immediacy and accessibility. Not everyone has the resources to read an essay every day, let alone write one or publish it in a venue that will reach an audience. Few people have the time and resources to write a book. Far more people have access and time to tweet, and this allows them to participate in a cultural conversation that would have previously been inaccessible.
The time it takes to write a book, and the nature of the publishing cycle once the book is completed, means that we don’t have many books yet that were written during this abject political nightmare.
One of the first, written in a frenzied three months, is Olivia Laing’s Crudo. It chronicles the late summer and early fall of the first year of the Trump presidency, when the instability was both fresh and high key. Crudo engages with social media in all its variety — and in doing so, highlights the ways in which Franzen falls short.
As Laing’s narrator, a loose version of a still-alive Kathy Acker, gets married late in her life, in the year 2017, she runs into constant ephemera of the Internet:
“The priest gave a sermon in Italian in which the word WhatsApp was frequently discernible.”
“[She was] examining the world by way of her scrying glass, Twitter.”
In some ways, Laing’s narrator is just as distant from the average person’s life as Franzen is: she’s an intellectual honeymooning in Europe, eating porchetta and lavender yoghurt creme and picci with pork ragu. The difference is, she chooses to engage with the discourse that Franzen disdains as background noise. Whether or not you think the flurry of chatter around politics is a useful tool, it’s hard to deny that most people are involved in the presence of politics on social media. Laing’s decision to have her narrator engage with it thus makes her a more accessible point of relation to the average reader.
With pithy aphorisms describing the strange phenomena of living through the first year of the Trump presidency, Laing captures a year that we’ll look back on with a surreal gaze: now we’re somewhat attuned to this news cycle, for better or worse, but Crudo serves as a record of the strange transition into this reality.
“Everyone talked about politics all the time but no one knew what was happening.”
That’s what last year was like, wasn’t it? She tracks the events as they happen: Kathy walks down 1st Avenue when Comey is fired, and a friend texts her: “Twitter is ABLAZE.” “We’ll remember what we were doing at the moment years from now, but we’ll know how it all panned out,” the characters say to each other over foie gras. We know now that there have been so many micro-moments of insanity that the specifics of the Comey firing are lost in the fog, but that only underscores the value of the book: a portrait of an exact moment, ways of encountering the influx of news that we may have already forgotten. Between the aphorisms and her reality effects, we have a portrait of what it was to be alive in this moment, a time capsule. Kathy puts a voice to our collective confusion on how to appropriately respond to chaos: “None of it was funny, or maybe it all was.”
To me this captures what it feels like to be alive now more than any single Franzen line.
Though The End of the End of the Earth ostensibly takes climate change as its main subject, the lens is narrow: climate change through the vantage point of Franzen’s favorite topic (say it with me: birds) and reviews, essays, and miscellany culled from the prestigious publications to which Franzen periodically contributes. His goal is obvious: he wants to elevate the public consciousness about climate change. But doing so through the discussion of one of his pet interests is less effective than using techniques that are proven to connect with today’s readers. Franzen makes hating social media part of his “brand” (and I’m sure he would bristle at my use of the word brand), but this blanket refusal to engage has blinded him to the potential uses of the various tools of social media.
At one point, somewhat facetiously, Franzen recalls how in his youth he wanted to overthrow capitalism through the application of literary theory. He appreciates the absurdity of his younger self, and ideally even the most Franzen-hating reader can laugh at this moment of self-reflection. It does serve a purpose other than humor at our idealistic youths: Franzen has always been civic-minded, with a desire to write towards change. But it seems within this volume that either he never learned how to do it effectively, or he’s demonstrating a form of writing that isn’t the ideal form for social change.
I have a friend who likes to poke mild fun at the literary community by saying, “When has a book ever changed the world?” It’s not really a question I can answer. I know books can change individual lives, and Franzen’s Freedom changed mine, but this book didn’t, and I don’t think it’s likely to for others. I think Franzen wants to change the world — it’s why I’ve loved his work — but maybe he’s gone too far from the average person’s life to retain the ability to respond to the rapidly disintegrating social order. Or perhaps he’s too jaded. You can’t really change people if you’re expressing derision for them, and for the tools they use to engage with progressivism.
I want Franzen’s climate change writing to be able to change public perception, but I don’t know if that’s possible. He deeply understands how the American political system stymies all efforts to react to climate change, and that is information that the average reader needs to know — but he’s unwilling to adapt himself to communicating that information effectively. I think he could retain his pessimism, because it’s an accurate, realistic pessimism, while working harder to connect, breaking away from tradition and working to connect with the reader rather than rote dismissiveness.
“The reason the American political system can’t deliver action isn’t simply that fossil-fuel corporations sponsor denialists and buy elections, as many progressives suppose. Even for people who accept the fact of global warming, the problem can be framed in many different ways — a crisis in global governance, a market failure, a technological challenge, a matter of social justice, and so on — each of which argues for a different expensive solution.”
He goes on to suggest that democracy perhaps is the problem — a democracy is designed to respond to the needs of its citizens, and citizens benefit from cheap gas and global trade. These long explanations are absolutely necessary, but they’re lost in a space between an academic writing style and the ability to appeal to the wider public.
When Laing confronts climate change, it’s with the same immediacy of the rest of the book: what’s happening today, in the world.
“An iceberg the size of Delaware broke off the Larsen C ice shelf and floated away. The gulf of Mexico was full of dead fish, there was a trash heap circulating in the ocean that would take a week to walk across. She tried to limit her husband’s addiction to the tumble dryer, she never flew to anywhere more than eight hours away, but even here lying on her back she was probably despoiling something. What a waste, what a crime, to wreck a world so abundantly full of different kinds of flowers. Kathy hated it, living at the end of the world, but then she couldn’t help but find it interesting, watching people herself included compulsively foul their nest.”
Perhaps books like these work together best in tandem: one to record, one to work towards change. Franzen has made change with his writing before, though distinctly in the realm of his favored birds. One of the essays, about birds in Italy, did help enact a ban on bird hunting.
In the context of a conversation with an editor, he implies that he wants to change the climate of environmental understanding over time, rather than the weather. I agree that this is a worthwhile and noble cause, but I’m not sold on the idea of him completing it. I think to do that, he’d need to get closer to the present, to real people, to their desires and modes of communication, and to quit his rote dismissiveness of social media.
Hidden within one of this longer paragraphs is this quote:
“My only hope is that we can accept the reality in time to prepare for it humanely, and my only faith is that facing it honestly, however painful this may be, is better than denying it.”
That sentence is a practical and to my knowledge accurate proclamation on how we’ll relate to the future and climate change, but it gets lost within the essay, which gets lost within the book. Dare I say, it might have reached a wider audience as a tweet.
Franzen believes that efforts towards progressivism have failed. Laing makes no pronunciation at all. Which of these is the role of art in the face of catastrophe? Though we can’t know for sure yet which path towards a responsive literature will resonate as the world barrels towards an unknown future, I believe it is one that that understands how new modes of communication can reflect upon a changing world.