Monday, May 30, 2011

Ignore Jonathan Franzen

I wasn’t invited to deliver any commencement addresses this year, so I have not been giving too much though to the kind of advice I would offer to newly-minted college graduates.

If I were to do so, I might consult past commencement addresses, to see what the world’s luminaries have been able to offer.

Then, I would be confronted with the fact that the most famous piece of commencement wisdom appeared in a fake speech, attributed to the late Kurt Vonnegut, but not written by him. You probably recall it: Wear sunscreen.

Practical advice it was. You cannot go wrong by wearing sunscreen. The notion that four years of college and a mountain of debt would make you apt to embrace such good advice is, at least, somewhat heartening.

Alas, you cannot go peddling someone’s old advice as your own. The first piece of new advice that popped into mind was this: Floss.

While this is also unimpeachably good advice, it feels a bit derivative, and besides, college students being college students, it is likely that their first thought would have related dental floss to a certain style of swimsuit.

There I was, stuck for a pithy piece of wisdom, when I chanced on Jonathan Franzen’s commencement address to last week’s Kenyon College graduates. Link here.

I read it. Which is more than I can say about Franzen’s fictional output. I read it with an increasing feeling of horror. Franzen had managed, as was his wont, to load up his essay with a mix of mindless banality, utter stupidity, and godawful advice.

You might consider this to be a literary achievement of the highest order. It told me that the next time I am asked to give a commencement address, I am going to say: Ignore Jonathan Franzen.

You remember Jonathan Franzen. A favorite of the New York literary elite, he wrote a book called The Corrections. Widely proclaimed to be a masterpiece-- it wasn’t-- the book was having a fairly good run... until Oprah Winfrey chose it as a book club selection.

Being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club was a gift from the gods, manna from Heaven. Sales of the book shot up from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands.

Authors, publishers, editors, and publicists would have sold their souls to have a book chosen by Oprah.

Not so Jonathan Franzen. The new star of the New York literary scene went into tantrum mode. He was not honored to be selected; he felt it was demeaning, beneath the aesthetic greatness of his novel.

If I may interrupt myself here, I will tell you that if you, as a writer, have to proclaim the greatness of your fiction, then you are saying that your novel cannot do it on its own.

Anyway, Franzen did not just believe that being selected for Oprah’s Book Club compromised his literary seriousness. He also declared that he feared that people would now mistake his book for a girly exercise, not quite up to the more manly novelists in whose company he sought to place himself.

As it happened, The Corrections is a domestic tragicomedy. It is not really a guy’s book. Domesticity, the inner workings of a family, these belong to the genre of advanced chick lit.

Perhaps Franzen thought that his efforts at jejune social commentary would raise his book to the ranks of Dickens and DeLillo. It didn’t.

As I explained in a prior post, I found the book to be boring beyond endurance. I stopped reading at the quarter pole. I will mention in passing that I used to teach English literature in college. I am not an amateur consumer of literary fiction.

Franzen was not done ranting against Oprah. Cringing in anguish,  Franzen declared that now, each book jacket was going to sport the Oprah seal of approval. Too corporatist, said Franzen, whose book was being published by an American branch of a German conglomerate.

If he wasn’t going to be a great novelist, Franzen seemed to be trying to compete for the title of the world’s most ungrateful cur. He told the world that he had never stooped to watch Oprah’s show, that the segments he had taped for it were bogus, and so on.

You cannot get very much more offensive. One must wonder what kind of world Franzen lives in, where such behavior might be considered to be clever and cool.

Anyway, Oprah was sufficiently put off to cancel Franzen’s appearance on her show.

I don’t know for a fact, but I do not imagine Franzen’s reputation suffered from his emotional incontinence. He might even have been expressing elite opinion in the New York publishing world.

However clever they are, and many of them are extremely clever, no matter how much effort they put into selling books, some editors and publishers must have rankled at the fact that the greatest marketer of books was this African-American woman on a daytime television show in Chicago.

I have no idea why people care about what a man with such an obvious character deficiency thinks about anything, but Kenyon College invited Franzen to deliver its commencement speech. The speech was reprinted in the New York Times, so it is going to receive some serious exposure.

Franzen begins with a metaphor. It’s not a very good metaphor, but, what did you expect?

He starts out by recounting his passion for a hand-held device. Which hand-held device might that be? Why, his BlackBerry. You weren’t thinking of something else, were you?

Apparently, Franzen was. Infatuated with his own cleverness he goes on to talk about how, when you use an iPhone, you can enlarge the image by spreading your fingers.

Getting the picture?

Franzen himself is trying to explain to these college graduates that you can have a love affair with these hand-held devices, and that they treat you better than real women do when you throw them out.

From there Franzen offers a reflection about Facebook.

It’s worth quoting in full, not because it is an exemplary prose passage, but because it’s so poorly reasoned. And besides, we should allow Franzen to speak for himself.

In his words: “A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb ‘to like’ from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)

“But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.”

Where to begin....

Franzen is arguing that it is bad to be likable because it makes you less lovable. He wants young people to live their lives with wild gusto, to engage in mindless passions, because being madly in love is better than getting along with other people, fitting in with the group, and living as a functioning member of a community.

After opening his talk with a slew of erotic images about his relationship  with hand-held devices, he now tells us that these gadgets are more on the side of like than lust.

Not only does Franzen’s lecture have a special place in the annals of bad advice, but he himself has certainly qualified as a charter member of the gang that couldn’t think straight.

It is simply idiotic to say that Facebook has changed the meaning of the word: like.

Franzen claims that people who want to be liked have no integrity, thus, no character, that they are narcissists,  and that they merely want to keep up appearances in order to be liked by others.

But isn’t Franzen himself a monster of self-centered narcissistic preening, a man so thoroughly lacking in integrity that he is capable of insulting and demeaning the woman who is most responsible for his financial success and security.

Narcissist, heal thyself!

Narcissism involves a failure to respect the feelings of others. Only someone as confused as Jonathan Franzen could say that a narcissist is someone who tries to like other people and to be liked by them.

Because likability simply means having friends and acquaintances, colleagues and associates, and getting along with them in order to engage in productive enterprise.

You cannot accomplish any of those without showing tact and consideration. You cannot be a narcissist and be tactful at the same time. You can do as Franzen does and be tactless and narcissistic at the same time.

People who have a close and expanding circle of friends are not desperate to be liked. Quite the contrary. A person without friends is going to feel desperate to find the kind of true passionate love that Franzen prescribes.

If you have isolated yourself from other people, if you feel like a misfit, you might follow Franzen’s bad advice and attempt to cure it all by finding true romantic love.

You will not succeed. No single person should ever be expected to compensate for your failure to sustain good relationships with a large variety of people.

A mad passionate love affair is not a substitute for a social life. If you try to make it into one, you will soon discover why the poets declared this kind of love to be a type of madness.

As Franzen explains it: “The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.

Again, this is idiotic. If you not have a goodly number of friends, people who like you but are not in love with you, then your love affairs will be desperate, frantic, and frenetic.

You can love someone without liking them, but such passions usually burn out rather quickly and violently.

If you do not have friends who you like and toward whom you make every effort to be charming, tactful, courteous, and considerate, you will, as does Franzen, find yourself saddled with the kind of bad character and emotional incontinence that turns your adventure in true love into a “hideous, screaming fight.”

Franzen rails against being a consumer-- which he somehow associates with likability-- but he fails to notice that he is recommending that these young people become desperate to the point where they allow themselves to be consumed by some mindless passion.

As you might imagine, following Franzen’s formula is not going to make you very many friends. It is also not going to get you involved in very many sustainable love affairs.

Given that failure is built into the system, Franzen needs a fallback lover. He finds one in birds: “But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.”

His heart overflows with love... who is he trying to kid? If this were not risible, it would be pathetic.

Of course, birds, like other handheld devices, do not get into screaming fights with you. If you decide to drop them, they simply fly off. They do not expect you to like them. They do not much care.

Is there a better definition of narcissism than this injunction to abandon human companionship and to fall in love with pigeons?


Anonymous said...

Sir. You like yourself quite a lot.

Minonda said...

YOU didn't like The Corrections, so it's not a masterpiece. I find that all you Franzen-haters reek of envy. You don't even have enough pride to hide your envy -- it overwhelms you that much. It's pathetic, really.

David Foster said...

Elie Wiesel was interviewed by Oprah, and did not seem to feel that associating with her was beneath him.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

As it happens, I do not in the least envy Franzen's ability to write books that are not masterpieces.

I did not say that the novel was bad. Franzen is a competent novelist. Yet, there is a difference between writing a competent book and writing a masterpiece.

Unfortunately, educated opinion seems to make up its mind that something is a masterpiece and then no one is allowed to say anything else.

Dickens wrote masterpieces. So did George Eliot, Henry James, and a whole bunch of Europeans. Franzen is simply not in their league.

Besides, I was really writing about Franzen's commencement address, and it was very, very bad.

You would do well to stick to the topic at hand and not descend into ad hominem arguments. They do not do your mind justice.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I just noticed David's comment, and clearly he is pointing at the fact that no other writers, people with the most impeccable moral character, seemed to think it was beneath them to go on Oprah's show.

People who are that concerned with manipulating their public image do not demonstrate a great deal of confidence in the quality of their own work.

Josh said...

The device-relationship metaphor was apt, considering the bulk of his essay concerned the unfortunate habit technology has of altering our expectations of human connection. Franzen does not propose that likability excludes lovability, simply that an overwhelming concern with the lesser of these two qualities can INTERFERE with our focus on the more important.

Moreover, Facebook HAS changed, to some possibly immeasurable extent, the meaning of the word "like," just as George W. Bush's administration changed the meanings of the words "patriot" and "interrogation" to some extent. Franzen's concern (which he admits is neither fresh nor wildly insightful) is that social media lessens the availability of and potential for "authentic" connection. It does. This makes it dangerous. That danger is at the heart of Franzen's point.

The essay (I've only read the NYT version) suffers when Franzen details his relationship with environmentalism, but not excessively.

Your criticisms seem born more about a dislike of Franzen (your tone betrays you on that front, especially the not-so-thinly-veiled assertion that Franzen and his publishing cohorts are racist for thinking Oprah is not a great arbiter of literary taste and merit) than legitimate or worthwhile concerns about the flaws of his message.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Josh, for your comments.

I think it's reasonably clear that Franzen was saying that being likable interferes with being lovable. He is clearly proposing a life filled with passionate love, with permanent psychodrama, and not with courtesy, civility, kindness, and tact.

His behavior toward Oprah was a lesson in raw ingratitude. He was contemptuous of her, of her audience, and even of her efforts to help him to sell books.

I did not, nor did anyone, say that the problem lay in the fact that Oprah was an arbiter of literary merit. No one ever said it. I didn't. I said that Oprah was the greatest marketer of books in history. For that she deserves come recognition and respect. Anyone who gets more and more people reading is good.... I didn't see why Franzen, in his bad boy and bad character mode, could not show her any respect.

I was willing to guess that his opinion was not unique to him. I assume that if he was willing to state it in an interview he had heard it enough or had expressed it often enough to know that it had some currency in certain circles.

It is not that easy to change the meaning of a word. I have no idea where Franzen got the idea that the word "like" had been changed by Facebook. It's not a technical term, and it is still used the way it has been used for quite some time now.

I certainly do not think that GW Bush changed the meaning of patriot.

Let's be clear about the fact that Franzen is arguing that handheld devices have made it more difficult for people to form the kinds of mad passionate attachments that he values.

However much they have somewhat modified the way human beings interact, I would consider it a good thing if they made mad passion less prevalent.

I know that many people believe that each new technology modifies human nature in some strange way. I do not think that human nature is quite as malleable as people think.

Pat Flynn said...

I agree with Josh's comments. I guess I haven't had enough therapy yet. I was able to relate to Frazen's piece on a number of levels and it was thought provoking given my personal circumstances. I think a lot of young people will have a moment when they realize how superficial technology is and that they need to confront fears and challenges to find real love. I think Franzen was just trying to prepare them for that before a number of years slip away.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the comment, Pat.

Why would young people not want to be liked by other people, to have good relationships that count as friendships. What's wrong with liking your colleagues and your neighbors.

I still find that Franzen's emphasis on finding true love offers too narrow a focus and misleads people into thinking that they can find true love by not making themselves very likable.

I think that that is bad advice.

puertas metalicas exterior said...

This won't succeed in reality, that is exactly what I think.

derek said...

It's been a while since I have been made this angry by anything I've read on the internet. Perhaps that is what you were intending and I'm just falling for it. But Stuart, the entire thrust of this article seems to be a personal attack. You overstate almost every single argument against Franzen with blunt, ignorant misinterpretations of Franzen's message. When I first read Franzen's commencement address I found it to be one of the most insightful critiques of consumeristic social media culture that I'd read. I shared it with friends, and can't count the number of great conversations it incited. Truly, "like" culture is affecting the way we love each other, and it is so immensely obvious that facebook has changed the way we perceive the word "like" that I can hardly even figure out why you were arguing against it. All languages are in continual flux, and meanings of words change in subtle ways every day. You don't think that a world-wide social media used by billions on a daily basis that incorporates the word "like" as one of its central functions would change the way we perceive the word. I'm not trying to be rude; I'm not trying to spam. But seriously, what the hell are you talking about? Franzen's one of the best voices we've got right now. I suggest you get over yourself and learn to hear it.

George Ionas said...

I'm usually wary of people accusing authors of jealousy because they disagree with an article, but because he so badly misintreprets Franzen's speech it's hard to believe that Schneiderman doesn't have some ulterior motive.

Franzen isn't saying that trying to be likeable is in and of itself a negative quality. He does however warn against moderating this desire to be liked, and describes how people who are driven solely by a desire to be liked will have unsatisfactory and unfulfilling relationships. The author says he is a life coach, but if he doesn't understand this incredibly basic observation then I believe his license should be revoked (that's a joke because a "life coach" is a made up thing that doesn't require any kind of formal training).

Furthermore, the criticism of consumerism lies in its obsessesion with likeability. The success of a product hinges on its ability to be likeable. I don't think this can be argued - a people don't like a product or aren't convinced that they might like a product enough to try it - they won't buy it and the people that invested time and money into the product will be very disappointed. Franzen reasons that consumer industry's dependence on likeability is negatively influencing our generation's ability to moderate our own innate desire to be liked by our peers.

Lastly, describing products as "ideal erotic partners" is, I believe, apt. A smartphone is sexy, sleek, responsive, and undemanding. Isn't that exactly what a narcissist would seek in a relationship?

Doctor Sequoia said...

I was cheering Franzen on through most of the address -- even though I'm a shameless technophile. Sometimes a cold shower is good for the soul.

But when he got to bird-fancying as an apotheosis, I could only think (yes it's a quip):