Franzen and digital technology


  • Reading Revolution
  • Thursday, 28 Nov 2013

Author Jonathan Franzen

Not all authors are ecstatic about the seismic digital changes which has swept the publishing world.

LITERARY darling Jonathan Franzen (he wrote Freedom and Corrections) hates blogs. Twitter too. He also, quite vociferously, moans that now that anyone can publish, the livelihood of authors is endangered. And apparently, he thinks Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, looks like one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Jonathan Franzen: what's wrong with the modern world, The Guardian, 13 Sept, 2013). He also famously wrote that "ebooks are damaging society", which is like blaming paper for the crimes of the world. Oh my.

Franzen has become something of a caricature among the circle of folks who read and/or write books  because of his profound complaints about technology's supposed impact on literature. It's entertaining to read his jeremiads, but far entertaining still to read the responses from his critics.

He's been accused of being a snob and elitist. Salman Rushdie, in response to Franzen's criticism of him "ought having to know better" than succumbing to the evils of Twitter tweeted: Dear #Franzen: @MargaretAtwood @JoyceCarolOates @nycnovel @NathanEnglander @Shteyngart and I are fine with Twitter. Enjoy your ivory tower. 

Now, I can write reams about Franzen's puritan ideals about writing, but what really caught my eye in his very, very long diatrabe against the evils of social media and the weak-willed authors  who succumbed its siren call is this passage of The Guardian article:

"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."

Basically, from what I can conclude, Franzen fears that readers will be lost in a deluge of self-published tomes, lost "amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews".

I posted a criticism of Franzen's article on my Facebook, and that sparked a lively discussion about the democratisation of publishing. Some didn't think it benefited readers at all, and a friend echoed Franzen's reasoning: readers will get lost in the sea of crap.

Now, being a voracious reader myself, I think I can safely say that I don't need someone to hold my hand when it comes to choosing a book. I don't need a New York Times book reviewer to tell me how lovely a book is to make up my mind. I never really 100% depended on reviews to choose my reading materials anyway. And the times I did, I sometimes regret!

Years ago, Justin Cronin's The Passage received glorious reviews from nearly every venerable review magazine out there. I dutifully bought the book, thinking I'll be in for a great time. I was more horrified by Cronin's turgid writing than the vampires within, and since then have viewed reviews with a skeptical eye.

Taste, as I told my FB pals, is subjective. What is someone's junk is someone's treasure. (There as many glowing reviews for The Passage as there are "wasted my time with this (expletive)" reviews on Amazon.) 

If anything, books that you'd want to read are easier to find now. In the old days (about less than a decade ago), you'd have to go to a bookstore to discover a new author or book. And because bookstores have finite space, you can't find all the books that are out there. And back in the days where publishing houses reigned supreme, one big publishing house could print up to 15,000 books a year! 

With indie book publishers now in the fray, their numbers are adding to the growing pile, but that's a good thing in my book: Readers will be exposed to more books, more authors and perhaps experimental and border-defying works that traditional publishers are too afraid to take on.

Again, the difference, now, is that it's actually easier to find books. Word of mouth travels fast in the digital age because of blogs, review sites such as Goodreads, and through reviews on online bookstores such as Amazon.com.

So, Franzen need not fear -- readers are rather smart creatures, they will get the books they want somehow. And if authors are savvy enough to work with the system, they will help readers find them.

What folks like Franzen need to worry about is not being left behind in this revolution. He  should embrace digital technology for what it is: a medium that is not only friendly to literature, but is set to propogate it in numbers never unseen before in history.

So there are more books now. I can't see the horror in that!

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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