Jonathan Franzen, Horse’s Ass

“In my heart I know you’re right. But my perfectly functioning brain says you’re a horse’s ass.”
(Photo Credit: Nicolas Rapold)

In anticipation of his forthcoming book, the Internet has been having fun with Jonathan Franzen’s astonishing recent article What’s Wrong With the Modern World. I’ve done my share of piling on. It might be time to remember just what a horse’s ass he is.

The Jonathan Franzen Horse’s Ass Quiz

Which of the following is not attributable to Jonathan Franzen?

A.  After insulting the organizer of the country’s most popular book club by suggesting that she and her readers would likely not appreciate his novel’s literary qualities, he offered as an apology “I like her for liking my book.”

B.  Described a period of youthful anger as being based on his “failure to have sex with a pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn’t actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part.”

C.  During an interview, dismissed a comparison between himself and Don DeLillo by saying, “I had a preference for rounder letters—c’s and p’s. I think of him as being more into l’s and a’s and i ’s.”  Went on to say that “I kept seeing a plate of food with beet greens and liver and rutabaga—­intense purple green, intense orange, rich rusty brown—and feeling a wish to write sentences that were juicy and sensuous…the roundness of b’s and g ’s, the juiciness…” before reassuring the interviewer that “Nowadays I have almost the opposite aesthetic.”

D.  Wrote an essay pitting “the narcissistic tendencies of technology” against “actual love” in which the example of “actual love” he describes is his own love for bird watching.

The answer is below the photo of the passionate technophobe (taken from his Facebook page).

Credit: Jonathan Franzen Facebook Page

Answer: All are true except B. The Munich girl was “unbelievably pretty.”

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The Author Who Lived Dangerously: A New Model for Publishing

This is a true story:

So the author writes a 30,000-word story and finds himself in literary limbo. Even though he’s achieved some success with his previous books, magazines aren’t willing to publish a story this long. They only have so many pages, after all, and adding extra paper will be expensive to print and ship. For traditional book publishing it’s too short. Asking readers to pay hardcover prices for such a slim novel does not seem viable.

What can he do? The story is what it is. It’s the length it needs to be. The author doesn’t want his readers to get a version that’s been chopped down or padded out. The other alternative is to leave it in the drawer. The readers get nothing.

Fortunately the author has access to a new publishing and distribution model that will enable him to sell the book for the more reasonable price of $6.95. It’s a model more typically used by genre fiction (sci fi, fantasy, mysteries) but the author has no qualms about that. Who cares if it’s not the exact means preferred by the typical dispensers of literary fiction? Readers – and the integrity of the work, if you want to be high-minded about it – should come first! Besides, what’s a little stigma? He’s built his brand. He’s successful enough to welcome a little danger.

Who is this brave author, blazing trails on the publishing frontier? Jonathan Franzen, waking up and embracing changes to publishing in 2013? Scott Turow, finally recognizing that an author owes allegiance to readers and not established business models?

Nope.

The author was Saul Bellow. The year was 1988.

Mr. Franzen’s Folly

How does someone so seemingly intelligent get things so wrong all the time? Here’s Franzen’s latest:

“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?”

This is so inane I don’t know where to begin. There’s a very easy solution to the idea of Amazon being the new slush pile: don’t read those books. Read only books by authors you already know. Or wait for a recommendation from a source you trust. (They exist!) Read a sample paragraph and move on. Figure out how to find what you need.

Here’s what worries Franzen: not that he won’t be able to find what he needs, but that others won’t be forced to read his books.  It’s easier to be the Book of the Season – and to have your publisher pay to have a big table full of your books in the front of the bookstore – than it is to slug it out among the masses. He’s the equivalent of the bloviating newspaper columnist who can’t believe there are bloggers who can beat him at what he does.  That’s not to say that all bloggers are better than the columnist, any more than to say that the slush pile is full of manuscripts better than Franzen’s new novel. What it does say is that readers have more choices, and might choose to read things they like better than what’s been chosen for them by New York publishers.

That’s what bothers Franzen. The system has changed, and readers don’t have to be led by the nose any more. They’re free to find what they want. And if that means that Franzen’s eighth novel, or Philip Roth’s gazillionth, has to compete with new voices and emerging writers, so be it. The system has changed. This or that author, or this or that book, may or may not win. The process – and the readers – will.