I understand I’ve come to this a bit late, but a cold kept me under covers and (mostly) off computers earlier this week. Judging from your Guardian column, if you’d known about my illness you’d have shouted three cheers for my virus. I’ll try not to take that personally.
Successful people are susceptible to their own peculiar imbecilities. Among the more obnoxious of these is their habit of reconstructing the past, especially that portion of the past that served as the incubator of their success, as a better, nobler age, where the right standards were always upheld and honor always accrued to the deserving. Usually, the successful person who spouts this intends to contrast the world that suckled him from the degenerated, dissolute present, which elevates rogues and scoundrels who do nothing all day but fart in the palaces of the mighty. Those with advanced cases of the disease end up sounding a lot like Oswald Spengler:
For the Age has itself become vulgar, and most people have no idea to what extent they are themselves tainted. The bad manners of all parliaments, the general tendency to connive at a rather shady business transaction if it promises to bring in money without work, jazz and Negro dances as the spiritual outlet in all circles of society, women painted like prostitutes, the efforts of writers to win popularity by ridiculing in their novels and plays the correctness of well-bred people, and the bad taste shown even by the nobility and old princely families in throwing off every kind of social restraint and time-honoured custom: all of these go to prove that it is now the vulgar mob that gives the tone.
I’m afraid, based on your column, that you, Mr. Franzen, are an advanced case.
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. Or when good lefty professors who once resisted alienation – who criticised capitalism for its restless assault on every tradition and every community that gets in its way – start calling the corporatised internet “revolutionary.”
Yes, Mr. Franzen, I know, what chance does the world have when an eminence like Salman Rushdie mixes with the lower orders? Or when Susan Orlean retweets a joke from one of her fans? Why can’t they restrict themselves to interviews in Paris Review and features in The New York Times book section? The writers who can do that should, and the writers who can’t attract the interest of the Review or the Times should have the good taste to look up to their betters with a tasteful, quiet awe.
That’s how it was when you came up, I take it:
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. 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.
Mr. Franzen, I can certainly understand why you look back with fondness upon the era, and the means of book production associated with it, that made you a success. The bad parts of the world of your youth didn’t really hurt you much–you never had to have napalm dropped on you or fire hoses turned on you. Indeed, your era’s been fantastically good to you, and you’ve made the mistake of believing that whatever is good to you is morally, ethically, and spiritually good for everyone. (No doubt that’s why Mitt Romney feels the way he does about vulture capitalism and George W. Bush feels the way he does about…well…being a Bush.) And, since you’re getting on in years now, I’m sure you realize that denigrating the current state of publishing has the wonderful side effect of denigrating anyone who happens to achieve success in it. Your achievements, noble; the achievements of younger authors, garbage. It’s a nifty maneuver, sir.
It’s also bullshit.
The era you’re talking about in which “venerable publishers made long-term investments in writers” worked only for a very few. Most writers, whether commercial or literary, got paid the minimum advance, and had to live knowing that that pittance was the only money they were ever going to see. Their publishers might have occasionally paid for tours, which for most authors meant crappy hotel rooms, a brief interview with the local paper, and a reading in the independent bookstore to an audience of three people, eleven empty chairs, and a cat. The bookstores that carried the writer’s book might have kept it on the shelves for a week, maybe two, before tossing it to clear space for the next writer with a similar last name. And once the book failed, if the publisher took back the writer at all, it was for less money and with even less support.
Still, for the famous and celebrated, those times were fat. (Though, honestly, have times for the famous and celebrated ever been thin?) But for everyone else, it was a struggle to pay the rent, just as it is now.
I came up a bit later than you did. I sold my first story in 1992, when I was twenty years old, but the recession crippled the magazine, so the story didn’t come out for three years. I sold two more stories to that magazine in the interim, which were returned to me when it failed. I changed styles, left genre fiction for literary fiction, entered an MFA program in 2001, and graduated with a finished book and a prize in 2004.
During that period, 2001-2004, the internet was disrupting the publishing houses in ways no one quite understood. It made being a new author with a new novel and no platform a tough proposition. I spent five years hunting for an agent before I quit to work on internet projects, and it was only because one of my MFA advisers, Charles Johnson, introduced me to a guy who was starting a new press designed to take advantage of the opportunities the internet affords that my first novel, Dismantle the Sun, was published at all.
I don’t have a lot of illusions about the current state of publishing, Mr. Franzen. I just accept a setup I’m stuck in and can’t change. It’s not a paradise for writers. Like a lot of us, I’m uncomfortable with Amazon’s domination of the book business, but I don’t think that the book selling model they’ve disrupted was a national treasure either. If anything I think that the internet’s lowering of book distribution costs will improve life for both authors and readers, over the long term.
And while Twitter has its share of shouters and self promoters, authors who do best at it spend most of their time chatting with their readers, telling jokes, answering questions, and occasionally moderating debates. It’s not for everyone, but I’ll say this. I’m confident that I’m at least 37,143 times more introverted than you, Mr. Franzen, and I like putting my time in on Twitter. It’s a handy way to catch breaking news, find out how Susan Orlean’s doing with her chickens, read a couple of Patton Oswalt jokes, and throw in with a pithy line or two of my own. I even once got to educate Michael McKean (yes, the one from Spinal Tap) about the story of Albert Goering. I know of worse ways to misspend an hour.
You see, Mr. Franzen, I don’t see much use in yearning for your vanished literary Arcadia. Oh, sometimes the temptation tugs at me, making me feel a bit like Jimmy from Look Back In Anger, waxing poetic while listening to Vaughn Williams on BBC:
The old Edwardian brigade do make their brief little world look pretty tempting. All home-made cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms. Always the same picture: high summer, the long days in the sun, slim volumes of verse, crisp linen, the smell of starch. What a romantic picture. Phony too, of course. It must have rained sometimes. Still, even I regret it sometimes, phony or not. If you’ve no world of your own, it’s rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else’s. I must be getting sentimental. But I must say it’s pretty dreary living in the American Age – unless you’re an American of course. Perhaps all our children will be Americans. That’s a thought, isn’t it?
So sure, I do sometimes pause to regret the passing of the publishing model you rode to fame and money, Mr. Franzen. But then I remember the dumpsters in the alley behind the bookstore full of books with their front covers torn off. I remember the cigarette ads publishers inserted in paperbacks, the authors schlepping from town to town like Willy Loman, and I realize how ridiculous nostalgia for your era is. Your era was, in its way, every bit as cynical, shallow, and driven by hype, the quick buck, and the bottom line as my era is.
Mr. Franzen, take my advice: unclench and join the rest of us fools. You’re no better than we are.