Last week, Jonathan Franzen, the best-selling, award-winning literary novelist who’s known for the excellence of his books and his bold stands against Oprah, Facebook, e-books, iPhones, and overly generous assessments of Edith Wharton’s looks, unburdened himself of a rant. The dense, lengthy piece, excerpted from his new book, was modestly titled “What’s Wrong with the Modern World?” In it, Franzen bemoaned high-class writers like Salman Rushdie succumbing to Twitter. The literary world, Franzen lamented, rewards “yakkers” and “braggers.” Not even his peers are safe, not with prestigious writers being “conscripted” into “Jennifer Weiner-ish” self promotion. The horror! The horror! The … oh. Wait. Never mind.
I'm not entirely clear on what Weiner-ish self-promotion includes, or how it might be different than what other writers are doing—which is weird because, as its foremost practitioner, I should know. I'll start by assuming that JWSP includes being on Twitter … where I'm hardly alone. As Franzen must know, Salman Rushdie is not the only literary writer who’s succumbed. Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific tweeter, Margaret Atwood a sly one. Susan Orleans tweets about her chickens, Ruth Reichl tweets about her breakfasts, and Gary Shteyngart says that if he hits 30,000 followers, he’ll get a set of steak knives, a la Glengarry Glen Ross.
Funny stuff, true, but, as a promotional tool, Twitter’s not the greatest. Writers don’t use it to spam cyberspace with news of their new book’s publication, or great reviews, or the reading they'll be giving next week—not unless they want to find themselves with three followers, scorned by readers who follow writers for content, not commercials.
Most writers are on Twitter not because it’s a good way to sell books, but because it’s a good time. It’s like having 24/7 access to the world’s best cocktail party. You can, it’s true, use it to remind people that you exist between publications, or tell them when your new book arrives, but Twitter’s more about the conversation than the sale.
Maybe Franzen takes issue specifically with my use of Twitter, which falls into two broad categories: urging mainstream publications toward more inclusive book coverage and live-tweeting “The Bachelor.” Neither preoccupation has done much for my book sales, so neither one is truly self-promotional.
Maybe it’s personal.
In 2010, I coined the hashtag Franzenfreude. It was very bad German for a very real problem: When Franzen’s most recent novel, Freedom, was published, newspapers and magazines devoted thousands of words to the book and its author, while giving other literary books far less attention, and, in some cases, ignoring commercial works completely. Perhaps Franzen’s recent name-check was payback for when I implied that he was the face of white male literary privilege, or for pointing out that he’s the kind of writer who goes on Facebook only to announce that he won’t be doing Facebook, with the implication that he doesn't have to do Facebook, because the media does his status updates for him. Or maybe he just really, really hates “The Bachelor.”
In his essay, Franzen reserves his respect for “the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement,” the ones who “want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word.” But as long as there have been books, there have been writers who’ve preferred yakking and bragging to quiet and permanence. In the 1880s, there was Oscar Wilde on lecture tours. In the 1960s, there was Truman Capote on “What’s My Line?”
These days, there is Jeffrey Eugenides. Eugenides has appeared in book trailers alongside James Franco, he's posed in Vogue for a feature on Edith Wharton. He's shared memories of David Foster Wallace with New York Magazine, his "media diet" with Details, and his Oscar picks with the New York Times. Then, of course, there was the Times Square billboard, where Eugenides's publisher juxtaposed a shot of the author in a billowing vest underneath the word "Swoon-worthy."
Other literary writers' self-promotional efforts go even further. Acclaimed novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro writes blog posts for positivelypositive.com ("We’re here every day to help keep your Positivity Tank topped off.") Pedigreed authors like John Irving and Nicholson Baker tout their books on "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report." Gary Shteyngart wears Google Glass to his therapist's office and writes about it for The New Yorker.
All of this probably makes J-Franz want to drop-kick an old German lady's Kindle. But Franzen can hardly complain about Jeffrey Eugenides-ian self-promotion. He and Eugenides are friends. They share a publisher and the same kind of capital-L Literary reputation. Imagine the unpleasantness at The Paris Review holiday party!
The fact is, Franzen’s a category of one, a lonely voice issuing ex cathedra edicts that can only apply to himself.
Other literary writers have won prizes, or Oprah’s endorsement. Other writers have appeared on Time’s cover, or have been able to shun social media, but only Franzen’s done it all. From his privileged perch, he can pick and choose, deciding which British newspaper gets the honor of running his 5600-word condemnation of self-promotion that ends with an unironic hyperlinked invitation to buy his new book. Few—no—other writers have it so good. For the rest of us—commercial and literary alike—there is social media for fun, ads and tours for publicity, billboards and book trailers only if we're lucky.
Franzen can choose to be horrified by what he sees as shocking new developments on the literary landscape, instead of modern writers continuing the long-time practice of getting their books into readers' hands by any means necessary. But he cannot pretend that literary writers have been ensorcelled into a headlong rush for clicks and "add to carts," pure souls who've been corrupted by exposure to commercial Philistines with itchy Twitter fingers. If Franzen's being honest, he'll acknowledge that the problem isn't just writers like me—it's also writers like him.
The writer is the novelist.