In a separate, nearly identical article in the Paris Review, Franzen embeds the same bold claims in the footnotes of his translation of the Karl Kraus essay “Against Heine”—an essay taken from his forthcoming The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus, publishing October 1st from FSG. It’s a neat experience to read the mirror articles against each other. Doing so reveals some of Franzen’s analytic tectonics. What is lost in the Guardian essay is the rigorous commitment he has to his source material in the translation—each extrapolation springs from his thinking on Kraus. In “Against Heine,” Kraus considers the 19th century author Heinrich Heine’s place within the Romantic and Germanic literary traditions, laboring to define what he sees as the central difference between the two: their diverging relationships to content and form. It’s an intricate, compelling argument. Kraus pits Romantic effusiveness against Germanic starkness, considering how art should relate to the visceral world. Is content central to art? Or is the presentation of an idea what makes something artistic? What’s remarkable about Franzen’s essay and the many responses is that people are actually taking these questions seriously. How often is an article that takes up the relationship between content and form legitimately considered by the mainstream? Franzen, no matter his specific opinions, showcases a singular ability to not only explain these nuanced literary concepts, but to practice them. Where the Guardian essay is tailored for mass consumption, his translation in the Paris Review is tweaked for the literary crowd. The two articles display this same concern with form and content. Franzen slides his authorial register to reach multiple audiences. It’s a breath of fresh air to see someone practicing what they preach, and Franzen does so at a remarkably high level.
Jonathan Franzen’s article in the Guardian the other week created more than a few ripples in the publishing pond, striking a tender nerve. If you haven’t read the article (or responses to it) it seems to be his unapologetic skepticism of “contemporary technoconsumerism” that has riled up the critics. Statements like this seem to have pissed off a lot of people: “the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic… pandering to people’s worst impulses.” Franzen’s brazenness (regardless if you agree with him or not) drove a stake into the publishing landscape, creating a point of reference for publications to define themselves against. Most seemed to find him an old fogie; others, a clear-eyed defender of high art in a sea of texting and Tweets. You can waste a night leafing through the responses.