Franzen on Form

Seth Satterlee -- September 27th, 2013
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.

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.

2 thoughts on “Franzen on Form

  1. Calvin Reid

    It’s hard to know just what Franzen expects from an evolving technoconsumerist era lurching toward whatever its ultimate form will be. Though its definitely interesting to follow his journey. His dismissals, attacks and rejections of aspects of the growth and popularity of social technology don’t seem much different than complaints during the 1950s about the growth of mass and middlebrow culture, or hatred and fear of 1960s sexual, political and cultural radicalism and now growing fears around the growth of the social-media driven techno consumerist rabble that is apparently dragging high lit culture into the muck and mire of, well, everything else that goes on when we’re not reading difficult books.

    Reading the Guardian essay Franzen seems as ticked off at being called a Luddite as he is by the impending loss of a literate audience for nuanced fiction and thoughtful discourse. Using a smartphone calculator to add figures is somehow a more damaging sign for the culture than writing them out in columns with a pencil and paper. While it’s always fascinating to watch our best minds provide thoughtful feedback on where the broad, complex roaring river of global culture seems to be heading (or lurching or stumbling or crashing and burning), Fanzen seems to have turned himself into the grandest most overbearingly literate, scolding “you’re all headed to hell in a handbasket and don’t seem to know it,” schoolmaster/author celebrity of all time. But it all seems like a sucker’s game if you’re sitting in the audience. You can’t go wrong predicting the end of the world, eventually even the wackiest prophet is probably right.

  2. T. Joseph Lawson

    At first, I saw his complaints as the squeaks and whimpers of a nostalgic old man, but after a re-read I can now see it as a man standing in a forest trying to save but one tree. Just one. We all like the idea of saving the tree, too, but only in case we have to burn it for warmth. Franzen is trying to convince us that the tree’s shade is more important, and renewable, but we’re too cold to listen.

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