Franz und Kraus

Most of what I have to say about Jonathan Franzen’s ridiculous essay in the Guardian is communicated by the image above, and by this Hilary Kelly piece on his utter deafness to irony, but I want to add one small note.

Like many people who complain about the limitations of Twitter, Franzen seems unaware that you can write more than one tweet. If you don’t get everything said in your first tweet, then you can write another one — and another after that! It’s endless, actually! Rather like writing a novel, which, as I understand it, you do one sentence at a time.

For Franzen, though, frequency of publication seems to be all-important. If you reflect on your experience in tweets it’s “yakking about yourself,” but if you save up all those thoughts until you have a two-hundred-page memoir it’s literature.

Which makes it very odd, then, that Franzen should choose Karl Kraus as his exemplar of excellence, for Kraus was a journalist whose particular writerly excellence lay in the creation of — yes — aphorisms. He produced many hundreds of these, the best of which have been collected in this book. They are not all tweet-sized, but a great many of them are — enough that I’m tempted to create a Karl Kraus Twitter account.

Kraus’s aphoristic power was particularly striking to W. H. Auden, who, with Louis Kronenberger, produced an anthology of aphorisms in which Kraus features prominently and, following Kraus’s example, became a devoted practitioner of the aphoristic art himself.

So it turns out that there’s yet another way in which Franzen is deaf to irony. The man he sets heroically against the world of tweeters might very well have been the best tweeter of them all.


Now I want to take the thoughts from my last post a little further.

Just as it is true in one sense to say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” though only at the cost of ignoring how much easier it is to kill someone if you’re holding a loaded gun than if you can’t get one, so also I don’t want my previous post to be read as simply saying “Tech doesn’t distract people, people distract themselves.” I am easily distracted, I want to be distracted, but that’s easier for me to accomplish when I have a cellphone in my hand or lots notifications enabled — thanks, Growl! — on my laptop.

Still, I really think we should spend more time thinking about what’s within rather than what’s without — the propensities themselves rather than what enables and intensifies them. Self-knowledge is good.

And along these lines I find myself thinking about a fascinating and provocative article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that says, basically, it’s time to stop studying the effects of various diets and debating about which ones are best because, frankly, there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference among them: “The long history of trials showing very modest differences suggests that additional trials comparing diets varying in macronutrient content most likely will not produce findings that would significantly advance the science of obesity.”

In short, such comparative studies are wasting the researchers’ time, because while countless studies have not told us anything conclusively about which diets are best they have told us conclusively that whatever diet you choose the thing that really matters is whether you’re able to achieve the discipline to stick with it. Therefore, “Progress in obesity management will require greater understanding of the biological, behavioral, and environmental factors associated with adherence to lifestyle changes including both diet and physical activity.”

Adherence: that’s what matters in achieving weight loss and more general increases in health. Do you actually follow your diet? Do you actually keep to your exercise regimen? And that’s also what’s most mysterious: Why are some people able to adhere to their plans while others (most of us) are not? This, the authors suggest, is what we should be studying.

The same is true for technological addictions. Some people use apps like Freedom to try to break their addictions — which is great as long as they remember to turn the app on and resist the temptation to override it. Jonathan Franzen uses superglue to render his computer un-networkable — which is great as long as he doesn’t hunt down another computer or keep a smartphone within reach. Evgeny Morozov locks his phone and wireless router in a safe so he can get some work done — which is great as long as he actually does that when he needs to.

In all these cases, what people are trying to do — and it’s an intelligent thing to attempt — is to create friction, clumsiness, a set of small obstacles that separate the temptation to seek positive reinforcement from the giving in to that temptation: time to take a couple of deep breaths, time to reconsider, time to remind themselves what they want to achieve. But in the end they still have to resist. They have to adhere to their commitments.

Which takes us back to the really key question that the JAMA article points us to: whether it’s diet or exercise or checking Twitter, why is adherence so difficult? Why do most of us adhere weakly, like Post-It notes, rather than firmly, like Jonathan Franzen’s superglued ethernet port?

I’ll have more to say about this in another post.

on spoilers

I’m not so interested in the question of how Wikipedia reveals the ending of The Mousetrap, but I am interested in how Ruth Franklin, in her eviscerating but largely accurate review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in this week’s New Republic, reveals pretty much everything that happens in the book, even quoting its powerful final sentence, which is possibly the best thing about it. (Here’s the link, though I think the full text is available only to subscribers.)

After all, Wikipedia is known for giving complete plot summaries of books and movies, so why not The Mousetrap? But when I write book reviews of novels, I try to reveal no more of the actual plot than is necessary to explain and justify the view I take of the book as a whole. This is what most reviewers do, and sometimes it can be tricky: see Aimee Bender’s recent review of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, in which Bender sweats a bit over this question but decides that she can’t talk intelligibly about the book without revealing one key element of the story that the book itself reveals fairly early on.

Why do we reviewers try to avoid spoilers? Because we understand that other readers may not share our verdicts, and insofar as possible we want those readers to be able to read in such a way as to form their own judgments. There’s something tyrannical about Franklin’s blunt revelations of what happens in Freedom, a forestalling and preventing of other readings: it would be very difficult for anyone who had read Franklin’s review to have their own strong experience of Franzen’s novel and therefore to come to a more positive conclusion about the story than Franklin comes to (or for that matter than I came to).

For a book like Infinite Jest, which lacks a conventional plot and therefore a conventional ending, this might not matter so much. It also might not matter so much if Freedom had been out for a year or two. But Franzen was clearly writing a more traditional kind of novel, and while I don’t think the book is very successful, I think his effort deserves more respect than Franklin gives it. Franklin is one of our best reviewers of fiction, I think, but in this case I don’t like what she has done.

I imagine she would defend this practice by saying that everything about everything is already revealed on the internet, and that people could have found spoilers and lengthy quotations from the last pages of Freedom on hundreds of websites. And all that is true. But many book-readers and movie-watchers still try to preserve a certain innocence in relation to works of art they anticipate encountering, and that desire deserves more respect than Franklin gives it. The amour-propre of The New Republic presumably would not allow it to insert the phrase “SPOILER ALERT,” but I think that would have been a good idea in this case.
UPDATE: Check out these letters to the Times, especially the second one. (Hat tip to my friend Garnette Cadogan.)

Jonathan Franzen and the family novel

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s commendation of Christina Stead’s novel The Man Who Loved Children I see that it is also a commendation of a particular kind of novel, the realistic family-centered novel, like his own The Corrections, from what he fears is a permanent dismissal. “Haven’t we had enough of that?” — and you know, I think we have, for now anyway. Why is Franzen so much less interesting than, say George Eliot or Trollope? — not, please note, why isn’t he as good as they are, for few novelists are, but why is he not as interesting? I am inclined to think that that kind of novel depends on a certain kind of society, a society with elaborate explicit and implicit rules, and without the necessity of characters navigating those rules, just isn’t worth writing. In our society people can be whatever they want in relation to any other people and in relation to any branch of society, or that’s what we think anyway, and so there just aren’t enough structures of resistance to make the realistic social-familial novel work. We’re all internal, or (again) think we are, and the proper media for that kind of experience are the essay, the memoir, the blog, and maybe the lyric poem. The novel isn’t dead, but the kind of novel Franzen wants to commend will not have the kind of resonance he wants it to have until society becomes more formally and thoroughly structured. Which at some point will happen.