I’ve just read an article in the Guardian by Jonathan Franzen. It’s perhaps deliberately and offputtingly long. It’s certainly overblown, and if I hadn’t discovered it’s an excerpt from one of his novels I’d have assumed he was being paid by the word; you know, feeling a need to churn out 7,000 words of grandiose drivel. Actually, Franzen is technically a good writer (obviously), but it’s just a shame he’s a muttonhead with it. I mean, the article is pretentious for sure, but like so many other writers of his ilk (think, Martin Amis) Franzen is more concerned with showing off his erudition, of flexing his mental prowess as the alpha-intellectual as he walks the line he believes he alone has marked out – just so us the pig thick and less privileged members of the “hoi polloi” can try to follow/obediently listen. Indeed, much like a conceited Amis, Franzen never attempts to suggest any kind of reasonable solutions to the problems he identifies, as he ultimately comes off as little more than an old windbag moaning about adverts, Twitter and self-publishing.
Anyway, in case you don’t have time to read 7,000 words of drivel, here’s the bit my post will argue with:
Jonathan Franzen: “In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels? As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring. And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers, because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (“Overnight free shipping!”).
But so the physical book goes on the endangered-species list, so responsible book reviewers go extinct, so independent bookstores disappear, so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion, so the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon: this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers. Plus it’s possible that the story isn’t over. Maybe the internet experiment in consumer reviewing will result in such flagrant corruption (already one-third of all online product reviews are said to be bogus) that people will clamour for the return of professional reviewers. Maybe an economically significant number of readers will come to recognise the human and cultural costs of Amazonian hegemony and go back to local bookstores or at least to barnesandnoble.com, which offers the same books and a superior e-reader, and whose owners have progressive politics. Maybe people will get as sick of Twitter as they once got sick of cigarettes. Twitter’s and Facebook’s latest models for making money still seem to me like one part pyramid scheme, one part wishful thinking, and one part repugnant panoptical surveillance.”
Agh: SO. MUCH THAT NEEDS TO BE ADRESSED.
1: Jeff Bezos is a harbinger of the apocalypse, whilst Franzen is… (your answers in the comments), but presumably, Franzen sees himself as a wizened prophet; a heroic champion of… of Jonathan Franzen?
Undoubtedly so, and by extension the “big six” publishers. Because that’s the truth of the matter. Franzen implies anyone who self-publishes (us shallow illiterate fools) are “yakkers, and tweeters and braggers”, whilst those highbrow gatekeepers of literature; those recognized by the big six publishers, are altogether noble, enlightened/poetic souls capable of summing up the human experience so eloquently only they, and they alone, deserve a platform to sell their wordy wares.
And yet what is his scathing assumption based upon?
Answer: nothing. Just sheer unadulterated arrogance, simple uncensored prejudice and snobbery.
2: In his attack of new technology (Kindle), Franzen ignores the fact thousands of books (old classics) are now free via ereaders, thus allowing an instant and accessible library for those that might otherwise not afford it. In addition he wholly ignores how a person can simply read a sample before buying an unknown author’s work.
Personally, I don’t even buy an ebook before at least Looking Inside. A feature which allows a reader to largely side step the issue of “quality control” that Franzen harks on about. If people do buy a book because it has eight-hundred 5-star reviews then they were doubtless naive to begin with – readers need to be more discerning, something that’ll doubtless come with experience of good and bad titles on Amazon.
3: Franzen said: “As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring.”
Okay, he has a point here, and sure it’d be grand not to have to sell your wares like a demented and frenzied Apprentice candidate, one grovelling at the anus of a trumped up little man in a bad wig. It’d also be rather cool for even more writers to be funded and paid a decent advance, enabling them to write full-time… AND YET this has never truly been the case. Even in the golden age of publishing, it was more often than not the preserve of a select few. A privileged elite who were either crazily talented or knew the right people. Therefore, Amazon, in a strange way, democratizes story-telling – opening the gate to the masses. Amazon, in doing this, allows everyone a sniff of the food on the table, or at least a fool’s chance to stand in the queue at a restaurant.
Of course, what Franzen wants is to deny people this opportunity altogether. To keep literature as the domain of a highly educated/technically brilliant elite whereby only they can feast and offer their worldview. In fact, he later talks about Amazonian hegemony, but the real hegemony has always been a world of literature seen predominantly through the bespectacled eyes of men like Franzen – a highly educated middle/upper class lost in the riddles of their own intellectualism. I mean admittedly they are gifted writers, but their work is offset by their own prejudice and narrow outlooks. Overall, greater selection is healthy for the literary gene pool and Amazon self-publishing opens this pool, allowing everyone to put on their trunks and dip a toe – let people/readers decide which pool they want to dive-bomb into.
4: “What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?”
I’m not sure what Franzen thinks self-publishing is, but it’s clear he’s out-of-touch. I’d argue he’s taken a cursory look into how indie authors operate – probably seen a poorly edited book published by some mad-eye; possibly about pigeons turning into werewolves. This casual viewing has subsequently allowed Franzen’s snobbery and prejudice to take a firm root. If this is the case, it is a terrible shame because in contrast to stories about pigeon werewolves, many self-publishers offer a high quality in both grammar and content. What’s more, the accursed Twitter/Facebook pages et cetera allow us “yakkers” to directly engage with our audience as we “brag” about (advertise) our ebooks.
Side note: Franzen calls this “yakking”, but I call it as it actually is: people using the means at their disposal (most self-publishers don’t have access to the editor of The Guardian newspaper).
5: Franzen also contradicts himself, having alluded to the beauty and “permanence of the printed word” as he later suggests if people are going to use ereaders they should at least use Barnes and Noble. It illustrates Franzen is ultimately less concerned with permanence, but instead with having a dig at Amazon. (I don’t know why that is, but perhaps Bezos trampled Franzen’s rose bushes as he galloped down his road on horseback?)
Anyway, I’m truly not writing this solely to defend Amazon. I’d like to think I’m savvy enough to appreciate the inherent dangers of an Amazon monopoly. I also would not like to see traditional book publishing die. And yet, with that caveat added, I just can’t help but see attacks on self-publishing, by men like Franzen, as out-of-touch, petty and self-serving. For me, what Franzen and his acolytes truly dislike is the fact that the mask has slipped, they fear the uncertainty a world of instant media offers; a world where readers and writers are now, in real time, looking at the wizard behind the curtain. Franzen therefore rallies to protect his own identity, to protect the lie that such writers as himself are “god-like” magicians weaving their wordy magic.
Of course, the lie has already been dispelled as the truth already finds itself broadcast on YouTube, trending on #Twitter, shared on Facebook by none other than the “hoi polloi” themselves. More and more people are fast realizing publishing a book isn’t (shouldn’t be) the preserve of an educated elite, but moreover can and should also be open to “them”, too. Yes, as more and more tales and stories are being shared (some good, some bad… some shocking), more voices join the clamor, skipping down the yellow brick road as everyday but talented people are starting a dialogue with… with Frank Morgan?
The thoughts of self-published author/yakker, Tom Conrad.
US: Tom Conrad books
UK: Tom Conrad books