The Time I Tried to Defend Jonathan Franzen to the Internet

One sunny happy day one time, I was walking down the street doin my thing (probably whistling!) when I was accosted by the internet. Or not accosted, exactly. I guess I was the one who initiated. But it was so easy to do, less decision than a part of my day, so you maybe could say it was LIKE the internet had accosted me. With its ubiquity. I was also not on a street, nor was I walking, nor have I been able to whistle ever since the accident.

Jonathan Franzen,” the internet said. “What a dick, am I right?”

“Well…” I said. “He’s got a reputation for being a crusty guy, but lots of writers don’t do well in the spotlight. But he admits the public stuff isn’t his strong suit. I chalk him up to being one of those Jonathan Safran Foer writers who I can read and enjoy but don’t necessarily want to meet.”

The internet barfed all over the place. “Him?”

“What, Foer? Well I mean he’s pretty playful, and did you read that story in the 20 under 40 issue of N-”

The internet interrupted me to barf everywhere once more.

“You okay?” I said.

He shrugged. “I’ve got a hyperbolic stomach. But back to Franzen. I guess when I say, ‘What a dick,’ I’m talking more about his books and sentences and his stupid face. I mean, Time Magazine? You know who should be on the cover of Time Magazine?”

“Who?”

“Rhett Faber.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Exactly,” the internet said. “You know why you’ve never heard of Rhett Faber? Because dick-ass pretentious dicks like Jonathan Franzen are taking up all the oxygen.”

“What’s he written? What’s a good starting place?”

“Nothing! He sucks! He-“

“No, I mean your guy. Faber.”

“Oh, I made him up. He’s like a symbol for all the unsung risk-takers out there shaking things up unnoticed.”

“Isn’t it good that a writer of fully engaged character-based kinda-challenging novels is getting all this attention? Instead of Dan Brown or Paolo Coelho or the guy who wrote The Shack?”

“No.”

“At least people are reading…”

At least they’re reading,” the internet imitated me in this dumb voice. “The Harry Potter Defense.”

“Oh, Harry Potter’s not so-“

The internet took out a gun and shot himself sixty times in the face. Then got up. “Sorry. One populist admission too many. I literally had to.”

“Here’s what I try to do with popularity,” I said. “I ignore it. If someone whose taste I respect tells me I need to check something out, I try to do it. Friend or reviewer or whoever. And then, since there’s lots to read and since I read slowly, I hold all fiction to the same high standard. If it’s good, I read it. If it isn’t, I stop reading.”

“By the way, this is shaping up to be your all-time worst short story, Durham. Didactic, blunt…”

“This isn’t a short story.”

“I see quotes. I see saids.”

This is a blog post.

“Fourth wall-breaking and writing yourself in: pretty postmodern for the president of the Nashville chapter of the Twilight Fan Club. And by postmodern, I mean it dings a couple boxes on the postmodern checklist, like that awful-awful scene at the beginning of ‘Whatever Works’ where Larry David starts talking to the camera.”

“Yes!” I said. “I hated that scene!”

“‘Wink wink, the joke is that this is a movie. But if a guy did this in real life, he’d be crazy!’ Woody Allen, making the moderately intelligent person feel smart since 1776. Where was I? No, it’s not better that they’re reading. It’s not independent thinking. The American sheeple will follow Mr. Anti-Intellectualism around anywhere…”

“The Gaddis thing?” I said. “Yeah, I’ll grant that was kind of an annoying article…”

“Thank you!”

“…but Marcus didn’t come out of it looking so good either. Corrections? Awesome. Notable American Women? Awesome. Two guys who can’t see far enough past their own great projects to appreciate how fun and accommodating the Big Tent is. The joy of the varied diet. In the end, what a boring flame war that was.”

“Sorry? While you were talking, I was thinking of how sexist it is to like Jonathan Franzen. And racist, maybe. Hey, let me asked you something,” the internet said. “You happy with your penis size?”

“What?’

“I’ve got a friend who sells these… forget it. Here’s the rule. Pay attention. If a very famous someone produces something good-not-masterpiece, you can’t praise it because they are too famous and your job as a talented-yet-unfamous person, when reading their stuff, is not to go, ‘Is this good? Am I enjoying this?’ but instead to say, ‘Is this as incredible as that one guy said? Is their fame deserved? Can I think of people who deserve their fame more?’”

“Really?”

“Yeah, absolutely,” the internet said.

“Quick story,” I said. “Summer after freshman year of college. Not an awful summer, not a great summer. I’m working full-time at coffee shop with this neurotic assistant manager who puts everybody on edge. Sometimes I get to man the espresso bar, but mostly I’m tethered to the cash register all day. But. My sister has enjoyed The Corrections so much that she bought me a copy. On my fifteen-minute breaks, too short to do much, I’m running off and reading this book in my car, getting my nineteen-year-old mind blown. Reading it and thinking, ‘Fiction can feel this real?’ and then scrubbing the toilet and restocking the sweeteners. It didn’t ‘get me into writing’ but it was sure as hell one of the rungs.”

“But would it hold up now?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I suspect it would but I don’t know.”

“Just think how much Rhett Faber would have blown your mind while reading in the car that summer.”

“If he existed?”

”If he existed.”

“Well you’ll like this then. I’ve got a Rhett Faber for you. The other day, I was at Nashville Public Library, the downtown one. The good one. And I found this book called The Illustrator by James Robison.”

But I was starting to lose the internet’s attention, I could tell. “Rick Moody is a pretentious asshole!” he said.

“Well this Robison book is really something,” I said. “Frederick Barthelme-style minimalism, which is so hard to do well. This guy nails it scene after scene. I’m almost done with it. I guess it was a big deal when it came out. It won some award. In a blurb, Donald Barthelme calls it profound.”

“I have strong opinions about Tao Lin and would like to voice them!” the internet said.

“And since I love this book and think it’s so under-appreciated,” I said, “I thought maybe you’d be interested in helping me get the word out about it.”

He didn’t hear me. He saw Billy Collins walking by and pushed him into oncoming traffic. “Sorry,” he said, big smile on his face. “You were saying something I don’t care about?”

“You’re a sadist,” I said.

“When do you want to hang out again?” he said.

“Two hours tonight,” I said, “and then again first thing in the morning.”

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37 thoughts on “The Time I Tried to Defend Jonathan Franzen to the Internet

  1. nikperring says:

    Brilliant post. Loved it. Thank you

    Nik

  2. [...] “The Time I Tried to Defend Jonathan Franzen on the Internet” [...]

  3. Gabe Durham says:

    PS – Part 2 is gonna be an actual post about The Illustrator and how I like it.

  4. Nik Perring says:

    That sounds great! Looking forward to it!

  5. Gabe Durham says:

    Thanks, Gale! You’ll be glad to know I’ve been playing some keyboard this week to fill the Urns-shaped void in my heart. Next stop, oboe.

  6. Morgan says:

    I’ve never even read Franzen, and I feel fine about that, but this was such a perfect skewering of the internet attitude.

    This was the point at which I actually teared up a little:

    “I have strong opinions about Tao Lin and would like to voice them!” the internet said.

  7. Brian B says:

    Smooth post, Gabe. You showed the internet what’s what!

  8. mike young says:

    beautiful! huzzah!

  9. Gabe Durham says:

    Hey, thanks for saying so, Morgan. Yeah, I think the flip side is that it’s important to not feel pressure to read Franzen (or anybody) and what gets some people’s gag reflexes going is when someone sees so much hype for something that she feels it is being shoved down her throat. I think reading feels way better when it’s subversive, like, “The economy expects me to be at the mall right now and instead I am in my living room reading Donald Antrim.”

  10. Gabe Durham says:

    Mike and Baldi: Hey! Thanks.

  11. Amber says:

    This is hilarious and kind of brilliant. (For the record, I also liked The Corrections.)

  12. [...] August 30, 2010 SW Leave a comment Go to comments . . . but I’m pretty sure he just kicked the entire Internet’s ass. Categories: Uncategorized Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) Leave a comment [...]

  13. Sarah says:

    So good! “It was so easy to do, less decision than a part of my day” – YES!

    And weirdly, I feel a little better about having no desire to read Franzen.

  14. Gabe Durham says:

    Sarah: Ha, good! “Do or Don’t Read Franzen Implies Controversial Figure Garb Dillinger.” Thanks for re-posting!

  15. Gabe Durham says:

    Hey Amber! Thanks for saying so.

  16. Audrey says:

    This was brilliant! Loved every word and can’t wait to send to my publishing peeps in NYC. Don’t know if they’ll love it or hate it, but I have a feeling…

  17. Gabe Durham says:

    Hey, thanks Audrey! Send away!

  18. Eh, this isn’t such an essential trait of the internet (and I know you weren’t arguing that). We’re still in a transition period. Lots of people who were the literary maven in their social circle bring that attitude to the internet. It’s easy to snipe when nobody’s listening. Friends know better than to contradict someone with strongly held literary opinions. Better to let an enemy–or at least someone who has no stake in your self-esteem–do battle. It’s sweet. Literary tradecraft improves from this process.

    And yeah, I admit I’m one of those anti-Franzen internet voices. I tried The Corrections & didn’t like it. Good thing I read the first pages while standing in line at the bookstore, or I would have bought the damn thing. Buying Jack Black’s ‘You Can’t Win’ was a much better choice for me at least.

    A guy I greatly respect (yeah, call him my Faber/Harold Biffen if you wanna) said it’s unfair to judge a novel until one’s finished it. Maybe this is why I prefer poems & short stories; my estimation of Giles Goat-Boy was the same on page one as on page 84495314432 or whatever. I feel cheated too often by novelists to spend much time on them. Maybe that’s what’s missing in your dialogue between soul and anus: the taste vectors of some readers is just alien.

    I admit, if Franzen was one of the first serious writers I read at sixteen, I would probably have enjoyed him more than say, The Idiot or On the Beach; but maybe that’s just some youthful optimism or something.

    In short, 1) Cynics might be kneejerk for a reason. 2) If they aren’t, then the internet will thresh the shit from their brains. 3) New taste vectors (the internet for example gives the academically trained writer exposure to the autodidact writer & visa versa) & the aesthetic positions behind them, will become less alien & more understandable–such as my generalized & admittedly unfair dislike of novels. 4) The internet might be a jackass, but hasn’t 9/11 taught us that we are all the internet now?

  19. Gabe Durham says:

    Hey Khakjaan, thanks for the response. Yeah, I think someone who reads a whole book has more right to an opinion as someone who hasn’t, but I also feel a lot of freedom to put down whatever isn’t doing it for me. And sometimes we can tell that early.

    Other times, I don’t know: I mentioned loving “Notable American Women,” but I loved it under really specific conditions (a class). If I’d tried to get through it without that support and structure, I might have put it down and read something more accessible.

    But like you say, short stories are great for testing a writer. When I’m feeling merciless, I’ll read the shortest story in a collection first and use that to judge whether I’m going to read any more. Because if they’re not bringing it in the very short form, chances are…

  20. Gabe Durham says:

    Re: kneejerkfulness – it’s both more and less honest than considered response, but mostly less. Honest in the way a freshman comp student’s first draft is “more raw” and less anything I’d want to read. (Often complete with unironic use of “Hasn’t 9/11 taught us…” as a shortcut to pathos)

  21. Rhett Faber says:

    This post has sent me in to an identity crisis

  22. margosita says:

    This was so funny. I loved all of it, but especially the last two lines. It’s a much needed dose of humor in this collective internet conversation.

  23. koreanish says:

    This is fucking brilliant. Thank you for making my whole day.

  24. Elizabeth McCracken says:

    Bravo, Gabe Durham, bravo.

  25. Gabe Durham says:

    Margosita, koreanish, Elizabeth: thank you!

    Rhett: Feel better.

  26. Ted says:

    That tool who wrote that Huffington Post thing about how everything sucks should be forced to read this over and over again until his eyes bleed. The same for Jodi Picoult, but she wouldn’t bother. Cuz you’re a man.

  27. Gabe Durham says:

    Ha! The 15 overrated thing? Yes, I hated that. I wrote on my friend’s fb:

    Poor little blogger’s in way over his head. Just more MFA/publishing conspiracy bs, self-congratulatory “I’m the only one telling it like it is” blah blah. And, most widespread and damaging: “there are concrete ways to separate the good from bad, and here they are.”

    Not to mention, just terribly-written. I’d slam a freshman comp student for that opening paragraph. “Not favored by bureaucracy”? What?

  28. Adam says:

    This shit made my day.

  29. Gabe Durham says:

    Adam: yes! Thank you.

  30. [...] Jonathan Franzen – Freedom – Patty is the heart of this book. She’s so complex, so fully-imagined. She stays with you. Walter and Richard too. The only times my attention wavered was when (1) the overtly political got in the way of character or (2) in the Joey sections, and even then, it’s never bad. The first 200 or so pages are rock-solid. [...]

  31. [...] Jonathan Franzen – Freedom – Patty is the heart of this book. She’s so complex, so fully-imagined. She stays with you. Walter and Richard too. The only times my attention wavered was when (1) the overtly political got in the way of character or (2) in the Joey sections, and even then, it’s never bad. The first 200 or so pages are rock-solid. [...]

  32. Trevor. says:

    Admittedly, I’ve tried reading Franzen and didn’t really find it all that great.

    Anyway, I love the post. I got quite a few laughs! ;)

  33. nope says:

    oh god, the internet

    the fucking twitter

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