Grumpyish Middle-Aged Writer

14 Mar

A few weeks ago I wrote about e-reader technology, and specifically how noted author (and Oprah-rebuffer) Jonathan Franzen really doesn’t like it, or thinks it’s Satan come to take us to hell, or something like that, because if you bring your Kindle into the tub for your Wednesday night bubble bath, you might electrocute yourself.

Now, Mr. Franzen has given his seal of disapproval to Twitter. I was curious as to what his criticism of the Bieberverse would be: that it minimizes human interaction? That it is a mass marketing tool for the Hilton/Kardashian Celebutante Matrix? Too many photos of Congressional junk? Not enough photos of Congressional junk?

Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose…it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters…it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis.  Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter “P”…It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium…People I care about are readers…particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.

Okay, let’s begin.

Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Agreed, if you follow irritating tweeters. But there are tons of funny, informative, non-penis flashing tweeters out there. Also, if you dislike Twitter so much, don’t go on Twitter. I find The Real Housewives of Uranus incredibly irritating. My solution – I don’t watch them.

It’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters. Agreed, if that is what you were trying to do. Twitter is not about Socratic debate. It’s about people making short observations of things, or linking to things that present a more detailed argument, or sending a photo of their johnson to an underage intern.

It’s as if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. No. It’s. Not. What kind of metaphor is that? Twitter is not about debate, and it is most certainly not about trying to tell a story about a giant dung beetle. It’s starting to sound like Franzen doesn’t even know what Twitter is.

It’s like writing a novel without the letter “P.”  Without a “P?” Now that’s some crazy talk. To write a novel without a “P,” the 19th most common letter in the English alphabet, is impossible, and probably highly irritating, and very semaphorish. Just ask Georges Perec, whose novel La Disparition is written without using the letter “E.” As is the English translation excerpted here.

It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium. Well, I’m glad he didn’t say it was the penultimate irresponsible medium, because then I’d be all on the edge of my seat going “wait, what’s worse?” (It should be noted that according to Foibles & Christmas’ Everyday Language for Destruction (1982), the “most despicable of all communicable media is the ‘fartogram.'”)

People I care about are readers…particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. Wow! Simply wow! Please, define a “serious reader” to me. What is the criteria for serious fiction? Is there a word length – somewhere between Twitter and Dickens maybe? How about genre fiction – mysteries, romances and sci fi? If there are boobs or robots on the cover, does that make it any less serious? If a person doesn’t read “serious fiction” is that person even considered a reader, or should we consign them to that circle of hell somewhere above the illiterates but below the critics?

And we do not like to yak about ourselves. True. Have you ever met a writer? Quietest dude in the room. Except for the guy sex-a-semaphoring in the corner.

Look, I’m not a huge fan of Twitter either. But here’s the thing – it’s just Twitter. Pick anything you don’t like in modern culture – reality TV, 24 hour news cycle, know-it-all bloggers, Facebook, streaming movies, the Grammys, Dane Cook – and you can add the phrase “it’s just…” right before it.

I think Jonathan Franzen is a very good writer. I also think he takes himself and his profundities a bit too seriously. The e-reader is not going to stop people from reading books. Twitter is not going to reduce fiction to the level of the hashtag. Being annoyed by Twitter is fine, but looking at it as if it is destroying our culture is way over the top. People still read books, and people still have good old fashioned arguments, in person, preferably whilst smoking gauloises and drinking 16-year old Scotch at the Harvard Club.

During its infancy, television was described as a “vast wasteland.” But TV has evolved to give us broadcast news (which actually used to be informative), shared cultural memories (from the totally awesome – the moon landing, to the totally not-awesome – 9/11), and created cultural touchstones such as The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and T.J. Hooker. It’s also given us Fox News, Celebrity Apprentice, and The Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer (a comedy about slavery, about time).

And Twitter has given us Ashton Kutcher, Anthony Weiner, and yes, a great deal of irritation to those of us who don’t think that what Betsy did in third period is all that interesting. But Twitter has also helped shape the Arab Spring. And while people may laugh at the video, the whole Kony sensation of this past week did do something – it made people aware of an evil that they were previously oblivious to.

Or Twitter can be used for marketing. From an independent album, to an independent film. From a self-published novel to a novel by an award-winning author.

(Please note that this post falls under the category of “semi-serious/mildly irritating” according to the Franzen Scale of Literary Merit.)


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