Brow Beat

Twitter Rises Up, Proves Curmudgeonly Author’s Point About Twitter

Jonathan Franzen in 2009

Photo by Joe Kohen/Getty Images for The New Yorker

This morning, the writer Jami Attenberg blogged about a Jonathan Franzen reading last night at Tulane. Attenberg is a fan of Franzen’s work, and she took down a few of the things he said—about, for instance, Revolutionary Road, the Midwest, and the endings of his own books. Franzen also said some things about Twitter. Per Attenberg’s notes:

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 semaphoringThe Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.

While his thoughts about Richard Yates’s most famous novel seem to have gone basically unnoticed, these thoughts on Twitter soon lit up the Internet. Another writer, Ian Thomas Healy, created the hashtag #jonathanfranzenhates in a tweet he directed to @EvilWylie, a Twitter feed first created to satirize the powerful and aggressive literary agent Andrew Wylie. @EvilWylie took the idea and ran with it, spawning a murmuration of tweets about all the things Jonathan Franzen supposedly hates, including pie, kittens, and people who hate Jar Jar Binks.

Franzen has previously railed against Facebook and e-books, and he has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth (recall the Oprah kerfuffle of a decade ago). He also recently made waves by making Edith Wharton’s appearance a strangely prominent part of a New Yorker essay about the writer. So it’s hardly surprising that the Twitterati would pounce at the latest opportunity to poke fun at his Ludditism. And some of the jokes were pretty funny, though they tended to be ones that abandoned whatever argument might exist in favor of pure absurdism:

By and large, though, the whole little game, briefly diverting and occasionally amusing as it was, essentially proved Franzen’s point. While he had attempted to make an argument—albeit an off-the-cuff and ham-fisted one—about the negative aspects of Twitter, the partisans of the micro-blogging platform reduced that argument to a meaningless punchline.

I use Twitter, and I enjoy it, but it genuinely is hard to “cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters.” Yes, the connectivity it helps to provide seems to have aided some truly important political movements, so I would never say that it “stands for everything I oppose.” But when I see its fans tweet something like this:

I have to side with those who believe that emotions are indeed complex enough to merit 600-page novels, and cannot be fully conveyed in an emoticon. I don’t think emoticons and 600-page novels are mutually exclusive; it appears that the universe is capacious enough to include both these phenomena, and I don’t intend to choose sides. But if people start making teams, I know which one I would rather be on.