Future Tense

Jonathan Franzen’s Lonely War on the Internet Continues

Jonathan Franzen, birder

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO

I have a confession. I was coerced into writing this post. By Twitter. If you listened to BBC Radio 4’s Today show on Thursday, you may have heard Jonathan Franzen, Cassandra of the Interwebs, unmask Twitter as a “coercive development.” The New York Daily News provides a full quote:

“Agents will now tell young writers, ‘I won’t even look at your manuscript if you don’t have 250 followers on Twitter.’ I see people who ought to be spending their time developing their craft and people who used to be able to make their living as freelance writers,” Franzen continued. “I see them making nothing, and I see them feeling absolutely coerced into this constant self-promotion.”

That sounds awful! And yet this trend—of literary agents customarily screening authors by the size of their social media followings—was news to literary agents and authors alike. (They said so on Twitter.) Via the Atlantic Wire:

Hmm. I have to wonder, first of all, why an avid birdwatcher like Franzen wouldn’t be charmed by a platform called Twitter, in which posts are referred to as tweets and the logo is a fetching sky-blue bird. (Relatedly, in the same way that some birdwatchers love to lie in wait for rose-breasted grosbeaks, there must be a subculture of Franzen-watchers who cannot help searching out and cataloguing all the novelist’s squawky diatribes about the Internet. Call it Franzenfreude.)

But perhaps the discrepancy between Franzen’s facts and the tweeters’ delusions is one of those “supernaturally destructive consequences” of “the frank monopolism of the techno-titans,” whose “infernal new machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic,” being “far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than newspapers ever were.”

Or perhaps the truth is something even darker. Perhaps we are all characters in a sprawling Jonathan Franzen novel. He is writing our reality, but he hasn’t yet gotten to the part where shadowy Internet overlords banish Henry James, Mark Twain, and the rest from the literary canon retroactively because they weren’t on Twitter. (He’d be cribbing from the part of Dante’s Inferno where the great classical poets aren’t allowed into paradise because they died before Jesus was born, but no matter. In the Jonathan Franzen book that is our life and fate, Dante merely prefigures Jonathan Franzen.)

But am I being too hard on Franzen? The novelist Elizabeth Gilbert may have put it best in a recent interview with Margo Rabb. “Isn’t it nice to have Jonathan Franzen around?” she asked. “What would we do without him? How else would you know the other way to be?”