Jonathan Franzen has got a big hate on against Amazon. In fact, he declares, “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.” This in the context of an essay that repeatedly harps on the Apocalypse, whether technological, ecological, or political. So when Franzen equates Bezos with the Antichrist or one of the Four Horsemen, yes, he really does mean, as in: of the Apocalypse. Literally.
And his argument is massively, objectionably wrong, in many dimensions, but here and now I’ll stick to those that concern TeleRead and its concerns. There are plenty of them.
Franzen uses his exemplary culture hero Karl Kraus, the “Great Hater,” as his big stick to beat on the modern world, and its special wrongs in the realm of writing and publishing. That might intimidate some readers who would otherwise question his arguments. After all, they haven’t read this iconic Austrian culture critic, so how would they know? Well, I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I have read far more Karl Kraus, in the original German, than I have read Jonathan Franzen. (Strictly, I’ve read no Jonathan Franzen at all, besides this article, and never felt the lack either then or now: but I’ve read a lot of Kraus.) So l’m at no risk of being browbeaten by quotes or namechecks of Kraus.
Franzen does raise some genuine and reasonable concerns about Amazon and the broader media landscape, at least seen in certain contexts. I do suspect that Amazon might be happy with a world where all writers are not only published but also marketed, rated, reviewed and validated, through it – or at least, pushed that way by the remorseless logic of its business model. I do feel that literature and culture might lose out when “literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion” – although Karl Kraus himself was a relentless, self-starting polemicist and self-publicist. And I do agree there’s a risk that incessant Facebook posting and tweeting can erode attention spans, and undermine contemplation and thought – although one of Kraus’s favorite forms, the aphorism, could fit just fine within Twitter’s 160-character limit.
But the counter-arguments and alternatives Franzen marshals in the face of Amazon gravely undermine his case. Take his focus on paid and otherwise corrupt “reader” reviews online. “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,” he declares. I’m sorry, but the paid-for Amazon pseudo-review has become the new bogey for conservative critics to carp about when they’re groping for a way to invalidate all e-publishing. Not only are most readers capable of spotting them, but Amazon and others have become more adept and busy in weeding them out, and in any case they only bear an oblique relation to what gets visible on Amazon. And like traditional publishing didn’t have them? Let alone highly paid marketing and PR departments to skew exposure in their favor, stuff competition ballots and lobby for awards, etc, etc.
There’s much more like this, and I recommend anyone who is interested to check out the original essay. But above all, Franzen appeals longingly to the days 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.” Franzen clearly must have inhabited a much cleaner, finer literary world than the one I knew and know. Because I don’t recall traditional publication acting as any kind of quality bar at all. If it was, how come the entire book remainder industry came into existence just to dispose of all the pulp that publishers produced and no one found worth reading? And rather than self-promotional decibel levels, reputations were made by the promotional departments of major publishers, who had and have far bigger amps to pump up the volume. And the only quality gauge was the level of the work that publishers chose to publish because no one got to read the rest.
Perhaps Franzen’s ultimate concern is that if no one wants, or gets, to read “the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement … who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word,” then they might not want to read Jonathan Franzen any more. Well, his screed appeared in the context of his forthcoming book, The Kraus Project, his translations of some of Kraus’s key essays, heavily annotated. He quotes from his translations at length in his polemic, and yes, they read well, albeit with a very American, Franzen-ish flavor to the idioms. But the front cover of his new book has Jonathan Franzen writ large, and Kraus’s name confined to the title: no suggestion there that Kraus is the author, and Franzen only the translator and explicator.
And the book comes from Harper Collins, one of the major defendants in the Apple ebook price fixing case, which post merger with Penguin now operates, Author Solutions, as corrupt and cynical an operation as Kraus’s arch-nemesis Moriz Benedikt’s Neue Frei Presse, ever was. Meanwhile, Kraus’s own work, including a nearly complete translation of his dramatic masterpiece “The Last Days of Mankind,” is largely available online completely for free. If this is how things go, Franzen’s apocalypse may end not with a bang, but with a whimper.