Bestselling, award-winning, highly discussed fiction author Jonathan Franzen has a new book coming out in a few weeks. It’s a non-fiction collection of the essays of a German satirist, which Franzen edited and wrote essays and annotations on for the book. And so he did a piece for Britain’s The Guardian, run online, about the satirist’s views of turn of the century technology, and how Franzen connects it to all he thinks is wrong with current Internet culture, specifically horrible Amazon, amateur book reviews, people taking pictures with smartphones, Facebook and Twitter, and whether we’re becoming in a way less human and stupider from modern technology and media.
The piece is such a mess of contradictory illogic and false claims against Internet book promotion — while he promotes a book on the Internet — that I could not resist going through the parts of the article dealing with our world, piece by piece. (If I’m going to be snarky, I might as well hit a big easy target.) It’s also useful for discussing various issues in book publishing and commonly held misconceptions, many of which Franzen espouses. So here are the bits that are about our modern times with my commentary:
In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction,
Dude, you’re an international bestseller. Gain a little awareness, here. It’s a global market now.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.
That would be the Amazon that has promoted the hay out of Franzen and helped make him a huge international bestseller. (Amazon is also not confined to the U.S.)
Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself,
They really don’t. Yes, they promoted the stuffing out of their self-publishing program – because self-pub authors and their families would then buy stuff from Amazon, and to help maintain their dominance in the e-book market at the beginning. And yes, they started a publishing arm to use as leverage with the big U.S. publishers. It’s their second publishing house – the first one petered out because Amazon really doesn’t care about book publishing and internationally has almost no publishing presence at all. Amazon cares about multi-media – movies (they have a studio now,) web videos, music, apps, data streaming and mobile devices – the tech world, not the book world. Bezos only decided to have Amazon sell print books initially instead of other products because the industry had the consignment return system – a less risky product, and Amazon’s only interest in e-books was to launch the Kindle.
with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books,
Franzen seems to be under the mistaken impression that large gobs of people read Amazon’s book reviews for more than entertainment purposes. Or that most book buyers read reviews at all and use them to choose books. As we know – and he should know – most people buy based on recommendations from friends and family, followed by book browsing. Reviews matter mostly in two areas – “serious” fiction that Franzen publishes, where reviews don’t impact sales directly that much but are status symbols in top publications that help get major, lucrative award nominations and may also be used by reading book clubs, and genre fiction where categories have their own genre media that dedicated readers may actually pay attention to in regards to reliable reviewers. Neither of those involve Amazon’s book reviews, nor are in competition with them. He may also be alluding to Amazon recently buying Goodreads, which people feared meant that Amazon would replace Goodreads’ consumer reviews – which are just like Amazon’s consumer reviews – with Amazon consumer reviews. In actuality, Amazon bought Goodreads for its extensive marketing data and because of its advertising revenue, to which they freely admitted.]
and with authors responsible for their own promotion.
Authors have always been responsible for their own promotion, including often getting reviews. Franzen was taken very good care of by Farrar, Straus & Giroux with his debut novel, which was given a big push, and when The Corrections became a bestseller and then Oprah picked it for her club and he won the National Book Award, most PR coordination was handled by FSG from thereon in, as well as possibly hired publicists. So maybe it just hasn’t occurred to the man that most authors get minimal promotional help and always have. Or more likely, that fact simply doesn’t fit the message he wants to make.
The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world.
Franzen believes that fiction selling is or will become a popularity contest of authors’ personalities and ads (including paid reviews.) In reality, ads for fiction (and reviews) have very little effect on sales except for those authors like Franzen who are already bestsellers. Franzen is postulating that the Net will so change culture in the future that people will buy because authors talk to them. In hundreds of years, that did not occur. The Web has been around for twenty years and authors on it; it still hasn’t occurred. If it did, Franzen would be in good shape, since he regularly yaks online in articles and interviews – usually complaining about others being online and how this means doom.
But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word,
Some of them will be huge bestsellers, like Franzen. It is interesting that Franzen regards talking as a shallow form of social engagement, but talking at people in print – which is often transitory not permanent, like say newspaper book reviews — is automatically in depth. Franzen sounds nothing so much here as like a man whose publisher has been bugging him to do more promotion online.
and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control
Publishers have never assured any quality control and Franzen knows that. Publishers have always put out a range of books and the selection process did not involve checking everything with a specially appointed committee in academia. (And even if it had, that still wouldn’t promise quality.) Franzen here is pushing the myth that because many self-published works are badly edited, they will overrun the intellectual wealth of the nation. In reality, self-published works have had little impact on partner-published books and may contain as many gems as any other sector of fiction. Franzen is merely repeating what used to be said of mass market paperbacks back in the mid-20th century – that it would wipe out the hardcover, which it did not.
and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?
Right, because Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle had nothing to do with promotion. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote for the movies for cash and to promote himself, but that doesn’t count. Serious fiction writers who were journalists and milked every piece they wrote for novel promotion – the old method of author promotion – was somehow less noisy. Franzen himself went on Oprah to smooth feathers when he slammed her for picking his book. Norman Mailer’s lecture tours, prominent award-winning authors going on game shows back in the sixties, etc. all of that had nothing to do with self-promotional talking apparently. All of which, Franzen is right, really did have little to do with their literary reputations, and neither does talking or publishing on the Net. But it didn’t hurt either, which is why Franzen is yakking it up online to promote his new non-fiction book, among other things.
As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews,
Again, Franzen floats the idea that readers are guided in their buying choices by book reviews, which we know from countless surveys of readers to be incorrect, and that now they are instead being guided by phony consumer book reviews and authors blogging, which countless surveys of readers show to be incorrect. Word of mouth from family and friends and the occasional handselling of store clerks — which is consistently how readers most pick books — never rears its head here. The Internet, with all its “noise” has actually helped people find books at all, because it makes them visible for people to find, whereas before books were disappearing from more and more physical spaces and conversations. Franzen apparently resents that partner published titles used to have Amazon’s screens and bestseller lists all to themselves and now they have to share them with self-published titles sometimes, but again, those self-pubbed books have not hurt other books – they’ve brought in new readers who browse, same as always.
to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring.
First off, I think it unlikely there are many places where Amazon warehouses, which are not particularly numerous, are the only business hiring. (Although I do agree that Amazon treats their employees poorly, a common problem with large corporations.) Second, writers had job security before? Since when? Writers are not employees of publishers or vendors and writers often have fewer “prospect” skills than computer savvy employees. They certainly, despite mental labor, are nowhere near in their laboring to manual workers. Most writers make little money and have day jobs. A writer struggling in financial hardship – as Franzen did himself – is not a new condition.
And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers,
Actually, book prices keep going up, the wholesale market shrank in the 1990’s which reduced access to cheap books, and booksellers have been squeezed more by store rent and mortgage hikes in the real estate market than sales issues. Amazon may have wanted to keep e-book prices low, losing money to establish the Kindle, but they were just as happy to let those prices bounce back up after negotiations, where they have stayed, and e-book sales are leveling off (though they are bringing in more profit because e-book prices are higher.) Meanwhile, print sales have bounced around, sometimes going up or slightly down, but not as bad as during the recession. Book profits were up for most of the big publishers in the first half of 2013. Franzen should know all this, or at least have bothered to do a search about it, but the facts again don’t fit his narrative.
because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (“Overnight free shipping!”).
When you are not making much money and your life is hard, what you want is irrelevant. You definitely hope you can find some free entertainment, since your money has to go to things like food. When you aren’t making much money, you have no or little access to the Web, you don’t buy books online or elsewhere, and you learn to live without gratification, much less instant gratification. Who Franzen is really talking about are the people who do have money – the middle class and higher who can afford to get on the Web, order products, and steal illegal streaming. These people don’t read Amazon consumer book reviews or newspaper book reviews most of the time. And even they don’t get free overnight shipping. If you want something shipped overnight, you have to pay for that, quite often a lot. You only get the shipping free if you buy a lot and it comes by regular shipping, which can take anywhere from three days to weeks. Franzen seems to feel the working class are rudderless, easily manipulated folk who – what? — mooch off the government to get on the Web, order books instead of more popular products from Amazon and somehow get magic shipping?
But so the physical book goes on the endangered-species list,
Print sales had several upturn cycles, make up seventy-five percent of the market and booksellers were quite happy at this year’s Book Expo trade show.
so responsible book reviewers go extinct
Like the responsible book reviewer at the New York Times whom Franzen has called a “national disgrace”? Actually, professional book reviewers are migrating to the Web and there are actually now more new journalist positions after several years of drought.
so independent bookstores disappear,
Numerous independent bookstores are having a renaissance with increased sales and growth in their communities. It’s the big chains that are falling apart.
so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion,
Oh, this is a good one. Jennifer Weiner’s first books were considered to be serious literary fiction. But as women’s fiction had a flush of growth, they were all tagged with the derogatory label of “chick-lit” and a lot of interesting female novelists who sold well were declared “commercial” while their male bestselling counterparts were declared weighty sophisticates. Weiner has in recent years been speaking out in the press, mostly on behalf of other female authors, that the book review sections and prominent publications were ignoring female authors, not using female reviewers often enough, and consistently insisting that women’s fiction wasn’t serious enough and was too domestically centered, while elevating male fiction about the same subject matter. She used the review and media attention Franzen was getting on his newest novel as an example. Franzen actually agreed with her that there was a bias in the press, but clearly the whole thing has rankled and so here he is digging at Weiner for being a supposedly commercial, self-promoting annoyance. Again, it sounds like Franzen’s publisher is bugging him to do more promotion and he considers this to be the fault of technology.
so the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon: this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers.
The Big Six are now the Big Five, as the biggest one of them is now merging with the second biggest one of them. Clearly, imminent death is on the horizon. Or not. That the Big Five are so big is in fact a problem for authors as it means fewer publishers to sell licenses to in competition with each other as their various imprints aren’t allowed to compete against each other in sales auctions. And since all the Big Five are owned by non-U.S. companies who are big global media entities, that can mean fewer options publishing abroad as well. In that sense, self-publishing as an option actually gives authors more leverage in negotiating with publishers, especially the bestsellers like Franzen, and having Amazon as yet another publishing option may help out.
Amazon has made no move to buy up the inventory of the Big Five or drive them off. Their tiny list did very poorly until recently when they have one reported hit, the three books by German author Oliver Potzsch hit one million total sales all formats. But Amazon didn’t first publish Potzsch; Ullstein in Germany did and they still reap sales benefits. And Houghton Mifflin’s Mariner Books, a major imprint, is publishing the trade paperback U.S. edition that is making up a good number of those sales, licensed from Amazon. It’s more likely that Amazon is going to be just another part of the publishing landscape, if they stick with it, than swallowing up other corporations. Franzen’s physical apocalypse fantasy is very much in line with what self-publishing vendors like to push to try and get more business – the idea that “traditional” publishing will soon be dead. The fact that no data backs that idea up or the indications that the opposite is true hasn’t stopped people from mouthing it. The fact that similar predictions of book publisher death, regarding competition from the gaming industry, the decline of schools before the rise of YA fiction, the existence of the mass market paperback, etc., have all been proven wrong is conveniently forgotten.
Plus it’s possible that the story isn’t over. 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.
Note here that Franzen doesn’t go with one third of all consumer book reviews are said to be bogus, but instead “product” reviews, as in everything under the sun. And where he got such a made-up stat is anybody’s guess. The Internet isn’t really experimenting with consumer reviewing – consumer reviews have always been a factor in selling products (it’s called “customer testimonials,” Franzen.) The Internet just makes it easier. But when it comes to fiction, again, people seldom if ever check reviews for that information. They instead get the recommendations from folks they trust – friends with similar tastes to their own. The decline in book reviewers isn’t due to consumer reviews on the Internet; it’s due to the collapse of the consignment wholesale market including newsstands and the ease of Internet distribution effecting the newspaper market. This financial shift caused newspapers and magazines to jettison sections that don’t sell ads and few readers care about – like book reviews. Nonetheless, as publications are figuring out how to make the Internet work for them, reviewers of books, movies, t.v., games, etc., will continue to play a role.
Maybe an economically significant number of readers will come to recognise the human and cultural costs of Amazonian hegemony and go back to local bookstores or at least to barnesandnoble.com, which offers the same books and a superior e-reader, and whose owners have progressive politics.
1. Amazon is losing its online retail market share hegemony on the Net, not just with e-books but simply as an online retailer. It’s still going great guns, but there’s a reason it’s continually expanding into other businesses besides retail sales. Apple/iTunes emerged as a major competitor, and Apple itself is facing a raft of competitors in various forms of data streaming, which includes e-books. The twelve people who sometimes peruse my blog know that I’m not always a fan of Amazon’s tactics, but the company simply isn’t the boogeyman, ruthless as it can be.
2. That Franzen is championing Barnes and Noble is hilarious. Barnes and Noble, that would be the company facing failure due to corporate mismanagement like Borders, the company that in the early 1990’s deliberately ran independent bookstores out of business by opening superstores right across the street from them, the company that closed its mall stores and thus reduced the visibility of books in the marketplace, the company whose business practices to maintain dominance for the last thirty years have been as ruthless as Amazon’s, the company who pays its employees basement wages, the company whose nickname used to be Satan? Franzen is saying the same thing about Amazon that used to be said about Barnes & Noble and the superstores – that they would destroy bookselling and publishing, that they would exert mammoth power that would culturally impoverish books and fiction forever, etc. Now we have to save Barnes & Noble? I doubt that was the tune that Franzen was singing in 1988 when his first novel came out.
Maybe people will get as sick of Twitter as they once got sick of cigarettes.
People didn’t get sick of cigarettes. They kicked their addiction because they were dying from them, and because other people who didn’t smoke were tired of dying from second-hand smoke and enacted regulations. Twitter will lose its dominance over time as other social media companies take over market share, but since the entire Internet is about communication, it seems highly unlikely the methods of Twitter are going away. And you know who can use Twitter to alert people to their book reviews? Professional book reviewers and their publications.
Twitter’s and Facebook’s latest models for making money still seem to me like one part pyramid scheme, one part wishful thinking, and one part repugnant panoptical surveillance.
It’s true that Twitter and Facebook and other parts of the Web are scheming advertising dollars without necessarily delivering the profits for them. But so have newspapers, t.v. ads, etc., in the past. Advertising is not a guarantee. But getting people aware of what you have to offer doesn’t hurt to gamble on, especially if it’s low cost. Which is why Franzen’s publisher maintains a Twitter account to talk up Franzen and other authors, and a Facebook page just for him with a link to this article of his complaining about Facebook and Twitter.
I could, it’s true, make a larger apocalyptic argument about the logic of the machine, which has now gone global and is accelerating the denaturisation of the planet and sterilisation of its oceans. I could point to the transformation of Canada’s boreal forest into a toxic lake of tar-sands byproducts, the levelling of Asia’s remaining forests for Chinese-made ultra-low-cost porch furniture at Home Depot, the damming of the Amazon and the endgame clear-cutting of its forests for beef and mineral production, the whole mindset of “Screw the consequences, we want to buy a lot of crap and we want to buy it cheap, with overnight free shipping.”
The man is obsessed with non-existent overnight free shipping. He is also seemingly unaware that publishers for decades have let booksellers have print shipping in trucks for free. The resources and trees needed to produce paper and print books, house them in warehouses and ship them with gasoline powered trucks and planes does make a bit of an argument for e-printing being more environmentally friendly, even with the energy for electricity issues and the poor being cut off from access. China is having a manufacturing slow down because we aren’t buying cheap stuff or any stuff as much anymore and WalMart in the U.S. has seen its sales decline. Run off from papermills used to pollute lakes – any activity can destroy the environment if it isn’t regulated and companies can do as they like, which they have been. But Franzen really doesn’t care about pollution pre- or post-Internet – he’s just continuing his metaphor here.
But apocalypse isn’t necessarily the physical end of the world. Indeed, the word more directly implies an element of final cosmic judgment. In Kraus’s chronicling of crimes against truth and language in The Last Days of Mankind, he’s referring not merely to physical destruction. In fact, the title of his play would be better rendered in English as The Last Days of Humanity: “dehumanised” doesn’t mean “depopulated”, and if the first world war spelled the end of humanity in Austria, it wasn’t because there were no longer any people there. Kraus was appalled by the carnage, but he saw it as the result, not the cause, of a loss of humanity by people who were still living. Living but damned, cosmically damned.
And here we return to basic elitism. The masses will become numb, cultureless, consumer controlled stupid zombies who can’t appreciate the good stuff. Everything will be conformity and cheap and therefore worthless, no art and creativity coming from new technologies and forms, and we will stop reading books in favor of vapid entertainment, turning ourselves less than human. Meanwhile, a t.v. movie was made of Franzen’s The Corrections and his novel Freedom, is in the works to become a film. But after that, it will be all Brave New World, see if it doesn’t.
But a judgment like this obviously depends on what you mean by “humanity”. Whether I like it or not, the world being created by the infernal machine of technoconsumerism is still a world made by human beings. As I write this, it seems like half the advertisements on network television are featuring people bending over smartphones; there’s a particularly noxious/great one in which all the twentysomethings at a wedding reception are doing nothing but taking smartphone photos and texting them to one another. To describe this dismal spectacle in apocalyptic terms, as a “dehumanisation” of a wedding, is to advance a particular moral conception of humanity; and if you follow Nietzsche and reject the moral judgment in favour of an aesthetic one, you’re immediately confronted by Bourdieu’s persuasive connection of asethetics with class and privilege; and, the next thing you know, you’re translating The Last Days of Mankind as The Last Days of Privileging the Things I Personally Find Beautiful…And maybe this is not such a bad thing. Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal.
And here Franzen hedges his bets. Apocalypse is individual, so if he is horrified that people record their big moments with smartphones the same way they did with video cameras and cameras and written accounts in the past, maybe it’s just different ways of seeing the world and we’re all not so inhuman after all. He just has a refined aesthetic.
I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending.
Yes, there were great values to pass on in 1159, when women were property, most people were slaves, disease and violence ran rampant and most people never made it to 53. The idea that the Middle Ages – a span of a thousand years – had little cultural and value change and little technical change over that time but was static until the Renaissance and the industrial revolution came along is so historically incorrect as to be deeply embarrassing coming from someone with Franzen’s education. Maybe Franzen is feeling his mortality here.
But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time,
Yeah, no. There were these hugely popular daytime shows called soap operas, game shows, baseball games, etc. that people watched, even wealthy people. Also prime time ran four hours a night.
and people wrote letters and put them in the mail,
And now we write letters and send them electronically. We actually communicate much more with each other than we used to do.
and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section,
That’s not historically true.
and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers,
Definitely not historically true, even back in the 1930’s. Talk about romanticizing the 1980’s publishing scene, dude.
and New Criticism reigned in English departments,
and the Amazon basin was intact,
Not true at all – deforestation in the Amazon began wholesale to make farmland in the 1960’s and even more in the 1970’s once they built highways into the jungle; it’s true the big push wasn’t till the 1990’s, but that was twenty years ago when Franzen was in his thirties; when he was a kid nobody knew anything about the Amazon basin because they did not have the Internet to tell them about it and no one worried about forest destruction back then even if they knew about it. That’s how we got the Dust Bowl in the U.S.
and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows.
Antibiotics have been pumped into cows for the last fifty years, which includes most of Franzen’s lifetime.
It wasn’t necessarily a better world (we had bomb shelters and segregated swimming pools), but it was the only world I knew to try to find my place in as a writer.
It was a conformist, repressive, changing and unstable world that has laid the seeds for so many problems today, especially environmental pollution. And you know what they’re using to try to solve many of those problems today and coordinate those attempts globally – the Internet.
And so today, 53 years later, Kraus’s signal complaint – that the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past – can’t help ringing true to me.
Me too, since Franzen’s forgetfulness and ignorance of the past here has been quite amazing.
The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values of the past have been lost. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity.
The experience of each generation is really not all that different from the previous one, despite technology. The same issues repeat – poor wages and working conditions; civil rights; environmental pollution; the young seen as weird, selfish, lazy, etc. by older people whose goals have changed; war. We feel nostalgia for the past and we white-out the unpleasant parts of it, largely because we feel, if we’re older, that our mortality and irrelevance are approaching fast. Franzen, however, has been complaining about this stuff for a long time; he was writing essays about the decline of contemporary literature in the 1990’s, when he was promoting his second novel not surprisingly. And just as then, he’s promoting his new non-fiction book now, online, by yakking and modest bragging with crosslinks to his Facebook page, which you can buy at Amazon on pre-order for a 40% discounted price or a not so cheap e-book price of $15.36. Way to have your cake and eat it too, big guy.
Franzen’s concerns are not new – the world seemingly changed from what we remember hazily of the past and our uncertainty about what it will further change into and whether it will still like us then. When those concerns are presented dishonestly, however, with the romanticizing of the past and the demonizing of the current day, with an apocalyptic vision of the future that is superstitious and intellectually facile, it becomes simply an empty myth. And coming from someone in Franzen’s position, with the media platform he has open to him that includes the Internet he uses while lambasting it with scorn, it perpetuates false information about books by the very methods that he claims to fear – misleading lamentations by someone who admits he really doesn’t have a clear picture of the world about which he worries.
So that’s my rant for the day. ‘Cause that’s the thing about the Internet – a wide open field (in most countries) in which to rant. There is much that is scary about that – it certainly scares Franzen – but there is much that is glorious about it too. As long as the electricity lasts, that is.