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American Novelist Jonathan Franzen

Challenging the Internet Age


Challenging the Internet Age


Jonathan Franzen is known for taking on Twitter and Facebook and lamenting how reading is becoming a lost art. In this exclusive interview, Franzen talks about how reading and literature have an important role in the new digital era.

Challenging the Internet Age

By Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 565 )

Some people embrace their era and some resist it. Each era needs these two groups of people.

American author Jonathan Franzen, who has just released his latest essay collection How to be Alone, belongs in the latter group.

Franzen was featured as a "Great American Novelist" on the cover of Time magazine just after he published his fourth book Freedom in 2010. But while his bestselling novels and essay collections have garnered critical acclaim, the 56-year-old harbors strong misgivings about the impact of new technologies and mass media on the human experience. He has warned that true and honest voices could be gradually drained out by the noise and meaninglessness of modern life.

Franzen believes that the revolutionary technologies of the Internet age have failed to create a utopian world. Instead, they keep concentrating power in concert with capitalism, trapping American society in a strange, techno-consumerist order.

Facebook is Like Starring in our own Movies

Franzen has also angered the social media community by dismissing Twitter as "unspeakably irritating," arguing that it is hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters. In a 2011 essay, he took a swipe at Facebook, saying, "our lives look a lot more interesting when they're filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery."

Amid the random noise of mass culture and electronic media, Franzen's How to be Alone reflects on how an individual, a reader, an author can preserve their individuality and complexity. Franzen has said the book is intended as "a movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance – even a celebration – of being a reader and a writer."

"Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius," notes critic and author Chan Hung-chih in quoting British historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), author of the The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

"When we understand others, this usually involves social consciousness that results from contact. This consciousness shapes our understanding of society and others. But through experiences, we develop wisdom. This is purely a process of dealing with, assimilating and transforming one's inner self. If a person does not know how to be alone, he or she will not be able to reach a higher plane," Chan points out.

Chan admits that when he read Franzen's latest book he felt challenged and provoked and when he could not bear it any longer he would take a break and think.

Franzen not only gets readers to think, he also does not shy away from biting criticism in How to be Alone: "Time [magazine], for my father, was the ultimate cultural authority. In the last decade, the magazine whose red border twice enclosed the face of James Joyce has devoted covers to Scott Turow and Stephen King. These are honorable writers; but no one doubts it was the size of their contracts that won them covers. The dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority, and an organ like Time, which not long ago aspired to shape the national taste, now serves mainly to reflect it." 

Interestingly, Franzen's upcoming fifth book Purity, due out in autumn, has already been selected by Time magazine as one of the big entertainment events in 2015 alongside bestseller-based movies such as Mockingjay and Fifty Shades of Grey.

How does Franzen "read" our modern era, which seems to herald the "death of the reader and the birth of the viewer?"

The following are excerpts from the interview: 

Q: You said that one can only really understand the world through reading in solitude. Most people understand the world through flashing images. What are the most significant differences of these two ways of understanding the world?

A: I certainly don't think reading is the only way to understand the world.  How other people choose to spend their time is not my business.  But readers are the people I care about, and the argument I make in "How to Be Alone" is that reading novels is a way of not being alone while being alone.  Books are written in solitude and consumed in solitude.  And yet, paradoxically, when I'm reading a novel, I feel deeply connected socially— with a book's author, with other readers, and with myself.

Q: In a fast-changing world, images, say, movies, seem to have more gripping power than text. Movies cost less time than reading. Like good books, good movies can also provoke deep reflection of life. Watching movies in a dark theater alone can also be a private, soul-searching activity. Is viewing necessarily worse than reading? How is watching movies, TV programs or surfing on internet different from reading?

A: Movies and television dramas, as genres, are direct descendants of the novel.  Contemporary TV dramas provide many of the same satisfactions that the great 19th century novels did.  I love good TV and watch a lot of it.  But I love books even more.  The difference between a viewer and a reader is that the reader's imagination is more actively engaged, and that the experience of reading is therefore more intimate and personal:  each reader imagines characters and scenes in his or her own unique way, and the scenes take place inside the reader's head, rather than an external screen.

Q: How would you describe the role of classic literature in a world of consumerism? Is classic literature and consumerism mutually exclusive?

A: Not at all mutually exclusive.  The rise of the novel in Europe coincided with the rise of middle-class consumerism.  Nevertheless, there is a tension between literature and consumerism, because literature serves the truth and has a tragic dimension, whereas modern consumerism is based upon a lie ("Buy this and you will be happy") and represents, for many people, a way of avoiding difficult human realities.

Q: How would you describe the role of novel in modern society? And the role of the novelist and the reader?

A: The novel is a haven from the noise and meaninglessness of modern life.  A novel allows you to be alone with yourself and to inhabit a fictional world in which coherent meaning is possible.  In a world of accelerating change, good novels also provide a much-needed connection to the dimensions of human experience that are universal and timeless.  There has never been and never will be a world in which everyone reads novels.  I write for the minority of people who aren't satisfied with the simplistic answers offered by politics and popular culture, and who hunger for refuge from the random noise of electronic media.

Q: Literature, for me, is a way of spiritual communication. But, in an age where books are less and less influential, what would happen to your so-called "deep thinking?" What kind of challenges does the information age pose to our thinking and our lives?

A: As I said, I don't care what other people do with their lives.  It's not my job as a novelist to make the world different or better.  My job is to serve readers, and there will always be readers— always be a minority of people who don't fit in with what the majority is doing.  As the world becomes more complex and more dominated by technology, it does become more difficult for the novelist to tell meaningful stories; but the demand for such stories also increases.  I see the Internet Age as a great opportunity for novelists.

Q: You commented that social media like Twitter and Facebook is one big endless loop that keeps amplifying oneself. But undeniably, these social media keeps expanding. How should we deal with that impermanent, fragmented, egoistic media?

A: Anyone who's honest with himself can see that mobile devices and social media are addictive.  Like cigarettes, they stimulate anxiety and then assuage anxiety, but only momentarily.  People therefore keeping increasing the dosage, until it's impossible for them to sit in a restaurant with a friend without using their mobile devices, impossible for them to focus on anything, because they're addicted to the stimulation.  I have no idea what this means for the future.  But I do know that, historically, some percentage of people have always refused to be enslaved, and I expect that some people in the future will refuse to be enslaved by their devices.

Q: Why is "being alone" important? Why do people continuously fail to do that? What kind of impact do you hope your new book can have for readers?

A: One thing I offer in "How to Be Alone" is a theory of why readers are less lonely than people surfing the Web or watching bad TV.  It has to do with the depth of the connection between reader and writer, the intensity of belonging to a community of readers and writers.  But it's easy to lose sight of this in the world we now live in.  Readers can feel like freaks nowadays— surrounded by people who seem satisfied by shallow electronic forms of connection.  I wrote "How to Be Alone" for those alienated readers.  I wanted them to feel that, although they may be freaks, they are not at all alone.

Q: Why do you want to be a writer? Is today an age of writer? An age that's generous and kind for writers? Or, this is an age of readers? An age that readers have the luxury of an ever-more dazzling array of choices? Or, in the contrary, an ages that readers are trapped in intellectual sloth and mediocre experience?

A: I have no choice but to be a writer; it's what I was meant to be.  And I'm comfortable with being relatively marginal in the culture, being aligned with other freaks, belonging to a minority community of serious readers.  But one of the things I've learned since I wrote "How to Be Alone" is that there are a lot more freaks in the world than I'd imagined— a lot more people who are hungry for the kind of experience that only novels can provide.  For stories with no easy answers, stories of complex psychology, stories of moral ambiguity.

Q: In you novel "Freedom," you propose a profound question: in a time when we have all the freedom, when we have all the material comfort, why are we further away from happiness, or well-being, and further away from ourselves? What are the existential crisis of modern individual?

A: If you want an easy answer, consult your iPhone.  If you want to engage seriously with the question, read a good novel.

(Introductory section translated from Chinese by Susanne Ganz)