March 6th, 2012 / 3:13 pm
Random & Web Hype

Do As Franzen Does. Do What You Like

In some ways, we’ve brought this on ourselves; it is a slippery slope. First you wonder what Angelina Jolie had for breakfast because she was so great in that one movie or whatever and then you’re buying cereal and thinking, “Does Oprah eat Raisin Bran?” Eventually, you even start to give a damn about what famous writers think about the weather or, say, social networking, and someone like Jonathan Franzen revels in his dislike of Twitter and other means of social networking from his Important Writer perch and we respond because if Franzen hates Twitter does he hate us too? The angst is unbearable and yet it’s all sort of inevitable.

Franzen’s A Great American Writer and all but I don’t give a much of a damn about his opinions on anything (see: Edith Wharton obvi). Or I do. Is it really surprising that Franzen doesn’t care for Facebook or Twitter? His overall comportment does not suggest an affinity for the levity of social networking. I can’t really say I love Facebook, myself. It has become increasingly hard to make sense of the interface and I keep getting invited to parties and readings in Bali and Temecula and I don’t live in those places so the experience is, at best, fragmented. At the same time, I don’t need to proselytize my dislike unless I’m on Twitter. Who cares? My opinion doesn’t matter nor does Franzen’s, though he is Very Fancy so in the calculus of mattering, his irrelevant opinion is less irrelevant than mine. Math.

J. Franz talking smack about Twitter, though, thems fighting words.

Jami Attenberg wrote down some of what Franzen said last night at Tulane:

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

Is anyone really using Twitter to craft complex rhetorical arguments? What does responsibility have to do with chattering online? It’s like Franzen is saying, “I cannot swim in my car and therefore my car is not useful.” He doesn’t understand what Twitter is for. Of course he dislikes it. He’s working from a place of profound ignorance. His stance is one of those things where you have to say, “There, there, Mr. Franzen, here is your Ovaltine.”

Attenberg smartly concluded that

he doesn’t understand that a lot of writers have to use the medium as a promotional device as well as a way to build networks. He doesn’t have to do anything! He has a publicist who probably has dreams about him every night, whether he has a book coming or not. He is free to write and just be himself, while the rest of us are struggling to be heard and recognized.

Team Franzen has the infrastructure to publicize and promote Franzen. Who knows how he wastes time, but clearly it isn’t online, so he has no need for people to “Like” his pithy Facebook updates or Retweet his deepest or shallowest thoughts about, say, yogurt. He has reached a niveau where he can make ill-informed statements about something trivial and in turn we spend the next several hours, days, weeks, parodying, poking, and otherwise pondering those ill-informed statements on the very networks he denounces. The circle of life.

When you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

If you attended the bookfair at AWP, you saw four rooms filled with magazines and publishers, and these attendees represented only a sixth of the magazines and small presses out there. It was a total zoo. Also, it was beastly hot. We were being punished. As I stood in the bookfair day after day, talking to writers, I was reminded of how we are all guppies in a very big pond. For those of us among the unFranzen, there’s an intense amount of competition for any kind of attention. We are guppies together. Most writers write to be read. How the hell do you get read when there is so much to read? Sure, you have to do something interesting but you also need to do a little more. There are countless writers doing interesting things. Excellence isn’t enough. Make your peace with that already. As J. Attenberg says, the rest of are struggling to be heard and recognized but fortunately, there are great options to help us with that.

I was also on a panel at AWP about Literature and the Internet in 2012 with Blake and Kyle and Stephen Elliott and James Yeh. I had no voice so I awkwardly whispered into the microphone a couple times and it was very difficult because I had way more to say. Alas. One of the audience members asked about if she needs a blog because she had heard in another panel that she needs a blog. She did not seem to actually want a blog. It was a good question. Last night a friend on Facebook asked if she needs to keep her Google + profile she never uses. In fact, one of the questions I am asked most frequently is, “Do I need a [insert social networking platform]?” There’s a lot of anxiety out there about what we need to do as writers to reach readers.


What do we need?

I need to stay black and die. Everything else is relatively optional.

What do we need to do as writers?

We need to write. We need to write well and hopefully that will at least get our work into  places where we might be read. We don’t need to do anything else. However. If we want the work to be read by more than say, our parents, we should probably get connected, in thoughtful, non-annoying ways, to other writers and readers.

Social networking is a convenient way of creating these connections in a low-pressure environment. Franzen already has a million connections and a million readers so it is easy for him to sneer intellectually at social networks while using words like semaphoring. I looked up semaphore. It is an apparatus for visual signaling (as by the position of one or more movable arms or a system of visual signaling by two flags held one in each hand.

It’s interesting that Franzen wants to make social networking a conversation about responsibility because it is a little irresponsible to make such deliberately provocative statements a. about something relatively silly and b. without knowing anything substantive about the platforms.

When it comes to the social networking, do what you want. This is not as complicated as we make it. Ignore most of those well meaning articles about writers and social networking. Some of those articles are a little crazy and written by people who want you to Market Yourself and Be a Product.

Do what you like. Do what you want. Don’t stress. This should not be stressful. Social networking should not feel like a burden or obligation or something to be resented.  At the same time, get over the “self promotion is gross” thing. If you don’t like what you write enough to want to tell people about it, in moderation, don’t publish and that problem is solved.

If you want to be on Facebook, do that too but perhaps don’t ask people to like your Fan Page or whatever because if they haven’t already, they probably don’t want to anyway. If you want to be on Google + with me and like six other people, do that, but know it’s very lonely there and lots of strangers who speak different languages will talk at you in those different languages and it can be confusing. If you want a blog, create one but update it and put more content on your blog than updates about your writing. Find something to talk about. I hear rejection works well or movies. The problem with social networking is not its triviality but rather its half-assedness. Writers feel this “market pressure” to “network” so they create social networking presences they have no idea how to use, that they have no interest in using, and then those presences languish and make the writer look like they don’t give a damn.

Do something where you are willing to show that you give a damn, however you interpret giving a damn.

Twitter is my favorite thing. If you like babbling about nonsense, and current events, and occasionally sharing links to your work, get on Twitter. I love that people willingly listen to me talk about Fage yogurt, One Tree Hill, Scrabble tournaments and my writing, in that order. I love listening to you talk about your cats and babies and your drunkenness and all the other things you want to talk about in 140 or fewer characters. I love when you send me things to read because most of the time, those things are great. Most importantly, let’s keep it real—no platform is more conducive to collectively watching an awards ceremony than Twitter.

Franzen approaches social networking with far too much gravitas. If he had been on Twitter during, say, The Grammys, he would better understand what it is all about. He doesn’t want to be on Twitter, though. The desire is not there and it’s not a matter of necessity for him. In that regard, Franzen is modeling the right attitude toward social networking—do what you like.

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  1. Scott McClanahan

      Well said.

  2. He has a publicist who probably dreams about him every night | Press Street

      […] at HTMLGIANT, Roxane Gay spouts off, wondering why we should give a shit about what Franzen […]

  3. Matt Zbrog

      As a fencesitter with a sore ass, I appreciate this.  

  4. John Minichillo

      What I love about Twitter is exactly what Franzen hates. It is disposable thought and as valuable as Kleenex or fortune cookies. Twitter is more stupid and intimate and so much fun. If everyone has a megaphone that sucks, but if everyone with a megaphone has personality, is a jokester, it’s a blast.

  5. Bobby Dixon

      I imagine Franzen’s choosing to say he doesn’t like twitter over saying I don’t get it as a reflex of some vague insecurity from being bullied or tormented at a tender age. 

  6. Anonymous

      That is the best video I have ever seen.

  7. Matthew Snee

      It’s writers like Franzen that remind me I’m not mediocre enough for popular success  ;)

  8. christopher.

      God, this is so good:

      “The problem with social networking is not its triviality but rather its half-assedness. Writers feel this “market pressure” to “network” so they create social networking presences they have no idea how to use, that they have no interest in using, and then those presences languish and make the writer look like they don’t give a damn.Do something where you are willing to show that you give a damn, however you interpret giving a damn.”

      Nail > head.

  9. Craig Ronald Marchinkoski

      we wanted david foster wallace but instead we got stuck with franzen. the only thing we have left is to stay black and die.

  10. Tom McAllister

      Someone ought to tell him that Georges Perec already wrote a whole book without the letter E. 

  11. Paul Clark


  12. Brian M

      DAMN – “Excellence isn’t enough. Make your peace with that already.” Shit… depressing, I guess, but true.

  13. bartleby_taco

      franzen wrong my twitter great art norton anthology of 21st century poetry

  14. deadgod

      tweet tweak: weak tea

      You recommend not stressing about social media in general and twitter in particular.  ‘Stress’ can be used as an automatically negative word; I think social-mediators might enjoy thinking about and defending or even promoting social-mediation categorically.  (It’s advice I don’t think you took in blogging this blogicle.  ?)

      The fact that Franzen “doesn’t have to do” social media–especially as a promotional tool–is beside the point (of his criticisms of twitter) in two ways.  His criticisms might have merit (whether he’s on twitter/fb 7 hrs/day or never).  Perhaps more to the point of dismissing Franzen – and, more usefully, one’s own Franzenfreude – , he might (probably would) hate twitter curmudgeonlily even if he were a bottom-list writer slash high-school teacher or branch manager or acct exec.

      It’s his criticisms themselves that matter, or don’t — to me, anyway.

      To say that a tool is “irresponsible” –  that it conduces to or accelerates or even co-originates social/personal decay – is a serious charge.  An automatic firearm, for example, or an ugly word, or an institution considered instrumentally, like poetry or writing or democracy… is there or not something intrinsic to any of them that’s intrinsically toxic?  (I’d say:  yes, somewhat, no, no, hugely qualified no.)

      So with, say, twitter:  is twitter itself malware? 

      That’s Franzen’s argument:  by rigidly sectioning each visible text at 140 characters – holding aside for the moment the ways of making each tweet more than 140 characters – , sustained argument is fatally constantly interrupted, and therefore the ability to sustain argument atrophies to uselessness.

      Is he right?  There’s not only one worthwhile way intelligently and effectively to make a case (that is, by Kantian treatise), or even to have a conversation.  And ‘sustained argument’, while vital to understanding (political, philosophical), is not the only mode of linguistic interaction that sustains even the most enthusiastic tract-tractor.

      Most of us are quite familiar with a short list of short forms, no?  Joke, aphorism, couplet, haiku, slogan, catch phrase, and so on–in a sound-bite:  sound-bite.  Will political-economic collapse be due to the dominance of short-form communication?

      As silly as it sounds, that’s Franzen’s claim.  It’s a weak position.

      The people who avoid threateningly oppositional interaction on twitter–they do that altogether, eh?  They push away the Kantian treatise when they sense that the point of view they’re even discontentedly or half-heartedly wedded to won’t survive subjection to the critique in hand.  Twitter isn’t making those people live on diets of confirmation bias in hot-housed echo chambers . . . is it? 

      A Franzen-like argument might be that tweeting doesn’t merely enable echolalia — tweeting causes echolalia.

      It doesn’t with me!  I like prog tweeters, but I seek teabaggers with whom to engage – who might want their slogans to be countered, as they would my own.  Franzen’s argument doesn’t admit of this possibility.

  15. Mark C

      Movies do work.

  16. Lincoln Michel

      I agree with both your and Jami’s points. Certainly the promotional needs of most writers on Twitter are different than Franzen’s, and you are absolutely correct that too many people get stuck using different social media tools that they don’t really have the time or inclination to use. No point in having a Twitter if you aren’t using it. Twitter can be rad if you use it right though. I can think of at least four twitter accounts that are as good as any story I’ve read recently. Most accounts suck, though. Most things suck. Life is long and hard. The darkness comes.

      It is kind of crazy how many Franzen controversies pop up in the lit world these days. Just when I was getting mad about Edith Wharton? Or was that last week? 

      Actually, I’ve never even read a Franzen book but this kind of makes me like him.

  17. Lincoln Michel

      It is kind of crazy how many Franzen controversies pop up in the lit world these days. Just when I was getting mad about Edith Wharton? Or was that last week? 

      Actually, I’ve never even read a Franzen book but this kind of makes me like him. 

  18. Room 220: Franzen's Tulane Twitter Flack | NOLA DEFENDER

      […] at HTMLGIANT, Roxane Gay spouts off, wondering why we should give a shit about what Franzen […]

  19. Vomithelmet McGee

      ;_; but if we tell him about twitlonger maybe he will join!

  20. deadgod

      Here’s a strong argument that twitter is a most adroitly suited form for one kind of experience:

      Any good player, or game, is heterogeneous.  It’s the nature of basketball […] to reveal this.  Twitter facilitates, even demands, this splintered, altogether richer perspective on the game.

  21. iacussss

      This twitter account is probably better literature than most books released in the past year!/dogsdoingthings

  22. Michael J. Martin

      People are arguing over Twitter. Like dayum.

  23. Michael J. Martin

      No mention of Twitter as a tool for anti-government movements. Or its use in Egypt or China (underground). But its HTMLGiant so what should I expect.

  24. Roxane

      Oh give me a break. We are talking about Twitter for writers not solving the world’s problems. There has been ample coverage in the relevant venues about Twitter as a means for anti-government movements. This is a lit blog which doesn’t mean we are ignorant of the world’s problems but context is everything and you’re just saying that to compare bananas and kumquats.

  25. Anonymous

      informal poll: do you pronounce this word this way or that way?


  26. William VanDenBerg

      What now Franzen? What now?

  27. Michael J. Martin

      Naw, though both are fruit.If you’re going to argue the use of Twitter, then use the entire spectrum of argument and do not pander to your perceived idea of your audience. Yes, it is a litblog. There are writers in all parts of the world (including those I mentioned), some who may visit this very blog. If you’re going to debate with Frazen over Twitter’s use socially, then you cannot exclude its overall use. It’s like you’re saying, “I cannot swim in my car […] therefore my car is not useful.”

      I am actually more curious about what your comments says about your perceptions of the HTMLGiant audience.

  28. Shannon

      Roxane you stole my heart with this:

      “I need to stay black and die. Everything else is relatively optional.”

      Also I really like this entire piece.

  29. John Minichillo

      Lincoln’s tweets are great. Take it from a non-objective observer.

  30. Roxane

      half-assèdness where assedness has three syllables.

  31. Taylor Napolsky

      Franzen reminds me so much of Kanye West. He constantly thinks of something new to say that will get a reaction. He’s incredible at marketing himself.

  32. Jamesbedell

      To play Franzen’s advocate (I am an avid twitter user) your primary argument for the value of twitter is as means to promote your writing. You write, “Team Franzen has the infrastructure to publicize and promote Franzen.” Yes, but it wasn’t always that way. At some point he was a struggling author and he went hat and manuscript in hand to publishers hawking his wares. He happens to be an exceptional writer and so he was published. Now he has a machine. 

      Twitter doesn’t replace that. In a world where everyone is a marketer, how do I separate the wheat from the chaff? For all of the ills of the publishing world, there is value in having some system for parsing out what is worth being published and what isn’t. Maybe that’s just self publishing on Amazon, I don’t know, but I do know twitter doesn’t replace what publishers do. 

      Twitter is essentially ephemera writ large. There might be a time and place for it…but only if you are advancing a goal. If you’re goal is to write the next “The Corrections” or “Freedom” twitter will not help you get there. If you’re goal is to extend your personality (I hate the term personal brand) into the universe, then by all means tweet away. 

      Reflexive defense of social media as an unmitigated good is just as silly as reflexive bashing. Vigorously defending one’s ability to tweet about their morning muffin is just as trite as bashing a platform you might have spent 5 minutes looking at. Social media is just another tool…the trick is to know what you’re using it for…

  33. A D Jameson

      Roxane, I think we’re friends on Google +. (I’d check, but I never use it.)

  34. A D Jameson

       It’s especially true in the short run. Maybe in the long run, excellence will out, but…best not to count on it.

  35. A D Jameson

      Roxane, I admire and agree with a lot of what you’ve written here, but are you sure that Franzen doesn’t understand self-promotion? It seems to me that doing things like “attacking Twitter” is a great way to ensure outcry and thus get folks talking about Jonathan Franzen once again—for instance on indy lit blogs.

      The rich know how to keep their money, and the famous know how to stay the center of attention. Otherwise, they stop being rich or famous.

  36. A D Jameson

       Lincoln, see my comment below. (Crazy or…CONSPIRACY???)

  37. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      perfect and hilarious.

  38. Lincoln Michel

      Good point. Dude is playing us.

  39. Janet Flora Corso

      I love this post. I hadn’t even heard Franzen’s comments but I saw tweets about him earlier. You summed it all up for me hilariously and I couldn’t agree more. It bothers me when people don’t quite get that Twitter is a conversation and mostly for fun, even as a fabulous networking tool. I wanted to follow you on Twitter but cannot find your link! But now following @htmlgiant :)

  40. Tim Horvath

       I’m pretty sure he knows that. I’m surprised he would conflate it with the other things he is denouncing, though.

  41. Afternoon Bites: Nick Antosca on Satire, Rosie Schaap on Soccer Bars, Brian Evenson and Rob Zombie Team Up, And More | Vol. 1 Brooklyn

      […] Roxane Gay puts in her two cents on the whole Franzen/Twitter kerfuffle. […]

  42. nathan marks

      throwaway piece about a throwaway comment. 

  43. Anonymous

      Right on, Roxane! BTW, my most “liked” FB post/pic ever was about an excellent pair of shoes I got at the Goodwill half-off sale, not about my book.

  44. Anonymous

      Right on, Roxane. Nothing like an AWP to remind us that the celebriliterary culture with its hierarchies of success is alive and well, whether we like it or not. BTW, my most liked FB post/pic ever was about an excellent pair of shoes I got at the Goodwill half-off sale–not about Obama’s healthcare bill, Jamaica Kincaid’s thoughts on truth, or my memoir.

  45. Michelle Elvy

      Such a great article. Nail on the head, yes. I’m quoting you in my upcoming workshop, for sure. 

  46. Craig Ronald Marchinkoski

      i hear don delillo typing lenny bruce: ‘we’re all gonna die!’ and i get excited. thanks for the reminder. 

  47. mimi

      “…teabaggers with whom to engage – who might want their slogans to be countered…”  genuinely curious, how do you feel that’s working out? do the teabaggers comprehend the insight and voice that is uniquely deadgod? 

  48. Christopher Schaberg

      Great retort, Roxane. I actually learned about your work by noticing people retweet your tweets—I was brand new to twitter a six months ago, when my friend and I launched our site Airplane Reading.  So through twitter I’ve gotten to know many writers I hadn’t known of before, and then I’ve also been able to see these writers stretch out in other formats.  It’s certainly not an exclusive media form.  In fact, that’s one thing that I like about it: it’s open and presents a relatively easy to follow (dare I say ‘narrative’) logic.  Also, I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with twitter because I *am* trying to make (somewhat) complex rhetorical arguments through the form—through micro-image-text-collision-essays, especially. 

  49. Franzen’s Status | HTMLGIANT

      […] follows Roxane’s Tuesday post, and Jami Attenberg’s initial observation/criticism of something she heard Franzen say. Their […]

  50. Richard Grayson

      In 20 or 30 years, none of this will matter.

  51. deadgod

      Not to be flippantly Chou Enlai, but it’s too soon to know, even in the case of one interlocutor.

      You can see, when you exchange tweets, and you can see on foxgoebbels and read in the Wall Street Pravda every day, that, 30 years into the Reagan Legacy, conservatives are not comfortable listening to their arguments met point by point. 

      They especially hate being taunted with their own rhetoric: ‘Remember the ’80 kidnapper deal? and ’00 1/2-mi-vote deficit? Republicans hate democracy.’

      Look at the word “abortion”–to many white people, an uglier word than ‘nigger’.  Well, acetone, naphthalene, and dioxin all cause serious health problems for fetuses:  pollution is abortion.

      You see?  –if ‘abortion’ is really an issue, unwanted pregnancies – where ‘want’ is a measure of a woman’s possession of her body – are a small part of the problem.  Environmental deregulation is far more comprehensively dangerous to fetuses than gynecology.  –which is not even to consider a woman’s direct decision-making with respect to her body.

      Social conservatives never see their magically evil word in this light.  They never are told – by other conservatives – that the real interest motivating anti-choice is not fetuses or babies or mommies, but rather, controlling the pleasure women get from sex.

      Well, one isn’t going to poke a needle into the echo chamber and expose the anaerobic sepsis within to oxygen all at once.  But to tell an antichoice fanatic that other aspects of their world-view, other policies they support (for arithmetically bullshit reasons, btw), are really prodeath, might begin to enable them to de-dogmatize their explosive antichoice casuistry.

      –Socratic midwifery, is the hope.  re Franzen’s anxiety, 140 characters is not a lot of room to argue, but (the hope is) a phrase like “deregulation is abortion”, or pointing out the real Reagan Legacies, or questioning faith in the Infrastructure Fairy, might trigger, in a small way, a re-evaluation at least of terms.

  52. mimi

      hang in there deaders
      you’re right, “it’s too soon to know”    deregulation is abortion, yeah    it is infertility deformity mutilation suffocation strangulation extinction      how to best tweet it??  i don’t know – i’ll defer to you, sincerely, watch from the sidelines      we’re on the same side    

  53. mimi

      ew and weird formatting yeah oh well

  54. michael inscoe

      damn; this kills

  55. Michael Inscoe

      damn, this kills

  56. Eyeshot

      Exactly. Lots of uproar when Dylan went electric. No one remembers the names of any of those haters. Or maybe you’re suggesting that the Yellowstone Supervolcano will erupt and the only book that’ll matter will be The Road?

  57. Mark Folse

      Franzen was at Tulane and nobody twitted me about it? What good is the fucking thing then?

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