"'This fragmentation. Because it's the same problem everywhere. It's like the internet, or cable TV -- there's never any centre, there's no communal agreement, there's just a trillion bits of distracting noise ... All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.'"
Dear Mr. Franzen,
First of all, thanks for the great books. I have a vague idea of what it takes to write a novel, not to mention multiple major award-winning best-selling ones and, well, let's just say hats off to you. That said, I'd like to talk to you a little bit about your wide-ranging hatred of popular things. I think I actually understand where you're coming from. The truth is, I was kind of impressed when you first eschewed the selection of The Corrections for Oprah's book club. I thought: Wow, this guy really doesn't care about selling books! Actually what you said was (I'm paraphrasing) you were afraid men wouldn't read an Oprah-selected book. It's good to look after your own, especially the wildly disenfranchised White Man. But then I thought about it some more and decided, as you eventually did, that really? When you spend years of your life, alone with only your own thoughts trying to make something beautiful, important and lasting and someone comes along and says: 'Hey! Let me help you make all that time and effort and angst, all that dread, second-guessing, and self-reproach worthwhile by having millions more people read it than they otherwise would!' That can't really be a bad thing can it? I think you may in time come to a similar conclusion about e-books... and yes, even Twitter.
You see, I felt as you did when I first started to notice that instead of carefully constructed, well-worn books in paperback and hardcover, electronic devices were being read on the subway and in Starbucks and wherever else the early adopters brought them. I though surely this was yet another harbinger of the apocalypse or at least the final nail in the coffin of Western Civ. But then I went on a vacation and I had a bad back and I couldn't carry a heavy bag, so my mother loaned me her Kindle. I could bring the Library of Congress with me anywhere I wanted to go on that slight little thing, Jonathan! (Can I call you Jonathan?) It was really pretty great. Now I am the daughter of a publisher and my father would not touch an e-book with a ten-foot pole. This is mainly because his numb, arthritic fingers could never hope to control the mechanism needed to turn it on, much less manage the download of a book, but if he were still here and still running the company his father began before him, I know he would have found a creative and intelligent way to get behind the new technology. Because what he was interested in, above all else, was the enormous and far-reaching power great books, like all great art, have to transform people. Great books move us emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually, lifting us up and out, however briefly, of the circumstances reality puts us in to imagine another world, or another way through the one that we're in.
The fact is the digital train has already long left the station and we, those of us who call ourselves writers and artists, have an obligation to get on board so we might impact the nature of the trip. Our kids already live in the world you hate and their kids will not know anything different. If I can float you a comparison: I think e-books are like Netflix. (Do you hate Netflix too?) Well, Netflix is great for watching an entire TV series (I know you hate television) or movies you may have missed. That said, I believe people will always go out to the movies because the experience of going to the movies is much more layered, complex and rewarding than simply sitting on the couch watching a film on the computer or even the TV, however more easily or cheaply arranged those viewings may be. It has to do with the ritual of watching in the dark with other strangers, the implicit connectivity that experience brings. Likewise I don't think an e-book will ever be able to replace the magical transference that goes on between a parent and child when they read an illustrated book to said kid before bed. The tactile engagement, the ritual turning of the pages with your fingers and the ability to sneak a flipped look at the end? Those things transcend form, they are about an exchange of energy, meaning, and memory fundamental to how we understand ourselves in the world we live. But before books on parchment and on paper there was writing on the walls, on tablets and stones and papyrus. There were stories told in caves when we lived in them back then. So, it's the telling of the story, the mysterious joy of disappearing into the author's realm that really matters, not the surface upon which it's written or read.I realize Twitter will be a tougher sell. First of all, the name itself is problematic. Even its inventor Jack Dorsey described it as such:
That's what our world needs, right Jonathan? More short bursts of inconsequential information.
"...we came across the word 'twitter,' and it was just perfect. The definition was 'a short burst of inconsequential information... And that's exactly what the product was."
It's absurd to condone a medium whose primary focus and function seems to be the dissemination of the least amount of valuable content at one time. I went kicking and screaming into the Twittersphere, I assure you. Amongst many irritations, the mistaken belief that the minutia of a person's day is worth reporting ad nauseum to the world at large. I have a family member (adult mind you, highly intelligent) who is extremely fond of telling said world what he ate for breakfast. Like anyone gives a shit, Jonathan!
But you know what? You don't have to listen. It's actually much easier to not hear what someone wants to tell you on Twitter than it is anywhere else in the "real world." It just takes a click. The negatives of real-time conversation are fairly obvious as such. When hearing from millions of people from everywhere in the world at once, there is plenty that is irrelevant, embarrassing, pointlessly snarky and just monumentally dumb.
In the same way one does in life, however, if you stick around a while, keep your eyes and ears open, trust your own judgment and instincts, you can eventually locate your tribe. And when you do find those people, some of whom are already your friends and family but maybe you don't much get to see and some of whom are varying degrees of wildly famous and some of whom live across the great oceans that separate us and whom you will never physically meet, it's as though you found another place of your own to fit in. And you like an epic, right? Stories sprawling with dreams and despair, pathos and humor and hope? Twitter (and all social media I'd argue) despite its restrictive format, has got what is epic in spades. The format actually allows the average person to render their life story -- people get married and divorced and married again, they get and lose jobs, they fight, their parents die, babies are born... (you don't hate babies, do you?)
Most notably, there are the serious seeds of revolution the power of which I think has only just begun to materialize. It's not just the Arab Spring and Occupy movements that without question found their voice and momentum through the world wide web. Right now a film is going manifestly viral. Hundreds of thousands (which will within days, if not hours, become millions) of people have watched it. The film is the brainchild of one man's organization called Invisible Children that seeks to find and arrest one of the most wanted war criminals on Earth, Joseph Kony, who for over 25 years has been abducting Ugandan children from their families and amongst many heretofore unspeakable atrocities, forcing them to mutilate and kill their own families and countrymen.
The bottom line about this movement (which will certainly and even justifiably have its detractors for the way in which it approaches its goal) is that it sought and is indeed getting real, sustainable traction not to mention substantial funds with a speed and ferocity that would have simply been impossible if it existed off the social media grid. Jonathan, without the electronics you disparage, without the social media you despise and without the "popular" masses that an Oprah level audience brings, I sincerely doubt any of us writing anything with all the best intentions in the world would be capable of achieving that level of impact. The Quickening is real. Those of us who believe in the still largely untapped potential of a globalized humanity can feel it. I think as artists and responsible citizens we are obligated now to catch up, by whatever means necessary.
Finding out that Whitney Houston died half an hour before the news media would report it from a friend who happened to be at The Beverly Hilton and posted about her bizarre behavior just two days earlier on Facebook? Tragic and titillating as such things are but not so important I grant you. Finding out about and then stopping a genocidal warlord before he completely destroys a country full of children? There is nothing more real, authentic or lasting than that.