Franzen Knows a Lot about Writing but Less About Publishing

I’m a fan of Jonathan Franzen’s books. I read The Corrections voraciously when it was released and did the same (in digital format) with Freedom. He’s a witty, insightful writer and essayist and is rightfully spoken about as one of the greatest living American literary talents. This is why it disappoints me so much that he engages in arch-snobbery of the kind quoted virtually everywhere on the web this morning. I haven’t seen anything like it since the last time Franzen got his snob on. He was wrong about Oprah’s book club and he’s wrong about ebooks. Let’s start with a quote:

Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

He’s confessing right here from the get-go that this entire argument is based on a ‘feeling’. Specifically that screens feel less permanent than paper. This in itself is intellectually weak (and quite unlike Franzen when speaking about other less emotional topics). But it’s also wrong. Let us interrogate the term ‘permanence’ here. Franzen is talking about the specific physical permanence of paper and ink. Paper books last pretty well, but on the continuum of physical permanence, they don’t last nearly as well as, say, stone tablets (stone tablets, for example, don’t burn). But stone tablets are inconvenient to create, to sell and to move about. Even Franzen would probably agree with that (though I may be underestimating his emotional rigour). On the scale of difficulty, we can say that the paper book is to digital books what stone tablets are to paper books. The sheer physicality of the dead tree format means that it is an effort (an economic effort) to make (and keep) available to readers. A digital book, once published, will never go out of print. It is virtually free to distribute. You can burn an e-reader, but the ebook still exists out there in the ether and can be re-acquired, usually for free. Digital information is almost impossible to destroy.

But this brings me to Franzen’s other point, and I suspect it’s his main one. Digital books are easy to change. This is what he means by impermanence – and he probably should have started with that instead of his whole paper-and-ink metaphorical fuckwittery:

For serious readers, Franzen said, “a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience”. “Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change,” he continued. “Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

For serious readers. Have you ever read anything so laced with smug self-satisfaction? But I digress. Digital books are easy to change. This is Franzen’s main point. And he’s right, on a number of levels. For the same reason that digital books are cheap and easy to produce and distribute, it is commensurately easy to make a change to a digital book and then make that change available to readers. But does this automatically mean that digital books will be endlessly fiddled with? This was the same argument made by Nicholas Carr on the Wall Street Journal last year and it’s been comprehensively disemboweled by many responders – including Bethanie Blanchard at Crikey.

In a nutshell – just because you can do something doesn’t mean people will. The threat to justice and responsible self-government is more than compensated for by the benefits of the format. There are plenty of very good reasons why publishers don’t endlessly fiddle with books, but if we want to take up Franzen’s capitalist ball and run with it then a very good reason is that it makes no economic sense. It costs money to change a book, even a digital book, because editors need to check and re-check everything and further mistakes can be introduced. There is virtually no economic benefit to significantly changing a fiction title from its original form. We’re better off just starting from scratch with a new book.

More importantly, for Franzen’s argument in particular, is that no printed book is completely permanent either. I’ve never seen a book published that didn’t have a few errors that weren’t corrected in a subsequent edition. Plenty of non-fiction titles are re-issued frequently to take in new information, and this is generally seen as a valuable addition for readers. Franzen himself has benefited from this, after famously refusing to continue at a reading for Freedom because the publisher had messed up some of the last minute corrections. To correct these errors thousands of books needed to be pulped and the book was reprinted. Do we really believe that the original version of Freedom – errors and all – is helping prop up justice and responsible self-government?

The threat of disruption to our lives by technology is a valid concern for any modern thinker. But I would have thought that someone who put a bit of thought to the issue would realise that digitising books is not the best example of this. Specious arguments like Franzen’s hold back the reasonable inclusion of digital formats in ‘serious’ literary discussions – endlessly miring us in pointless witterings about the smell of books instead of discussing the content, which is ultimately why we read (and why we should read) in the first place.

9 thoughts on “Franzen Knows a Lot about Writing but Less About Publishing

  1. Franzen’s argument seems similar to one I’ve read that says audio cassette tapes are an inferior format because you can erase or tape over the music (I recall doing this to a U2 cassette I once received as a gift). So the argument goes that vinyl and CDs are superior formats because the music is permanently there. But that’s not because listeners are concerned they might accidentally tape over the music on a cassette, or because Bono is worried about being erased, it’s because listeners ‘feel’ that serious art somehow deserves the finality that the other formats provide, and that adds to the experience of the music. I agree that it’s an emotional argument, and one that only obsessive collectors are likely to have – most people (yes, even ‘serious readers’) will see Franzen just as a pedantic snob.

  2. That’s a very interesting comparison … I’d never thought about the snobbery around cassette tapes. I suspect I might harbour some of that in secret too. For shame!

  3. Earlier today I read the article in The Guardian on Franzen’s comments, then noticed a tweet to this blog. The blatant disconnect between what Franzen was saying and the teaser for this blog prompted my curiosity (well done; you’ve passed Blogging 101). And then the blog above was sufficiently smug and so way off beam that I decided a reply was in order.

    To begin, Franzen is talking about the nature of books and not about publishing. There is little in the article which is related at all to the publishing process, and what little there is is incidental to his thoughts, so it is rather disingenuous for you to so so.

    Not everyone who disagrees with populist thought is a snob, any more than all those who don’t listen to classical music are necessarily philistines. It doesn’t help to throw around derogatory terms as a first line of attack. You may disagree with his decision regarding Oprah’s book club but as they seem to have been prompted largely by marketing considerations, such commercial motivations can hardly be called snobbish.

    Now, if Franzen did say that serious readers only read printed books, I’d take him to task for that. I don’t know if he did. I do know that in The Guardian article, the words ‘serious readers’ was not attributed to him as a direct quote. And, if he had, that might understandably get up your nose but it’s a relatively minor part of what he is saying.

    Your reduction of Franzen’s comments is either wilfully misleading, or a simple lack of comprehension.

    ‘But this brings me to Franzen’s other point, and I suspect it’s his main one. Digital books are easy to change. This is what he means by impermanence – and he probably should have started with that instead of his whole paper-and-ink metaphorical fuckwittery:’

    His comments were not metaphorical. Call them ‘fuckwittery’ if that’s what you call all arguments with which you either disagree or don’t understand. He talks of them as an example, as embodying values and responses, and not as an analogy. And I don’t entirely agree with him – but he makes his comments with a lot more eloquence and apparent consideration than you do.

    Franzen’s comments have as much to do with the world at large as they do with books, digital or otherwise. And he makes a point which deserves serious discussion, not the trite and silly interpretation you have put on them. Your rather predictable scale of permanence – printed books are to stone tablets what ebooks are to printed books – is quite shallow and not at all apt. Franzen is not talking about relative permanence or physical hardness. He is talking about the difference between something which has physicality and something which does not. You have missed the point entirely.

    ‘But I would have thought that someone who put a bit of thought to the issue would realise that digitising books is not the best example of this. Specious arguments like Franzen’s hold back the reasonable inclusion of digital formats in ‘serious’ literary discussions …’

    On the contrary, this is a serious subject, encompassing serious literature and it is Franzen who is bringing it to the forum. In any case, I can’t recall anyone sidelining any type or genre, digitised or not, from serious discussion simply because of its format. I have read numerous comments and articles, though, which attempt to give literary status to works simply because those works were self-published or first published digitally. At the moment, the biggest barrier to serious discussion is the blind apotheosis of digital authors by quite a few tech bloggers.

    It doesn’t do anyone any good to also pepper your comments with pejorative remarks which have no purpose except to indirectly add some moral weight to your words. ‘Franzen’s capitalist ball’? It’s a brazen – and stupidly wrong – attempt to equate all opposition to your view of e-publishing with big business and being undemocratic.

    There is a serious discussion waiting to be had about transitory forms and information, and the effect it has on our lives, and our perceptions of the world. You reduce it to a battle between a snob and some (unsaid) democratic populist majority; and position it as being between a progressive, modern, technologically savvy guy (you, of course) and a pretentious Luddite (Franzen). In other words, you’ve no taken time to absorb Franzen’s arguments and instead set forth your own stall. You are using Franzen’s fame to gain attention for your views, not his. And that’s rather mean.

  4. I think if you’d read any of the other articles (quoting longer parts of what Franzen actually said) you might change your mind. He certainly did say that serious readers prefer paper.

    And I don’t think it’s fair to characterise what I’m saying as wilfully misleading. Franzen is being a snob about digital books. He frames his argument around the idea of “permanence”, which can either be physical or metaphorical. As I point out in the post above neither understanding of permanence is an accurate description of paper books. On top of that he attempts to inject some intellectual credibility into his argument by claiming that this lack of permanence is somehow “not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government”. I don’t see how that argument makes sense. He is either articulating his argument poorly or his argument lacks anything but nostalgia for his preferred format. I suspect it is a combination of both.

    My post isn’t intended to be populist, but I am certainly trying to gain attention for my views. Ebooks are still a small minority of the books being read or purchased. As an enthusiast, as well as an editor and publisher of digital-only books, it saddens me to think that the attention ebooks get from the literary mainstream is attention like this – focusing on the physicality of the format rather than the words. Ebooks are currently not considered serious by many mainstream literary establishments: digital-only books are often not reviewed and not included in top ten lists. The only difference between a digital-only book and its paper version is this ridiculous concept of ‘permanence’, which is a flimsy argument. I’m deeply uncomfortable with someone like Franzen bringing attention to the issue by dressing up such an argument in intellectual wankery, thereby vindicating other paper book snobs. That’s why I wrote the post.

  5. I understand completely your concern that as yet e-books get rather less attention than they should in the mainstream media – as do the vast majority of independent publishers of print books. Most attention is focussed on the Hockings and the Lockes and the like – which are not particularly praiseworthy ambassadors for literature in any format. And that attention is based on they monetary achievements, rather than their literary achievements.

    It doesn’t help that even though e-books still only account for less than 20% of the total book sales (excluding all but fiction, the percentage is higher) but yet there were more ebooks published last year than print books; a flood of content and a trickle of readers. And with the amount of dross digitally published, digital-only books are struggling to garner a decent reputation.

    All indicators point to this changing and the balance being redressed. I am very wary, though, that this will change anything. The majors will simply dominate the new format and we’re back at square one.

    I am confident I know what Franzen means about incompatibility with justice and responsible self-government (though I might be mis-representing him) and there is substance to his concerns. It deserves more words than I can provide either here or now.

    I still disagree with your definition of permanence and its place in the argument. The real concern is not mere editability or mutability; it goes beyond that to floating reference points and to intellectual consumerism. I read Ms Blanchard’s article and I’d have to say that you are slightly optimistic to say she has written a definitive answer, let alone disembowelled the topic. Quite the opposite, I’m afraid. But again, Franzen is going beyond simply permanence in books; they are but a symptom of a wider issue which may or may not be problem.

    Almost every discussion I have encountered that involves opinions on ebooks and print books quickly becomes polemical. Those who champion digital books (and I do, by the way) are better served not by pitting them against print books, but not trumpeting them as better or endowing them with virtues they don’t possess. Particularly as we are in such early days of the technology that even the ebooks published by the majors are full of layout errors because the software is embryonic. It makes them an easy target.

    We’ll get nowhere while the blind continue to argue with the deaf.

  6. If you follow his logic through to its conclusion, Franzen will only write on paper, but he’s happy to wipe his arse with ones and zeros.

  7. “Digital books are easy to change.”

    A thought: there continues to be a segment of the population that distrusts digital anything. Probably to do with familiarity, understanding of, and open-mindedness towards new technology. My mother still likes to print out invoices and receipts that she receives by email, even though I’ve pointed out that a print-out of an electronic document is as incontrovertible and only proves as much as the file itself (though I suppose there are also data storage/security questions). Yet she can see the folly of storing cash when we live in a fluid, electronically-operated global economy. Whereas for a long time, my grandmother literally kept money under the mattress for ‘comfort’.

    • Good point. I’m amazed I haven’t heard the argument before equating cash money to electronic. Nobody would argue these days that hard cash is any more valuable than money in the bank … though perhaps I’m being a little rose-tinted about people’s views on banks.