I have reached that stage of my project when production details will now dominate as I get my new book ready for printing. In other words, I have switched to “publisher” mode. So, during the last two weeks, it’s been ironic for me to be thinking about production, marketing and otherwise figuring out how to make my writing visible while simultaneously following the fracas generated by Jonathan Franzen’s recent essay in The Guardian on “what’s wrong with the modern world.” As I read the essay, I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with it at the same time. Much like Michelle Goldberg’s response to it on The Daily Beast. In the essay, I heard echoes of Hannah Arendt’s worries about technology and the rise of “consumer society” and its corollary—the “society of laborers—whose effects she articulated in The Human Condition:
For a society of laborers, the world of machines has become a substitute for the real world, even though this pseudo world cannot fulfill the most important task of the human artifice, which is to offer mortals a dwelling place more permanent and more stable than themselves.
Franzen, too, expressed concern about the “dehumanization” of technology-dominated “technoconsumerism,” emphasizing the hidden power structures lying behind it. Using as a trope Karl Kraus, a turn of the nineteenth century Austrian satirist and trenchant critic of modernity, Franzen wrote:
With technoconsumerism, a humanist rhetoric of "empowerment" and "creativity" and "freedom" and "connection" and "democracy" abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it's far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people's worst impulses, than newspapers ever were [Kraus was a critic of the newspapers of his time].
Fair enough. It’s become increasingly difficult to see the monopolies of power that drive internet-democracy and clearly profit from it behind the rhetoric of “access = democracy” often associated with the internet. But Franzen wasn’t content simply to point to the Wizard behind the curtain—in this case, identifying two: Apple and Jeff Bezos—but went on to decry the “dumbing down” of writing and thinking by what he called “the internet's accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers.” Too many people, of too little talent now have the tools to assault us with meaningless twatter, he argued. Among his examples were twitter and other social media.
Confessing to being disappointed that “a novelist who I believe ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter”—which, by the way, led Rushdie to respond to Franzen on Twitter: “Dear #Franzen: @MargaretAtwood @JoyceCarolOates @nycnovel @NathanEnglander @Shteyngart and I are fine with Twitter. Enjoy your ivory tower.”—Franzen lambasted the internet, social media, and, in particular, the impact of Amazon on publishing.
It’s important to my argument to quote Franzen at length here:
Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. 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. 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, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?
Amazon becomes, yet again, the bête noir of the coterie of truly serious writers, in which camp Franzen clearly positions himself, by making it harder for readers “amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews" to find their way "to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of [serious] writer.” And not only are readers damaged; these non-shallow writers are being transformed into “the kind of prospectless workers whom [Amazon’s] 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.” (For the record, I didn’t think The Corrections deserved as much rave as much as everyone else lavished on it. But I intend to give his Freedom a chance to change my mind. And, yes, I am linking to his books because I think folks deserve to know about them.)
There’s no question that Amazon’s impact on publishing has been consequential in major ways, including lowering writer’s earnings. But what Franzen doesn’t address is the fact that the big publishing houses have contributed to this mess, making it more difficult for anyone without a “platform”—read notoriety of some kind, or an already significant record or the endorsement of folks like, well, Franzen—even to get the attention of the agents and without an agent most publishers won’t even take a look at a proposal.
Many really good writers, including some well-known literary writers, turn to indie-publishing as the only way to get their work into print, and also to have greater creative control. And many serious writers make every effort to have their work vetted before putting into the world. But when it goes into the world, sales notwithstanding, it will be judged.
The implication Franzen makes that there are among this group of self-published writers no serious writers “who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word” is simply wrong, as other indie writers already have noted.
So, while I agree with Franzen’s wider worries about cultural malaise, I don’t think its roots can be placed entirely at the foot of Amazon or even of digital technologies. Even Franzen knows these are symptoms of a much, much deeper, systemic problem.
True, we need to feed ourselves with more “slow” forms of communication and defend the reverie necessary for thinking. And I believe good books—reading and thinking and talking about them—are one way to bring us back to this focus. But to trash those who have been excluded from the pantheon of writers blessed by publication by one of the “Big Six” is to pander to a kind of snobbery and self-importance that Franzen’s own analysis suggests he ought to know better than to embrace. At least a writer of his caliber should make more finely tuned distinctions.
And for those of us, including myself, who have taken the independent path, marketing, including a version of “self-promotion,” is essential to getting the word out about our books. But then, it’s important to Franzen too, whose article, by the way, was “tweeted” and circulated on Facebook, and otherwise shared more than 10,000 times.
In the next posting, I’ll have some suggestions for authors about how to increase the visibility of their work. By the way, this is no guarantee that anyone is going to read a book, much less a guarantee they will like it.