Later this fall, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish The Kraus Project, novelist Jonathan Franzen's translation of the work of Austrian essayist Karl Kraus, who looked with dismay upon the Europe of his day. In an essay published this afternoon on the website of The Guardian, titled "What's Wrong With the Modern World," Franzen assumes the mantle of the man he calls "the Great Hater," launching into a lengthy diatribe against contemporary American life.
Franzen has a tendency towards intellectualized dyspepsia. He has previously said that Twitter is "irresponsible" and railed against "the digital junk stream." Yet the Guardian essay seems to represent Franzen's most sustained attack on today's culture.
A few selection of his targets, both great and small:
Apple products, Macs in particular: "Isn't the essence of the Apple product that you achieve coolness simply by virtue of owning it?... Whereas, when you're working on some clunky, utilitarian PC, the only thing to enjoy is the quality of your work itself."
Justin Long, depicting Mac products in television commercials: "The argument was eminently reasonable, but it was delivered by a personified Mac (played by the actor Justin Long) of such insufferable smugness that he made the miseries of Windows attractive by comparison."
Salman Rushdie, for "succumbing" to Twitter: "[He] ought to have known better."
The magazine n+1, for "denigrating print magazines as terminally male": "Somehow neglects to consider the internet's accelerating pauperization of freelance writers."
Jeff Bezos: "[He] may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen."
The plight of the novelist: "Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion"
Internet discourse: "Yakking and tweeting and bragging"
This goes on for a rather long while. One could simply ignore it, but Franzen is too famous for that. One wants to say that he is talented, too, but there is little here to suggest anything other than pure disdain for the way we live — a lot of hatred, but few glimpses of greatness.
If this problem were only confined to one essay, we would leave it at that. But, like a plume of dark smoke, it spills over into Franzen's fiction, tainting his considerable talents. Too often, he is content to pick off low-hanging fruit (rapacious Republicans, suburban bores), to traffic in anger instead of offering insight.
Part of this stems from a certain arrogant remove evident in the Guardian essay — Jonathan Franzen understands the world, and you do not. He seems to think that to engage with contemporaneity would dilute his own intellect, seemingly neglecting that the likes of Margaret Atwood, Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace have all done so without dumbing down their fiction. After all, if the world is so insufferable, so doomed — "apocalypse-haunted," he calls it in The Guardian — then why even bother writing about it?