Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Jonathan Franzen is as good an essayist as he is a novelist. ‘How to be alone?’ is a wonderful collection of his articles reprinted from various magazine publications. The most famous of his articles is the so-called Harper’s essay where he decried the decline of reading and the challenges of writing in the face of today’s incessant technology. The essay is entitled ‘Why Bother’ – alluding to the problem faced by today’s authors. Why bother writing a novel when readership is declining, when television and movies are better mediums to tell a story than a ‘social novel’, when distractions abound with the latest digital technology and the rise of today ‘visual’ thinkers who prefer visual cues to process information as compared to yester years symbolic readers. It’s as if the digital age has no place for the serious reader or the serious writer. The world has shifted to a new visual medium with iPad or tablets and graphical user interfaces that offer unending distractions and menu driven thinking.
Is there a place for a serious writer in a digital age? Fortunately, Franzen does provide some answers. He is aware of the issues and quotes Nicolas Negroponte and his book ‘Being Digital.’ Interestingly, Negroponte is dyslexic and hates to read. Franzen cites other writers who attack the incessant onslaught of the digital age. He cites a writer who attacked the nerd bible ‘Wired’ magazine as a symbol of the new priesthood of technologists. It’s a priesthood of nerds who thrive in complexity and the use of the latest technology. Now everyone is a nerd, tweaking his iPod or smart phone or iPad or tablet to access the Internet like it was another country to explore. Everyone seems to have a fascination with cyberspace with its own eco system of Facebook, Google and social networking. Want to know about reality – one can find it in videos uploaded in Youtube or the various reality sites or blogs posted in the Internet. It beats reading a novel as everything is real time with amazing videos and pictures. In cyberspace everyone is his own publisher, writer and reader.
The great social novel accepted in the mainstream cannot be written anymore. The world has fragmented into small tribes. There is no universal novel that will be relevant for everybody so niche markets now exist. One must write with his own tribal milieu in mind. The writer is an isolated individual who has no choice but to write. He is a nerd who is trying to make sense of the outer world with his inner world by using a symbolic language to express himself. Writing is a distinct activity open to only a few who have this predilection. Writers are readers in the first place and reading is part and parcel to one becoming a writer. So the writer starts as a reader and he is in contrast to today’s ‘information processors’ who are not necessarily readers but someone who look for patterns in diverse input like computer graphics, the written word, video and photos. Information processors thrive in the digital world because of the multimedia variety of the incoming information. He is not stuck in the linear world of books.
Serious reading has become a specialized activity akin to meditation as one writer suggests. It requires quiet time, focus and attention similar to meditation. Like meditation it requires some effort which is not sometimes possible in today’s attention deficit and multiple distraction worlds. But the serious reader is also answering his own inner urge in trying to find himself or his so-called identity. So the reader is also in some sort of inner quest himself. He becomes a writer when he has transcended reading as an act of self-discovery into writing as an act of self-actualization. He assumes another role in this journey of self-discovery in order to answer another transcendent urge for fulfillment. Most people are readers but few transcend into writers. This journey is all the more difficult in today’s digital environment plus the rise of visual mediums like television, movies and photos. Perhaps an analogy is the rise of photography that caused the decline of realistic painting. The result is a shift into the impressionist and abstract painting of the modern age. Perhaps the visual medium of television and movies is disrupting the social novel although the medium is entirely different. Visual products perhaps may start with the written form as most movies are adaptations of novels or short stories.
Franzen is aware of these challenges which require a sophisticated understanding of technology. He is an interesting combination of the serious writer and the computer geek who is possessed of the philosophical distance required to dispassionately analyze the situation. It is intriguing that he has found a formula to succeed and has put to good use with the subsequent publishing of two novels that were both critical and commercial success. There is life after the digital age after all. His works are dense and overly long but seem to find an audience. He belongs to the tactical intellectual writers like Don Dellilo – a writer which he seems to correspond with often. But his work seems to be grand drama which does not strike at the heart of the matter the way writers like Cormac McCarthy do. McCarthy chooses his novels well – simple and straightforward but containing the essential problems of today. I would think that most readers today will have difficulty reading Franzen as compared to reading McCarthy.