Franzen vs technology

Author Jonathan Franzen’s outburst at Amazon last week was pretty damning, writing over at the Guardian that boss Jeff Bezos "may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen".

He claims the online retailer-cum-publisher is destroying literary culture by disrupting the traditional publishing industry in favour of trying to become its very own industry, creating "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".

Amazon has undoubtedly caused a great deal of turmoil in the publishing world and I definitely don’t like the hegemony it has created in the world of ebooks.

Its policy of undercutting print book prices (often selling them at a loss on its website) and then ebooks too (its low prices caused consternation among the Big Six publishers, which led them to sign deals with Apple in the price-fixing scandal), is destroying brick and mortar bookstores and could well erode choice in books, with our reading being guided by constant, vaguely patronising suggestions which crop up at the bottom of the Amazon website when you’re logged in to your personal profile.

But Franzen’s argument then begins to rankle somewhat. He says "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…What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word…?"

To me, this reeks of snobbery. Firstly, the idea that an author aiming for success has the cash to pay hundreds of people to write fake good reviews for them is a bit laughable – those kind of numbers are hardly achievable, and the few mates and family who do write good reviews for your work are likely to be eclipsed by the angry readers who buy your book on that basis and find out it stinks.

What Franzen wants is to replicate the world he grew up in, where gatekeepers exist to ensure a kind of quality control, and in which we spurn online feedback to scour the weekend newspapers for reviews by esteemed critics and celebrated authors who will guide our reading – as if ordinary people’s judgement is impaired because they haven’t won a Pulitzer.

Besides, the "permanence of the printed word" (a really nice phrase, actually) is just as real if a book is self-published as an electronic text as it would be in a Little, Brown-published novel.

What Franzen’s really talking about here is his fear of technology. He confirms this when he starts criticising Twitter for being a self-promotional tool and his disappointment at finding out authors he believes "ought to have known better" use it.

Salman Rushdie – one keen Tweeter – wrote on the site in response that he and fellow tweeting authors Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Nathan Englander and others were "fine with Twitter. Enjoy your ivory tower."

Franzen, for all the genius he possesses, has his head in the sand. He is right that we should be concerned at Amazon’s approach to fiction – and to authors – and he is right that the printed word is a haven from all the buzzing voices we are distracted by everyday via texting and Twitter.

But what he wants is not to embrace the benefits of technological advancements – the ability to self-publish, the opportunities to engage directly with an audience and build a relationship with your readers.

No, what he wants is to turn back the clock – denying the information age exists and ignore the many advantages it offers. And that, for my money, is just plain daft.

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