Friday, February 17, 2012

Jonathan Franzen does not want you to read his books.

At least, not on your ereader, anyway. I think he wants you to read his critically-acclaimed novel Freedom, but only if you buy the hardcover version currently list priced at $28 USD on Amazon. I think that’s what he was trying to say in his talk at the Hay Festival, covered by The Telegraph two weeks ago.

Jonathan Franzen is all about the glue in the binding and the touch of finger oils on paper. In his recent interview, he says that eBooks are detrimental to society because they have been “conned” into existence by “the capitalists.” Paperback books—apparently published by non-capitalist, non-mega publisher Farrar, Straus& Giroux—are better because, “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.”

Unless, as a helpful commenter pointed out at The Guardian, you have too many errors in your traditionally published, professionally edited novel that printed an 80,000 first run—then it is entirely necessary to destroy 80,000 books and reprint them. An ebook, which would have necessitated a simple re-download for a corrected version, delivered straight to your Kindle or Nook, just doesn’t have that sense of the language being “just right.”

The Guardian article on Franzen’s comments has curated a rather hilarious lot of commentators who point out a lot of the inconsistencies in his argument, and I recommend checking it out. How does he “take the game card out of his computer” anyway? If you have ever identified the “game card” in your computer, please drop a line in the comments below so I can take it out of mine, too.

This is not the first time Franzen has failed to understand common technology, nor criticize his readership and meal ticket.

Jonathan Franzen also does not want Oprah Winfrey to read his books… Correction, he did not want Oprah Winfrey to read his books, until his first inclusion in Oprah’s Book Club resulted in millions of sales. After that it was okay to appear on her show and have millions of people praise him. But when his National Book Award-winning novel The Corrections was first selected to be in the club, Franzen famously denounced the program and the readers he believed he would get from the inclusion. He waited until after his book had already been featured on Oprah in October 2001, and then afterwards, in an interview with NPR said the following (read the full interview here):

"So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator...I continue to believe that, and now, I'm actually at the point with this book that I worry...I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience….”

Which is to say that Jonathan Frazen does not really care if women read his book—men are the true mark of a reading society, and if you don’t have them, then you don’t have much of anything. Millions in the bank, yes. But otherwise it sounds like a typical First World Problem to me.

Of course, he was gracious enough to appear on Oprah when Freedom came around a few years later. Time magazine had already called him the Great American Novelist, and he had received plenty of criticism for his remarks about the female of the species and for his treatment of someone trying to honor his work. Check out some good soundbites from the Oprah interview on Flavorwire.

So if Franzen has an established behavior of saying something inflammatory and later retracting it, what do you think is going to happen over the next several years, as ebooks do, in fact, become the dominant form of publishing?

The icing on the cake of last month’s very strange talk is that Jonathan Franzen claimed he would rather be dead than live in a world where ebooks are the dominant form of publishing. Not to get too dramatic about it or anything.

Do you think statements like these, from a hyper popular author, have any effect on public perception of ebooks?

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