The Year Jonathan Franzen Thought I Was Hopeless

Kevin Nguyen calls out Jonathan Franzen and Gary Shteyngart for the condescending portrayal of youth culture in their latest novels.

franzenAt a lecture in Seattle, author Jonathan Franzen could not suppress his scorn of “young people.”

As reported by The Stranger, “A member of the audience asked if he believed there is ‘any hope’ for a culture whose ‘young people’ are ‘blogging and texting.’ Franzen responded by saying there is essentially no hope, that while our culture may have more words, there is not much ‘serious reading and writing’ going on.”

Perhaps Franzen believes that if we didn’t have the internet or television or other lowbrow distractions, we’d all be reading “serious” literature. Maybe he’s afraid that “serious” authors of “serious” literature are dying out, which might be a legitimate concern in a world where Freedom didn’t sit at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list or where people didn’t pay $70 to see Jonathan Franzen speak.

It’s not much of a stretch to assume that Franzen is talking about himself as one of the few “serious” writers left in America. Freedom, after all, is an ambitious 500-page novel about modern America, and not just one family’s America but every family’s America. The issue of Time with Franzen’s portrait and the headline “Great American Novelist” calls Freedom a book about “the way we live.”

The way we live happens to be represented by an upper-class Minnesota family called the Berglunds, whose drama borders on soap opera. It mostly centers on a love triangle between Walter, a nature conservationist, his bored wife Patty, and Richard, an aging rocker in band called Walnut Surprise (I think they’re musically akin to Wilco). Franzen, who has no children himself, has no problem writing about them. But while Walter, Patty, and Richard redeem themselves in the novel’s final act, Joey, the college-aged golden child of Walter and Patty, never grows past his own selfish behavior. He finds himself on a series of misadventures that include cheating on his fiancée, selling junk truck parts to the U.S. military, and fishing an engagement ring out of his own feces.

Freedom is extraordinarily critical of American life. But if each character represents an American archetype, is Joey Berglund really what Franzen thinks of young people?

The same sort of disappointment in young people inspires books like Gary Shteyngart’s occasionally funny but miserably cynical Super Sad True Love Story. He sets his novel in the future, in an America that’s crumbling both socially and economically, thanks to all the things Franzen is worried about in the present.

More specifically, Super Sad True Love Story is a cautionary tale warning us that Facebook will lead to the destruction of America. It’s a satire of the U.S.’s obsession with technology and the internet — which might be clever if Shteyngart understood of how any of those things actually worked. In Super Sad, the not-to-distant future is rife with teens wearing JuicyPussy (a line of scandalous underwear that can be undone with a single touch), communicating on äppäräti (smartphones with holograms… HOLOGRAMS!), and chatting constantly via GlobalTeens (which is a mashup of Facebook and Hot Or Not, as the site rates its users’ Personality, Sustainability, and Fuckability on the same 800-point system as the SATs. It also has an impossibly stupid name).

The heart of Super Sad is an attack on young people, who might understand the value of literature if they were not constantly checking GlobalTeens. Half of the novel is told from the perspective of Eunice Park, who is shallow and selfish because she is in her twenties. Her narrative takes place over slang-ridden IM conversations and emails that would convince you that Shteyngart has never used either of those things. Lenny Abramov, who narrates the book’s other half, is both Eunice’s lover and opposite. We’re supposed to relate to Lenny because his Fuckability score is low but his Personality and Sustainability are high. He collects physical books, which no longer exist in the future.

Still, it’s as if Shteyngart went to the mall one day and was appalled by what the kids were wearing, how often they were texting, how much they checked Facebook. Is Shteyngart so afraid that books will die off that he needs to write one about how kids are to blame for it? Would Shteyngart be angry if he knew I read Super Sad True Love Story on a Kindle?

At one point, Lenny has to comfort Eunice by saying, “Reading is difficult. People just aren’t meant to read any more. We’re in a post literate age. You know, a visual age. How many years after the fall of Rome did it take for a Dante to appear? Many, many years.” Lenny’s compassion may be genuine, but Shteyngart is condescending here.

(I had a hard time remembering where in the book that passage came from, but it was really easy to do a text search for it on the Kindle. The evolution of technology doesn’t necessarily mean the death of reading.)

Franzen is often described as a “hyper realist”; Shteyngart is a “hysterical realist.” Though they’ve taken different approaches to tell us about today, both Freedom and Super Sad are, in the end, deeply cynical and possessed by the idea that teenagers will fail America because they don’t read “serious” literature anymore. But if authors want the next generation to read books, they should stop writing novels designed to insult “young people.”

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.