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Jonathan Franzen: While We Are Busy Tweeting, Texting and Spending, the World is Drifting Towards Disaster

The problems of our modern world.

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I did the work late in the afternoon, after six or seven hours of writing short stories, in the bedroom of the little Somerville apartment that my wife and I were renting for $300 a month. When I'd finished drafts of the two translations, I sent them to George. He returned them a few weeks later, with marginal notations in his microscopic handwriting, and with a letter in which he applauded my effort but said that he could also see how "devilishly difficult" it was to translate Kraus. Taking his hint, I looked at the drafts with a fresh eye and was discouraged to find them stilted and nearly unreadable. Almost every sentence needed work, and I was so worn out by the work I'd already done that I buried the pages in a file folder.

But Kraus had changed me. When I gave up on short stories and returned to my novel, I was mindful of his moral fervour, his satirical rage, his hatred of the media, his preoccupation with apocalypse, and his boldness as a sentence-writer. I wanted to expose America's contradictions the way he'd exposed Austria's, and I wanted to do it via the novel, the popular genre that Kraus had disdained but I did not. I still hoped to finish my Kraus project, too, after my novel had made me famous and a millionaire. To honour these hopes, I collected clippings from the Sunday Times and the daily Boston Globe, which my wife and I subscribed to. For some reason – perhaps to reassure myself that other people, too, were getting married – I read the nuptials pages religiously, clipping headlines such as "Cynthia Pigott Married to Louis Bacon" and, my favourite, "Miss LeBourgeois to Marry Writer".

I read the Globe with an especially cold Krausian eye, and it obligingly enraged me with its triviality and its shoddy proofreading and its dopily punning weather headlines. I was so disturbed by the rootless, meaningless "wit" of Head-on Splash, which I imagined would not amuse the family of someone killed in a car crash, and of Autumnic Balm, which offended my sense of the seriousness of the nuclear peril, that I finally wrote a slashingly Krausian letter to the editor. The Globe actually printed the letter, but it managed, with characteristic carelessness, to mangle my punchline as Automatic Balm, thereby rendering my point incomprehensible. I was so enraged that I later devoted many pages of my second novel to making fun of what a shitty paper the Globe was. My rage back then – directed not just at the media but at Boston, Boston drivers, the people at the lab where I worked, the computer at the lab, my family, my wife's family, Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, literary theorists, the minimalist fiction writers then in vogue, and men who divorced their wives – is foreign to me now. It must have had to do with the profound isolation of my married life and with the ruthlessness with which, in my ambition and poverty, I was denying myself pleasure.

There was probably also, as I've argued, an element of the privileged person's anger at the world for disappointing him. If I turned out not to have enough of this anger to make me a junior Kraus, it was because of the genre I'd chosen. When a hardcore satirist manages to achieve some popularity, it can only mean that his audience doesn't understand him. The lack of an audience whom Kraus could respect was a foregone conclusion, and so he never had to stop being angry: he could be the Great Hater at his writing desk, and then he could put down his pen and have a cosy personal life with his friends. But when a novelist finds an audience, even a small one, he or she is in a different relation to it, because the relation is based on recognition, not misunderstanding. With a relation like that, with an audience like that, it becomes simply dishonest to remain so angry. And the mental work that fiction fundamentally requires, which is to imagine what it's like to be somebody you are not, further undermines anger. The more I wrote novels, the less I trusted my own righteousness, and the more prone I was to sympathising with people like the typesetters at the Globe. Plus, as the internet rose to power, disseminating information that could be trusted as little as it cost to read it, I became so grateful to papers like the Timesand the Globe for still existing, and for continuing to pay halfway responsible reporters to report, that I lost all interest in tearing them down.

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