Of Ornamentation and Avoidance

Jonathan Franzen Karl Kraus illustration


After reading (hurriedly) this jeremiad of Jonathan Franzen’s, a couple of recurring themes jump out: Yes, we writers – and everyone else, it seems – want to adorn ourselves with superficial things (and what could be more blatantly so than Miley Cyrus’ latest butt-waggle). We struggle, not so much for relevance, but for adulation (or perhaps simply notice), and that’s what Franzen’s on about here. Without some form of adulation (the roar of an approving crowd, a host of praise by whatever in-crowd you aspire to), we see no success in being competent, relevant cogs on society’s larger wheels.

But why do we seek thusly? We seek the ornamentation, the glitz, because relevance has become so uncomfortable. We live in a world in massive flux, and it’s damned complicated out there. So why not settle for oversimplified adulation? We can idolize some divinity without delving into the complexities of what might’ve made that phenomenon divine, and we seem compelled to idolize a writer, a book, without assaying the writer’s limitations, the books flaws.

Franzen seems to sense all this in his saying he’d not a Luddite. He’s surely not, in the strictest sense. But we conflate that cliched term with our desperate need to oversimplify everything in life these days. Franzen bemoans Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s hold on publishing, on aspiring writers, not because there’s not talent brewing out there under Amazon’s aegis (maybe it is, maybe it isn’t) but because life under the Amazon umbrella looks damned complicated to a writer sitting atop the ever-precarious literary pyramid.

If Franzen is going to be worried about such things, maybe he should start where he resides, in the bailiwick of idolized writers, rather than with the huddled writing masses. I’m thinking here of Jhumpa Lahiri and Thomas Pynchon being nominated just now for a Booker prize and a National Book award before their books are hardly out to the public. Yes, the New York Times Book Reviews are probably more sophisticated than many Amazon reviewers, but doesn’t the public’s view of the books count for something? Or are these big name writers writing for the reviewers’ benefit, hoping book clubs and individual readers will glom onto them once blessed by NYT, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and others, without the word-of-mouth meritocracy? Is this not a leap into ornamentation at the cost of relevance? Are we as readers and writers not avoiding the flaws in the perhaps not well thought out works, the glaring, wasted pages, by these big names? Shouldn’t we be looking as critically at Franzen and Pynchon and Lahiri as some agent or editor might look at what we’re writing?



Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

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