Jonathan Franzen wouldn’t know irony if he tripped over it. Last year, he declared that “serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves,” at a public reading. At a large university. In front of many people. And in 2006, he published a memoir—which is the print equivalent of yakking about yourself for five hours—called The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History.
Today, via an excerpt in the Guardian from his upcoming book The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus, he launched an attack on our “media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted” world. In it, he presents the Apple vs. PC commercials of the aughts as an apt analogy to Karl Kraus’s inner dichotomies. Never one to miss an opportunity for un-self-aware contrarianism, Franzen declared the PC (played by John Hodgman) similar to a character in a novel, with “actual desires.” But the personified Mac (played by Justin Long) was composed of “such insufferable smugness that he made the miseries of Windows attractive by comparison.”
He should know. On smugness, Franzen is a bit of an expert. Here are the seven smuggest bits from his rant against smugness:
1. The thing about Kraus is that he's is [sic] very hard to follow on a first reading — deliberately hard. He was the scourge of throwaway journalism, and to his cult-like followers his dense and intricately coded style formed an agreeable barrier to entry; it kept the uninitiated out.
But don’t despair: Franzen’s got intellectual might in spades and will help explain Krause’s complexities to your underdeveloped brains. In fact, he’s translated him from the German and written a whole 336-page book. And now he's adapted a section of the book into an article that aspires to be hard to follow on a first reading—deliberately hard.
2. [Kraus’s] contention ... that walking down a street in Paris or Rome is an aesthetic experience in itself — is confirmed by the ongoing popularity of France and Italy as vacation destinations and by the "envy me" tone of American Francophiles and Italophiles announcing their travel plans. If you say you're taking a trip to Germany, you'd better be able to explain what specifically you're planning to do there, or else people will wonder why you're not going someplace where life is beautiful.
Are we not measured by the company we keep?
3. ...the calculated difficulty of [Kraus’s] writing wasn't a barricade against the barbarians. It was aimed, instead, at bright and well-educated cultural authorities who embraced a phony kind of individuality – people Kraus believed ought to have known better.
But Franzen, a bright and well-educated cultural authority, is not at all embracing a phony kind of individuality by railing against Apple and Twitter.
4. Spare me the picturesque moil on the rind of an old gorgonzola in place of the dependable white monotony of cream cheese!
This is perhaps the most pretentious sentence ever written about one's own supposed unpretentiousness. [UPDATE: The above line was written by Kraus, not Franzen—an earlier version of the Guardian article had not set it off in a blockquote, thus the confusion. But our observation about the sentence stands.]
5. I'm enchanted with everything about my new Lenovo ultrabook computer except its name. (Working on something called an IdeaPad tempts me to refuse to have ideas.)
Translation: My ideas are so myriad and profound that, in order not to have them, I must refuse their origination.
6. Kraus had changed me.... 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.
Yes, this is intentionally saucy and tongue-in-cheek, but he is, in fact, one of the rare authors in America to become famous (in a way) and a millionaire. And who does he have to thank for it? The “media-saturated’ society he derides.
7. What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?
Speaking of self-promotion, Franzen's article concludes, "The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen is published by Harper Collins on 1 October. To pre-order it for £15.19 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk."
Hillary Kelly is the digital media editor at The New Republic.