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A Self-Published Author’s Rebuttal To Jonathan Franzen

A Self-Published Author’s Rebuttal to Jonathan Franzen

Indie author Amira Makansi responds to Jonathan Franzen’s recent controversial dismissal of self-publishing and finds that he has more in common than he might realise with the self-publishers that he decries. 

The self-published author Amira MakansiNobody in the publishing world was surprised when Jonathan Franzen came out two weeks ago with an essay decrying the advent of self-publishing, the rise of Amazon, and, more broadly, the digital age as a whole.

What took everyone by surprise was how ignorant and hypocritical his essay was. And while just about everyone who’s anyone has come out with a retaliatory response, I think it’s fair that at least one more be added to the clamour of voices, from an aspiring writer not so different, perhaps, from who Franzen himself was thirty years ago.

Beginning with the obvious, Franzen denounces self-published authors as “yakkers and tweeters and braggers,” arguing that self-published authors live in a cyclical world of endless self-promotion. Lest we forget, here’s Franzen attacking self-promotion in an essay that serves as self-promotion for his upcoming translated essays. The only difference between him and the host of self-published authors who also write for The Guardian is that his publicist probably got him that slot. Who’s a “yakker” and a “bragger” now, Mr Franzen?

But in some ways, I have to admit that I agree with him. This is a part of the reason why I joined ALLi, and not many of the other author organisations out there:

“In reaching out to readers, I do not bombard, spam or force my writing upon others,” reads ALLi’s Code of Conduct as regards marketing.

I joined ALLi because it was a community that no more favours incessant self-promotion than Franzen does. We appear to have more in common than maybe you’d like to think, Mr Franzen.

In Defence of Self-Publishing

But Franzen turns vicious when insulting artistic inclinations in self-published authors – an area where I feel self-publishing deserves a righteous defence.

“What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word?” he asks, blindly ignorant to the fact that this is precisely why so many hundreds—thousands—of new writers are turning to self-publishing.

We, too, believe in the “quiet and permanence of the written word,” Mr Franzen. We, too, believe in “quality control” and would like to “communicate in depth, individual to individual,” with our readers. We wouldn’t be writers, otherwise. Again, Mr Franzen, we have more in common than you might think, though you’d have to come down from your ivory tower to realise it.

Here is the inherent hypocrisy in his words: If twenty-something Franzen, in Boston and struggling to find a market and a publisher for his first book, were in today’s market, I have little doubt he too would be on Twitter and Facebook and would have started blogging. He assaults those who “pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them” (a practice nearly all self-published authors I know loathe and would never condone) while forgetting that the buddy system of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours is the same system that gets manuscripts into the hands of highly-sought-after agents and editors, books into the New York Times Book Review and authors’ short stories and essays into The New Yorker. But because Franzen came of age, so to speak, in a time when validation through accredited gatekeepers was the only way into the hallowed grounds of publishing, to him, success through any other path will never be valid.

Jane Austen to the Rescue

“How shall we punish him?” Miss Bingley asks Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, referring to Mr Darcy, to which Lizzy responds, “Laugh at him.”

How shall we punish Mr Franzen? To take him seriously would imply that his arguments have merit. To ignore him completely is already impossible – this essay has already received considerable attention.

How shall we punish him? We will laugh at him: at, as David Gaughran put it, the “hilarious hypocrisy of Jonathan Franzen,” who derides the world for aspiring to the very same thing that set him on his career path almost thirty years ago.

(You can read Franzen’s original article here.)

 

This Post Has 8 Comments
  1. Wonderful essay! And how about the fact that not only has publishing changed in ways that allow many more writers find creative ways to get their work into print, but also in ways that make the traditional routes to publication more and more narrow and exclusionary. Catch-22–most writers cannot get their work looked at either by agents, and without an agent certainly not by commerical presses, unless they already have a “platform.” And that makes building a platform well in advance of a book’s release, which is, of course, marketing and self-promotion, an imperative and at the same time, a very difficult thing to do!

  2. I agree on the whole with the positive points you make here but I think a lot of indies have leapt to conclusions about Franzen’s piece because of the single mention of self-publishing (alongside Amazon’s own imprint) and have, in being defensive, missed out on the general thrust of his argument as well as several of his nuances (and here I will add that yes, there IS a huge difference between this article and most of those that appear on the Books Blog – with the exception of the always-superlative Andrew Gallix. Whilst I abhor his fiction – bloated, privileged, self-indulgent twaddle – and have huge issues with a lot of his opinions – his dismissal of twitter was borderline paranoiac nonsense – he is a superb essayist. Not quite David Foster Wallace, but about as close as we have in the land of the living.) Some of the comments on privilege and the the deifference between fiction writing and satire in relation to anger and the audience are superbly put, and his recognition of the cyclical nature of the past’s fear and rejection of a present that instantaneously becomes the past is spelled out with great clarity. The real weakness of the essay comes in the parts where he is foregrounded and we can “see thw writing” in his personal mythmaking.

    But the central point, the present against which he seems to be railing, is a multinational corporate one whose embodiment in the literary world is Amazon. As far as I read what he is saying, he is not attacking yakkers and braggers, or saying that all indie writers, or all regularly published writers, are yakkers and braggers. He is attacking a system whose algorithms and ethos naturally weight the odds of success (where success is measured in terms of coverage and/or sales) in favour of such yakkers and braggers. And to be honest, I don’t see how it’s possible to argue with that – surely all of us who self-publish but do not fall into this category should be joining with him in calling for attempts to figure out how to create a system that is not so weighted (one simple example, as given in Roz Morris’ excellent and widely misread post a month or so ago – visibility on Amazon favours the prolific, and proliferation is a guarantee of neither quality nor profundity [though neither, of course, is it a guarantee of their absence, a point which those who criticised Roz singularly failed to see despite her spelling it out]). As long as indies carry on praising Amazon from the rooftops, they will stay locked in (and nothing is so weak a counter-example as the occasional named exception – of course there are superlative exceptions such as Linda Gillard, John Logan and Sergio De La Pava, and we note them because they are exceptional) to a system that favours review-seeking, self-promotion, writing within popular and narrowly-defined genres and that aligns success with capital accretion and seeks to apportion cultural coverage to economic acuity. As I see it, it is very hard to maintain that position and still claim that one’s primary concern is the preservation of great, world-disrupting art and deep communication – yes, these may still happen, and yes they can happen within the kind of writing that Amazon pushes to the fore (again, I feel the need to spell this out because of the inevitable misreading fo what I’m saying which sometimes seems either so wilful or to come from a viewpoint that is so narrow that it in itself is proof of what the detractors are saying) but when they happen it is despite and not because of the system that Amazon has created.

    1. Dan – Great points. I think David Gaughran’s post most highlights the discrepancy you’re addressing – Gaughran claimed that Amazon is in fact the solution to the problem that Franzen (and now you) has highlighted, which is not necessarily something I agree with (though not something I disagree with, either – I’m not as convinced as you are that Franzen’s hit the nail on the head with his critique of Amazon.)

      What irked me most about Franzen’s article was not his critique of the tech-savvy generation and the denunciation of Twitter, Amazon, Apple, etc. – in fact, I agreed with a number of his points regarding the current tech culture. What irked me, instead, was the presumption and hypocrisy he carried while making the critique itself. In his essay, he ignored the power structures that got him to fame while denouncing the power structures that have gotten others to fame. He derides self-promotion in an essay that is inherently self-promoting. He insults self-published authors, claiming they cannot possibly want to achieve the same level of communication he seems to think he has, without ever putting his feet on the ground to look around at the myriad of people who have self-published.

      Your points are valid, and I think Franzen’s critique of Amazon has a lot of legitimacy. But his preachy, holier-than-thou attitude to the whole thing made me disinclined to like or respect him, even though I may agree with him in some areas.

      1. “In his essay, he ignored the power structures that got him to fame while denouncing the power structures that have gotten others to fame.”
        That’s certainly true – he has a history of bolstering a hegemony that is incredibly biased towards his narrow output, as in the dispute a few years ago about women’s fiction

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Amira Makansi

Amira makes wine by day and worlds by night. As a part-time winemaker and harvest hand, she spends her days sipping wine out of barrels and her nights bringing new worlds to life. She writes with her mom Kristy and sister Elena. Their ​collaborative Seeds series, beginning with The Sowing, is now complete. Her personal blog is here.

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