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.
Nobody 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.