Dear Jonathan Franzen: Americans Need An Optimistic Narrative


I almost didn’t read Franzen’s “While We Are Busy Tweeting, Texting and Spending, the World is Drifting Towards Disaster: The problems of our modern world.” He seems to revel in his contrarian, neo-Krausian stances on how media technology is all related to one monopolistic conglomerate. I yawned and almost hit delete, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Naturally, there has been a LOT of attention spent on Franzen’s latest declamations, which has been already summarized and assessed well, especially in arguments relegated to Twitter apologetics.

I want to consider it from a slightly different perspective, and in which at least half comes to his defense. In spite of his apparently disconnected and angry outlook, what I noticed in Franzen’s autobiographical portrait is a person seeking clarity in turbulent times. The question is: Who does he intend to persuade?

The Generative American Narrative
Americans who will most likely care about what’s at stake in the numerous claims that Franzen makes are generative adults, to borrow from Erik H. Erikson who pioneered human lifespan studies on psychological health, adaptation, and goodness (and interestingly enough, was German born and only a generation removed from Franzen’s hero, Karl Kraus).

According to Dan McAdams, a leading voice in personality psychology, the chief American narrative of generative people is one of essential optimism. People observe that they are born with special blessings in the midst of a world with much suffering. Such people feel a special call to help. In their story, they surmount many obstacles, draw benefits from their struggles along the way, and seek to make a difference that leaves behind a legacy. A set of values and beliefs acquired during childhood provides an essential part of the system that helps guide and motivate them in their work. This narrative tells a story of a good inner self that is in combat against a sometimes untrust¬worthy world, but that with the right plan can achieve almost anything, including the ultimate goal of redemption: personal self-actualization.

Franzen’s Identification With A Shrill Satirist
Clearly, Franzen strongly identifies with Karl Kraus, the 20th century Austrian satirist, who meant so much to him when he began to sense his own sense of deep-seated anger in spite of his privileged background. Franzen writes:

I was a late child in a loving family which…did have enough money to place me in a good public school district and send me to an excellent college, where I learned to love literature and language. I was a white, male, heterosexual American with good friends and perfect health. And yet, for all my privileges, I became an extremely angry person. Anger descended on me so near in time to when I fell in love with Kraus’s writing that the two occurrences are practically indistinguishable.

Certainly Karl Kraus perceived ahead of his time how modern life has little taste for reflection and how the media colludes with establishment thinking and power. Franzen also notes: “It’s not clear that Kraus’s shrill, ex cathedra denunciations were the most effective way to change hearts and minds.”

I think it is clear. It’s not the best way for Franzen (at least) to persuade his intended American audience.

Missing The Point of Social Media
As is well documented, Franzen misses a gigantic point of what much of social media is about, and how it continues to evolve. It’s not just about yakking at each other or tooting horns of self-importance. It is a form of connection. It is a way of learning about others and the world. I learned about his very article from a tweet after all.

Of course it’s not okay that westernized “progress” should mean continual pillaging of the earth. And we should keep our ears attuned to new forms of tyranny. We should be aware. We should resist. We should not blithely distract ourselves in our little social media hubs of the universe while “Rome burns.”

And many of us do yearn for more sustained analysis and thoughtful dialog about issues of the day, and in fact there are places to find it. In fact we connect to many organizations trying to do something about many of the issues at hand through these social media connections Franzen so detests.

Framing Our Stories Toward Improvement
There is plenty to say about how the endless distractions of social media and life in the digital world. All too often it works against the very creativity and mindfulness we seek to produce and promote.

The humanist novelist that Franzen is, he should be aware of framing the story in a more positive light if he does intend to change hearts and minds. Not only that, but let’s thoughtfully grapple with solutions.

Our technologies are here. They are evolving. Clearly, they present a continual rise of new problems. Perhaps a better approach is to consider healthful ways of utilizing and engaging with these tools rather than simply disparaging them and the people who use them.