An Open Letter to Jonathan Franzen Inviting Him to the Internet


Dear Jonathan Franzen,

You hate everything. At least that's what your recent diatribes, fueled by your release of The Kraus Project, would suggest. You’ve spent thousands upon thousands of words nitpicking and lambasting everything you find at fault in modern society (and, as broad as that might sound, you really cover your bases). There’s beauty in the passion and self-assuredness with which you hate on things, but also an unwitting irony. Because the one thing that you hate most as of late — the cursed internet — is exactly where you belong. Because though you might denounce the internet as an “infernal machine,” there is no doubt that you, neo-luddite novelist, would fit right in on Twitter or whichever corner of the internet struck your fancy. For the internet is a celebration of hating things, of unrelenting disparagement, and you — if you tried it — would find yourself among your own. The biggest troll of all.

Your main beef with the internet, as best surmised from your scattered denigrations, is that it’s a place driven by quantity — not quality — and that the “yakking,” particularly on Twitter, reduces intellectual thought to shameless self-promotion. You lament when yet another writer of “literary fiction” — you name drop Salman Rushdie — succumbs to internet use. You think they “ought to have known better,” implying that you, remaining grounded in the analog, do indeed know better. But what you miss by not engaging the internet is that it is a place littered with people who know better. So many internet users are just like you, believing they know better than everyone else. You’re right when you say the internet “tempts everyone to be a sophisticate” — all the while ignoring that you yourself are a sophisticate. You are an alleged tastemaker who postures enlightenment over feckless internet users. You’re the walking embodiment of everything you hate about the internet.

It’s a case of hating without trying. You keep yourself at too far a distance to appreciate the internet. Love for the internet comes with immersion in it, of giving over to it, reveling in the great expanse of everything there is online, because everything is online (yes, even your beloved birdwatching, Mr. Franzen). You’re blind to the value of the internet because you’ve become too committed to your anti-web proselytizing to turn back now. Even if you realized you were wrong, you could never admit it for fear of losing face. So you hold steadfast to your beliefs, unwavering in the face of those trying to convince you of your ignorance. It’s the same mentality that plagues every internet message board ever. Even you write that, “once you’re wrong about one thing, the possibility is open that you might be wrong about everything.” Well, Franzen, time to take your own advice.

If only you’d spend just a few minutes with the internet, you would see you have more in common with it than you think. You long for the early 90s, before the web went mainstream. You know what the internet loves? The 90s. Your nostalgia perfectly aligns with the internet’s, both firm in the belief that things used to be better. Your skepticism for each new technological advancement mirrors the skepticism the internet has for everything. You love to jump to conclusions and make ludicrous comparisons (like when you equate using Twitter to smoking cigarettes) and so does the internet. You love to be right, and so does the internet.

And it’s not just that you would love the internet. There’s a reason there has been so much web coverage of your internet-hate: because the internet needs you just as much as you need it. Think about it, has there ever been a more perfect villain for the web? You are the curmudgeon the internet needs, a nemesis so cocksure and unrelenting, capable of matching wits with the entirety of the internet. Look, the internet loves to hate itself. As soon as a website achieves notoriety, it's already passé. An internet user hates everything on the web that isn't his because the internet breeds territorialism and self-aggrandisement. The internet is full of small pockets of the internet hating on every other small pocket. And yet there is no one web users would love to hate more than you. You’re the perfect punching bag, so very confident in your tech-apocalypse, that the internet would have a field day bashing you. But that’s no matter to you, because you don’t care what the internet thinks of you. You can dish it out, and you can take it.

The kicker about your hating of everything is that you don’t actually want anyone to agree with you. You’re playing the role of lone naysayer, content believing you’re the only one wise to what’s going on. As soon as people start agreeing with you, your arguments stop being provocative and you lose your status as neo-luddite contrarian. Just like the internet — once everyone likes it, it’s no longer cool.

It’s a shame that your shtick plays so well on the internet, because you refuse to return the web’s calls. You hate the internet, but you belong here. Your logging-on would be a beautiful symbiotic relationship of hate. So please, Jonathan Franzen, join us on the internet.


Benjamin Cosman