It's The End of the World as Jonathan Franzen Knows It

News flash: Author Jonathan Franzen has pissed someone off.

This kerfuffle’s catalyst is his recent piece in the New Yorker that declares this thesis: the catch-all environmental issue of CLIMATE CHANGE has robbed niche environmental causes of their specific messages and, more detrimentally, the visceral, fervent sense of responsibility we should own in order to solve those problems.

The target in Franzen’s article is the Audubon Society’s supposed adoption of the CLIMATE CHANGE label as the CLIMATE CHANGE cause continues its hostile takeover of the larger environmental movement’s myriad areas of focus. Rather than attempting to address specific problems, such as saving the many birds that die each year by colliding with the glass at Vikings stadium, according to Franzen, the Audubon Society is forsaking the protection of birds in the here and now in lieu of the flashier, more cataclysmic CLIMATE CHANGE, which will end us all. Birds included.

The Audubon Society has an excellent response to Franzen’s article here.

While I find this latest example of Franzen’s cantankerous caterwauling entertaining (Franzen, it seems, lives to thrust his reprimanding non-fiction at we mere base and stupid mortals), I reluctantly admit that Franzen has a point. CLIMATE CHANGE is poised to be THE all-encompassing carpet under which our many regional environmental problems shall be crammed.

Not unrelated: I was surprised two weeks ago when announced mandatory water restrictions in California. Here was the sensational and as-mainstream-as-they-come TV news outlet declaring as its top story California’s persistent drought. Wow.

Thanks to diminished snow packs and decreased rainfall over the past four years, California doesn’t have enough water to supply its agricultural industry nor its always booming population. Corporations and private land owners have resorted to draining groundwater in order to compensate for what’s not coming from the sky. Some of these drained aquifers—aquifers containing water that is ancient in the truest sense of the word—cannot and will not be replenished.

This is not a sustainable situation.

To harken back to Franzen’s point: yes, you can blame (or attempt to blame) CLIMATE CHANGE for California’s water issues and leave it at that, but by doing so, you obfuscate the fact that 80% of the water used in the state goes to the state’s thirsty (and, I’d wager, grossly inefficient) agricultural economy. You must ignore the fact that much of this underground ‘fossil water’ is being used for hydraulic fracturing in our always ravenous search for oil. And you must confront the fact that corporations and private land owners can—unregulated—tap the groundwater below their properties and use up what they need to compensate for what the rain and snowpack are no longer delivering.

To even the most casual observer, water conforms to no fence-lines or boundaries, so what you take from below your own property probably doesn’t just belong to you.

I drink your milkshake, indeed.

So yes, we can claim that CLIMATE CHANGE is the force at work behind the drought and water issues that are already impacting vast swaths of our nation and beyond. Or we can ignore the somewhat smoke-and-mirrors aspect of the CLIMATE CHANGE label and parse the precise behavior that is causing us to exhaust precious water reserves. We can question the practice of fracking, take to task industrial farming practices, wonder why the state of California can force people to stop watering their (admittedly inappropriate) lawns but can’t reign-in the companies that are selling off groundwater in lieu of growing food, because groundwater is now the more profitable commodity.

As we’ve known for decades, our short-sighted, economically driven (read: greedy) depletion of our natural resources has predictable, quantifiable results. We are living those results. To put it in base terms that even Franzen himself might use: We are fucking ourselves.

Label it however you wish, but it comes down to our behavior, our individual and collective behavior, and until we accept that the truly difficult work—forsaking today’s profits for the greater good of long-term sustainability—must be done, we will suffer, our children will suffer, and the creatures and habitats that share this world with us will suffer.

See what I did there? I just resorted to some cantankerous caterwauling myself.


Hey You Yakkers and Braggers! What to Make of Jonathan Franzen?

I enjoyed 'The Corrections' and thought it a solid and engaging novel. I just want to get that out front.

In the following article, an analysis of the satirical work of Karl Kraus, Franzen simultaneously defends himself against charges of luddite-ism, declares himself the proud user of a PC (vs. the smug but somehow intellectually vacuous MacIntosh) and proclaims Amazon's Jeff Bezos to be one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Bezos' crime: providing access to every writer--regardless of skill--the once exclusive and elusive world of publishing. With next day delivery!

You are all, by the way, 'yakkers and braggers' and Franzen, ever the champion of women everywhere, calls out Jennifer Weiner as being the most prominent example of opportunistic DIY publishing. Franzen has already made his views on gaining favor with female readers known (he doesn't want you and he doesn't need you), thanks to his sparring with Oprah Winfrey, but this latest attack on Amazon in general, and on Weiner in particular, is as wrong-headed as it is sexist.

Franzen seems to like to play the contrarian asshole, and I don't want to take this role away from him, but there is something special about these tail-end Baby Boomers like Franzen who proclaim the end of everything once the unwashed masses get ahold of this or that institution. (Institutions that embraced these very same Baby Boomers during a now passed Golden era of integrity and quality.) Ironic that the Baby Boomers never wonder if it was in fact they themselves who have ruined any number of political, social or cultural institutions with their incessant bitching and narcissistic contemptuousness. 

Anyway, yes, Amazon's publishing arm does provide many more people who would have once been excluded from the publishing world ready access to a reading, consuming public. Yes the existence of self-published e-books increases 'the noise' and the chatter surrounding the business of buying and selling books, and Amazon's existence could make it more difficult for the reader to find qualitative works amidst the many many choices.

In this, though, I prefer the perspective of Seth Godin who more optimistically believes that quality will always find a way to define and distinguish itself.  

There is no shortcut to creating good and worthy art.

But the democratization of the publishing industry is a trend that we should all celebrate. Yes, much like the music industry before it, there will be an initial period of disarray and even destruction, but the rise of both Amazon and of the e-book will, besides being a dramatic paradigm shift, also introduce many writers to the readers who want and need their work. The publishing industry will no longer place its behemoth self in the way.

The niche market will rule the day. Oh, and guess what, Mr. Franzen: literary fiction is a niche market, too.

Finally this: Franzen doesn't lend himself to much sympathy, but, and I offer this by way of the scant compassion I can muster, self-proclaimed cultural warriors have before them a sad and lonely road. And in defense of Franzen's writing process, I have to wonder what it must be like for him to sit before the blank page (on his PC, not Mac) now that he's declared himself as one of our few remaining paragons of literary greatness.

Living up to his own strafing standards where all but the white and the male and the elite can and should be read by the erudite and the educated masses may yet prove the most difficult travail in his supposed post-apocalyptic world. 

What say you? Any thoughts on Jonathan Franzen's piece?