The striking thing about all consumer products—and none more so than electronic devices and applications—is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)
I found a lot to be annoyed with in Jonathan Franzen’s Kenyon commencement address—not all of it based on envy and/or professional resentment. (Or perhaps all if it so based, but stay with me.)
I read The Corrections and liked it. I particularly liked the part where the guy thinks he’s been having wild sex with a student because they are both on drugs, while in fact only he is on drugs and she is just … comfortable with herself. I wish I’d written that. I haven’t read Freedom and probably won’t until the hype particles dispersed upon its release settle completely to the ocean floor. No sooner than 2024.
I did, however, see Franzen read once. He did this awkward, nervous, never-seen-pop-culture-before bit that I used to find annoying in writers. Now I not only find it annoying, I don’t even really believe it.
Franzen’s commencement speech begins in this same unfrozen caveman mode as he talks about his “three-year-old BlackBerry Pearl”—its age required, I’m sure, to assuage anxiety about bringing it up at all—and “that spreading-the-fingers iPhone thing.” The latter sounds like the way David Letterman used to call Friends “the friends.” Of course Letterman was parodying the Indiana naif that he, perhaps, once was, while Franzen asks us to believe that he is a genuine techno-innocent. He has a Blackberry, but he is not of the Blackberry. He can see around the “silky action of its track pad” and identify (for all of us) the insidious homology of “Like” (as in Facebook) and “Love” (as in love.) And more, he can solve the “Love”/”Like” problem in a way that both confirms the conventional wisdom and requires a minimum of sacrifice for his listeners and for Franzen himself. Lovely.
But the part I’ve been puzzling over for days now is the parenthetical aside in the quote above. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.) Franzen is listing things that are purportedly the opposite of consumer products, which are “designed to be immensely likable.” Each of these things is, according to Franzen, “simply itself” and their makers “aren’t fixated on your liking it.” To me, it feels like “serious art and literature” are stowaways in this company—a couple of friends stashed in the trunk at the drive-in—and that Franzen is trying to get away without paying for them. He is eliding the fact that art and literature don’t belong in this series at all and are, in fact, derivative of (or at least on a continuum with) the hyperactive sociality the humans have most recently come to express in electronic (as opposed to just anthropological) social networks.
Franzen does not really mount a case for his atomistic view of human creativity—for the magic that enables the “serious” artist to remain unconcerned with society’s trappings. Instead, he asserts it—with Newtonian certainty—as a settled fact of science and industry. He does, of course, leave a few side doors open. The art and literature he’s talking about is “serious” and to be so, it doesn’t have to be completely unconcerned with you liking it, it just can’t be “fixated.” The latter caveat is a relief, otherwise we’d only be left with Henry Darger and the like, outsider artists as oblivious to their ultimate audience as the Boeing engineer is to the vacationing family in rows 15 and 16.
But, I would suggest, that makers of art and literature—even the “serious” ones—aren’t like Darger or the Boeing engineer at all. Rather, they are—in many cases—fixated on their audience in ways at once pleasing and haunting, and that it is in this zig-zagging between a primal need for attention, its self-conscious rejection, and a consideration of that movement itself (a movement that might sometimes manifest itself, not in the certitude of a commencement speech, but in a confusion about what forms of media to participate in and when—Oprah, no then yes, Time magazine, yes) that they move and create their works.
WHY THEY CRIED
"... demonstrates real insight into the way we live now."
"Reminiscent of George Saunders and James Thurber, Why They Cried is a great collection of modern tales."
–Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief and co-founder of One Story
"Jim Hanas has a remarkable talent for imagining and crafting uncanny little worlds that make me vaguely nervous. And yet I never want to leave."
–Rob Walker, co-founder of Significant Objects
"A tender and smart assembly of fiction about people trying to communicate—with each other, the world—and all the ways they fail. Fail better, fail beautifully."
–Fiona Maazel, author of Last Last Chance
Jim Hanas is the author of the short story collection Why They Cried (Joyland eBooks/ECW Press) and director of audience development at HarperCollins Publishers.