Jonathan Franzen steps in it

This essay by Jonathan Franzen is a particularly good essay, if you mean by that an attempt to think one’s way through a matter by writing about it. And as Alan Jacobs points out in How to Think, those who engage in thinking take the very real risk of losing friends and alienating people. Franzen’s essay is about publishing an earlier essay he wrote a few years back where he took thoughtful exception to the common wisdom of his circle regarding climate change, resulting in huge amounts of blowback. His reflections here about the whys and wherefores of that earlier episode fit together nicely with many of the observations Jacobs makes in his book.

It’s the nature of Franzen’s heresy that resonated with me most, serving as a good example of why I’ve opted to no longer spend time thinking about political issues. Franzen’s point is a moderate one, and almost unquestionably correct: “our preoccupation with future catastrophes discourages us from tackling solvable environmental problems in the here and now.” His editor, Henry Finder, helped him reshape the initial version to make it more persuasive:

In an email to me, [Henry] gently suggested that I lose the tone of prophetic scorn. “This piece will be more persuasive,” he wrote in another, “if, ironically, it’s more ambivalent, less polemical. You’re not whaling on folks who want us to pay attention to climate change and emission reductions. But you’re attentive to the costs. To what the discourse pushes to the margins.”

Email by email, revision by revision, Henry nudged me toward framing the essay not as a denunciation but as a question: how do we find meaning in our actions when the world seems to be coming to an end? Much of the final draft was devoted to a pair of well-conceived regional conservation projects, in Peru and Costa Rica, where the world really is being made a better place, not just for wild plants and wild animals but for the Peruvians and Costa Ricans who live there. Work on these projects is personally meaningful, and the benefits are immediate and tangible.

So, a moderate proposal to his crowd: let’s consider the possibility that our obsession with climate change is sucking up all the oxygen in the room, suffocating efforts to confront more tractable but less sexy problems.

It didn’t end well.

In writing about the two projects, I hoped that one or two of the big charitable foundations, the ones spending tens of millions of dollars on biodiesel development or on wind farms in Eritrea, might read the piece and consider investing in work that produces tangible results. What I got instead was a missile attack from the liberal silo.

I’m not on social media, but my friends reported that I was being called all sorts of names, including “birdbrain” and “climate-change denier”. Tweet-sized snippets of my essay, retweeted out of context, made it sound as if I’d proposed that we abandon the effort to reduce carbon emissions, which was the position of the Republican party, which, by the polarising logic of online discourse, made me a climate-change denier. In fact, I’m such a climate-science accepter that I don’t even bother having hope for the ice caps. All I’d denied was that a right-minded international elite, meeting in nice hotels around the world, could stop them from melting.

This was my crime against orthodoxy. Climate now has such a lock on the liberal imagination that any attempt to change the conversation – even trying to change it to the epic extinction event that human beings are already creating without the help of climate change – amounts to an offence against religion.

I note that where Franzen says “change the conversation” he is speaking idiomatically. There is no actual conversation taking place, at most we have what Rebecca West called “intersecting monologues.” And this is why I have no interest in the politics of the day. To even begin to have a fruitful interaction on a political topic, I think the participants need to be both skilled at what John Keats called negative capability (“capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”) and devoted to staying there as long as it took to gain real understanding, even if only partial, even if it never comes at all.

While reading Franzen’s essay I found I needed strong applications of negative capability, since his political sentiments run much different than mine and much of his language was pushing my buttons—but at the same time I recognized that much of my initial reaction was visceral and I needed to tamp it down in order to hear what Franzen was saying. So I did, and I learned some things, both about climate change and the limits of my own knowledge of the topic. If there were a group of people commited to taking the same approach, I’d gladly join together with them to consider the political issues of the day. But that’s not how public “discourse” works anymore, if it ever did.

3 thoughts on “Jonathan Franzen steps in it

  1. I dunno. I find that Franzen is so often setting fire to straw men that I can’t really read him any more on any topic. For instance, while I think the problem of large scale climate change is incredibly important (having lived in a coastal city for four years), I also don’t have the feeling that all climate change / environmental activists care about is the big picture. Here where I am now, I think the biggest damage being done to the environment involves the destruction of wetlands and the general negative outcomes of mining and fracking. There are plenty of people who will never go to Paris who are working on it, and the people and corporations who are prioritizing themselves and their financial gain over environmental protection aren’t involved in the macro-negotiation either, although opposition to “Paris” (about which most of them have little knowledge) is a useful flag for them to wave.

    Franzen’s novels have also gotten progressively more unreadable. _The Corrections_ was a really great book; _Freedom_ was okay although odd; and _Purity_ was nearly unrelatable in terms of its characters. He was a more thought-provoking author when he wasn’t writing allegory or screed as fiction. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a bird-brain but I find myself rarely interested in what he has to say.

    I think these two things are related, i.e., I think that a novelist (or any artist) has the power to influence the public sphere insofar as they have something moving or at least interesting to say about the human condition. Franzen seems to be moving away from that, has been for years, and by his own choice.

    re: whether there is useful political discourse at the moment — I think one has to stay away from the Internet.

  2. I dunno. I find that Franzen is so often setting fire to straw men that I can’t really read him any more on any topic. … I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a bird-brain but I find myself rarely interested in what he has to say.


    I’m not sure I had even read anything by Franzen before this, and so perhaps I don’t know enough about his history to judge the story he tells here. Maybe the lesson is: friends (who know Franzen) don’t let friends (who don’t) read Franzen.

    re: whether there is useful political discourse at the moment — I think one has to stay away from the Internet.

    I won’t find that advice difficult to follow at all!


  3. Here’s another perspective, cf. the last paragraph:

    And I would say: it’s not enough to be honest if you’re not self-critical. I would say that _The Corrections_ was definitely a good example of melancholy realism, by the time of _Purity_ it was just bitterness that he was writing down. I struggle with this myself as a writer — it’s SO easy for me to get snarky. But that’s not how I want to see the world; I feel like Franzen has in many instances given in.

    All this, of course, assumes thinking that contemporary novels are somehow relevant to the life project of any individual or society.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s