Tim Walker: Why does Jonathan Franzen hate technology?

Tales From The Water Cooler: "Serious readers and writers" ought to judge books not by their covers, but by their content

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Jonathan Franzen must be doing it on purpose. This week he wound up Twitter users, all 300 million of us: "Twitter stands for everything I oppose," the novelist told an audience at Tulane University. He said he spoke for "serious readers and writers", thus suggesting tweeters could not qualify as either. (Er, @SalmanRushdie? @MargaretAtwood?) In the past, the self-confessed "cranky 51-year-old" has managed to offend Facebook's 845 million account-holders, women in general, and Oprah Winfrey in particular.

I can't imagine he's spent enough time with Twitter to unlock its multiple joys, for Franzen's Luddism knows no bounds. Recently, for example, he seemed to suggest that eBooks portended global anarchy. Screen text is transient, he told a literary festival crowd in January, and "it's going to be very hard to make the world work if there's no permanence... That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government."

Penelope Lively called Kindle readers "bloodless nerds". "Those aren't books," said Ray Bradbury. "F*** them," mused Maurice Sendak, "I hate those eBooks." I agree with any great writer who says eBooks are unlovable. But that's because I'm shallow and materialistic: I like the cover designs of books. I like showing books off on my shelves, or on public transport. Books are some of the world's most covetable objects.

But "serious readers and writers" like Franzen ought to be better than that. They ought to judge books not by their covers, but by their content. They ought to welcome a technology which disseminates content more widely. Franzen has written two of the great 500-page novels of the century. Surely he's far too serious to concern himself with their packaging?