Christina Patterson: Franzen's right that Twitter can be a curse. But it can also be miraculous

 

Share

Lady Gaga and Jonathan Franzen have quite a lot in common. They're both American. They're both famous. They're both rich. They're also both artists, and not just any old artists, but the kind of artists other artists want to be, the kind of artists who have millions of fans. But there's one thing they don't have in common, and that's a love of Twitter.

It's possible, of course, that Lady Gaga, who wasn't called Lady when she was a child, which must have been a relief when the teacher called the register, doesn't really like Twitter. It's possible that when she tweets things like "Woooooh! We just added a FOURTH Hong Kong date coz tickets are selling so well for the tour!", she's scrunching up her face in the way you do when someone wearing latex gloves and holding a speculum tells you to "pop on the couch". It's possible that when she, or someone she employs, retweets things like "@ladygaga love us so much! u save my life every day", what she does is roll her eyes. But it's also possible that a woman who has 20 million "followers" on Twitter, which is more than anyone else on the planet, quite likes it.

Jonathan Franzen doesn't have 20 million "followers". He has, or someone tweeting on behalf of his latest novel, Freedom, has 1,708. And he doesn't seem to like Twitter at all. It is, he said at a talk in New Orleans this week, "unspeakably irritating". It stands, he said, for everything he has always "opposed". It is, he said, "the ultimate irresponsible medium". What he cared about was "serious" readers and writers. "These," he said, sounding a bit like the Martian princess in the new Disney film, John Carter, "are my people." And his people, he said, did not "yak".

If Jonathan Franzen didn't like Twitter before that talk, he probably likes it even less now. He probably didn't like the thread that sprang up as soon as his comments were posted on a blog, a thread that had the "hashtag" #JonathanFranzenHates. He probably didn't like the tweets that were badly spelled, and used lots of nasty words, because none of us likes the tweets that are badly spelled and use lots of nasty words, and particularly the ones that say we can't write, and are dim-witted, and a bitch. But he probably also didn't like the tweet from the person who suggested he hated computers, because "real writers etch their words onto parchment through quills", or the one that suggested he hated paper, because "real writers chisel on stone tablets", or the one that suggested he hated Shakespeare, "since 'brevity is the soul of wit'".

Jonathan Franzen doesn't hate computers, but he does think that if you're writing on one, what you should do is destroy its internet port by plugging in a cable with super glue, and then saw off its head. He thinks you should work in an empty office where there's nothing to distract you, and no one to talk to, and no phone. And, in this, he's probably right. He's probably right that if you want to write a 500-page novel, and can do this without having to hold down a job, it's a good idea to go somewhere where the only voices you have to listen to are in your head. He's probably right that you can think more deeply about your characters, and your plot, if you're not distracted by the thoughts of other people. But he's wrong to think that the thoughts of other people are always boring and banal.

Jonathan Franzen seems to think that for something to be good, it has to be long. He seems to have forgotten that some long novels, including some of his, are very good, and some take up days of your time you'll never get back. He seems to have forgotten that short novels can be an awful lot better than long novels, and so can short stories, and so can poems. He seems to have forgotten that when you don't have much space, you might make more of an effort to choose your words well.

He also seems to have forgotten, or perhaps he hasn't noticed, that Twitter isn't just about you. It's about sharing information, and articles, and links, and making connections with people you wouldn't normally meet, and finding out more about people, and countries, and the world. It can be interesting, and boring, and witty, and crass. It can be stupid, and clever, and fun.

Jonathan Franzen seems to think that technology will kill art. He seems to think that words are things that have to be printed in ink, on a page. He seems to have forgotten that paper isn't permanent, and nor is ink, and nor is the human brain. He seems to have forgotten that thoughts, and ideas, and words live on even when ink fades, and books crumble, and people die.

Jonathan Franzen doesn't seem to think that this is the most interesting time in human history to be alive. He doesn't seem to think that living in a world where anyone, anywhere can access almost any information at the click of a mouse is something like a miracle. He doesn't seem to like the fact that, for the first time in history, even people without publishers have a chance of being heard.

Lady Gaga, by the way, has only sent out about 1,300 tweets. That's way less than one a day. It looks as if she's learnt something that Jonathan Franzen hasn't: that the thing about technology is you use it when you want to, and then what you do is switch it off.

Diverse lessons in British life

In China, they were taught how to smile. In this country, the 70,000 members of the public who have volunteered to help out at the Olympics aren't being taught to smile, perhaps because organisers think tourists might be scared by all those British teeth. But they are being taught how to point out the toilets to someone whose gender isn't entirely clear, and how to point out someone who's black, without blushing at the word "black". They are being taught, in fact, quite a lot about "diversity" in British life, but there seem to be a few gaps. Like, for example, the fact that bonuses related to business performance are bad, and too big, but bonuses for turning up to work at a busy time are good, and too small.

Do you feel their basement pain?

Some of our neighbours are suffering. When I say "our", I mean the kind of neighbours you have if you live, or work, in a place where there are terrace houses worth up to £80m. The houses are big, but they're not, apparently, big enough. So owners are digging deep into their pockets, and deep into the ground. They're expanding their basements, for things like swimming pools and gyms, and some of their neighbours are getting cross. The works, according to one Kensington resident, are damaging their "mental health". Builders, according to another, sometimes whistle at residents as they walk by.

Empathy, said the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen at the Bath festival this week, can be taught. Perhaps it can, but perhaps he'd better not start with this.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

Twitter: queenchristina_

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn