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

 

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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_

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