The hateful Jonathan Franzen

I’m a fan of the New Yorker on Facebook. So I should be able to read the Jonathan Franzen essay about David Foster Wallace and Robinson Crusoe, no? No. Turns out that TNY’s clever gimmick about opening the essay up only to FB fans only lasted a week. And now it’s gone. So that makes me angry at TNY. But not half as angry as I am at Franzen, who visited Robinson Crusoe Island in Chile for this essay. Here’s what he has to say about it:

On Masafuera’s sister island — originally named Masatierra, or Closer to Land, and now called Robinson Crusoe — I had seen the damage wrought by a trio of mainland plant species, maquis and murtilla and blackberry, which have monotonously overrun entire hills and drainages.

[Here, Franzen goes on to a facile metaphor about how “the blackberry on Robinson Crusoe Island was like the conquering novel, yes, but it seemed to me no less like the Internet, that BlackBerry-borne invasive”. Ugh. Anyway, back to Franzen’s take on the island.]

I felt desperate to escape the islands. Before leaving for Masafuera, I’d already seen Robinson’s two endemic land-bird species, and the prospect of another week there, with no chance of seeing something new, seemed suffocatingly boring…

Although I no longer wanted it, or because I didn’t want it, I had the experience of being truly stranded on an island. I ate the same bad Chilean white bread at every meal, the same nondescript fish served without sauce or seasoning at every lunch and dinner… I hiked over the mountains to a grassland where the island’s annual cattle-branding festival was being held, and I watched the horseback riders drive the village’s herd into a corral. The setting was spectacular — sweeping hills, volcanic peaks, whitecapped ocean — but the hills were denuded and deeply gouged by erosion. Of the hundred-plus cattle, at least ninety were malnourished, the majority of them so skeletal it seemed remarkable that they could even stand up. The herd had historically been a reserve source of protein, and the villagers still enjoyed the ritual of roping and branding, but couldn’t they see what a sad travesty their ritual had become?

All of this is so callous and worthy of unalloyed hatred that I’m pretty sure I’m never going to read anything by Franzen again. According to something he says in the story about Super Bowl XLV, Franzen was on Robinson Crusoe Island on February 3, 2011. Which means he was there less than a year after Robinson Crusoe Island was all but destroyed by the tsunami which followed massive Chilean earthquake of 2010:

A wall of water – possibly nearly 5 metres high – ravaged everything in its way. Within a few minutes, the scene of the adventures of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk – marooned on the island from 1704 to 1708, and immortalized in Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe – had been razed to the ground.

“Everything that had been along that three-kilometre stretch just disappeared,” said Fernando Avaria, the first pilot to fly over the area after the disaster. The cemetery, the churches, sports facilities and the area’s only school were reduced to planks of wood and broken glass. The buildings of the local authority simply disappeared. “It was devastating, really out of a horror film,” said Margot Salas, a local who toured the area with Chilean state television cameras almost 24 hours after the disaster. As the sea receded, Robinson Crusoe Island faced a new flood – one of despair. Mud covered everything within three kilometres of the coast.

Sixteen people died; the entire economy of the island was wiped out. If you’re interested in helping, or finding out more, there are good resources here.

It’s into the aftermath of this disaster that Franzen wanders, thinking in his Important Novelist way about how selfish David Foster Wallace turns out to have been. He reaches the island, and he sees the damage wrought — by blackberries. He sees the islanders trying to recover some semblance of their former lives, and sneers at the “sad travesty” of their ritual. He moans about how “nondescript” his food is and how “skeletal” the cattle are, while somehow failing to notice that the reason is that the islanders, recovering from a terrible natural disaster, have nothing left.

As for Franzen, he’s only on the island at all because he has a stupid dream of “running away and being alone” on Masafuera. “Like Selkirk”, he says. But he only manages to hack being alone for the grand total of one night. Like Selkirk, my arse.

Franzen attacks Wallace in this essay, criticizing “the extremes of his own narcissism” and his self-deception. Ha! The extremes of narcissism and self-deception needed to visit Robinson Crusoe Island 11 months after the tsunami and not even notice what had happened make Wallace look like an amateur in such fields. (And if Franzen did notice, but decided to ignore it, that’s even worse.)

I was obviously wrong to give Franzen any benefit of the doubt after the Oprah fiasco: he really is as boorish and narcissistic as he seemed back then. Clearly it’s long past time to ignore everything he does from here on in.

(Update: This seems to be getting a bit of traction, so let me clarify a couple of things. Franzen spent about two weeks on Robinson Crusoe Island — at least that’s how I read the line about him spending “another week there”. The island, pre-tsunami, had a population of just over 600. So Franzen lived for two weeks on a small island, being hosted by a traumatized population. And in the wake of that experience, felt happy to describe their cattle-branding festival as a “sad travesty”. I still can’t work out which would be worse: that he wrote such a thing in full knowledge of the tsunami, or that he somehow contrived to remain ignorant of the devastation despite living in its aftermath for two weeks.)

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15 Responses to The hateful Jonathan Franzen

  1. dsquared says:

    Bitheway, in general, temperate zone urban people who have only ever really seen pictures of fat Herefords in picture books are often really bad judges of the state of health of third world cows. I bet those cows weren’t malnourished at all.

  2. Vic says:

    thanks for your preening moralizing – I read writers if what they write is interesting, not because they are great human beings

  3. Ben says:

    I hadn’t seen this (because I don’t bother reading anything written by the smarmy hack Franzen), but thank you for bringing it to our attention. Several times I’ve tried to read from this narcissist’s writings, and on each occasion the result has been disgust that this guy is taken seriously by anyone.

    For far better writing (and original thinking), check out John Dolan:

  4. Pingback: Jonathan Franzen is a first-class ass | Beats and Pieces

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  6. Ken says:

    I’m not sure you can really compare J Franzen’s island ignorance to the suicide of DF Wallace. I believe suicide is always selfish since it prevents the person from getting help through those s/he loves. Of course J Franzen felt betrayed with his friend’s sad departure as would anyone.

    I also think his whining about the unflavored fish etc., was more of a joke about the unnecessary lifestyle to which those in rich countries can afford to pamper themselves with. I find it hard to believe a writer could ever whine about such luxuries. And also, just because a culture has been through a disaster, does not mean that that culture should not be criticized for it’s traditional ways. The tsunami happened 11 months ago; should it be a full year before we start to question certain cultural practices of the affected island?

    For whatever reason, I’m getting the feeling you never really like J Franzen and were just looking for something to make you not like him again, or to remember that you don’t like him. I wonder, were you the one who stole his glasses?

  7. Jeff says:

    I’m usually a fan of your writing, Mr. Salmon, but this one is really strange.

    It’s no secret that poor people in the Thirld World do unfortunate things to nature out of necessity and a different set of priorities from ours. We in the First World are under no obligation to approve of practices that might be considered cruel or irresponsible here.

    To say that Mr. Franzen’s commentary is “callous and worthy of unalloyed hatred” might seem a bit callous itself. Because he doesn’t like the food? Because he objects to destructive deforestation practices? Because he feels sorry for the cows? Because he feels all these things after a tsunami rather than before?

    My hatred in connection with this matter is heavily alloyed with appreciation of different perspectives. I think I’ll keep my reserve supply of unalloyed hatred for something a bit more consequential.

  8. Pingback: links for 2011-04-26 | Englishman in New York

  9. jpe says:

    I read writers if what they write is interesting, not because they are great human beings

    Well, now we have two reasons not to read Franzen.

  10. greenewilli says:

    Yes, a bit harsh. In Franzen’s defense, he mentions ” The refugio’s existance made my already somewhat artificial project of solitary self-sufficiency seem even more artificial, and I resolved to pretend that it didn’t exist.” So he is aware, I think, of the dangers of pretension and attempting to poke fun at himself. BTW, I’m glad he said what he said about Oprah- She really does have bad taste.

  11. ovaut says:

    ‘he is aware’ —- but self-knowledge is no alibi — no reprieve — even when it knows it isn’t

  12. Rhian Salmon says:

    I realise this piece is about Franzen more than Robinson Crusoe Island but, for the record, when I visited during the week before the Tsunami I found an island that was rich with incredible scenery, welcoming people, and, in contrast to ‘nondescript fish’, had a thriving lobster industry. The lobster was out of this world delicious, had a high price, and was mostly bought for fast-as-possible delivery to high-end restaurants in Santiago and Japan. As a result of that industry, there was a tangible sense of wealth on the remote island. The lobster industry was badly hit by the impacts of the tsunami on the local ecosystem. The cows, I admit, did look malnourished.

    It was one my favourite places that I have ever visited and I’d return there in a heartbeat. Not for the solitary, however, but for the community and landscape.

    My impressions of the island, and experience of the tsunami, were recorded here:

  13. Tim says:

    It is pretty quite here. why?

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  15. Anonymous Jones says:

    This is hilarious. Anger-induced incoherence in which the blogger, in deliriously delightful kettle-pot ignorance, spews at someone for being hateful and a poor writer.

    And then comes to the sensible conclusion that we should ignore everything that his subject ever does again. Lock ‘im up and throw away the key! I know the future! I know what everyone else should like! And it’s not Franzen!

    Yes, let’s ignore all writing by narcissists. We can whittle down the classics section of the library to something manageable (i.e., basically nothing).

    Seriously, you should set a calendar reminder to read this ten years from now, just to make sure you see it the same way then. That way we distinguish whether this was just youthful exuberance and delusion or if you are really a genetically-perfect example of despicable hypocrisy and ignorance.

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