Jonathan Franzen on the 19th-Century Writer Behind His Internet Skepticism

His new book translates works by Karl Kraus, whose misgivings toward progress mirror Franzen's belief that technology can be "very harmful" to artistic production.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

Karl Kraus, the Austrian satirist, playwright, and critic of the mass media, was born in 1874 and ran the magazine Die Fackel (“The Torch”) from 1899 until his death. And according to novelist Jonathan Franzen, he was the first-ever iteration of what we might now call a media theorist. Franzen’s new book of Kraus translations, titled The Kraus Project, characterizes Die Fackel as something like the first news-criticism blog: Kraus cut and pasted pieces of news and applied his own individual, withering commentary to them all.

Kraus, largely obscure to American audiences until now, excoriated "light" writing—the complacent, sentimental, and celebrity-driven feuilleton, meant to be read and discarded—by treating fluff pieces with academic rigor in order to expose their artistic failings, ethical assumptions, and ideological underpinnings. Though his merciless analyses earned him a reputation as “The Great Hater,” his critique today seems prescient.

Throughout The Kraus Project, Franzen’s copious annotations combine comic personal reflections, close textual analysis, historical background, and precise, sometimes hilarious takedowns of Internet-era writing—from bizarre and offensive headline juxtapositions on AOL’s homepage, to vapid, adjective-laden travel pieces in The New York Times. Together, Kraus and Franzen urge us to think more critically about the aesthetic, economic, and ethical implications of the media we encounter—and suggest we should be troubled by much of what we see.

In our conversation for this series, Jonathan Franzen told me how he found Kraus, grew disenchanted, and came back again. We discussed the line that distills Franzen’s anxiety about digital technology, his skeptical attitude towards “progress,” and why he feels the Internet is dangerous for people who want to write serious fiction.

Jonathan Franzen is the author for four novels, including Freedom and The Corrections, and three books of nonfiction, including How to Be Alone. He spoke to me by phone from his home in New York City.

Jonathan Franzen: By weird curricular accident, I found myself a German major in college. I ended up spending two years in Germany—one in Munich and a second in Berlin on a Fulbright. In the years after that I was very isolated, and one of my main contacts with the world was reading newspapers. I needed them, but I also hated them. I was trying to be a rigorous writer, trying to be a novelist, and the clichés and problematic language even in a good paper like The New York Times really upset me. I didn’t think the press was paying enough attention to the issues I was passionate about—the environment, nuclear weapons, consumerism—and for a while I felt they were giving Ronald Reagan a free pass. It seemed like everything was wrong with the world and no one could see it except me. Me and Karl Kraus.

I’d encountered Kraus’s work in college and then again in Berlin. Here was this guy who was absolutely morally certain, and his critique of Vienna’s bourgeois press was incredibly rigorous, angry, and funny. He particularly attacked a corrupt coupling of two things: that a small number of media magnates were getting extremely rich, and that the newspapers they owned kept reassuring their readers that society was becoming ever more democratic and advanced. More empowered, more enlightened, more communal. And it drove Kraus crazy, because he saw these naked profit-making enterprises masquerading as great equalizers—and succeeding, because people were addicted to them.

Kraus was so smart and funny and fanatical that he developed a big cult-like following in Vienna, with thousands of people coming to his readings. And 70 years later I became kind of a virtual cult follower of his. His sentences were hard, but they really popped. There’s nothing like moral certainty to give an angry edge to the prose, and I fell for it, because I was looking for that kind of angry, funny edge in my own writing, and because I felt so alone with my anger at the press. I was also attracted to Kraus’s conviction that we were heading toward an apocalypse. For me, at the time, that meant nuclear apocalypse, because we were still very much in the saber-rattling late stages of the Cold War. As long as I remained convinced that I was right and the world was wrong—basically, throughout my 20s—I was really under his spell.

Then I entered a dark wood in my 30s, and everything that had seemed black and white to me began to seem gray. When newspapers stopped seeming like the cultural enemy, and became embattled as the Internet came along and journalists started losing their jobs, I realized, You know, these are actually hardworking people doing their best to cover news responsibly. They’re not pretending to be something they’re not. It’s wrongheaded to fault them for their linguistic crimes. At the same time, my parents were dying, I was going through a divorce, and you really can’t go through those things—if you’re honest—and come out convinced that you’re right and everyone else is wrong. It was demonstrated to me quite plainly in my mid-30s that things that I had been absolutely certain of in my personal life, I’d actually been quite wrong about. And once you’re wrong about one thing, the possibility is open that you might be wrong about everything.

So I lost interest in Kraus, though I’d been translating him for presumable future publication. I gave up that project and didn’t go back to it until a couple of years ago, when I met some people who were Kraus fans. They encouraged me to go back to him, and when I went back I realized that he was more right about our technological and media moment than he was about newspapers in the ’80s. That a lot of what he’s saying seemed unbelievably prescient. You could apply his critique almost directly to the blogification of the newspaper, to the rise of social media—he really saw all of this coming 100 years ago. Even though I’d outgrown his fiery brand of moral certitude, I decided to return to my translations and try to make his writing as accessible as possible to an English-reading audience.

One of the lines from Kraus that matters the most to me is “Ein Teufelswerk der Humanität,” an infernal machine of humanity. In the mid-’90s, when I started to feel worried about what was happening to literature with the introduction of the third screen, and with the increasingly materialistic view of human nature that psychopharmacology was producing, I was looking for some way to describe how technology and consumerism feed on each other and take over our lives. How seductive and invasive but also unsatisfying they are. How we go back to them more and more, because they’re unsatisfying, and become ever more dependent on them. The groupthink of the Internet and the constant electronic stimulation of the devices start to erode the very notion of an individual who is capable of, say, producing a novel. The phrase I reached for to describe all this was “an infernal machine.” Something definitionally consumerist, something totalitarian in its exclusion of other ways of being, something that appears in the world and manufactures our desires through its own developmental logic, something that does damage but just seems to keep perpetuating itself. The sentence that summed this up for me owed a lot to Kraus’s writing: “Techno-consumerism is an infernal machine.”

It’s interesting that in the ’90s, a number of different writers and thinkers were all becoming alarmed about these things. You can see Infinite Jest as a giant book in response to the problem of techno-consumerism—with the cartridge film that, once you start watching, you can never stop looking at. Already, in the ’90s, it seemed like machines were beginning to command us with their logic, rather than serving us. Whether we like it or not, Moore’s law says that computers are going to be twice as powerful and compact 2½ years from now as they were today. Obviously, 20 years later we’re reaching the limits of Moore’s law, but at the time it was in absolutely full swing. Applications were developed, and then people had to throw their old machine away because a whole new set of machines and apps had come along. And without our ever giving our active consent, this just became the way we lived. Became the way I lived, despite the strong misgivings I felt.

And then there’s the second part of Kraus’s phrase, “der Humanität”—“of humanity.” I didn’t pay much attention to it in the nineties, but going back and reworking the translations and starting to think harder about what Kraus was actually saying, I was struck by the strange word “Humanität.” He had a different word available to him, “Menschlichkeit,” which he didn’t use. He was working in a vein similar to Walter Benjamin in “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin saw that mechanical reproduction and increasing technologization of life could bring real social benefits, but that it would come at the cost of a flattening of life. What I find particularly troubling about our own technological moment is that I hear people saying again and again—happily and proudly and excitedly—that computers are changing our notion of what it means to be a human being. The implication of all those excited people is that we’re changing for the better. Whereas, when I look at social media, it seems like a world that once had adults in it is being changed into the 8th grade junior-high cafeteria. When I look at Facebook, I see a video-poker room in Vegas.

To me, taken as a whole, Kraus’s line suggests that the infernal logic of techno-consumerism, which has absolutely nothing to do with being a human being, has been coupled to this rhetoric of freedom and human rights and human self-realization. And there’s something that should not be taken for granted in that coupling—because, again, who’s profiting from it, and who’s being pauperized? Kraus was a bit of a conspiracy theorist. His notion was that it’s no accident that these absolutely profit-mad profiteering plutocrats are speaking the language of humanity. At the time, of course, that was on the editorial page, but now it’s steeped in the very culture of Silicon Valley: “We’re making the world a better place.” Or Twitter, for instance, trying to take direct credit for Arab Spring. The grotesque thing for Kraus was not just that the machine was infernal and had its own logic, but that it could only operate with this big lie at its center.

It connects with Kraus’s other line: “We were smart enough to build the machines, but not smart enough to make them serve us.” And boy, does that ring true. When you look at the actual content of our interaction with computers—plenty of good stuff, but a whole lot of hours spent looking at other people’s photos of their stupid parties on a Facebook page. I really don’t mean to say it’s all bad. I held out until 1996 against email, but now it’s part of the way I live and I actually appreciate it—I prefer it to phone calls. I don’t have a complete hard line on this. What I object to is the idea that just because we can do something, we automatically will do it. Now everyone is armed with a camera 24/7. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? There’s not really any discussion of that. This potential exists, and so it will be exploited. It will be marketed, it will be sold, and we will buy it. That’s the infernal machine.

Kraus was very suspicious of the notion of progress, the idea that things are just getting better and better. In 1912, when he was writing the essays that are in my new book, people were very optimistic about what science was going to do for the world. Everyone was becoming enlightened in a straightforward scientific sense, politics was liberalizing, and the world was going to be a much, much better place—the story went. Well, two years later the most horrible war in the history of humankind broke out, and was followed by an even worse war 25 years after that. Kraus was right about something: He was right to distrust the people who were telling us that technology was going to serve humanity and make things better and better. In the context of the crazy techno-utopianism and crazy techno-boosterism we’re now living through, it seems worth taking a look at a writer who was there at the birth of modern media and tech, being suspicious of the language of the people who were talking about how everything is getting better. I’m not convinced that I’m right about the things that I distrust in the new techno-media world. But I’m also not convinced I’m wrong, and so I’m disturbed by a rhetoric that aggressively dismisses people who are raising what seem to me quite reasonable objections—I see these dismissals a lot.

Are we getting better, thanks to the Internet? My position is this: the Internet is fabulous for a lot of things. It’s a fabulous research tool. It’s great for buying stuff, it’s great for bringing together people to work on communal things, like software, or people who share a passion or are all suffering from the same disease and want to find each other and communicate. It’s wonderful for that. But the Internet in general—and social media in particular—fosters this notion that everything should be shared, everything is communal. When it works, it’s great. But it specifically doesn’t work, I think, in the realm of cultural production—and particularly literary production. Good novels aren’t written by committee. Good novels aren’t collaborated on. Good novels are produced by people who voluntarily isolate themselves, and go deep, and report from the depths on what they find. They do put what they find in a form that’s communally accessible, communally shareable, but not at the production end. What makes a good novel, apart from the skill of the writer, is how true it is to the individual subjectivity. People talk about “finding your voice”: Well, that’s what it is. You’re finding your own individual voice, not a group voice.

Where Kraus spoke of an imaginative space, or implied that there was an imaginative space, he used the word Geist—the good old German word “spirit.” He found technological progress antithetical to that spirit. You’d have to be a German to truly buy into that particular formulation, but there are American ways to interpret this that I do think make sense as a critique of the Internet. Not as a useful tool for people, but as a way of life, and as a way of being a human being. Particularly, as I say, for certain types of artistic production for which the electronic world is actually very harmful, to the point of being antithetical.

You don’t have to be as extreme as Pynchon in eschewing the Internet’s capacity for self-promotion. But if I look around at the really great writers of the recent decades in North America, I think of Alice Munro, I think of Don DeLillo, I think of Denis Johnson. These are people who are not invisible, but they have clearly set up rather strict boundaries. Alice Munro, you know, she’s got work to do. She has the work of being Alice Munro to do. Same thing for Johnson, same thing for DeLillo. Pynchon’s self-isolation is so extreme that, as with Salinger, he risks producing the opposite of the effect that maybe is psychologically intended—it becomes a kind of reverse publicity to be absolutely publicity-averse. The writers who have become models for me are the ones who manage to have some public life—we’re all communal—but a restricted one. Writers have audiences and responsibilities to those audiences. But we also have a responsibility to remain ourselves. It’s a balancing act. And again, the Internet and social media are so seductive, are so immediately gratifying in that addictive-substance way, that you can get carried away from yourself rather easily.

I feel we’re at a moment when technology has far outstripped other human capabilities. You see this in so many ways—increasing economic disparity, the hatred and conflict and terrorism in the world, our own political dysfunction. It seems to me that, at some point, if we’re going to survive, we have to start to identify undesirable aspects of technological development and say no to them. It’s extremely unlikely, but it’s actually not inconceivable, that after an unintended nuclear explosion and a few more power plant disasters people will say, “We can split atoms, but we’re going to choose not to. We’re going to get together as an entire planet to ensure that this thing we can do, we’re not going to do.” With GMOs, and recombinant DNA in all its forms, we’re already hearing people saying “Just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should.” But our embrace of the new digital technology? It’s been headlong, despite obvious negative consequences. I mean, the Internet has almost destroyed journalism! How can you have a functioning, complicated democracy of 300 million people without professional journalists? The boosters are always saying, well you can crowdsource it, you can leak it, you can take pictures with your iPhone. Bullshit. You can’t crowdsource working the Capitol beat for 20 years. We need to think critically about the consequences of our machines. We need to learn how to say no, and how to support the vital social services, like professional journalism, that we’re destroying.

And this is true, especially true, for anyone who aspires to write serious fiction. When I first met Don DeLillo, he was making the case that if we ever stop having fiction writers it will mean we’ve given up on the concept of the individual person. We will only be a crowd. And so it seems to me that the writer’s responsibility nowadays is very basic: to continue to try to be a person, not merely a member of a crowd. (Of course, the place where the crowd is forming now is largely electronic.) This is a primary assignment for anyone setting up to be and remain a writer now. So even as I spend half my day on the Internet—doing email, buying plane tickets, ordering stuff online, looking at bird pictures, all of it—I personally need to be careful to restrict my access. I need to make sure I still have a private self. Because the private self is where my writing comes from. The more I’m pulled out of that, the more I simply become another loudspeaker for what already exists. As a writer, I’m trying to pay attention to the stuff the people aren’t paying attention to. I’m trying to monitor my own soul as carefully as I can and find ways to express what I find there.