Earlier this week, bookish denizens of Twitter spent a solid day gleefully eviscerating a list of Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Writing. It’s hard to blame them: the list is so stern, so peevishly cranky, so absolute in its dictates (“Never use the word then as a conjunction — we have and for this purpose”), so condescending in its outlook (“It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction”) that reading it makes you want to break every last rule Franzen outlines, just for fun.
The list is an excerpt from Franzen’s new essay collection, The End of the End of the Earth, and it is a useful synecdoche of the larger book. If you can imagine reading the 10 Rules for Writing List for several hundred pages, and coming across roughly 238 percent more descriptions of birds, you will have a good sense of what reading The End of the End of the Earth is like: It is like being scolded, repeatedly, by someone who is clearly very smart and successful but who is so disdainful that you can’t do anything but reject everything he tells you. Also he likes birds.
The confusing thing about Franzen is that even people who hate him admit that he is a great novelist (or at least that his 2001 novel The Corrections is great), and even people who love him admit that his essays are often a little on the insufferable side (or at least that the one about the death of the rotary phone is insufferable). But the thing that makes his essays so hard to take is one of the things that makes his novels great. Namely: Franzen is incapable of seriously considering the idea that his way of seeing and approaching the world might not be the absolute best, the clearest, the most efficient, morally pure, and aesthetically pleasing way possible.
In Franzen’s fiction, this crankiness is part of what makes his characters so compelling. They really believe in their own subjectivity, because Franzen believes in his subjectivity so thoroughly. When you read his characters, you enter completely and transparently into their way of seeing the world, and you accept that way will be cranky, and that’s fine.
But in Franzen’s nonfiction, the crankiness is just crankiness. It is exhausting — and even worse, it renders his arguments unconvincing. Franzen has spent so much time convincing himself of his own rightness that he doesn’t examine his arguments from all of their possible angles so that he can address counterarguments. As a result, they are weak and riddled with holes.
This weakness is both most apparent and saddest when Franzen turns to birds. Franzen loves birds in a way that would be endearing if it didn’t bother him so much that everyone else in the world doesn’t love birds exactly as much and in the exact manner that he does — and if he didn’t devote page after page to considering what might be wrong with the rest of us that we don’t.
Is it that birds aren’t cuddly and furry the way mammals are? Because, Franzen points out triumphantly in “Why Birds Matter,” they are in fact “more similar to us than other mammals are,” in their nest-building and vacationing and music-creating ways.
Anyway, he adds in “Postcards from East Africa,” it’s “sort of embarrassingly self-infatuated” to require animals to look or behave like us to find them interesting; birds, therefore, are “truly Other,” while at the same time they are once again “arguably more similar to us than other mammals.” Undoubtedly you like animals that look like you, so you are selfish, but also birds actually do look like you, so checkmate, buddy.
Some people are interested in birds because they are interested in the role birds play in balancing ecosystems; but this is not a form of bird interest that is acceptable to Franzen. It is an interest that speaks of capitalism, of how “value, in the late Anthropocene, has come almost exclusively to mean economic value, utility to human beings,” and moreover it is intellectually unserious because “the sad fact is that wild birds, in themselves, will never pull their weight in the human economy.”
More ethically sound, Franzen argues, is assigning birds value because “they are our last, best connection to a natural world that is otherwise receding” — more specifically, the world of dinosaurs. It’s a baffling statement that Franzen never fully explicates, but it seems to imply that a nostalgic sense of wonder about the idea of dinosaurs roaming the earth is somehow more pure — on a moral, ethical level — than a belief that it is good to keep birds alive because it is bad for the planet when species go extinct.
Dear reader: Together, we have just spent four paragraphs arguing about the correct way to feel about birds. This is what The End of the End of the Earth has reduced us to.
The book does, of course, offer all of the pleasures to be found from reading an author as accomplished as Franzen. His sentences are crisp and clean and well balanced, and when he writes literary criticism, he can be deeply compelling: His ode to the writer Bill Vollmann, “A Friendship,” is warm and funny and insightful all at once. (Another piece of literary criticism that appears in this book, on Edith Wharton, is less so. It sparked a slew of outrage when it was first published in the New Yorker in 2012 for its bizarre preoccupation with Wharton’s alleged unprettiness.)
But by and large, The End of the End of the Earth is so cranky and so condescending that it’s enough to make you want Franzen to abandon nonfiction altogether. If he would only give up the essay and live his life with his birds and his novels, wouldn’t we all be a lot happier?