Philip Roth recently broke the literary world’s big, snuggly heart by announcing his retirement, saying Nemeses will be his final novel.  He spoke with the french magazine Les inRocks, saying:

“I have dedicated my life to the novel: I studied, I taught, I wrote and I read. To the exclusion of almost everything else. Enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life. The thought of sitting down to write one more time is an impossible one for me.”

Well then, carry on Mr.  Roth.  Reading about his retirement reminded me of something that happened a few months ago.  Roth, disgruntled with Wikipedia, wrote an open letter to the online dictionary.  The website claims that Coleman Silk, a character in Roth’s novel The Human Stain is based on the life of Anatole Brouyard, which the writer says is untrue.  He asked Wikipedia to remove the misinformation, and they informed him that while he was a credible source, they needed a secondary one, too.

Pretty silly, right?  So, Roth used The New Yorker as the medium in which to publish a letter, an intelligent and very writerly thing to do.  Letters get revised.  Letters can be long.  Letters explain.  He writes:

“Thus was created the occasion for this letter.  After failing to get a change made through the usual channels, I don’t know how else to proceed.”

In the letter, he eloquently and patiently describes why this particular misinformation is unfortunate.  He’s nice about it when he doesn’t have to be.  Roth understands the internet is vast and mistakes are made.  Not all writers share this grace for the digital world.

Recently, Jonathan Franzen has made a name for himself as the internet’s biggest hater.  Or rather, online social media (which sometimes seems to be all the internet is made of).    “Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose,” Franzen said during a talk at Tulane University.  He went on:

“It’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.”

My favorite quote from Franzen on social networking deals with facebook:

“we star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery. And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.”

I have a facebook.  I went without one for awhile, when sad things were happening and I didn’t want to give facebook even a glimmer of my grief.  But, I went back.  Most of the time, scrolling through, I go all Jonathan Franzen on it.  How many mindless things can people, who I’ve named as “friends,” post?  And not only post, but consider significant enough for people to react, respond, or, comment?  How many pictures of the same person, in the same posture, at the same bar, do they need?

What we should be doing is reacting like Roth during these moments of impatience.  It’s not easy to transition the literary way of thinking into a digital one, a process we’ve only begun, so what better literary way to deal with your beef than a pretty letter?

Franzen certainly got a reaction from his comments.  The hashtag #JonathanFranzenHates was created, poking fun at things that are not meticulous or particularly long.

What do you think?  Are you a Roth, a Franzen, or neither?

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