A&E

The tweeting species: A conversation with Jonathan Franzen

Novelist, essayist and journalist shares his thoughts on birds, books and Albania's ban on hunting

Jonathan Franzen famously loves to be alone, but he will make an exception for an early-morning spring rendezvous with a warbler in Central Park or for a glimpse of the rare rayadito taking refuge on a volcanic island 500 miles off the coast of Chile.

Franzen famously hates the noise peddled by Facebook and Twitter, but he tolerates tweets when they come from feathered sources. And he doesn't need social media to get the news about a two-year hunting ban that Albania adopted earlier this month an important step for a country that he says has "one of the worst hunting problems in Europe and also some of the best habitats."

Franzen famously laments our text-and-spend culture, the pervasive optimism of app-pushing technologists and the toll that shallow groupthink of the Internet has taken on the individual. In essays and interviews last fall, he compared Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to "one of the horsemen of Apocalypse"; described Facebook as a "junior-high cafeteria"; and, borrowing a line from Austria's cantankerous 1930s naysayer (and subject of Franzen's latest work) Karl Kraus, decried America's culture of techno-consumerism as the "infernal machine of humanity."

But when he pays a visit next week to Silicon Valley, the bulging, buzzing belly of this inferno, his goal won't be so much to ruffle feathers as to celebrate them.

Specifically, he will be talking about birds, a subject that has featured heavily in his books, essays and thoughts over the past decade. As part of the Peninsula Open Space Trust's annual Wallace Stegner Lectures, the novelist, essayist and journalist will appear on March 6 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts for a conversation with poet, essayist and fellow bird-lover Robert Hass.

Franzen's obsession with birds should come as no surprise to his readers, a group that has grown exponentially since his 2001 novel, "The Corrections," became a literary sensation, a National Book Award winner and Oprah Winfrey's most famous book-club selection. (The two had a public row after Franzen called many of Oprah's book selections "schmaltzy," and she rescinded her invitation for him to appear on her show. They have since made up.) His most recent novel, "Freedom," which landed Franzen on the cover of Time Magazine under the headline "Great American Novelist," features a cerulean warbler on the cover and tells a story of Walter Berglund, a lawyer committed to protecting the tiny songbird from human overpopulation -- even if it means blowing up a chunk of a mountain.

Franzen's musings on birds and humans are also scattered throughout his essays, including the report he published in The New Yorker in 2011 about his trip to the remote Alejandro Selkirk Island, far off the Chilean coast, to scatter the ashes of his recently departed friend, David Foster Wallace, and to find the rare and elusive Masafuera rayadito.

"Simply knowing that the bird was on the island made the island interesting to me," Franzen wrote in April 2011. "When I'm searching for a mostly lost authenticity, for the remnants of a world now largely overrun by human beings but still beautifully indifferent to us; to glimpse a rare bird somehow persisting in its life of breeding and feeding is an enduringly transcendent delight."

Franzen, 54, said his fascination with birds began when he was around 40 and a relationship brought him to Santa Cruz, where he caught the "serious bird-watching bug." Having spent the first half of his life as a traveler visiting museums and cathedrals, Franzen said he now prefers to spend time at sewage-treatment plants, idle agricultural fields and other isolated spots frequented by birds.

"In New York, you have to wait for the migration season," Franzen said in a phone interview. "You get about three weeks in the spring and a month in the fall, whereas it's year-round in Santa Cruz. The birds are all around you. For someone developing a serious birding habit, that availability made a big difference. Really, anytime you can go out and see some really amazing birds."

In a recent conversation with the Weekly, Franzen expanded on his bird obsession, his Twitter anxiety and the value of solitude.

Q: What about birds do you find compelling?

"They are everywhere -- they are in the Antarctic, in the middle of the ocean. There are, believe it or not, seagulls nesting in the driest desert on Earth -- a Chilean desert -- they fly 50 miles inland from the coast every day, every night. So, wherever you are, whether in the middle of London or an extremely dry desert or in the middle of the ocean, they are there being beautiful and incredibly well-adapted to their environment. And, in terms of a kind of passion or obsession, there are just enough of them enough different kinds of them. If you're into beetles, it's hopeless. You can spend the rest of your life learning about the beetles of your backyard. The top layer of soil probably has as many as there are birds. With birds, it's a manageable number.

"Also, they have widespread underdog status. The world belonged to the birds for thousands and millions of years. Birds were really successful. It's a great adaptation on nature's part. Now, as human presence expands ever more on the planet, more and more are really beleaguered. The rarest you find only in a really small place.

"Writers in general, maybe fiction writers in particular, and certainly this fiction writer, have sympathy with lost causes, embattled minorities. Literary fiction has that embattled-minority status nowadays.

"In the same way, as when I happen to look at an ordinary-looking American citizen who spends time reading literature, I'm so happy to meet this person -- You exist! I get the same feeling going to the last habitat where a species that once had range is still hanging on.

"It's very sad that the range has diminished, but I also feel very fortunate that I get to see the last of the species. It fuels my commitment to try to forestall extinctions, to work on behalf of bird conservation. In spite of everything that happened, these small warm-blooded creatures are still managing to hang on."

Q: Is bird watching a solitary activity for you or a communal one?

"It's both. It's kind of like a community of readers. We're all talking about the same thing, but ultimately the appeal of being a reader is that you spend this time completely alone and paradoxically feeling very closely connected with whoever wrote what you're reading. In the same way, I think birding is fundamentally a solitary activity. You're having some kind of an experience or relationship with the birds you're watching."

Q: In your 1996 essay in Harper's, you shared your anxieties about the threat of technology and consumerism and your "despair" about the relevance of the literary novel today. Has the success of your two novels since then changed your thinking?

"I certainly became a lot less angry after the success of 'The Corrections.' I try to be rational about things, and when I'm making the case that nobody cares about the kinds of novel I care about and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people are liking the novels I'm writing -- I'm not going to fly in the face of that evidence. In general, I was depressed in the 1990s, and when you are depressed you feel isolated from the rest of humanity.

"It's still possible to fall into that sense of isolation. You think you're the last person in the world who thinks Twitter is dumb because the whole essence of Twitter is people are communicating with themselves and constantly telling themselves how great Twitter is. The world can suddenly start looking like everyone but you has gotten with the program."

Q: You've been particularly scathing in your criticism of social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter. Is there anything that you think social media is good for?

"Any tool is going to be useful in the right hands. I think Twitter is probably the least defensible one, but, boy, do the Twitter fans rush to present examples of Twitter being used for things like the Arab Spring. Maybe for a protest movement or to have awareness raised, even Twitter can help out.

"Really, my resistance to it has always been that while presenting itself in kind of utopian terms, the Internet and everything following from it has in fact been the ideal manifestation of consumer capitalism. It used to be that you would spend large parts of your day not buying and selling. Our economic system has figured out how to inject itself pretty much into every minute of your life. I'm enough of a worrywart to think that should be examined.

"But I'm much less pessimistic now. At the time (in 1996, when the Harper's essay came out), in my despair, I was undercounting and underestimating the number of people who have similar misgivings. It still may not be anything near a majority of Americans, but there are millions and millions of people who are uncomfortable with various aspects of modern life. I'm not writing to persuade anyone, I'm writing to provide company for people who are similarly uncomfortable."

Q: Do you see nature and bird-watching in particular as a partial solution to the problem of too much technology-driven distraction in our lives?

"When I was first becoming a bird-watcher, I was wary of it. It felt compulsive -- a new thing to be addicted to, a new way for distracting myself from whatever anxieties I was suffering in other parts of my life. Once you start caring about birds, you start getting drawn into a real relationship with nature, a real sense of obligation to involve yourself in conservation.

"I'm not a Luddite. I adopted computers before almost anyone I know. I was already using a word processor in the 1980s. I remember writing computer programs at the age of 14, in the 1970s. It's not that I'm opposed to technology. The Internet is great for many things.

"But it's possible to look at the way social media in particular operate in people's lives and feel, in looking from the outside, like there is a self-medicating quality to it, an addictive quality. It seems to me that, though it's not universally true, a lot of people's interactions with new technology, while presenting themselves as an involvement in a community, don't really pass the test for a true community. Yes, you can be taking pictures of you and your friends and what you're eating and looking at other pictures of people and their friends and think it's a community. But that's not my idea of a community."

Q: Then what is your idea of the community?

"Here's what it isn't: I don't think selling and being sold to constitutes a community. I don't think self-advertisement and consumption of other people's self-advertisement has much to do with a community.

"Community is more along the lines of a gift economy and the real hard-core criticism of social media in particular is that they're serving a market economy, a dollar-valued economy.

"One of the appeals of birds for me is that they are not a part of that economy and never can be. You can't pay them off, all you can do is try to keep their home from being destroyed. And they're not going to pay you back either. They're not going to thank you.

"To be tied to other beings through a wish just to give is fundamentally different from trying to get the most value as a consumer and trying to market yourself and chasing whatever is being marketed, which often takes the form of celebrity. Most artists don't get very far without explicitly or implicitly subscribing to this idea (of a gift economy) because most artists don't end up doing very well in the market economy."

Q: Your novels have targeted New York, Boston and St. Louis, but you pay regular visits to Santa Cruz. Why?

"I've been suspicious of everything Californian for most of my life. All the 1970s stereotypes of the good life and Napa and Marin had clouded my view of the state. What I've found there instead is, of course, one of the greatest places on earth.

"The Bay Area is fortunate to have been the birthplace of the organized American environmental movement in the person of John Muir and in the collective of the Sierra Club. You can tell simply by being in the Bay Area that people who care about nature have been working there for well over 100 years. For a major metropolitan area, it has an amazing amount of open space -- just driving on Route 1 from Santa Cruz to Half Moon Bay, not only are there no stoplights but there are very few buildings for about 45 miles. That's because a lot of experiments in how to preserve open space and substantial chunks of nature were performed in the backyards of groups like Sierra Club.

"Santa Cruz in particular is imbued with that spirit. There is a functioning greenbelt. There are these wildlife corridors, which is why we have bobcats all over the center of Santa Cruz. It's really quite remarkable. The Bay Area as a whole, with groups like POST, is really exemplary in the true sense of 'example' in showing how you can have major economic activity, a major concentration of population and not totally screw it up."

Q: What are the main differences in the ways in which you approach writing a novel as opposed to essays and journalism?

"Novels are major projects. Most of the time is spent not writing – it's the search. What you search for in a novel is something different than what you're searching for in an essay. A New Yorker editor defined an essay very well. I said, 'I don't want to write about it,' and the editor said, 'You must write about it.' Whatever I feel a real sense of taboo about and resistance to disclosing is that which might be pursued and disclosed in an essay. With a novel, you spend a lot of time trolling down at nearly an unconscious level, trying to track what characters and what fundamental stories keep occurring to you – things that you can't keep away from. Because the process of writing a novel is so obsessive, the only object of it is something that you're pre-obsessed with, something that won't leave you alone year after year, which I submit is very different from what drives an essay."

Q: What type of writing do you enjoy the most?

"I'd say journalism is the most fun because it's most like a regular job. You have no choice but to do it full time, so it's very different. And it's nice to have a boss for a change. I hate my boss (meaning me) and that boss hates his employee. Whereas it's different when you have an assignment. I'm very shy about making phone calls, but I become Spider-Man when I get to be a journalist. When I'm doing a piece for the New Yorker, people talk and I get to listen.

Q: Aside from writing about birds in your novels and essays, how are you involved in the conservation movement?

I'm a member of American Bird Conservancy, which is based in Virginia and is the most effective bird conservation group in the Western Hemisphere with many key and excellent partners in South America. I'm on the board there. I also try to focus my journalism to highlight environmental issues. I just did a couple of pieces about the killing of migratory birds in the Mediterranean region for the New Yorker and National Geographic. It's a huge problem unknown to most Europeans. They have had some concrete effects. Albania, which has one of the worst hunting problems in Europe and also some of the best habitats, just this month instituted a two-year ban on hunting. That's what you're going for, through focused journalism -- to raise public awareness and create pressure to change laws and enforce existing laws."

If you're going...

What: Jonathan Franzen in conversation with Robert Hass, followed by a book-signing and reception for the audience

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: March 6 at 8 p.m.

Cost: $22

Info: Open Space Trust lectures

This is a transcript of the Weekly's interview with Jonathan Franzen in mid-February. Excerpts from the interview were printed on Feb. 28, 2014, in the Palo Alto Weekly.

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