Jonathan Franzen, whose novel Freedom recently hit bookstore shelves, has an interesting idea about the role of novelists in the digital age.
In a video interview, the author discusses his earlier struggles with the question, “Why should I write?” and says he found at least one justification: a novel is a portal into a world in which the reader no longer feels alone. While a reader’s reality may be ruled by unjust people and dominated by forbidding customs, a book provides a connection to an author who might be equally appalled at the state of things. Reader and writer are united in their solitude, which is made much more bearable as a result. In this way, solitude serves an important purpose in that it compels a reader to read and a writer to write, requiring them to forge a connection that transcends the constraints of their lives.
Franzen goes on to say that in the digital age our opportunities for solitude are rapidly disappearing. Chained to our communication devices, we have nonstop access to our co-workers, friends and family. Certainly, this access diminishes our sense of aloneness. But, Franzen raises the point that the “beeping devices” in our lives may only provide superficial relief, leading us to endlessly check our messages as though we’re just one click away from a satisfying connection.
In that sense, Franzen articulates a battle that may have occurred in the minds of many writers who feel their craft is becoming obsolete. On one side, we have technology capturing all individuals in an expanding communication net,while on the other, we have practitioners of the “old” forms of media – novelists, playwrights, nonfiction writers, etc. – whose work isn’t easily integrated into this digital grid. Novelists, Franzen says, are tasked with enticing people away from their linked-up lives.
The entire interview is worth watching, but for Franzen’s comments on life in the digital age, fast-forward to the 9:06 mark: