Sunday, October 13, 2013

Snob Pornography

I have not seen much written about The Kraus Project, Jonathan Franzen's latest book, which was released at the beginning of this month. This does not surprise me. Ours is not a culture that knows very much about Karl Kraus, let alone takes interest in him. Kraus could write perfectly devastating aphorisms; but his keenest perceptions were often buried in large masses of opaque (and sometimes untranslatable) German. As Duncan White observed in his review of this new book today for the London Telegraph, the book is basically the product of a writer who has been successful enough to do whatever he wants. Whether or not anyone wants to pay attention is another matter, although, considering how little attention was paid to Kraus in his own lifetime, perhaps Franzen just wanted to experience the same fate.

What strikes me most about White's review, however, is his take on Franzen, rather than either Kraus or the "project" itself. These strike me as the most outstanding sentences:
He cares passionately about literature, has written about it with great intelligence and is more than aware that to make the case for high culture comes with underlying assumptions about social and economic privilege. But then he goes ahead and makes public comments that make him sound like a snob.
I know exactly what White is talking about in that second sentence. Those public comments have led me to use this platform to write about Franzen's ineptitude and to compare him with an earlier writer with an annoying tendency to blither on at great length without having very much to say, Douglas Hofstadter. Indeed, those public comments have annoyed me so much that I have not yet made the commitment to determine whether or not White's first sentence has any validity.

On the other hand reading White led me to wonder whether or not Franzen may have tapped into a pornographic side of snobbery that had been previously unexplored. It may be that the best way to describe The Kraus Project is to declare it a massive exercise in self-indulgence. Looking back on my encounter with Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (which I read from cover to cover, mind you), I think I would put Hofstadter's book in the same category. Now, in this earlier case, I eventually discovered that, while I knew many people who had Hofstader's book prominently displayed on their shelves, almost all of them had left it up there, letting the rest of the world know how well-read they were without actually undertaking the exercise of reading. The Kraus Project may enjoy a similar fate. However, those who do read it and know a thing or two about the subject matter may find themselves "getting off" on Franzen's self-indulgence, figuring that "being in on it" has as much pornographic value as indulging in "it" in the first place.

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