The hateful Jonathan Franzen

I’m a fan of the New Yorker on Facebook. So I should be able to read the Jonathan Franzen essay about David Foster Wallace and Robinson Crusoe, no? No. Turns out that TNY’s clever gimmick about opening the essay up only to FB fans only lasted a week. And now it’s gone. So that makes me angry at TNY. But not half as angry as I am at Franzen, who visited Robinson Crusoe Island in Chile for this essay. Here’s what he has to say about it:

On Masafuera’s sister island — originally named Masatierra, or Closer to Land, and now called Robinson Crusoe — I had seen the damage wrought by a trio of mainland plant species, maquis and murtilla and blackberry, which have monotonously overrun entire hills and drainages.

[Here, Franzen goes on to a facile metaphor about how “the blackberry on Robinson Crusoe Island was like the conquering novel, yes, but it seemed to me no less like the Internet, that BlackBerry-borne invasive”. Ugh. Anyway, back to Franzen’s take on the island.]

I felt desperate to escape the islands. Before leaving for Masafuera, I’d already seen Robinson’s two endemic land-bird species, and the prospect of another week there, with no chance of seeing something new, seemed suffocatingly boring…

Although I no longer wanted it, or because I didn’t want it, I had the experience of being truly stranded on an island. I ate the same bad Chilean white bread at every meal, the same nondescript fish served without sauce or seasoning at every lunch and dinner… I hiked over the mountains to a grassland where the island’s annual cattle-branding festival was being held, and I watched the horseback riders drive the village’s herd into a corral. The setting was spectacular — sweeping hills, volcanic peaks, whitecapped ocean — but the hills were denuded and deeply gouged by erosion. Of the hundred-plus cattle, at least ninety were malnourished, the majority of them so skeletal it seemed remarkable that they could even stand up. The herd had historically been a reserve source of protein, and the villagers still enjoyed the ritual of roping and branding, but couldn’t they see what a sad travesty their ritual had become?

All of this is so callous and worthy of unalloyed hatred that I’m pretty sure I’m never going to read anything by Franzen again. According to something he says in the story about Super Bowl XLV, Franzen was on Robinson Crusoe Island on February 3, 2011. Which means he was there less than a year after Robinson Crusoe Island was all but destroyed by the tsunami which followed massive Chilean earthquake of 2010:

A wall of water - possibly nearly 5 metres high - ravaged everything in its way. Within a few minutes, the scene of the adventures of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk - marooned on the island from 1704 to 1708, and immortalized in Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe - had been razed to the ground.

"Everything that had been along that three-kilometre stretch just disappeared," said Fernando Avaria, the first pilot to fly over the area after the disaster. The cemetery, the churches, sports facilities and the area’s only school were reduced to planks of wood and broken glass. The buildings of the local authority simply disappeared. "It was devastating, really out of a horror film," said Margot Salas, a local who toured the area with Chilean state television cameras almost 24 hours after the disaster. As the sea receded, Robinson Crusoe Island faced a new flood - one of despair. Mud covered everything within three kilometres of the coast.

Sixteen people died; the entire economy of the island was wiped out. If you’re interested in helping, or finding out more, there are good resources here.

It’s into the aftermath of this disaster that Franzen wanders, thinking in his Important Novelist way about how selfish David Foster Wallace turns out to have been. He reaches the island, and he sees the damage wrought — by blackberries. He sees the islanders trying to recover some semblance of their former lives, and sneers at the “sad travesty” of their ritual. He moans about how “nondescript” his food is and how “skeletal” the cattle are, while somehow failing to notice that the reason is that the islanders, recovering from a terrible natural disaster, have nothing left.

As for Franzen, he’s only on the island at all because he has a stupid dream of “running away and being alone” on Masafuera. “Like Selkirk”, he says. But he only manages to hack being alone for the grand total of one night. Like Selkirk, my arse.

Franzen attacks Wallace in this essay, criticizing “the extremes of his own narcissism” and his self-deception. Ha! The extremes of narcissism and self-deception needed to visit Robinson Crusoe Island 11 months after the tsunami and not even notice what had happened make Wallace look like an amateur in such fields. (And if Franzen did notice, but decided to ignore it, that’s even worse.)

I was obviously wrong to give Franzen any benefit of the doubt after the Oprah fiasco: he really is as boorish and narcissistic as he seemed back then. Clearly it’s long past time to ignore everything he does from here on in.

(crossposted at if you want to comment & you’re not on Tumblr)

(Update: This seems to be getting a bit of traction, so let me clarify a couple of things. Franzen spent about two weeks on Robinson Crusoe Island — at least that’s how I read the line about him spending “another week there”. The island, pre-tsunami, had a population of just over 600. So Franzen lived for two weeks on a small island, being hosted by a traumatized population. And in the wake of that experience, felt happy to describe their cattle-branding festival as a “sad travesty”. I still can’t work out which would be worse: that he wrote such a thing in full knowledge of the tsunami, or that he somehow contrived to remain ignorant of the devastation despite living in its aftermath for two weeks.)

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