Hugh McGuire

publishing, technology, media, philosophy, a bit of politics.

I’ve Been Busy

I’ve been a bit busy lately. Sorry I haven’t posted here in a while. I think Beatrice might have something to do with it:


Hi. I'm Beatrice. You can call me Kiki, though. My parents do.

Freedom Ain’t So Great: Why Franzen’s No Genius

Publishing needs its darlings to keep afloat – its Dan Browns and Tattooed Girls and Meyerses – and what is true for genre is true for literary fiction as well. And so 2010 brought us Franzen’s “Freedom,” the great white hope of American Letters.

I’m always puzzled (no, not puzzled … annoyed) by literary types who sneer at Dan Brown or Steig Larsson and their ilk. What that sneer means is: “I enjoy a different kind of writing, and if you enjoy this kind, you are stupid.” But people buy Brown and Larsson, and love them, and those clumsy sentences don’t seem to bother most people one whit. Perhaps those “clumsy” sentences are just what the mass market wants: the kind of sentences they themselves would write. And good for them: Brown doesn’t pretend to be Tolstoy, and so shouldn’t be held to that standard. Instead Brown et al should be assessed on their own terms: as entertainments that people enjoy to read; if you don’t enjoy them, that’s a matter taste, and criticizing Dan Brown for bad dialogue is like criticizing Keith Richard for his poor flute skills.

Franzen’s “Freedom,” on the other hand, is trying to be something different, and so opens itself up to more literary knife-wielding. Because Franzen (painfully) does pretend to be Tolstoy (so much so that he has to remind readers twice). Which in itself is fine, by the way, and doesn’t justify knives, necessarily. Anyone in the world is perfectly in their rights to write a novel they wish were as good as “War and Peace,” and I wouldn’t say a peep. There are thousands of such books published every year.

But what ripens “Freedom” for attack is the glowing talk of Genius that came with it.

I can’t get my head around it. Numerous serious ciritics read Franzen and agreed with the author’s own wishes for the book. It’s been call “Great,” a “Masterpiece” and “Genius,” which is par for the course in book blurbing, but with “Freedom” there was a breathless sense that this was more than your run-of the-mill “masterpiece,” this was, rather, a “Major Book,” a “Masterpiece,” the kind of book that comes once in a generation, a kind of “Masterpiece” that all writers and readers ought to pay attention to.

And I can’t figure that out.

I mean… really?

Do you, Sam Tanenhaus, editor of NY Times Book Review (and a conservative to boot!) *really* think that this is a “masterpiece of American fiction” ? I just cannot believe it. I mean, literally, I cannot believe that Sam Tanenhaus could read this novel and think it a masterpiece. Ron Charles at the Washington Post was more reasonable – but he too (begrudgingly) called the book “brilliant.”

I don’t know if I’m like the Dan Brown haters out there, but I just can’t let this slide. So, here are 10 reasons why “Freedom” is not a masterpiece. It may be a good book, or perhaps a sweeping look at American culture. Certainly it’s popular. But, it’s so riddled with flaws and laziness, that I just can’t believe it’s a masterpiece.

Here are 10 reasons why it isn’t (NOTE: I haven’t backed up my complaints with examples, mainly because my iPhone version of Kobo won’t allow for note-taking, and … yes … when you want to look at a book more closely, you want paper). Anyway, the list of crimes include:

1. The Expository Essays.
Franzen wants to tell you about strip mining and birds and Iraq. And every time Franzen went off on one of these tangents I felt like I was reading the third draft of a first novel by an earnest high school student. When these essays were shoehorned into dialogue, I was just about ready to throw the book (contained inside my iPhone) across the room. This is genius? Editor, please.

2. The Voice(s).
In two sections of the book, Franzen presents a manuscript supposedly written by Patty. You have to be kidding? That’s Patty’s voice, Mr. Franzen (and editor)? Come on. Ironically, I found Patty’s first section the best part of the novel (though I didn’t realize till the end that Franzen was putting in “the autobiographer notes…” I kept reading “the biographer notes …” – my brain had decided this wasn’t Patty’s voice, and took appropriate action). Anyway, this section was the part of the book I enjoyed most (Franzen should have stopped here). But it sure wasn’t Patty’s voice.

3. Where the hell did the editor go?
There were so many clumsy, ugly sentences I just couldn’t believe it. Franzen has been called a master stylist. I suppose he does the odd interesting thing with dialogue, but for so much of the book I was cringing.

Look: genius doesn’t have to be perfect. Probably it shouldn’t be. But I don’t think a work of genius should display such laziness. And that’s what this book felt to me: lazy, in so many different ways.

4. Conservatives
Do you think Franzen has ever spoken to an actual conservative? His conservatives were plastic, juvenile caricatures, and not worthy of a writer of genius.

5. Joey
Joey is the most phony, inconsistent and completely unbelievable character I’ve read in a book in ages. Describe him for me. Does *anything* about him make any sense? The relationship with Connie? He’s described one way, but behaves totally differently. The whole Joey chapter was a complete disaster. I think I might have enjoyed the book somewhat if it weren’t for that dog’s breakfast of crappy writing.

6. Conspiracies
I don’t know how other writers come up with their satirical conspiracies, but do you get the feeling Franzen kept reading an article in Harper’s, and then throwing in another “subplot,” for padding, with the plan to edit later? And then he just never got around to editing. Is it too much to expect a little bit of work? You know, I liked his Estonian satire in Corrections. Maybe he got too much flack for that, and tried to pull back in this one. With the result: milquetoast. Or rather, the butter that sits on the surface of milquetoast.

7. Characters
Franzen has been lauded for painting a portrait of a family. But these characters just didn’t make any sense to me half the time. Patty who careens all over the place. The relationship between Patty and Joey. Walter: I mean, tell me about Walter. Connie? Totally baffling. Not to mention bit players Jonathan and Jenna, completely cardboard, unbelievable. Read War and Peace, and then lets talk about character.

8. The Disdain
I don’t think I have ever read a writer who is as disgusted by his characters as Franzen is. Thankfully, the disdain dissipated as the book went on. But that first section just dripped with disdain. It was so strange.

9. Adverbs.
Sorry, but I just can’t abide so many adverbs. And glib adverbs too. The worst kind.

10. Technology
Franzen should be banned from writing anything about technology – Twitter, blogs, cell phones. Write what you know, Mr. Franzen. You ring false when you try to talk about technology.

Now look, I’m not saying that the book’s no good. I read the whole thing, so I was entertained enough. I’m a sucker for love triangles, and the Walter/Patty/Richard made a good one, a very good one. And I suppose it’s heartening that someone’s taking a stab at a big sweeping novel about America. He tries, which is good, to tackle some of the big themes of our time: war and the environment, not to mention sex. It’s accessible and in a grand old tradition of literary fiction. I won’t fault Franzen for any of those decisions. But still, it’s not a great book.

So Franzen gets a B for intent, a C for effort. His editor gets an F for letting Franzen’s “Freedom” go out into the world looking like such a shoddy, lazy piece of work.

And, no, it’s no masterpiece.

You Can’t Shut WikiLeaks Without Shutting Democracy

My mother just asked what i thought about WikiLeaks … and finally I had an answer (my gut reaction from the beginning has been to support WikiLeaks, but i haven’t articulated that support till now):

1. There is nothing you can do about it.

The internet is designed to support anonymous dumping of masses of documents. You can “shut down” WikiLeaks, but it doesn’t matter: there will be any number of ways anyone with documents they wish to leak will be able to do so, including reams of similar projects that will pop up all over the world, smarter and better than WikiLeaks. Trying to stop WikiLeaks is a pointless exercise, unless you wish to give the state the right to designate people or organizations illegal at will, with no due process.

2. If you shut WikiLeaks with law, you shut the free press.

If you say that the government can prosecute people for publishing information that the government doesn’t want published – for “national security” or any other reason – then you no longer have a free press or free speech. If the government has the ability to outlaw public discussions on whatever topics they please, based on national security, the government then can control the speech of the press, private citizens, and any other kind of mixture of the two. This is what Lieberman’s SHIELD law proposes.

So: there is no point in trying to stop WikiLeaks, and if you do, you have to criminalize activities that are fundamental to our understanding of Western Democracy. There’s not really a middle road, as far as I can tell.

Our Daughter

Our daughter was born November 2, 2010, at 8:50am. No official name yet. Mum is recovering well, and baby is lovely, don’t you think?


All My Friends Are Superheroes – Audiobook

Have a listen to a sample of an Iambik Audiobook:

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

Published by Coach House Books, iambik audiobook narrated by Gord Mackenzie.

Play Chapter 1 (Right Click/Save As to download).

All My Friends Are Superheroes

announcing iambik audiobooks

iambik logoWe launched Iambik Audiobooks today, a new audiobook company loosely based on another project I started moons ago, LibriVox.

Iambik’s a bit different though: we’re partnering with publishers to make audio versions of in-copyright books, we’re much more picky about sound quality, and … we want your cold hard cash!

You can visit the site here, read more about it on our blog here, and listen to samples here, here, here and here.

Oh and here are some beautiful covers (there are even more on

like son

oh pure and radiant heart

all my friends are superheroes

Thanks to the many people who helped make this happen.

Forbes and Me

Forbes.comMy O’Reilly article, about books and the internet, got picked up by Forbes: The Vanishing Line Between Books And Internet.

al’s horse

Books as Web Objects: Publishers with APIs

I’ve been meaning to write this post about truly connected books for ages. It’s up on O’Reilly Radar:

Ebooks to date have mostly been approached as digital versions of a print books that readers can read on a variety of digital devices, with some thought to enhancing ebooks with a few bells and whistles, like video. While the false battle between ebooks and print books will continue — you can read one on the beach, with no batteries; you can read another at night with no bedside lamp — these battles only scratch the surface of what the move to digital books really means. They continue to ignore the real, though as-yet unknown, value that comes with books being truly digital; not the phony, unconnected digital of our current understanding of “ebooks.”

Of course, thinking of ebooks as just another way to consume a book lets the publishing business ignore the terror of a totally unknown business landscape, and concentrate on one that looks at least similar in structure, if not P&L.


Access to Public Sector Information

Tracey Lauriault (my co-founder of, and the tireless editor of) and I have a chapter in a just-released book out of the University of Sydney Press: Access to Public Sector Information : Law, Technology and Policy, edited by Brian Fitzgerald. Ours is chapter 14 in Volume 1: “Data Access in Canada:”

Access to Public Sector Information : Law, Technology and Policy: Volume 1 , , Sydney University Press

On the back of the growing capacity of networked digital information technologies to process and visualise large amounts of information in a timely, efficient and user-driven manner we have seen an increasing demand for better access to and re-use of public sector information (PSI). The story is not a new one. Share knowledge and together we can do great things; limit access and we reduce the potential for opportunity.

The two volumes of this book seek to explain and analyse this global shift in the way we manage public sector information. In doing so they collect and present papers, reports and submissions on the topic by the leading authors and institutions from across the world. These in turn provide people tasked with mapping out and implementing information policy with reference material and practical guidance.

A free online version should be accessible shortly.