Marcus vs. Franzen

Who wants a piece of this one? I don't think there is a link for the wonderful Harper's essay in which Ben Marcus tears Franzen and all he stands for a new one. So if you don't have it, run out and read it in the magazine aisle. I don't have a lot to say about it (that's the problem with near total agreement) but am curious about the fiction response. I'm going to come down on the side of "experimentalism" almost every time. Seeing quotes from Tender Buttons anywhere tends to reaffirm my faith in man (or woman as the case may be). I find the blurring of reader and customer to be particularity troubling. It seems to be happening in the poetry world as well.


Richard said...

It's a terrific article, but I'd also recommend Andrew Ervin's six-page letter in the September issue of The Believer, which also takes on Franzen regarding "Mr. Difficult" (his article on Gaddis) and his Contract/Status dichotomy.

Thought Marcus was excellent, but Ervin used a Franzen quote (from "Mr. Difficult"): "Fiction is conservative and conventional."

Also, Ervin notes that Franzen really condescends to and shows disrespect to the reading public, not just to writers like Gaddis, Hawkes, Barthelme, etc.

But to me, Ben Marcus's article was exhilirating.

kclou said...

I'd say Marcus hits his targets pretty accurately. Marilynne (whom Marcus mentions admiringly) used to talk about how realism has no priviliged perspective on reality, and that point does get ignored sometimes. I thought it made sense when she said it, and I like how Marcus puts it, too.

This is most accurate as an attack on Franzen, though, and reading a fifteen page attack on someone who has already served as a pretty big target isn't the most interesting thing in the world. Marcus mentions plenty of successful writers working outside of realism himself. Gilead won the Pulitzer last year, after all.

Pete said...

You've got to wonder: how much of the appeal of experimental (ahem) writing is in its outsiderism? Franzen is an easy target for a million reasons, but particularly, he represents a hegemony that might not really exist anymore.

Maybe another way to put this: the semantics here are absurd.

cj said...

I agree with kclou. Marcus makes a few thrusts into laying out an aesthetic philosophy, but the bottom-line thesis of the article ends up being, "Why can't Jonathan Franzen just live and let live?" Other than Franzen himself, it's hard to see how anyone could disagree with that. His aesthetic points are similarly unclear: he starts to argue that realism is an exhausted tradition, but then acknowledges that some people are still doing good work in it. So is he just saying that original writing is good, and overly derivative writing isn't? Again, that's a pretty timid thesis for such a supposedly radical guy.

It would have been more interesting if Marcus had attempted to argue that formal or stylistic innovation is more valuable than other types of innovation. Then he might have opened himself up to the same charge of intolerance that he levels at Franzen, but it would have been better reading. Moreover, can't someone advocate for his own aesthetic without being guilty of intolerance? In other words, although Franzen obviously said some stupid things, is having an aesthetic that prefers more accessible work necessarily evidence of intolerance toward people with a different aesthetic? Personally, I enjoy hearing both arguments made, but I don't hear either Marcus or Franzen making them head-on.

Grendel said...

For those who haven't been able to access this article, an excerpt is now available online -- go to the Harpers home page.

But reading the excerpt didn't give me much, except a savory taste that makes me want to go out and get the magazine, which is what an excerpt is supposed to do. (I tried to get it last night, but the reading was on, and the magazine cafe was closed.) I love a good cockfight, and I'm no big Franzen fan, and Marcus's prose is yummy -- but I knew all that before the excerpt.

cj said...

Looking back, my previous post sounds too critical of the article. It is a good read. Just because Franzen & Co. are easy to skewer doesn't mean they shouldn't be skewered.

One question: does the article make you more or less regretful that BM will not be workshop director? I come away from the article with the same enthusiasm and the same lingering doubts that BM's campus visit left me with. On the surface, BM conveys tolerance and openness to debate, but you can't quite tell if there's a more narrow agenda lurking in there . . .

Grendel said...

Okay, I read it and enjoyed it enormously, cheered him on the whole way, found his metaphors delicious and hilarious, savored his precision and wicked wit.

But I believe at the end of the day I fall somewhere between these two. Like Marcus, I believe in subjectivity, not lemminghood. I also read books now with at least one feeler, stunted and tender though it may be, out for novelty and unexpected pleasure from language use in writing -- though that's still just one feeler. I would probably rather read a novel about a beaver who lived in a cardboard box at a circus than one about adultery and cancer in Connecticut -- but only if they were both equally realistic. I love me some realism AND weirdism.

Like Franzen I, too, worry at least a little about the future of literature and about charting a course, however currently laughable, of becoming a writer. I fail to understand the critical accolades heaped on works that are not, to me, particularly understandable or enjoyable, such as just about every postmodern "literary" book published in the 60s and 70s, which were shoved down my throat as an undergraduate as supposedly good medicine, but which, I believe, left scars in my brain and damaged by ability to fully enjoy reading books, the one activity I formerly considered to be sacred. It's not that I'm against having to think -- it's that I'm against being led astray too far from what to me are the strengths of fiction, which are character, plot, new ideas, AND language. My English degree actually set me back years in my literary endeavors. I resent much of the postmodern bullshit that was held up back then -- note how much of it does not hold up now. And I would stack the fiction work of Ben Marcus fairly close to some of it. Let's put it this way: I finished The Corrections, but not Notable American Women.

Yet, as time goes by, I have begun the slow process of swinging back from my bitter cavemanhood, and I now believe I probably got more out of Notable American Women than I did from The Corrections. It's more vivid in my head, more odd and remarkable. But I don't want to read any more of it. And I laughed more at The Corrections. Is fiction entertainment? Of course it is, but it's much more than that.

Marcus's argument against Franzen is air-tight, but only because he has individualism and freedom and subjectitivy on his side, whereas Franzen seems to have cast his lot with worried fame, philistinism, and predigestibility. Comparing reading to extreme sports? Come on.

Somewhere in between these two extremes is where I feel most comfortable. Fifteen years ago, I would have been a solid Franzenite, having been force-fed books so pretentious, turgid, and infuriating that my heart rate still goes up when I think of them, such as one by Robes-Grillet (sp?) that was a tedious study in domestic paranoia written in cold architectural terms. I got an C- on the paper I wrote, with trembling hands, on that one. Meanwhile I was never assigned anything by Dickens, because realism was out of fashion then. Oh, but plenty of John Barth! Yet I had to find Great Expectations outside of class.

Now I am creeping ever so cautiously toward being open to Marcusian ideas of literary possibility. But don't push me. As of this moment, give me Dickens over Gaddis or Gertrude Stein. But also give me more intelligent, persuasive essays like this one by Ben Marcus.

dunkeys said...

Pete, what do you mean "the semantics here are absurd"?

danie said...

I don't know what the orginal objection to semantics was, but I find the semantics rather absurd, given that *all* literature is experimental and most of it fails.

cj said...

Marcus *seems* to *almost* say that you're not really doing original work (that you're just a "cover band" -- great metaphor!) unless you are experimenting with style or form. But isn't it possible to be original within an established style or form? For example, does Marilynne's originality come from her style, or from her thematic or philosophical content? Of course, it's impossible to completely separate those issues -- certainly you could say that Marilynne is experimenting with language. But again, that just leaves you with the idea that originality is good. That's why I think it would be interesting to pin Marcus down on whether/why he thinks certain types of innovation are more valuable (or simply more enjoyable to him) than others.

Pete said...

I don't think Marcus gets to decide what makes something "original." Maybe I agree, though, that if originality is your central aim, the most efficient way do achieve it is via language and form.

But I don't think originality is the central aim for most fiction, at least not as the term is being used in this conversation. And, I think, when it is the central aim, it often comes at the expense of other, more important pleasures.

I can't think of a single book that I've read and loved in the past ten years *just* for its originality. Originality can be a factor in why I love a book (Jesus' Son) or it can have nothing to do with it (The Count of Monte Cristo). But to fetishize originality will only make fiction more like modern art in its remove from actual aesthetic and focus on oneupsmanship. There are paintings out there that I'm not really comfortable having an opinion on, because they exist only in an extended conversation, the occasion for which is meandering and obscure to me. And that's all they exist for; without that conversation, they're just a square with a diagonal line through them and a messy bit of text scrawled across the top, or whatever.

I guess what I'm saying is that "originality" is a mixed bag. This notion that history is a linear arc along with things are obliged to change (progress) at a rate determined by some elite is plain fucking silly.

Originality is treated as a quantity, too, which is problematic. Small originalities can be just as important as big ones, and a lot easier to make with sacrificing the central pleasures of story.

cj said...

I like that comeback, Pete. Yet would you say that even the Count of Monte Cristo is original, in the sense that it gives you something that no previous book had given you? (Not to mention that it may have been very original in its time.) At some point wouldn't blatant derivativeness turn you off to something that might nonetheless offer some entertainment -- like yet another blockbuster action movie, pulling all the same old tricks (but still getting the adrenaline flowing)?

Pete said...

I think we agree- the originalities you describe are important to me, but I don't think they necessarily stem from language or form.

I don't think that something that isn't 'original' in the marcus sense is necessarily derivative, though. It might not even be 'unoriginal' in a sense I would understand.

I guess this is what I meant when I said the semantics here are absurd. The following words are not necessarily synonyms: experimental, avant garde, progressive, new, original, unique. The same goes for the antonyms.

Marcus is a traditional experimentalist, if that makes sense. He borrows against a tradition that has existed since before any of us were born. To claim that this tradition is any less staid than the realist one is absurd. You could even say that that sort of writing has changed less in the past forty years: there's more difference between Cheever and Franzen than there is between Coover and Marcus.

There are a million ways to be a conformist. One such way is to conform to ideas that vitriolically insist to be non-conformist. I think that, when people like us, myself included, are prone to conformity, it is of that precise brand.

Look: I like Marcus's writing more than I like Franzen's, but it has nothing to do with the relative originality. It has to do with the fact that Franzen's writing is cold and cruel, while Marcus's, despite the noise, has some heart.

I think its silly: "original" has become synonymous with "difficult" for some writers and readers. All the while, writers like Carol Emshwiller, Percival Everett and Timothy Schaffert, writers who are legitimately original but not quite so insistent about it, stay in the smaller press circuit and aren't given this kind of attention.

So I guess I'm rejecting the terms of the debate: the spectrum it presumes, the motives it presumes, the terms it presumes.

In the grand scheme, this seems like a point of stylistic contention: like two fashionistas battling over Armani versus Versace, when the real issue is whether one wears a suit at all.

kclou said...

I think, in a way, that the fight people want is experimental vs. realist. Neither Marcus nor Franzen is particularly interested in taking that fight head-on, however, so they dance around it a bit through some hyperbole, some ad hominem action, and, really, some good old-fashioned catiness. I suspect neither writer is interested in that fight because both realize it isn't an either/or affair (Marcus whould have you believe he's more elightened on this point than Franzen, but I'm not so sure). True, Franzen has said some dismissive, perhaps even naive things about non-realist fiction, but then Marcus has taken the time to pen a rather long FU to Franzen, so neither is exactly on the high road. Overall, I think the discussion we're having is more illuminating than the discussion Marcus provides. I'll give Marcus credit for getting that going, but the more I think about this essay, the more I dislike its aims. Franzen is so popular largely because people don't stop talking about him. _Corrections_ came out a while ago.

cj said...

Yes -- of course there is no right or wrong when it comes to taste, but I do enjoy hearing someone make a persuasive case for their own. That's more interesting than hearing each side trade charges of intolerance.

By the way, Grendel, your college experience reinforces my sense that the English professor is the natural enemy of the novelist. I was scared of literature classes in college -- took the minimum two, both pass/fail -- and I don't think I would do it any differently today.

cek said...
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