Baseball, Briefly

  • About the author MS
  • October 17, 2005

We’ll try to stick to books here, unless they bring back some newfangled version of Rock Star INXS, in which case all bets are off.

But if you’ll indulge a quick baseball posting, I direct you to pieces here and here that make an important argument: Umpires may occasionally stink, but instant replay is worse. May the grand old game never suffer it.

Thus ends the baseball-nerd moment. Thanks for your indulgence.

Marcus’ pen is mightier than Franzen’s…pen; nerds all atwitter

  • About the author MS
  • October 17, 2005

In this month’s issue of Harper’s, proud experimental fiction writer Ben Marcus takes issue with Jonathan Franzen’s commercial ambitions and his mistreatment of more stylistically adventurous scribes. Or, as the New York Observer puts it: “Another decade, another lengthy Harper’s state of the novel essay.” (Scroll to bottom of this page for the rest of the Observer’s funny take.) Nerds everywhere (or at least on the Internet) immediately swarmed to the smackdown.

Right now, the Olive would like to inaugurate a feature called “The Gist,” where we summarize a controversial or otherwise noteworthy essay in much briefer form. We know you’re a blog reader, after all, and that you have a very short atten… – hey! – attention span. So here is the Marcus piece in its essentials:

Jonathan Franzen is a smart guy who, also being craven decided to write pabulum for the masses and make bank off dissing Oprah’s courtship rather than continue in the experimental vein he threatened to tap in his first two novels. Ben Marcus is an equally (at least!) smart guy, who despite being married to Heidi Julavits, famed enemy of negativity, jumps head-first into the deep end of the snark pool by dressing down Franzen over the course of what comes to seem like 50 or 60 pages. Franzen once showed promise. Now he’s happy to spend his time playa-hating writers like William Gaddis, who make readers like Marcus exercise their brains while the rest of us read The Corrections, the gateway to devolving into Highlights subscribers. (Marcus actually name-checks Highlights, I swear.)

The Olive’s take, since you asked, is this: Franzen’s level of success makes him an outlier among serious writers, no matter where on that serious spectrum Marcus chooses to place him, especially since a fair amount of his fame stemmed from his Hamilton/Burr-like duel with Oprah and not from his actual work. Marcus’ stance throughout the essay is that he’s simply protecting the endangered experimental writer from the middlebrow carnivore represented by Franzen. The problem with this line of reasoning is that Marcus is a respected writer who, if not a bestseller, presumably does well enough for himself teaching creative writing to Ivy Leaguers. His choice of style has hardly sent him to literary Siberia.

And experimental writers don’t need the help. The good ones – like Marcus, David Foster Wallace, Donald Barthelme, and John Barth – are all (relatively) famous, the same way that the best more conventional writers – like Franzen, Richard Russo, and Lorrie Moore – are. The terrible experimentalists (who Marcus neglects to mention) are now running roughshod in slush piles everywhere, thanks to the aforementioned positive influences. If only they were more endangered! If the experimentalists’ fame is of a lighter shade and more hard-won, that’s only to be expected given the stubborn habits of the average reader, and it’s the very swimming against the tide of those habits that must give Marcus’ campmates their share of pleasure.

I know Marcus is reacting less to Franzen’s novels than to his public criticisms of Gaddis and others, and I’m by no means a Franzen apologist, but when the bestseller list is dominated by genre fiction, you’d think the contrarian-smart and the mainstream-smart could find more common cause. If nothing else, look what your snark is doing to the children!


  • About the author MS
  • October 13, 2005

A hilarious interview with Margaret Atwood about her new book of essays.

Nobel to Pinter

  • About the author MS
  • October 13, 2005

British playwright/poet/peace activist Harold Pinter has been awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature.

I guess it’s too late for me to suggest Kurt Vonnegut. Maybe next year.

NBA: Noticing Brooklyn Authors?

  • About the author MS
  • October 12, 2005

The nominees for the National Book Award appear to be a fine lot. Granted, I haven’t read any of the selected books, but I’m an editor — no time to read. Plus, at least two of the fiction nominees have been released within the last month (in fact, one of them was released yesterday), so give me some time, will you?

With William Vollmann and E.L. Doctorow on the list, it’s unlikely that this year’s fiction announcement will cause quite the uproar that last year’s did, when five women with less than blockbuster sales were nominated, much to the chagrin of those on the Relevance side of the prefabricated moving target that is the Literature-Commerce-Relevance war. Also to the chagrin of sexists everywhere, I suppose. There was additional upset caused by the fact that all five women lived in Manhattan (New York, not Kansas — now, that would be a controversy: ““Kansas State”: has hijacked the NBA process!”)

A quick glance at this year’s honorees does show that at least two of them – Christopher Sorrentino and Rene Steinke – live in Brooklyn. Let the uproar begin. When, oh when, I ask you, will we start to recognize the indelible work coming out of Queens? There’s always 2006.

I end with a simple wish that this year’s NBA fallout doesn’t include an essay about the process as soul-crushingly solipsistic and dull as Rick Moody’s in The Believer last year. (This link only takes you to a brief excerpt of the piece, and you can thank me later.)

Play Nice.

  • About the author MS
  • October 12, 2005

A member of the Swedish Academy that will award this year’s Nobel prize for literature tomorrow has attacked last year’s surprise winner, Elfriede Jelinek, dismissing her work as “whingeing, unenjoyable, violent pornography”.

Read the whole article.

National Book Awards

  • About the author MS
  • October 12, 2005

The finalists for the National Book Awards were announced today. Scroll down to the bottom of the page for a full list of this year’s nominees.

I’m particularly excited to see John Ashbery and William Vollmann on the list.

They still haven’t announced the Nobel Prize yet, but we’ll certainly have something to say when they do. Hopefully they make the announcement tomorrow.

The International Lizard Hunt

  • About the author MS
  • September 27, 2005

The Nobel Prize for Literature is traditionally announced on the first Thursday in October, meaning we expect an announcement on October 6th this year.

Along with everyone else in publishing, we excitedly await the news. To distract ourselves in the interim, we decided to pull together our list of likely candidates:

And my personal dark horse choice:

In case you’re an obsessive punter (and, with all the poker mania, who isn’t these days), you can see some odds on the prizewinner here and here. If you want, we could put you in touch with a guy who knows a guy who could put some money down for you.


  • About the author MS
  • September 22, 2005

Fresh off their buzz-generating profile in the New York Times Magazine, the folks at n+1 welcomed old fans and curious newcomers to Brooklyn last Saturday night to celebrate the publication of the literary journal’s third issue.

In many ways, it was a typical gathering of literary scene-makers, in the sense that it strongly resembled a middle-school dance. Held on the third (and top) floor of a warehouse/factory space, the dimensions of the party room were similar to those of a middle-school gymnasium (just such a gym was where the second-issue launch party was allegedly held, but The Olive wasn’t there). Boys and girls tentatively mingled at first, then a few tentatively made out in front of strangers and, finally, as the night waned, most of them danced with abandon. Or rather, danced as best they could, which, with literary nerds, often resembles abandon.

All in all, an enjoyable time. The DJ was nearly impeccable – this scene-maker particularly enjoyed “Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates – even if all night the volume on the speakers was set to Stun. Lots of interesting people to talk to, but conversation came with the risk of severe vocal-cord damage.

I didn’t see A.O. Scott anywhere, but it was easy enough to find the industrious young Brooklynites who run the magazine – they were taking cover payments at the door, signing up subscribers, stocking the bar, serving $1 drinks, and generally acting like the hardest-working literary upstarts this side of the Gowanus Canal. A quick perusal of the new issue justifies their recent time in the spotlight – hyper-intelligent thoughts on dating, Radiohead, and the commodification of lower-class signifiers, as well as a long-ish essay by James Wood responding to the magazine’s mission statement. Long may they practice algebra…

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