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!