Monday, October 03, 2005

This Book is Not a Pipe [Bomb]


How Ben Marcus Made Me Cry

The October 2005 issue of Harper’s magazine contains an explosive essay written by experimental writer Ben Marcus, entitled “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It” (an excerpt of which you can read here). The title, of course, is sarcastic—experimental fiction never hurt anyone, except, according to best-selling author Jonathan Franzen, the reader, who, if he is enjoying experimental fiction must be a masochist.

To put this in context for the kids: this is like Coldplay picking on Dillinger Escape Plan. Imagine if the vegetarian from Coldplay did an interview--nay, a lot of interviews--proclaiming that bands like Dillinger Escape Plan were ruining music, and if they continued what they were doing people would stop buying music, and anyone who listened to them was crizazy?

So that brings us to the real problem: Marcus’s essay, which I agree with 100%, and I’ll get into the why and whatfor later, is an answer to essays, interviews, screeds by Jonathan Franzen. Who, let’s face it, is crazy. Where is my proof, you ask. Here is my proof—he consistently bemoans the fact that authors to don’t have rock-star status (see review of Alice Munro’s Runaway, for example [New York Times Book Review, November 14, 2004], wherein most of the review giving the reader, or asking the author, reasons why Munro is not more popular than, say, Philip Roth or Rick Moody, and where he manages to insult both Munro and her readers). This after causing a fuss about his book The Corrections being selected for Oprah’s Book Club (about which you can read a fairly comprehensive, and I think fair-minded, case study here). The point is this: be as conflicted as you like, Franzen, about “corporate ownership” and the “high literary art” you feel you produce—you can’t be a rock star without being part of the corporate publishing machine. Much of the Oprah’s Book Club debate centered on Franzen’s views of being a literary writer who was independent and didn’t want his book co-opted for corporate usury, yet he apparently was not concerned about solicited blurbs that appeared on the back of the original jacket, or of future movie tie-in editions (from the NY Times, October 29, 2001, “He said he had no problem with any number of alterations -- including logos and pictures of actors on paperbacks editions reissued after the book becomes a movie.”). In other words, Franzen is the proverbial guy who does not want to be a member of a club who will have him for a member. And worse, he is an iconoclast who seeks to overthrow--not the traditional or popular--the experimental and the avant garde. He is, is other words, your parents.

I understand why Marcus takes what Franzen says more seriously than what Stephen King said when he won the National Book Award (when he says “There's a great deal of good stuff out there and not all of it is being done by writers whose work is regularly reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review,” he is not talking about experimental literary fiction. He’s talking about his books, reviews of which have been ghetto-ized to the daily edition. Poor dear!). Marcus takes Franzen more seriously because Franzen continues to assert that he is the vanguard of experimental fiction, he is the most ambitious and difficult writer publishing today, and anyone else is just writing nonsense. They’re not writers at all, they’re doms beating up their subservient readers. Additionally, Franzen constantly asserts that he is the ideal reader for avant garde and experimental fiction, yet he holds it in such distain that he can’t read any of it. Dude, I am that reader, not you, and I am requesting that you quit insulting me before I kick your ass.

Essentially I see the problem as this: everyone is beating up on the nerdy kids, even the other nerdy kids. Because publishing is ALL nerdy kids. King and Franzen will gladly cast oblique aspersions at people like Ellen Gilchrist and Don Delillo, people who may not be household names but have had honors bestowed upon then nonetheless (and who get reviewed in the New York Times Book Review). How dare the National Book Foundation award a prize to something as difficult as Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses? It’s funny, if you go back and look at the NBA winners for the last 50 years, you’ll see a lot of familiar names. It seems that these awards are indeed going to the big name people, the publishing rock-stars. I guess you wuz wrong Stephen King.

But the real thesis of Marcus’s article is this: the avant garde—Ben Marcus and Lydia Davis, Marianne Robison, David Means and David Gates, and yes, even David Foster Wallace—are the future of fiction. Not that you’re all going to be reading difficult fiction 10 years or 50 years from now, but that fiction will die as an art if it does not go forward. People like Franzen and King don’t want the art to progress. Why do you want to kill what you love, dudes? What, if you can't have literature, no one can hav her? That's crazy talk. I also don’t understand why you want to fight with me. I am a mean and dirty fighter, and I will win. The difficult writers will continue to publish, and will continue not to sell any books, whether you want them to or not. And I and 35 other people will read them and enjoy them.

I guess the problem is this: I’m a really attractive reader, and I am the reader you really want, the one who will get below the sentences of the text, who will be right there with you when you make your linguistic pirouettes. Guess what? Your worst fear has been realized—you’re not good enough for me.


Blogger virginia said...

Franzen has become insufferable. I did like the Corrections but I hate his whiny essays about his non-problems.

He should stick to fiction.

But fiction writing is really hard and Corrections is a tough act to follow. My theory is that when Franzen's struggling with fiction writing, he procrastinates AND vents by slagging other writers and readers who like the wrong thing or the right thing for the wrong reasons (Oprah watchers). LIke he's trying to round up an audience for the novel he's not writing.

I dug the Ben Marcus essay excerpt and agree too, thanks for posting it.

9:51 PM  

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