Marcus in Harper's

I let my subscription to Harper’s lapse last year, and the new issue – picked up at the newsstand – has me reaching for the check book to re-ante up. The highlight is Ben Marcus’s “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It: A Correction.” It’s a piece, one can tell, that Marcus has been just waiting to write. Two folks he takes aim at are book critic B.R. Myers of The Atlantic and Jonathan Franzen. Of Myers, Marcus writes:

“He is so thorough in his arguments against any kind of incremental shift away from established narrative practice, so complete in his condemnation of even some well-established writing (Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx, and Cormac McCarthy all get buried) that one might conclude he simply doesn’t believe writing to be an art form. It’s more of a lost art, like plastering, and the best practitioners are dead and gone. Myers seems to have no belief that literature might have a future, that change is possible, that something new and genuinely artistic might happen. It is as though a man has run into a baseball field mid-game, declaring that baseball no longer exists even as the game orbits beautifully around him.”

He gives Franzen a more thorough treatment, reacting to (among other things) Franzen’s 1996 New Yorker piece slightly mocking the small press FC2, as well as his more recent NY piece, “Mr. Difficult,” about William Gaddis. Marcus writes:

“Franzen seems to have decided that if someone as smart as he is cannot enjoy the books, then all those who say they can must be lying. Or are so effectively intimidated by the forbidding books that they feel they have to claim to like them. Or are otherwise invested in the notion that difficult writing must be important. The problem here goes beyond mere outsized self-regard on the part of Franzen. He also has decided that his subjective experience must form a basic template for the reality of others. This is an unfortunate trait in a novelist: it is a failure of empathy, an inability to believe in varieties of artistic interest, and a refusal to accommodate beliefs other than his own. I recognize the personality type, and I did not vote for it.”


“I have not come to this essay to vent an anger toward a writer who is more successful, both critically and commercially, than I am, but rather to offer another perspective on why a writer might be more interested in the possibilities of language than in the immediate pleasures of a mass audience, more curious about how syntax might be employed to show a reader what it’s like to be alive, to be a thinking, feeling, person in a very complex world, less interested in mastering someone else’s market-tested narrative technique. Since one of literatures’ leading spokespeople¬† – I’m the reader you want! – is in fact not the reader I would ever want, it seemed important to hear from the kind of reader that Franzen seems to be claiming does not, or should not, actually exist. I am not advocating the complex or difficult approach as the superior one, or claiming that it is better than seeking to commune with the largest possible audience, but when a major, prize-winning novelist seeks frequent occasions to attack a diminishing and ever more powerless avant-garde and its readership, a response is in order.”

As I’m sure one is in order for Franzen himself.