19 March 2009

Marcus, Ben. "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It." Harper's. October 2005.

We're back full circle with Tom Wolfe in this essay, in that the very thing Wolfe was decrying as "a literary game, words on a page being manipulated by an author" (49), Ben Marcus holds up as a purpose for writing: the pursuit of (and endless play with) new language shapes. (Indeed, reading Marcus back-to-back with Wolfe, it's clear that Wolfe's problem is that he sees the reality of post-Reagan America as far more linear and logical than do most other writers.) It's not just a matter of making language hard, of writing for the intelligentsia, it's a matter of seeking new opportunities or new methods by which language can represent reality.

The other key difference about Marcus's essay compared to the others we've looked at this week is that he's not coming to any new ideas about the direction his writing in specific or fiction writing in general should now go. He's not, like Wallace and Franzen, trying to figure out what (or why) to write. Like Wolfe, actually, Marcus knows what he wants to write, and he knows that what he wants to write has been disparaged, and so he’s writing a defense. "[W]hen 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," Marcus writes. The subtitle of this piece is, cleverly enough, "A Correction."

But before Franzen gets destroyed as the essay's title promises, Marcus has to describe what he means by "experimental writing"—a term, we'll see, that he's not a fan of. (Is anyone a fan of any term used to describe their writing? I don't know a single writer who willfully adopts the label "experimental" nor do I know anyone [except maybe me] who says he writes realism.)

He opens the essay with a lesson in physiology: the Wernicke's area is the locus of language comprehension in the brain, which was located all the way back in 1874. This is an important brain part for all writers, of course, but particularly so for writers like Marcus and those he's trying here to champion. If we think, Marcus suggests, of Wernicke's area as "the reader's muscle" (39), then we can come to a new understanding of books. They're things that work this muscle, or, in Marcus's words, books are "the fuel that allows this region of the brain to grow ever more capable" (40).

It's a very peculiar view of the practice (habit? hobby? desire? need?) of reading. The purpose of reading is to become a better reader (read: a smarter reader, read: a reader more quickly able to form logical connections between strings of language whose associative leaps are less prosaic). Marcus seems to read the way certain people lift dumbbells, where the lifting of the dumbbell isn't done in order to improve one's tennis swing, say, or achieve better control over one's bowling ball. The lifting of the dumbbell is done in order to be better at the lifting of a future, heavier dumbbell.

As a person who lifts dumbbells in order basically to pose more alluringly before a mirror, I can't fault the guy. Fine: reading is its own reward. This does away, as Franzen seeks to, with any demands that the novel "enrich" a person, or "comment" upon the world. These things, if they happen, happen by accident, or as a by-product of the reader's communion with language. One of the smartest things Marcus does in this essay is show that "experimental" and "realist" writing (isn't it the case that the real problem with those terms is how readily they demand ironic quote marks?) are not as at-odds as they traditionally get painted. Reality is every writer's domain.
No matter my interest in reality, in the way it feels to be alive, and the way language can be shaped into contours that surround and illuminate that feeling: because I don't write the conventional narrative language, and because I haven't often foregrounded the consciousness of characters in my fiction, and livestocked those characters in a recognizable setting, I will never be considered a realist. (41)
"Realism", Marcus convincingly argues, would operate as a better marker (a more accurate marker) were it an earned description, not a school in which one is given compulsory membership. In an ideal world, realism would be a term "conferred only on writing that actually builds unsentimentalized reality on the page, matches the complexity of life with an equally rich arrangement in language. It would be assigned no matter the stylistic or linguistic method, no matter the form" (42).

One thing his essay would benefit from would be some illustrations of writing that seems (or gets labeled as) "experimental" but which actually does a more accurate job of rendering reality than, say, Munro and Cheever and Updike have done. We get lists of endorsed writers whose work does this, but never a depiction of how they do it. But again, as Marcus writes, "This isn't a manifesto."

So, while language-driven writing has all (if not better) the capability of traditional writing to depict reality, there's this idea that for novels to be successful, they need to deliver their worlds in a familiar package. Here is where we start to get to Franzen, but first Marcus makes a pit stop at the 2004 National Book Award controversy. Do you remember it? Here were the finalists:
  • Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
  • Christine Schutt
  • Joan Silber
  • Lily Tuck (who won)
  • Kate Walbert
Never heard of them? This was the controversy: that books which sold very few copies and which hadn't become famous upon their publication were being offered a major award. "This," Marcus writes,
was a clear announcement that the value system for literature was tweaked to favor not people who actually read a lot of books but a borderline reader, highly coveted by the literary industry, who might read only one or two books in a year and who had damn sure better be recommended a prize-winning book that will flatter his intelligence and bring him warmly into the fold of the most audience-friendly writing. (41)
Here we have another Marcus-Franzen intersection: the myth of the general audience. One problem with publishing today seems to be that writers continue to write (or maybe that publishers continue to market) to this "borderline reader" who may or may not exist, rather than to the devoted subculture of the committed, compulsive reader who actually buys a lot of books.

Then he tears into Franzen, who, sure, needs to be exposed for the fame-seeker that he is (Marcus shows pretty clearly the ways Franzen's a writer "deeply antagonistic to writing. One senses him trying to lure his favorite writers away from language, plying them with the promises of other media, where no doubt they could achieve greater fame" [46]), but the weakness of this essay, for me, is the lengths to which Marcus goes to show, point-by-point, all the ways Franzen is wrong. It's weak not because I like Franzen. I agree probably with each one of Marcus's arguments surrounding Franzen's equation of literary achievement and fame. It's weak because all of Marcus's great ideas for what writing can be and do are put on hold for far too long.

Yes, there are wonderful moments. At his meanest (and sharpest) he sees in Franzen the unthinking totalitarianism of Bush II:
Franzen seems to have decided that if someone as smart as he is cannot enjoy [Gaddis’s] books, then all those who say they can must be lying. [. . .] [He] has also 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 accomodate beliefs other than his own. I recognize the personality type, and I did not vote for it. (48)
And there's also a nice analogy to the music world, in that Franzen "seems desperately frustrated by writers who don't actively court their audiences, who do not strive for his specific kind of clarity, and who take a little too much pleasure in language," which is "a little bit like Britney Spears complaining that the Silver Jews aren’t more melodic" (50).

It takes a while, but we finally get an explanation of just what's so great about language-driven writing.
While it might indeed be pleasurable to get what we knew we wanted [as we do in traditional realism], it is arguably sublime when a text creates in us desires we did not know we had, and then enlarges those desires without seeming desperate to please us. In fact, it's prose that actually doesn't worry about us, and I don't find that ungracious, because novel writing is not diplomacy. It's a hunger for something unknown, the belief that the world and its doings have yet to be fully explored. (48)
I like this, for the implication it makes that writing for oneself—or, actually, writing toward one's own interests and concerns—isn't masturbatory (or, as Marcus sardonically puts it, "dry-humping whatever glory hole [one] can find" [41]) but rather the age-old aim of the artist.


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