Re: Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it
by Ben Marcus in Harpers
It’s hard to figure who should be more embarrassed by Ben Marcus’s “complaint of … painful stridency” (as Jonathan Franzen himself put it, criticizing his own Harpers essay) about Franzen in the October 2005 edition of Harper’s—Harper’s or the author. Marcus willfully misreads Franzen at every turn, creating the same sort of straw man that Marcus accuses Franzen of, just so he can continually bat him down.
Nominally about the struggles of “experimental” fiction in “the literary world,” and how both are demeaned by Franzen’s criticism and his stated aversion to “unnecessary difficulty,” it is little more than a weakly reasoned ad hominem attack on Franzen. Marcus imputes to Franzen a power that—sorry, fella—the other man simply does not have. In the breathtakingly few instances when Marcus actually talks about literature and is not sniveling about Franzen, it’s hard to imagine that Franzen would much disagree with him.
Marcus could as easily have attacked Michael Chabon for lampooning the literary world in Wonder Boys. But then Chabon for the most part sticks to fiction. Franzen, however, writes criticism and nonfiction, both of which are self-referential and occasionally hand-wringing, but they are always readable. Somehow, for Marcus, this makes him the rough equivalent of Dale Peck—which somehow licenses Marcus to try to Peck him to death.
Franzen’s work is nothing if not the product—and the reflection—of a frantic, multi-tasking, ambitious, anxious, hand-wringing world. Yet Marcus doesn’t seem to get this, or to understand the irony in Franzen’s take on William Gaddis in “Mr. Difficult,” the piece that seems to cause Marcus the greatest dyspepsia. Franzen struggles with what Marcus refers to as his “anxious ideology,” his own failure to live up to his own expectations. Never does it occur to Marcus that the title may as much refer to reader as author.
It is hard to take Marcus seriously when he makes a statement like, “Nor is it clear when the audiences for mass entertainment became interested in multitasking.” Really? Has he never heard of a BlackBerry? Given the positively imbecilic tactic of trotting out readability tests (readability tests!?!), it’s hard not to stare in slack-jawed amazement (or laugh) at this irony-free accusation: “…he [Franzen] neglected to consult a wide array of established readability tests, and thus failed to mention Gaddis’s supposedly impenetrable writing could have been easily by sixth-graders.” (Well, gosh! Maybe the poor man didn’t matriculate as much as he should have!!)
By this idiotic measure, Marcus is the better known writer because my Microsoft Word spell-checker recognizes his name but not that of his nemesis. Nor does it recognize the apparently unknown Chabon. Was there not an editor at Harper’s who could have kindly pointed out to Marcus just how much of a fool he was making of himself? Or was he just being needlessly difficult?
(Originally written as a letter to the editor to Harpers in October 2005)