Marcus v. Franzen

Re: Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it
A correction
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)

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About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

2 thoughts on “Marcus v. Franzen

  1. Your unabashedly negative critique of Marcus’s essay is missing a few crucial elements: no contextualization of the debate, nor any mention of Cynthia Ozick’s recent Harper’s rebuttal? What about the most recent issue of Symploke, which dedicated its entire Forum section to this ongoing discourse?

    I might welcome a new perspective that came from a critical analysis of Marcus’s argument, but your post is also missing the hallmark of critical analysis: negative capability.

    I respectfully submit that it is you who has “willfully misread” Marcus.

    I understand that this topic is complicated and tempers are easily flared, but in my opinion it is crucial that articulate bloggers like yourself take the time to consider the ramifications of publishing quick judgments before considering and investigating both sides. Your opinion is valid, I just wonder if you might not gain more persuasive authority by exercising more logos and less pathos. – Just a thought.

  2. Good points, all. As noted, this was written in 2005, on reading the Marcus piece, and, unless I am less the snail than I have long suspected, having the thing in my putative drawer for two years would not seem quite hasty. I have not read Cynthia Ozick’s piece, and am not likely to, since I let my Harpers subscription lapse out of boredom.

    I would agree that my criticism of Marcus was pretty much entirely negative. Perhaps unabashed or even enthusiastic. I’ll have to take a look at Symploke, assuming I don’t have to spend anything.

    As far as I can see, “both sides” are the Marcus essay and Franzen’s essays. Having read and considered both, I stand by my opinion that the Marcus piece was pretty idiotic, more of an ad hominem attack than anything, and am surprised that there is anyone out there who could, with a straight face, defend his position. If there is some sort of external political argument, I have not been a party to it, nor would I consider myself likely to engage.

    But as an old acquaintance once said, Religion and politics are different from math–in religion and politics there are definitely right answers.

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