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Thursday, September 29, 2005
The lead story in Harper's this month is an essay by Ben Marcus that's intended as a rebuff to, well, basically Jonathan Franzen, although it's ostensibly a defense of experimental fiction. There's an excerpt up here that's very Franzen-centric, so if it intrigues you, it's worth getting ahold of the print copy to read the full thing; it might not seem like it, but Marcus does do more than just bitch about J-Franz. Not a lot more, but still.

It's funny. Now that I've read both Franzen's bitchfest and Marcus' rebuke, I should be able to pick on side or the other, but honestly, both annoy me to no end. Every time I'm about to agree with Marcus, he goes and says something that really loses me, and this is after being extremely put off by a lot of what Franzen's had to say about fiction over the last several years.

I mean, on the one hand, I'm a pop partisan, so I should be attracted to Franzen's plea for good writers to use their talent in the service of something more accessible to the general public. But then I read Franzen's fiction, which is presumably the kind of thing he'd like to see other people write, and I can't get through a page, let alone a whole novel. I would like to see literary fiction broaden its scope, get more imaginative, and maybe put a higher emphasis on readability over difficulty, all of which I think Franzen was proposing. But if by pursuing these goals you end up with a novel about a midwestern family with psychological issues, maybe I'm not so in favor of those goals after all. Unless the family members all shoot lasers out of their eyes and can time-travel.

On the other hand, Marcus correctly points out that what Franzen's proposing is a continued dominance of realism, and I've always had a big beef with that school, in most of its variations. ("Most of" because my fire-escape reading this summer has been Cheever and Flann O'Connor, so.) But a lot of Marcus' points are pretty noxious, especially the idea that experimental fiction is basically reading boot camp, training to make your brain betterer. The part where he takes Franzen to task for picking on a small press is pretty bad too--I mean, if it's publishing shitty books, it's publishing shitty books, and it should be called out for that whether or not it's also getting picked on by Republican congressmen, right? Macus' request for a full-bodied embrace of "language art" is a bit chilling, because man, I really don't like fiction that thinks of itself that way. Nor has "postmodern" fiction really endeared itself to me.[1] So, again, I kind of like the idea, but since I am familiar with the end-product, it's hard to get behind; I got a little farther in Marcus' book than I did in Franzen's, but that's not saying much.

My favorite fiction writer during this particular period of my life is (as previously mentioned) David Foster Wallace, and in a way finding myself stuck in the middle in this debate goes a long way toward explaining why he's my man. He does a remarkably good job of splitting the difference between the two camps, utilizing difficulty and complexity constantly, but less as brain-training and more as a way of increasing the pleasure you get from the work. It's realist but imaginatively so, and for all people might want to decry his frequent digressions, they're often the best parts, because he's just such a good writer. He's also very funny, which counts for a lot and is oddly absent from this debate. But then, maybe that's a big part of the problem.

[1] Part of the problem is that most of the "postmodern" fiction I've read strikes me as being the opposite of "language art," being, generally, badly-written and awkward.

ADDENDUM: Matt Bucher sends along this related post, about James Wood's (no, not that James Woods) prejudice toward realism. Worth a read.