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Ben Marcus v Jonathan Franzen

In the latest Harper's Ben Marcus demolishes Jonathan Franzen.  Marcus, however, wouldn't say "demolish," as he also locates some respect for Franzen the novelist, and, too, for the gravity of audience Franzen's criticism also serves.

Marcus details, in the October Harper's, the extent of his interest in Franzen's development as a fiction writer.  Much more, though related to this, he focuses on Franzen's recent prominence in writing criticism, and how it speaks for a mainstream – one where many Americans may be, like Franzen, fed up with what he condemns as too much writing that is overly-difficult, arcane, and otherwise experimentally odd.  Like this mass audience for whom he has appointed himself to speak, Franzen, too, recently lost whatever tolerance he used to have for those with literary indulgences.  In the most prominent of places he has been writing and speaking against literary celebrities as well as minor league others who, in their oddities of style and format, he says, threaten to kill our very business and citadels of literacy.  He has made himself key spokesman for our previously traditional narrative forms, for more direct and linear, character-development-based realism.  His most recent novel exemplifies this tradition – his commercial and critical success, The Corrections.  In his wanting what's best for literature and, he presumes, for us, Franzen has been steadily confronting what he sees as works that are, as Marcus puts it, "pretentious, alienating, bad for business."  The title of Marcus's long Harper's piece conveys the danger inside and out that Franzen feels:





With the subtitle, "A correction," Marcus responds to the menace Franzen feels but, even in attacking this new spokesperson for resurgent realism, Marcus never badmouths the traditional narrative Franzen espouses.  Lots of good people prefer mainstream traditions.  He, Marcus, can live with that – no need to treat this or any literary mode as per se dangerous:  not damnable as Franzen damns the experimentalists.  But Marcus does chew on Franzen for his setting himself up as ambassador for tastes he urges for saving the lit business and all of us.

When Marcus says, let many styles live, let even the marginal flourish – and don't worry about it – he means literature – his entire article addresses literature – but all of his comments could apply otherwise, too.  They could apply to our willingness either to shut out or embrace the diversity of peoples on this earth, their abundance of styles, and the same crazy-quilt cultural heterogeneity that Herodotus long ago saw and celebrated in his, the first, Histories.  People differ.  But even as our cultural dress differs – in clothing, food, landscape, architecture, and travel preferences – all styles convey human values that, different as they seem, could link us, if we chose to see the links.  We could connect much better than we do – ethnicities, religions, nationalities – if we could admit, see, and wade into these stylistic issues for the marvelously-interlinked humanity they carry.  Marcus's Harper's piece, however, sticks to issues of literature for how we may open to diversity, or close to fear and paranoia.  (Though, too, he teases in one non-literary digression.  In a section on the dangers of writers with "outsized self-regard," he notes how this, like any narcissism, has us also feel that our "subjective experience must form a basic template for the reality of others."  Marcus calls this "unfortunate":  "a failure of empathy, an inability to believe in varieties of artistic interest, and a refusal to accommodate beliefs other than [one's] own."  His next sentence nods to the masses of Americans in the most recent presidential election who voted for fearful jingoism, arrogant militarism, and simplistic views of foreigners:  "I recognize the personality type, and I did not vote for it.")

Though his article hews to issues of literature, Ben Marcus's defense of literary oddballs can apply well to a wider defense of ethnicities, nationalities, and religions for the grammars of skills we could use for opening up and connecting to the varieties of styles in our neighbors – especially for connecting to those our most earnest authorities and orthodoxies have long kept taboo.  We can live with other styles, Marcus says (meaning lit styles) – and live better for them.  Franzen says no.  Franzen loathes the dangers that might upset our (lit) marketplace.  In saving us from ourselves (from all those slant among us) – he has proposed what he calls "contract" culture.  "Contracts" will secure us in a guaranteed and firm culture of expectations so that, before we undertake (before we read) anything, we have all permissible forms and formalities understood and agreed on first.

"Contract" culture (or "contract" literary culture) sounds very much like the agreements professors make with students at the beginning of courses. We call these contracts syllabi, each syllabus stipulating what students and their instructors will do, complete with time chronology, textbook assignments, point spreads, and issues listed by step-by-step and modular subsets.  Such an arrangement has the satisfaction for all of orderliness and predictability:  everyone's vision set to the same clear options.  All souls in our institutions of higher education learn to fit this singular corporate culture. There, seeing the end of a term, all learn to expect mileposts as do our freeway drivers in their related forms of similarly-rehearsed (and similarly-aggravated) tunnel vision.  All get shaped to the divinity of the great God Closure (whose real logic is our own love of control).  All learn to agree that things add up, that they add up through the marketplace and our niche demographics.  Our schools thus train us to see our worth by the grades we might get as measure of how we have negotiated each syllabus system.  If,  like Franzen, our divinities are the marketplace and celebrity location in it, the books we read must deliver us the same style and form expectations he calls fairness of "contract."  Sci fi, historical romance, noir, or memoir/family saga:  we know soon enough at the beginning more or less how things may unfold.  We can anticipate each author's range of suspense, character development, and descriptive patches.  It can be "pleasurable," says Marcus, "to get what we knew we wanted – that is, after all, why we wait in line to sit on Santa's lap."

 For an author honoring "contract" with readers, as Franzen defends it, things become what he calls "difficult" if an author puts "his selfish artistic imperatives or his personal vanity ahead of the audience's legitimate desire to be entertained."  For a classroom of students and instructor joined by their syllabus, things also get "difficult" if an instructor mixes in his or her extracurricular concerns.  Franzen scolds "difficulty":  any author letting personal vanity interfere with audience expectations is no longer a "contract" player, but has, instead, puffed oneself up as a player for "status."  As no such author should be published or be read anymore in Franzen's lit utopia, no instructor skewing to the odd or the personal at the expense of the professionally orthodox even today can last in the hierarchies and economic privileging systems of corporate academia.

Marcus understands our base appeal to Franzen's urges, his attractions to the predictable, the normative, and business-like adherence to template, but Marcus lusciously demurs.  He prefers "forging complex bursts of meaning that are expressionistic rather than figurative, enigmatic rather than earthly, evasive rather than embracing."  He knows this is personal choice, just as Franzen represents a very different choice.  But where Franzen has set himself up to defend us against the odd, the unpredictable, and the fringe idiosyncratic, Marcus sees no danger in being open – more danger when more of us choose to be hedged by fear and by Grand Inquisitors who always thrive on fear.

Marcus shows some levity spoofing why we might be endangered by those not conforming to Franzen's "contract" norms.  He takes Franzen's literary paranoia as a joke.  Maybe it is, if literature is only entertainment (or marginal careerism).  Apoplexy about lit's role may be a joke if Auden was right when he once ventured that "poetry makes nothing happen."  But if we look closer at Franzen, and see how righteous, exaggerated, and bent he is in his censoriousness, we can also see and diagram how fear works and how it connects to "failure of empathy."  We reduce ourselves when we exclude the oddly personal from the professionally public, when we deny "loose ends" and their value, and when we isolate ourselves from others as if their different styles cannot enhance us.

Marcus demolishes Franzen.  He does this not for anything wrong in the realism modes now pleasing Franzen (and his fans) – he demolishes him more for Marcus's own larking style, his subject-verb-object clarity in going after Franzen with panoplies of subordinate clauses mirthfully playing around all Franzen's fears.  Franzen, however, won't lose.  He wins.  He rules as the priestly ruled 2,000 years ago with Pontius Pilate fronting them, as that majority of Americans won who recently voted in its theocratic cabal to advance corporate interests while entertaining our most base fears on fetal fates, gay sex, and the menace of the foreign.  Franzen wins for letting his lit norms track the larger departmental orthodoxies of our corporate academics who ever teach us to isolate by specialization.  They rule – they always have – as if the rest of us must not see, nor connect to "others," by the styles so effervescently carrying all humanity in the conditions all express in our varieties of clothes, food, travel modes, and buildings and landscape.

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