Notes from the Middleground: On Ben Marcus, Jonathan Franzen, and the Contemporary Fiction Combine

Notes from the Middleground: On Ben Marcus, Jonathan Franzen, and the Contemporary Fiction Combine


Davis Schneiderman revisits the non-debate between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, touches on recent flare-ups in the American Book Review and the NOW WHAT blog, and reflects on the economy of book jacket blurbs.

I. Rising action

If Ben Marcus’ well-meaning defense of experimental/innovative/slipsteam/anti-didactic/non-simple/counter-discursive/et al. writing becomes the end-point for our post-millennial discussion of the William Gaddis’, the William Burroughs’, the Kathy Acker’s, not to mention the Kass Fleisher’s, the Lance Olsen’s, the Steve Tomasula’s, and the more than 100 other writers, artists and purveyors of pro-language, pro-innovation who participated in the second &NOW conference at Lake Forest College in early April 2006,The conference is reviewed by participant-observer Ted Pelton, publisher of Starcherone Books. then the terms of this debate may have inadvertently become as effective as a good ol’ red state/blue state hootenanny. Marcus’ position in “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It” (October 2005, Harper’s Magazine) - that Franzen’s broadsides against “difficult” fiction are disingenuous, manipulative, and perhaps motivated by Franzen’s own careful retreat from the type of fiction he now excoriates - offers much that is familiar and affirming to those laboring in the depths of this so-called experimental coal mine.

Ultimately, though, as with so much of contemporary argument that pits mainstream (insert name of media) against what it is not, the debate is no more real than the awkward explanations of its terms. Marcus, to his credit, realizes this fact, but he is forced into untoward positions. For the reader not already committed to either camp, the sheer repetition of the mainstream/innovative opposition ends up reinforcing the leaky dialectic he wishes to unravel. The dominance of this dialectic is certainly evident in one segment of the reading public - students (particularly my students, at Lake Forest College) - where the battles over what constitutes “worthy” literature plays out not only in the syllabus, but also in everything that the syllabus is not.

Franzen might agree, punctuating the early section of his 2002 New Yorker essay “Mr. Difficult” (a sweeping attack on Gaddis’ work), with a biographical note about how higher education needlessly pruned his writerly vine (“One pretty good definition of college is that it’s a place where people are made to read difficult books” [103]). Marcus assaults Franzen’s frequent censure of writers interested in the possibilities of language (in “Mr. Difficult” and other essays), finding that Franzen demonstrates consistently and “perfectly clear[ly] how opposed he is to the model of language art” represented by authors such as Gaddis and James Joyce (Marcus 42). Marcus especially critiques a 1996 Franzen piece in The New Yorker called “Shouts & Murmurs,” where the author receives a mysterious package from a presumed Unabomber-like entity called “FC2” before ultimately discovering the mailing to be from the Fiction Collective 2, a small press of great respect in the experimental and academic communities. In the awkward contrivance of “Shouts & Murmurs,” Marcus finds the seeds of Franzen’s later modus operandi: “a series of sucker punches against an unlikely, powerless target: the high-powered, stuffed-with-cash, culturally tremendous world of marginal, nonnarrative writing that secretly controls the world” (44).

In this nonnarrative coal mine, Marcus is no mere canary. He effectively demonstrates Franzen’s “straw man” punching bag: that ambitious literature is needlessly complex and that its practitioners are obsessed with what Franzen calls “Status” (an author-centered position) rather than “Contract” (a reader-centered stance). Noteworthy is Franzen’s use of the two terms, which appear in Gaddis’ J.R. (according to one Gaddis concordance), and were apparently drawn from Richard Hofstadter’s mid-century Social Darwinism in American Thought. In that text, Hofstader traces the terms to William Graham Sumner’s What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, which shows “what happened when men moved out of the medieval society based on status to the modern society based on contract” (qtd. in Hofstadter, 7-8). Whatever it is that “happened” through this long derivational chain, it’s not properly attributed.

In “Mr. Difficult,” the experience of college reading pushes Franzen toward a Status model, allowing for his flirtation with at least the early Gaddis (specifically, The Recognitions); it is a model that, along with later Gaddis, he eventually rejects. The culmination of the piece seems to nudge Franzen toward his ultimate Contract position where the life of the writer informs the writer’s text, and in this underwhelming intermingling of text and author Franzen finds reason to (in some small measure) forgive Gaddis’ “difficulty”: “To the extent that I believe it’s the story of Gaddis himself, it softens my anger with him, dissolves it in sadness” (111). No doubt Gaddis, a writer about as public as J.D. Salinger, would have been touched.

If Franzen’s primary gripe was an argument merely for his personal pleasure in a certain type of literature, then the damage would be merely idiosyncratic. Tellingly, he sees the category of “literature” as fighting for its life against other possible entertainment activities, including the movies, online settings, and, amusingly, an “extreme-sports environment” (49). This contest leaves the author of The Corrections to suggest that all non-realist, non-Contract literature actually siphons readers to these other pursuits. In other words, reading as a cultural activity is in dire trouble, so why should any writer further its sad decline to attend to non-communicative mumbles? To those in the experimental camp, you’re passing eyeballs to the enemy. And it’s only a matter of time until those military tribunals start working again.

Despite Franzen’s overly desperate prognostication, the post-postmodern eight ball reads “all signs are positive” for literature to continue in new forms on the computer screen, where it will no doubt be free to dance with hamsters, lip-sync on, and spring from MySpace blogs in daring new mixtures; still, the electronic implications of contemporary prose seem removed (strangely) from the largely paper definition of literature in Marcus’ analysis. This oversight becomes one of the glaring errors of this Marcus vs. Franzen pseudo-debate. It might be obvious why, two decades into literature programmed for the Web, including the interactive texts by Robert Coover, Michael Joyce, and Shelley Jackson, and the recent blossoming of multiple Internet-specific Web magazines (many to be found linked at, Franzen would choose to focus on hard-copy, but his myopia forces Marcus to travel almost exclusively in the paper realm.

Even so, if we make another allowance in this discussion, and pretend even for a moment that “hard copy” is definitive, Marcus claims that the non-realist community at the end of Franzen’s bayonet maintains no serious army of regulars, but consists - in terms of cultural power - of a series of inflatable soldiers. This is not to say that there is no bite, no punch, no real challenge within the collected stance of the so-called experimental community, but only that for Marcus, these non-Franzen novelists pose almost zero threat to the Manhattan publishing juggernaut Franzen desperately wants to protect.

As he clearly anticipates, readers may find Marcus’ defense articulate, amusing, and perhaps, opportunistic - a small-press David pulling back on a particularly cumbersome Goliath. To defuse such criticism, and to maintain his position as a non-participant in Franzen’s Contract/Status binary, Marcus separates Franzen-the-author from Franzen-the-critic: “I will read with interest the fiction he produces. What I won’t do is ignore the anti-artistic statements he makes in the guise of reviews and essays, the hostility he heaps upon writers whose models differ from his own” (52).

This stirring defense feels a bit like a half-time pep talk. While there is much to admire in Marcus’ deeply stated conviction that the world-terrorizing megalith called “Jonathan Franzen” must be shut down, it feels an equal overstatement to make the author of The Corrections into a kingmaker, or rather, to label him patricidal enough to cause a ruckus beyond the fact that his essays are parsed by certain middle-minded bourgeois consumers who, readers of Harper’s or The New Yorker, are perhaps already committed to - or - already repulsed from language-based literary work. Marcus is either preaching to the converted or condemning the sinner; there is little in his defense to save souls, or, conversely, to cast malefactors into this experimental depth.

In the same way that Franzen’s defense of Contract has little real contrast with “extreme sports environments,” Marcus’ attack on Franzen is almost beside the point. He plays the man while the ball rolls away. Positively, Marcus’ defense of literary value in non-narrative contexts makes an important public statement regarding a false but commonly paraded argument within the literary community: that the separation between mainstream, mass-market fiction (often, but not always, realist), and the experimental/innovative/alternative (often, but not always non-realist) remains a fixed border, a definite, impermeable monolith. More negatively, Marcus, in defending his position as a non-mainstream writer, allows the critique of Franzen’s straw man argument to transform, inadvertently, back again into this first bale of hay. In this way, Marcus is no different than many so-called experimental writers I know, who, regardless of their intuitive rejection of this mainstream/avant-garde dyad, admit that this either-or has ridiculously long legs.

That the angst of the non-mainstream writer can be just as tiresome, and debilitating, as gratuitous attacks from the mainstream, is indicated by Kass Fleisher in her introduction to the July/August 2006 American Book Review, where the &Now Festival is summed up as follows: “the fret among the hundred-and-fifty conferees circled the problem of how next to make art reflective of an ‘alternative, culturally engaging reality’ - while still disrupting official ‘Western Culture’ ” (2). Later in this same issue, in an exchange with R.M. Berry (“Not Just Another Frankenstein,” March/April 2006), Tabbi turns Fleisher’s problems around: “[t]he avant-garde in American only reflects the dominant culture if writers and publishers continue to legitimize themselves through appeals to the necessity of endless literary innovation” (38). The pervasiveness of this division amounts to a type of either/or, mainstream/experimental, Contract/Status leeching for the balance of the choleric humor. And since we all like a good bloodsucking, the unsurprising responses of my Lake Forest College students - transformed from a discussion about the stakes of contemporary literature and two arguing critics to an at-times reductive rehash of the institutionalized perspectives carried by our next generation of American leaders and future businesspersons - shows the difficulty in effecting a transfusion.

II. Further Conflict

Marcus at the pulpit provides a pleasant communion - the dull fire of a Pentecostal minister simmering under the prose - and the already-initiated can come away cleansed, certain, in their countercultural praxis, that the light and the way is never so dark as Franzen’s shroud implies. Marcus’ claims also resonate on the parodic register, for those who get a perverse punch - like watching a vicious dog kicked in the teeth - from seeing William Gaddis’ supposedly obtuse prose given the simpler rating from a slew of readability indices (“the Fog Index, the SMOG-grading system, the Lix formula, the Kincaid formula, the Automated Readability Index [ARI], the Coleman-Liau Formula, and the Flesch Reading Ease Formula” [47]) rather than a series of 1000-word samples from Jonathan Franzen’s Oprah-involved blockbuster, The Corrections. (The joke, obviously, is that the construction of sentences and the complexity of vocabulary have nothing to do with the way language offers meaning through the interconnections of these elements.)

And still, when presented with Marcus’ essay, the majority of my class of intelligent senior-level writing students, many of whom are no stranger to books such as William Gass’ Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (with its penis-baked-in-a breakfast-roll trope), Alfred Chester’s Exquisite Corpse (with its unfurling intestinal rolls), or Jean Genet’s absurdly beautiful Funeral Rites (with the character Paulo having intercourse with Adolf Hitler), burst into fits of discomfiture. Apparently, Marcus’ deconstructions of the Contract/Status divide, while perhaps intellectually, ethically, and amusingly “correct,” failed to reverberate with their real concerns about difficulty and literature.

These students headed so quickly for the impossibly practical middle way in their dismissal of Marcus’ ironic pleadings that they were not the least bit hesitant to push me from the lifeboat. Paddling frantically, course texts as oars, this group of 16 for the most part endorsed a literary ethos large enough for both camps: Marcus’ doctrinaire experimentalism and Franzen’s reactionary conservatism. This might sound like an authentically enlightened liberal arts college position, and yet such a proclamation offers little more than the sanguine sentimentality of “Anything Goes” (a la the Hollywood musical) over the “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted” mantra (a la Burroughs) that underlies some of the innovative literary region’s more provocative displays.

Put differently, and more succinctly, Franzen wins even for losing; it will always be easier to find a copy of The Corrections than a broadside by Marcus, Gass, Gaddis, and others of their rabble-rousing ilk, and students, inchoate readers in their formative years (will they choose Ulysses or Harry Potter?), are never dumb to the sheer pervasiveness of the available, where volume, to some extent, equals veracity. This fact should come as no surprise, since purity from the entertainment monolith and its brassy trappings remains as impossible as simultaneously shooting out every television in the world, Elvis-style.For a larger discussion of pedagogy and the culture industry, see my “Disable the ‘Mute’ Button: Classroom, Creativity and the Cult of the Author.” (interview w/ Henri d’Mescan). Entertext:An interactive interdisciplinary e-journal for cultural and historical studies and creative work. 4.3 (2005). Marcus may make good sense, but who the hell has ever heard of Marcus among my coveted 18-24 year old student demographic, aside from the few already discovering such “challenging” culture? Franzen, of course, publicly argued with Oprah.

Perhaps I was hopelessly naïve in presenting the Marcus’ position as a fait accompli in the wake of our more adventuresome literary excursions, for it becomes impossible to overestimate the problems of uneven distribution. The few students who accepted Marcus’ argument might have been predicted on the first day of the course - thrift-store dress, affectively tweaked speech, alternative book-sack buttons winking like come-hither stares, and a thousand other tiny markers, signaling, for those “in the know,” that these kids listen to a über-cool brand of internal alt-rock while most people suck on piped-in muzak. Likewise, the students in only vague agreement with Franzen, including the young woman who refused to read Gass’ Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife on the grounds that it was pornographic (until I told her that it might actually be a condemnation of pornography), might have been equally identifiable by their carefully chosen affectations, synced with more conventional definitions of literature.

The pedagogical task, then, is not so much to convert one side to other, which would prove equally frustrating and useless, but, as Marcus attempts, to transcend the limiting strictures of the debate. There is always a cell of students who become more interested in the functioning of language over character, of structure over story, during the progress of these sessions; yet, as Franzen observes, Gertrude Stein is simply not accessible for many readers - no matter how engaged with her composition-as-process they might become. And who, of course, knows even a handful of people who have actually read The Making of Americans, aside from academics working on Stein or the unfortunate copy-editors at Dalkey Archive? Stein’s “anyone can write anything nowadays,” becomes Radiohead’s “everything all of the ti-i-i-i-me” - which means only the promise of omni-property, targeted-marketed into isolation. Stein expands, while “everything” else, like a gurgling throat choking down castor oil, to use Franzen’s uncited term, Contracts.

The payoff is precisely no-payoff, and so, a preference for prevalence has nothing to do with the intelligence of the potential reader, nor the impossible-to-define “difficulty” of a text. Rather, what my students read is inextricably linked to availability, distribution, and the social acceptance of artistic function ingrained like a tape loop, or a rosary circle, onto the screen of their thumping media backbrains. Consequently, Marcus’ narrative antinomianism (“What I won’t do is ignore the anti-artistic statements”) achieves a certain clarity, but it is also where a cluster of my students keenly attuned to the position-takings of artists (“don’t hate the playa, hate the game”) find a reification of the binary that Marcus seeks to undermine. How to argue away the distinction between a faux-elite/populist constriction - as an aesthetic issue - when the reader who desperately wants to be sympathetic knows, with post-ironic savvy, that these distinctions are primarily economic?

III. Dénouement

Thus, the problem of Marcus’ riposte: how to escape commodified dissent that fits like a reduplicated boa constrictor around the neck of the mainstream and its often similarly owned alternatives? Or, in other words, if Marcus’ attack forces him to use Franzen’s terms, and my student readers understand the issue primarily through their own over-exposure to the hum-drum either-or, how can we ever get past the ground floor of this pseudo-debate?

As the Tabbi/Berry American Book Review discussion suggests, much contemporary “experimental” literary activity, from the recent &NOW conference to the blurbs on the back of small-press novels, assumes a contrarian stance that I suspect is partially born from belief and partially from the accelerated hyperbole of marketing technique (aped from a long-tradition of alternative press mythology: Grove, City Lights, Olympia, etc.) And I, in full disclosure, am as guilty as the next book business schmoe:

Exactly how much of the often-overstated language we find on cover copy, akin to my own screed in a recent example - [insert name of book here] “does what Gutenberg did for the hand-copied Bible, that is, it completely redeploys, redirects, and redistributes the energies of a genre pegged so closely to the myth of old-time objectivity” - becomes the product of distraction, disinterest, or slavish fidelity to the idea of the blurb? To my knowledge, there has been scant even anecdotal data drawn about the widespread practice, and when I put the question to the NOW WHAT blog, I received no telling response. The discussion that ensued, between Tabbi and Lance Olsen, circled instead back to the same American Book Review debate.

For the sake of this argument about how we might move beyond the simpering boorishness of Contract/Status, let us follow the blurb line a bit further. As we all assume, the blurb is mere marketing, while the book is substantive. Is then the division between the two realms - of fluff and value - so easily perceived as to exist solely at the interstice of cover and inside pages? It would be easy to identify a large number of books that treat one as the other, or to simply finger the “type” of reader who might not bother to make the distinction. Theoretically, the meeting place of all content, both internal (the book) and external (the marketing), might just as well be found in a larger subset of bibliographic codes (copyright notices, author photos, margin size, etc.), since blurbs, of course, migrate craftily onto covers, and, in certain trade paperbacks, to the inside leaves. Let us now jump quickly from “blurb” to “font,” another impossible nexus place of crass intention and pure meaning. The word ‘font’ derives from the Middle French fonte (think: fondue): a melting together in both the casting of type and the smelting of external occurrence with internal transmission. In the space of the “font,” the real and the unreal meet, dance, make love, break-up. There are tears and remonstrations, angry rejections, feelings of betrayal, but nevertheless, the self-aggrandizing spirit of the word paints everything in rosy, or at least tolerable, retrospection.

Font, as a non-locatable interstice, mirrors, in its porous border, the blurb’s policed hyperbole, which means something quite different than what it says. And when the logic of the blurb is applied to our so-called counter-discursive texts and so agreed upon to differ from the serious, un-tainted-by-marketing interior script of the experimental novel, these bibliographic codes represent the same arbitrary divisions. The book is no more solely located in its primary textual body as its readerly interpretation is left to a single linearly procession through its pages. It thus proves difficult for my students to enter into “pure” engagement with the non-Franzen novel of “value,” as Marcus would seem to desire, because the border between what is “real and authentic” and what is “crass and commercial” remains as clear to my cynical, media-saturated pupils as a summer barbeque plate translucent with burger grease.

One possibility, then, to find effective language-centered texts in a business driven by fealty/repulsion from market concerns, would be to seek works that embrace the indissolubility of this market/meaning divide, rendering, in different ways, the problem explicit. So take writers such as William S. Burroughs, whose entire production remains attuned to a line of American hucksterism that simultaneously dismantled the same - in the galaxy of Nova mobsters, giant centipedes, and unpronounceable Mayan glyphs - with a snarling, cosmological wink. Put another way, we can identify the textual embrace of contradiction through an explicit nod to a text’s multidimensionality, made manifest (in one important stream) by yoking the much-maligned authorial ego to the interior content of a text. In doing so, we can find the imprimatur of the obnoxious Author’s demise under the sign of the work’s economic constraints. My own Multifesto: A Henri d’Mescan Reader (Spuyten Duyvil) uses interior blurbs in this attempts, but it may as well be the other codes of literary procedure, including - in the case below - the traction-less terrain of copyright, attribution, and ownership.

Steve Tomasula and Stephen Farrell’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland fulfills the best of such provisions. The text is polydimensional, polyvocal, a Foucauldian genealogy of race, sex, and culture complete with a fold-out that traces the “origins” of the character-words. “Square,” “Circle” and “Oval” descend from the hypothetical Ur-language Nostratic like a perverse family tree fertilized with enough attention to, as Foucault would say, “the errors, false appraisals, and the faulty calculations” (365) to slide effortlessly into any number, at any point, along any line, of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus.

VAS brims with quotations, literally brims, this Burroughsian “page spill out in all directions,” with some plagiary attributed as interposed epigraphs, some as footnotes, some not attributed at all. Still the text responds provisionally to charges of intellectual theft with a wonderfully sly hyper-citation. Citing an image of American artist Charles Willson Peale’s painting The Artist in His Museum that inaugurates the opera/comic book/origami closing of the novel, Tomasula’s previous page offers a reproduction of the information card from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts that houses the painting. VAS goes beyond following the mere letter of copyright law, so that the legal letter, the placard that presumably describes the painting, clearly emblazoned with the words “MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION” (327) becomes a part of the new text - in fact meeting the citation requirement while simultaneously de-realizing the warning of the card, which, with its injunction against reproduction, obviously refers to the reproduction of the painting, and not the reference card.

Written more than two centuries earlier, Tristram Shandy plays a similar game with the social and economic position of the author to determine the material production of a text and it corresponding implication for readership. Published in 9 volumes (1760-1767), Volume 3 includes the famous “marbled page.” The previous chapter closes with “for without much reading, by which your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will be no more able to penetrate the marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world with all its fagacity has been able to unraval the many opinions, transactions and truths which ftill lie mythically hid under the dark veil of a black one” (168). Sterne’s publisher, R. and J. Dodsley, actually inserted two different marbled pages for each individual print (pps. 169 and 170). In Chicago, the Newberry Library’s copy (cited above) contains cacophonous bubbles of yellow, pink, white and green that glow like the projections behind a 1960’s acid test. No doubt the colors have faded over the centuries, but the fact that the original press run of approximately 4000 copies each contains two separate, unique, marbled pages - speaks to Tristram Shandy’s position as a text that recognizes its status under the sign of the printing press, and thus, the sign of replication.

And since I lifted the above example, almost verbatim, from another of my essays on a distantly related subject, I too am playing the same game - marking my own text as a site of conflict - rather than acting, as does Franzen, a wolf urinating along the margins of its territory to mark only others. Marcus fights the good fight when he ultimately rejects narrative that “veers toward soap opera, when characters are explained by their childhoods, when setting is used as spackle to hold together chicken-wire characters” (52), and his essay, appearing as an anomaly in a major organ of the mainstream literary establishment, will hopefully bode well for alternative praxis. Writers of the experimental stripe might nonetheless take pause at the distances Marcus had to travel and the untoward crab-walk he affected in getting there. He writes, “[if] you try to practice [what Franzen condemns], you are an elitist.You stand not with the people but in a quiet dark hole, shouting at no one.I am writing this essay from such a hole.” (40)

This is certainly a sarcastic pose, but for the student reader, and no doubt for some readers engaged in the debates outlined in this essay, the trade-off for a well-deserved Franzen-thrashing to appear in Harper’s is for its author, Marcus, to become simply another soldier in the inflatable armies of the avant-garde. As my students reject Marcus’ argument in its more obvious moments (“Not to stand by when a populist pundit says what literature can and cannot be” ([52]), it suggests to me even more forcefully that the lasting marks in this pseudo-debate will be hopefully struck - as with Marcus’, Tomasula’s, and Sterne’s prose - in the code of our best literature, explicitly aware of its market status, and even more disruptive for it.

Works Cited

Fleisher, Kass. “Page 2.” American Book Review. 27.5 (2006): 2

Franzen, Jonathan. “Mr. Difficult.” The New Yorker. 30 March 2002: 100-111.

Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Ed Lawrence Cahoone. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. 360-379.

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. (1944). Rev. ed. Boston: Beacon, 1955.

Marcus, Ben. “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It.” Harper’s Magazine. 311.1865 (2005): 39-52.

NOW WHAT: A Collective Blog by Alternative Prose Writers and Publishers.

Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy: The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman. Vol. 3. London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1761.

Tabbi, Joseph. “Joseph Tabbi Answers R.M. Berry.” American Book Review. 27.5 (2006): 28.

Tomasula, Steve and Stephen Farrell. VAS: An Opera in Flatland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.