Not long ago, not even a generation ago, there existed a rough consensus in certain parts of the literary world that the novel was dying, or dead, and that something else—metafiction? The nouveau roman? The New Journalism?—was about to take its place. “The art of the novel has fallen into such a state of stagnation,” the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote in 1956, “that it is hard to imagine such an art can survive for long without some radical change.” A decade later, in his essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” John Barth delivered the coup de grâce: “narrative literature … has shot its bolt.” In those heady days it seemed—to certain writers at least—possible to wave a hand and make age-old assumptions and prejudices disappear. These writers had seen the future the rest of the world hadn’t, and they used all the tools passed down from Marx, Nietzsche, Valéry, Pound, Marinetti, Breton, to proclaim it—the apocalyptic foreboding, the tone of concern mingled with contempt for the naive and complacent victim of What Is To Come.
Living, as we do, in the aftermath of this age of grand theories, it’s hard to read Ben Marcus’ essay in the current issue of Harper’s—with the wonderful tongue-in-cheek title “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It”—without asking: Does he really mean it? Title notwithstanding, it seems he really does. He means it when he says, “In the literary world, it’s not politic to suggest that the brain is even involved in reading”; when he proclaims that “literature is dying”; when he describes himself as “responding to an attack from the highest point of status culture.” These sentences have the unmistakable flavor of the avant-garde, in the original military sense of the word. They carry what Barth (referring to his own work) called “the whiff of tear gas at their margins.” “This is not a manifesto,” Marcus concludes. But if not, it’s as close to one as we’re likely to see from a writer of fiction today. Profoundly nostalgic—as so many manifestoes turn out to be under close examination—it returns us to the pure spirit of modernism and the rhetoric of cultural crisis, of vanguards and reactionaries, of the Chosen and the Left Behind. As such, it’s an unnecessary, and disingenuous, attempt to repolarize American literary culture.
Though Marcus’ essay extends over 13 pages of small text, at its core is a very simple premise: Contemporary American fiction has lost its innovative edge and its interest in language as art, and Jonathan Franzen is largely, if not exclusively, to blame. In particular, Marcus focuses on Franzen’s 2002 essay “Mr. Difficult,” in which Franzen chronicles his growing disenchantment with the novels of William Gaddis, and more generally with the modernist-inspired ideal of “difficult” literature—the belief that “the greatest novels were tricky in their methods, resisted casual reading, and merited sustained study.” Writers like Gaddis, Franzen argues, are “Status” authors, who see themselves (again, in the modernist mold) as obligated only to their art, and who for the most part ignore the interests and desires of the reader. With some reluctance, Franzen places himself in an opposing camp: “Contract” authors, who place a high value on the relationship between narrator and reader, who primarily see the novel as a device for social and cultural communication, and who take human life (rather than, say, language or ideas per se) as the ultimate subject of their fiction.
The question Franzen raises in “Mr. Difficult” dates back at least as far as Henry James’ essay “The Art of Fiction”: Namely, is the novel a popular art, like the ballad or folk opera or television sitcom, or a high art, like poetry, ballet, and conceptual installations in which naked men are nailed to Volkswagens? James, while firmly in the second camp, makes an appeal for serious fiction as an art form that can appeal to the masses, because it creates what he calls “an impression of life” unmatched by any other art form. Franzen takes the opposite tack, arguing that, while Gaddis and his peers (Pynchon, Coover, et al.) wrote out of a sense of genuine crisis and malaise, fiction—”the most fundamental human art”—remains “conservative and conventional.” He worries that if the novel makes too many demands on the reader it will go unread and forgotten—especially in an age when fiction competes against other, flashier, forms of entertainment: movies, video games, even (strangely) extreme sports.
We might expect Marcus to point out that Franzen’s essay is a caricature of this very old debate, and that in other contexts Franzen has shown himself to be extremely reluctant to label himself a popular author—notably, his confessed ambivalence at having been named an Oprah writer. Instead, Marcus treats us to a humorless diatribe, as if he and Franzen had invented their respective positions and were obliged to defend them like nuggets of newly panned gold. Dismissing The Corrections as “a retreat into the comforts of a narrative style that was already embraced by the culture,” he claims that Franzen has become a public advocate against “literature as an art form, against the entire concept of artistic ambition.” Most curiously, he blames Franzen for putting the small publisher FC2 in jeopardy with the NEA by writing a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece in which he mistakes a package from FC2 for a bomb. We’d all like to think that a novelist’s 300-word anecdote could prompt a congressional hearing. But to make this kind of claim seriously is to betray a certain willful paranoia. It’s as if Marcus just can’t resist playing David to Franzen’s Goliath.
To his credit, when he’s not busy attacking Franzen on all fronts, Marcus makes a credible case for his own vision of “experimental” fiction. Unlike Franzen, he expects his readers to work, to become “fierce little reading machines, devourers of new syntax.” Defending Gaddis, he writes, “it is arguably sublime when a text creates in us desires we did not know we had, and then enlarges those desires without seeming desperate to please us.” Referring to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, he praises fiction that is “free of coherence, so much more interested in forging complex bursts of meaning that are expressionistic rather than figurative, enigmatic rather than earthly, evasive rather than embracing.” In short, echoing statements made by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford almost a century ago, he makes a very good case for why high modernism still matters.
Marcus is justified in criticizing a publishing industry, and a culture, that often recycles the same ideas and stories while ignoring writers whose work is too unpleasant, or destabilizing, or unsympathetic to be absorbed at a glance. His list of writers who “interrogate the assumptions of realism and bend the habitual gestures around new shapes” is one many readers would embrace, and his contention that TheNew Yorker doesn’t publish enough challenging fiction is absolutely on the mark. But ultimately he’s pantomiming a battle that, if it ever really existed, ended decades ago. “Literature is fighting for its very life,” he says, “because compromise is mistook for ambition, and joining up is preferred to standing out … literature is fighting for its very life because its powerful pundits have declared a halt to all artistic progress, declaring it pretentious, alienating, bad for business.” If this is so, how can we explain that Marcus chairs the MFA program in fiction at Columbia, one of the most prestigious graduate programs in the nation? Or that he was trained by John Hawkes and Robert Coover in the writing program at Brown? How can we explain the success of McSweeney’s, which has helped launch the careers of many young and innovative writers, including, of course, Ben Marcus?
It would be one thing if the literary world really did comprise omnipotent insiders and destitute outsiders, arrogant avant-gardists and thoughtful Contract novelists. But Marcus and Franzen are both shadowboxing around a more complicated truth: that the modernist credo—To Make It New—is part of every contemporary novelist’s DNA, as is a certain degree of ambivalence about the gravitational pull of narrative toward certain well-established forms. We need a vocabulary that can explain a novel like Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, which at times feels deeply archaic and yet unfamiliar, rewarding the reader’s expectations on one level and frustrating them on another. Resorting to terms as all-encompassing and diluted as “realist” and “experimental” isn’t furthering the debate. These days few writers would self-consciously place themselves firmly on one or the other side of these boundaries. Living, as we do, in the wake of a century that celebrated, even fetishized, novelty and growth, we need a more nuanced way of articulating our relationship with the past.
Marcus’ essay concludes: “The contract I signed? Not to stand by when a populist pundit puts up his dull wall and says what literature can and cannot be.” But he can’t resist the urge to re-enact the great prizefights of the past—Kerouac vs. Capote, Barth vs. Gardner—as if what we really need, in 2005, is two white male writers fighting over something that can’t be circumscribed, much less owned. Isn’t it time we allowed the scorched-earth rhetoric of avant-gardes and ancien régimesto drift, like the tissue-thin sheets of an old aerogramme, into the dustbin of history?