more Marcus/Franzen flap

Slate‘s Jess Row chimes in:

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 The New 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?

On the surface, Row makes some strong points here, and seems to peg Marcus as a casual hypocrite. This, by the way, is a frequent rhetorical strategy by the literary mainstream when dealing with its more fringe inhabitants. How “ignored” can a writer be if s/he can be spotted spinning an office chair in an Ivy League university?

The problem with this argument lies in an underlying assumption that the academy is forefront in the coining of literary capital. Colleges and universities, of course, play a crucial role in their students’ reading habits; however, these institutions of higher education (that is, if they truly “educate”) are desperately juxtaposed with the society they serve, and are oftentimes internally (and, occasionally, hopelessly) conflicted.

In other words: Ben Marcus’ teaching job at Columbia does not in and of itself serve as proof that experimental literature is well-received outside academia (or, really, within it for that mattter…). Five years ago, and well before assuming his current helm as director of Columbia’s MFA program, Marcus wrote a remarkably candid essay for Time, in which his pulls the curtains back on the disproportionate role student evaulations play amongst university hiring and tenure committees. Marcus freely admits to “sneakily” massaging his students to give him good evaluations by “telling the students what they wanted to hear and praising them however much they foundered.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’d love–and want–to believe that it’s Marcus’ remarkable talent as an experimental fiction writer that secured his prestigious position at one of the country’s most prestigious universities. It would be incredibly encouraging to know that the hiring and promotion committees at Columbia made their decisions–which they easily could/should–on Marcus’ impressive publishing vita. But there are other (and perhaps larger) factors involved than simply hiring the best and brightest writer on the market. The person selected and promoted will be expected to not only continue writing and publishing, but to teach and administrate as well. If we take Marcus’ Time essay as any indication or insight into the matter, getting and securing a teaching job in higher education is much more about playing politics than professional pedigree.

Row continues:

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 régimes to drift, like the tissue-thin sheets of an old aerogramme, into the dustbin of history?

It’s hard to know exactly what Row means here by the “scorched-earth rhetoric of avant-gardes,” but for the most part I think his point is well-intended. Literature is rife with antagonisms between the This and That camps, and it may very well be that Marcus comes across a bit overzealous in taking Franzen to task. I can’t agree, though, that allowing impassioned conversations about the function(s) of art “to drift…into the dustbin of history” is in any way good advice. This especially true in the US, where the arts are routinely denigrated, compromised, and ultimately dismissed as fanciful, fuzzy-headed elitism at best, and Slacker-style, narcissistic poseurdom at worst. We are a society largely conditioned to lather, rinse, and repeat, to satisfy our curiosities and desires through commodities, and to continually upgrade our ever-outmoded cultural software.

But then again, what the crack do I know? Bill Gates doesn’t sign my paychecks.


One response to “more Marcus/Franzen flap

  • MD


    That HAD to hurt!

    Bill Gates!

    Trevor, a friend in Durham alerted me to the Harper’s cover story and I avidly read it. Epilogue of the Ostrich? I still have no idea who Franzen is, and I don’t care to know. Who cares? I witnessed Marcus give a great reading at Powell’s a few years ago and will continue to read his work with interest. The work is what ultimately matters.

    Nice reporting.

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