Sunday, 02 October 2005

Aggressively Mastubatory Fiction; or Two Authors Enter, Only Ben Marcus May Leave Observe the rarest of beasts: a promised post which arrives at the promised time. Earlier today, I promised Laura I'd discuss Ben Marcus' "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It," and here comes 7 p.m. rolling around and here I am discussing it. Marcus begins with a description of one language-processing portion of the brain, Wernicke's area, which like much of the non-polemical part of the article, deserves to be quoted in full: I would say that my ideal reader's Wernicke's area is staffed by an army of jumpsuited code-breakers, working a barn-size space that is strung about the rafters with a mathematically intricate lattice of rope and steel, and maybe gusseted by a synthetic coil that is stronger and more sensitive than either, like guitar strings made from an unraveled spinal cord, each strand tuned to a different tension. The conduits of language that flow past it in liquid-cooled bone-hollows could trigger unique vibrations that resonate into an original symphony when my ideal reader scanned a new sentence. This would be a scheme so elaborate that every portion of language would be treated as unique, and its infinite parts would be sent through such an exhaustive decoding process that not even a carcass of a word would remain. He then apologies for "wishing to slip readers enhancements to their Wernicke's areas, doses of a potion that might turn them into fierce little reading machines, devourers of new syntax, fluent interpreters of the most lyrically complex grammar," such that writers would be liberated "to worry less about whether or not everyone could process even the most elementary sentences." But such enhancements already exist. He calls them "books" and bemoans the fact that the books that exercise Wernicke's minions the most are being attacked by those whose dominate the literary marketplace: in particular, writers in the realist tradition like the acclaimed and popular (Oprah notwithstanding) Jonathan Franzen. Franzen, Marcus argues, encourages writers "to behave like cover bands, embellishing the oldies, maybe, while ensuring that buried in the song is an old familiar melody to make us smile with recognition, so that we might read more from memory than by active attention." Thus begins his attack against the author of the (criminally over-rated but) award-winning novel The Corrections. It continues unabated for what remains of the article, and that's unfortunate, because at his best Marcus effectively communicates what, to scholars of realist and naturalist works, constitutes a commonplace but which, to the general reading public, the essays of Franzen and The Atlantic Monthly's B.R. Meyers frequently obscure: The fallacy that literary realists have some privileged relationship to reality has allowed the whole movement to soften and become false ... the exceptions are terrific writers who have pounded on the emotional possibilities of their mode, refusing to subscribe to worn-out techniques and storytelling methods so familiar we could pretty much sing along to them. These are writers who are keen to interrogate the assumptions of...

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