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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, October 03, 2005

Aggresively Masturbatory Fiction; or Two Authors Enter, Only Ben Marcus May Leave

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/03/05 at 02:01 AM

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 realism and bend the habitual gestures around new shapes.

To not accept the strictures of realism is consign yourself to the unread stable of "experimental writers" whose "work does not matter, is not readable, and is aggressively masturbatory."  Critics disdain such writers, prefering instead realists whose work possesses "enough surface flourishes and stylistic tics to allow a false show of originality, so that critics can dispense phrases like ‘radically innovative’ and ‘a bold new voice,’ when the only thing new is the writer’s DNA."  The article concludes with seven pages of close-readings in which Marcus demolishes the arguments Franzen proffers in a recent series of self-aggrandizing short fictions and self-serving book reviews.  I won’t repeat it—mostly because like all brilliant close-readings,  citation ruins the brilliance of the reading and thus discredits whoever announces its brilliance—but needless to say, by the end of it I desperately wanted time enough to squeeze a re-reading Gaddis into my George Eliot heavy reading docket.  Still, considering all this, I’m tempted to agree with Franzen.

I know, I know, that sounds terrible, but keep a couple things in mind:

  1. I adore a brilliant polemic and Marcus has penned one. 
  2. I read very little poetry by design and constitution.  I lack the patience required to work through poetry if it lacks the puzzling qualities I value in writers like Joyce.  (I mean "puzzling" literally there, as in "like a puzzle" which I’m enjoined to put back together.  Hence my love/hate relationship with Gene Wolfe.)
  3. As much as I love Marcus’ own work, I read it incredibly slowly, and only on those most rare occasions when I can do so carefully.  Now, this may be a symptom of my dissertation.  I may tend toward realist novels now because I can’t stomach any more ambiguity than what I’ve manufactured while untangling the knots of earlier realist writers.  But my late-evening laziness bolsters Marcus’ claims, not Franzen’s, even if I end up reading fictions more to Franzen’s taste instead of Marcus’.  While this situation is temporary for me, I doubt it is for the majority of the reading public ... and as Franzen said, better they read realist prose sans interrogation than watch another episode of The O.C. or The Real Laguna Beach.  Right? 

In short, I’m caught between Marcus’ idealism and Franzen’s pragmatism, and while I think Marcus is correct, I intuit Franzen is.   Which is why I award Marcus the laurels in the end, despite agreeing with Franzen for the present. 


Nobody is more annoyed by pathetic whiny / flatulently self-important prat Jonathan Franzen than me, so it’s with deep reluctance that I admit I think he’s a terrific, terrific writer burdened with a disastrous personality which he seems perversely driven to inflict on everybody in the english-speaking cosmos, just so that they will have to read his books at least twice in order to get beyond the mental image of Oprah Controversy Franzen. 

I haven’t read this essay, but it sounds dumb.  To set up a contest between ‘realist’ and ‘experimental’ fiction, like one is a traditional genre and the other isn’t?  And if Marcus got his druthers and “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”, then ummm how does the reader join in?  It’s a private language he’s describing, or perhaps it’s music? 

‘Experimental’ writers owe ‘traditional’ writers: without the lame-o traditionalists, the cool experimenters would have nothing to rebel against. 

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."

That’s much snobbier a remark than any I remember Franzen actually making.  Franzen’s chief whine is that nobody reads the classics any more.  But Marcus seems to assume that everyone picking up The Corrections (for argument’s sake) memorised, while in their cradles, every condition-of-England family-saga father-son Mother-obsessed-with-Christmas American-dream novel ever written, and read the contemporary writer only out of nostalgia.  Isn’t it more likely that a typical modern reader works backward from Franzen to James to Eliot?

By on 10/03/05 at 06:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t the problem here that the opposite of “experimental” isn’t “real”?  I’d like to see a lot more experimental realism and a lot less conventional anti-realism.  If I come across another story in which a million butterflies herald the appearance of something IMPORTANT and SYMBOLIC, I’ma gonna puke (Tim Burton, I’m talking to you!).

I only skimmed the Marcus article, but am I right in remembering that he didn’t mention exactly *who* makes up the experimental fiction camp?

By on 10/03/05 at 08:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I saw that essay, and I was hoping it would get discussed here, too. While I’m at it, I’m also hoping someone will write about August Wilson.

As frustrating as it may be not to have the whole essay by Marcus, they do have a pretty lengthy excerpt online.

By Clancy on 10/03/05 at 10:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment


A quick response before class.  (Laura, a more substantial one after.) He lists a number of writers he considers experimental (or realists who push the boundaries of realism): Joy Williams, Deborah Esienberg, Kate Braverman, James Purdy, Richard Yates, David Gates, Marilynne Robinson, Wililam Trevor, David Means, Denis Johnson, Nicholson Baker, Mary Caponegro, Susan Choi, Barbara Gowdy, Barry Hannah, and Stephen Dixon are mentioned by name. 

I’ll respond to the substance of your argument (and Laura’s) after class.  The list I can proffer before.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/03/05 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A quick one:

Ron Silliman, over at ronsilliman.blogspot.com, has a great post today about new narrative writer Rene Gladman’s *The Activist*.  Which made me think: As much as I like snark, wouldn’t it have been better for Marcus to have written a substantial essay about recent voices in experimental fiction?  Or is the dirty secret here that, as Laura wrote above, experimental writers need someone like Franzen to use as a pole vault, to gain elevation, if you will?

By on 10/03/05 at 10:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

to set up a contest between ‘realist’ and ‘experimental’ fiction, like one is a traditional genre and the other isn’t?

Marcus doesn’t employ these categories so much as adapt them from Franzen’s “Contract” vs. “Status.” For Franzen, some writers (called “realists” by Marcus) accept responsibility for the implicit contract they’ve struck with their audience to communicate and entertain, whereas others (called “experimental” by Marcus) deny the existence (or importance) of the contract, and instead grasp for the status Joyce earned by writing Ulysses (Franzen’s example).  So, for Franzen, placing Ulysses atop the twentieth century’s best book list (like the Modern Library’s) “sends this message to the common reader: Literature is horribly hard to read.  And this message to the aspiring writer: Extreme difficulty is the way to earn respect.  This is fucked up.  It’s particularly fucked up when the printed word is fighting other media for its very life.” I tried to avoid quoting Franzen at too much length because I wanted to focus on Marcus’ argument, but now I recognize that disables its effectiveness.

What Marcus argues, in the end, is the codependence of these novelistic modes: realism emerged from its more poetic (in form and function) the romance; and the tension between the language of poetry and the artificial and comfortable construct we call realism has always existed, only now writers like Franzen want to deny not only its existence, or its formative role in establishing the standards he considers “natural” to “the common reader.” When in fact, as Marcus argues, the only “natural” quality to both experimental and realist works are that they’re communicated in language.  One obvious analog for me this morning, as I head off to teach John McPhee’s “Atachafalaya,” is the way in the Army Corps of Engineer’s Old River Project bottle-necked the Mississippi River in its “natural” state.  As McPhee says:

The United States Congress, in its deliberations, decided that “the distribution of flow and sediment in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers is now in desirable proportions and should be so maintained.” The Corps was thereby ordered to preserve 1950.  In perpetuity, at Old River…


...the General is saying, “In terms of hydrology, what we’ve done here at Old River is stop time.  We have, in effect, stopped time....Withal, there was a change of command, as the Army replaced nature.

Replace “Corps” with “Franzen” and “nature” with “the development of narrative form” and you have an analogous situation.  (Or maybe I’ve simply taken advantage of an opportunity to prepare for class while commenting on the Valve.) You see the point of the analogy: language can no more be held in check by artificial but “naturalized” conventions than can the Mississippi River by the Old River complex and the levee system.  Eventually what the Corps called “The Design Flood” will come and overwhelm them.  Similarly...hold that thought.  I have a bus to catch.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/03/05 at 11:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a PDF of the article up at the William Gaddis site: http://www.williamgaddis.org/marcus.pdf

By dan visel on 10/03/05 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My reaction: Franzen’s not the only fiction writer who gets dumber when he writes criticism. Pretty weak stuff, but presumably that’s why it (instead of Marcus’s fiction) got into Harper’s.

By Ray Davis on 10/03/05 at 12:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray, I’m not sure I follow that last sentence.  Franzen’s criticism is weak, and that’s why it gets into Harper’s, even though Marcus’ criticism, which is pretty strong, also ends up in Harper’s?  Or is it their fiction you refer to, because I think both have been published in Harper’s.  I know, big shock, “Scott’s confused,” but…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/03/05 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry for the confusion, Scott. When I read Marcus’s essay last week, I didn’t like it much more than Franzen’s criticism. It irked me less, but bored me equally—much duller than what I’ve read of Marcus’s fiction.

Which was hardly suprising, the debate being such a dull one to begin with. As Luther’s pointed out on this thread, whether a work is interesting, is novel, is found to be worthwhile by a particular reader or writer—none of these have much to do with the Punch & Judy abstractions promoted by this sort of literary journalism. But it’s what editors like to solicit and print.

By Ray Davis on 10/03/05 at 02:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Ray: the essay (which I’ve now read the excerpt of that Clancy pointed to) is Punch and Judy stuff.  (With Alice Munro as the Baby.)

I’m interested in your point about naturalism being ultimately just as stylised and conventional and irreal as the most nonnatural writing.  I have no settled opinion about this, and don’t believe I want to have one.  But my feeling today is that one of the things that makes language available as a medium of art is the fact that it does encompass a wide range of degrees of opacity / transparency / referentiality.  To flatten this range out (or to transfer the burden of sorting the degrees out onto ‘culture’) seems much too abstract and final a gesture for a literary critic to have much use for.  I hope that makes some kind of sense. 

It may not be sensible to try to discuss this area without having real examples in mind.

By on 10/03/05 at 08:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I have plenty of examples, what with this being one of the demons I wrestle daily: “realism” refers to a specific set of narrative conventions which, in our current cultural moment, are transparent because they seem to be directly referential.  But the realist mode holds no monopoly on referentiality.  For example, when Joyce told Frank Budgen that were Dublin ever destroyed, it could be rebuilt with Ulysses speaks to the level of naturalistic detail (the color of gutters, the clothes, the way water drainsn down one street as opposed to another).  That kind of manic referentiality isn’t what we typically refer to as “realism,” however.  (Franzen, after all, holds Ulysses up as the book that ruins authors.) The obverse also holds true: you can use a conventionally realist mode in a suitably unrealistic environs and end up with this (from John Clute’s Appleseed:

...he allowed himself to forgive the teeth and their head (this once!) and let his brainless breakfast head sink its hollow jowls (starvation eat all liars!) into a trough of loyal wrigglies, which it wolfed down.  He adjusted the twining of his tails within the cart, settled into command posture over the great lunch bucket, and--white it continued slowly to starve half to death awaiting its repast--set his idiot savant lunch head the task of sorting through the overwhelming waves of data that threatened to clog the safe chip devil-spawn computers. (159)

I’ve discussed that in more detail <objects it describes, so I’ve narrowed it down (and I believe Marcus has to) to a style.  This style reads easily not because it’s realistic or has some special access to the world to which it refers, but merely because we’re inordinately familiar with it <i>and</i> the experience of the world it describes. 

For all its speculative brilliance, on one level Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series fails to communicate what it would be like to actually be an Oankali--immortal, tentacled, &c.--and she fails because she’s wedded to a realist mode which cannot account for the experiences she describes.  On another level, however, she’s conscious of her potential to fail, and sidesteps some of these problems (at least in Dawn) by focalizing the narrative through a human character who also cannot understand what it would be like to be an Oankali...because she’s also wedded to the world of realist narrative.  (Butler does thematize this brilliantly in the early novels; but as the characters become human-Oankali hybrids, the novels become hit-or-miss.  Hell, the chapters become hit-or-miss.)

Now that I’ve sketched (and I mean “lightly, almost invisibly, with white chalk on white paper") way readers and the characters who are, in a sense, their surrogates, experience the world of the realist novel, I can turn to the way in which it’s represented:

First, the human relations are either explicable, and thus fade into the background; or inexplicable, and thus become the focus of the narrative, at which point everything else fades into the background.  (Not too far though, or we’ll end up with The Golden Bowl as a realist novel.)

Second, the narrative perspective is consistent; if it is too obtrusive, it must become the omniscient, limited omniscient, &c.  The narrative cannot at one moment be focalized through a person, then a potted plant, then an omniscient narrator, then back to the potted plant, then to the person, &c.  Such inconsistency, when rapidly deployed, may be “realistic” in the referential sense, but the overall effect tears the realist scrim to shreads.  (Think Gaddis or Pynchon here: realists in mode, but not in readerly experience.)

Gaddis brings up another point: dialogue must be regular, and the majority of spoken sentences must be allowed to stop.  If not, the pauses must, they must be explicable, somehow, as though, emotionally resonant, as if, you know, written through tears, or jealousy, but if, if you interrupt it, stop it short.  You must say why.  We cannot have anymore JRs, Franzen writes. 

I could go on, and feel the need to, but I’m tired, need to eat, must...not...black...out…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/03/05 at 08:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure I follow what you mean by “the way it’s represented”.  Are you alluding to the way the strawman realist novel is caricatured in complaint essays like the one that occasioned this post?

If that’s right, I think your description tallies, but then I begin to be puzzled about why a polemical description would be worth the trouble of taking sides over. 

I am interested in discussing this proposition: naturalism is more directly referential than non-naturalism.  Realism is a convention, yes of course.  And so it is mutable.  Perhaps naturalism is too; but a key condition of naturalism must be that it makes a strong, defensible, simple claim to reference.  Realism might be a genre, naturalism a grammar.  The bit you wrote about Dublin in Ulysses, that’s a good example.  Naturalism is available in any representational mode? 

I enjoyed the piece of Appleseed you brought along, here is something comparable from Gogol’s fable of “The Nose” :

After some thought Kovalyov concluded that all was not right again yet and there still remained the problem of putting the nose back in place.
‘What if it doesn’t stick?’
With a feeling of inexpressible horror he rushed to the table, and pulled the mirror nearer, as he was afraid that he might stick the nose on crooked.  His hands trembled.  With great care and caution he pushed it into place.  But oh! the nose just would not stick.  He warmed it a little by pressing it to his mouth and breathing on it, and then pressed it again to the smooth place between his cheeks.  But try as he might the nose would not stay on.
‘Stay on, you fool!’ he said.  But the nose seemed to be made of wood and fell on the table with a strange cork-like sound.....

Once one grants that a barber might discover one’s nose detached from one’s face and baked into a bread roll, etc etc etc, then this is exactly the physical thingness one would expect said nose to embody.  (Sorry.) Though having written that I’m not so sure about the cork-like sound part.  The sound of a piece of dropped Turkish Delight maybe?

By on 10/03/05 at 11:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Realist novel?  How absurd a concept!  An oxymoron, at best.  Realism means to touch at some point on reality.  To denote, describe, represent reality.  To be true.  We say, ‘this is a table’ and pound on a wooden thing with four legs on which we placed the baloney sandwich we just ate.  And that statement, by convention, is true of reality.  But the novel is, by definition, false: fictive.  So, the realist novel under discussion by Marcus and Franzen can be, at best, a fictive reality.  It refers to, represents, a reality that has no existence in the world of atoms and molecules and organisms and tables and baloney sandwiches.  It references, dare one say it, an imaginary reality.
The experimental novel, one gathers, is its own reality.  It itself only is real.  It is self-referential.  It is art.  There is no reality outside the text.  The painting does not extend beyond the canvas.  Once the actor exits stage left, he no longer exists (other than as some vague impression on my mind, a memory—but that is another discussion).
If the realist, per Franzen, is fulfilling his end of a contract with the reader, he is being fraudulent.  He is selling a bill of goods.  His reality is no more ‘real’ than the wildest, falsest fantasy.  The writer is trying to create a world out of words, but is limiting himself to conventional perceptions and descriptions of an agreed-upon reality.  Taking us nowhere new.  Showing us no new connections, no new ‘reality’.  He is giving us a false reality under the guise of truth.  There is no referent, as he would have us believe.
Art, on the other hand, is pursued for status?  Or is it, as the other William (Gass) suggests, pursued for its own sake?  Isn’t its status as art inherent?  It creates its own world and says: “Here.  Here is a world.  Whole and complete.  It needs no external reference for it to be real.  Examine it.  Pursue its connections.  Find its flaws.  But do not mistake it for a mere description of something you already know exists.”
Franzen’s defense of commercial (let’s call it capitalist) realism (to distinguish it from socialist realism), opts to accept caricature, trite and true story lines, conventional morals (as in “the moral of the story is...") as good enough under the guise of somehow connecting with reality.
Marcus says it’s okay to try to be good!  To forge a new truth.  To enlighten the reader to a new reality (it may be wrong, it may be false but at least it’s experimenting.  Trying to win a hard truth, perhaps.)

By on 10/04/05 at 01:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

H’m. Suppose a realist novel aims to replicate a social network or structure - a system of relationships.  Isn’t that something which can be represented, made known, thought about etc in a novel just as well as outside of one?  Since it isn’t made of a physical substance like a table or a person’s body or a city, but for all that it does just as much belong to nonfictional, nonimaginary reality.  Doesn’t it?

By on 10/04/05 at 03:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t this a version of the Orwell v. Adorno argument about how to write criticism with the complication of a mimetic/anti-mimetic argument about fiction thrown in for good measure?

But also: this seems on some level the usual attempt to argue for a particular practice by proclaiming its unjust marginality, as if proof of marginality is sufficient cause in and of itself to regard the practice as preferable. Quite aside from the problem with that argument as such, it also typically involves sleight-of-hand in its proof of marginality. There are certainly perspectives on the history of criticism in the last fifty years that would make experimental fiction look more the darling than “realist” fiction, which could argue that certain kinds of critical aesthetics are more powerful in generating practices of fiction than marketplace factors. As others have noted, it’s a Punch-and-Judy set-up that involves a bucket of false dichotomies and phantom oppositions.

By Timothy Burke on 10/04/05 at 11:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There is no Orwell vs. Adorno argument about how to write criticism.  There was a stupid article in Lingua Franca a number of years ago called, if my memory serves “Is Bad Writing Necessary?” that tried to set the two off each other in such a way.  Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with either would recognize it for garbage.

As for marginality: Franzen, with his “Status” and “Contract” writers, would have people think the former are the established ones and the latter the outsiders.  It’s a risable claim for someone who *walked away* from an endorsement from Oprah’s bookclub.  Meanwhile, the works of Gaddis, his bête noir, were and are kept alive by an active fandom.  In the case of these two, there no oppressed, excluded faction: just degrees and depth of enthusiasm.

Finally, the charge of “anti-realism” w/r/t Gaddis doesn’t make much sense.  No denying his work is satirical, and that involves exaggeration and caricature, but he never failed to research a subject that he’d touch on in his work.  _JR_, finished in ‘77, anticipated in detail many of the tactics of the leveraged buy-out artists of the next decade; _Carpenter’s Gothic_ the more outré rhetoric of the Christian right; _A Frolic of His Own_ is steeped in knowledge of the law (and shows more affection for it than some many detractors—and, unfortunately, supporters—are willing to admit).  If the anti-realist label doesn’t stick very well to him, I wonder how well it applies to others?

By on 10/04/05 at 12:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I should note that Marcus spends the majority of the article dismantling Franzen’s claim that realist works are being marginalized by experimental works; the hoops Franzen jumps through to establish that claim are impressively divorced from reality.  Also, Franzen predicates his argument on market values: sales, the author’s popularity, whether someone would rather read a given author’s book or play paint-ball (yes, he says that).  I think my desire to leave Franzen out of this may’ve tainted my portrayal of Marcus’ argument, since everyone seems to be responding to Marcus’ response to Franzen’s argument, whereas I want to highlight Marcus’ own...which seems thin, divorced from his anti-Franzen polemic.


To address your second response first: there are more and less conventional ways to depict social structures.  Kafka, for instance, so captures the experience of working in a corporate hierarchy that his names been adjectivized.  (Did I just verb adjective?  Sorry, couldn’t resist.) But whenever anyone calls something “Kafka-esque,” they do so to signify an unrealistic experience with an inexplicable force; if a novel’s “Kafka-esque” (as David Grand’s Louse was a couple of years back), it’s on the borderlands between realism and experimental (to return to Marcus’ increasingly shopworn binary). 

(I realize my tone here is less blog- and more lecture-like.  Sorry about that.  I think it’s the natural by-product of writing about topics which appeared on one’s qualifying exams.)

To address your first response, then: I think we’re tossing around loaded terms here, since my definition of naturalism is even more restrictive than yours...only not in how it handles details, so much as how it handles the world they’re lodged in.  In other words, (putting the Benn Michaels aside for a moment), I associate naturalism with determinism (biological, social, economic, &c.), not with a fidelity to a referential representational structure.  I propose a new term, by which I mean, I propose we use one of the early terms used to describe realism; namely, “detailism.” “Detailism” refers to the quality of referentiality, no matter what novelistic mode (romance, realism, naturalism, modernism) it appears in.  As the Gogol and Clute examples demonstrate, detailism’s available to everyone, realists and experimentalists alike. 


I agree with the following statement in its entirety, and wish I had been able to articulate myself so succinctly earlier: “The ["realist"]writer is trying to create a world out of words, but is limiting himself to conventional perceptions and descriptions of an agreed-upon reality.” It’s the “creating a world out of words” part that Franzen denies, and that’s what bugs Marcus (and myself) about his argument.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/04/05 at 12:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Franzen, with his “Status” and “Contract” writers, would have people think the former are the established ones and the latter the outsiders.  It’s a risable claim for someone who *walked away* from an endorsement from Oprah’s bookclub.

Nicely put.  That episode had slipped my mind.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/04/05 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, wouldn’t “detailism” be another name for verisimilitude? 

And verisimilitude is a trait of both “realist” and “non-realist” works of literature.  Bradbury pulled off his Martian lit by mastering verisimilitude, just as Marquez did in stories like “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.” Kafka is perhaps the secret master here: begin with an absurd premise, and then work rigorously and logically from it.  In the Marquez story, the only “non-realist” bit of the story is the appearance of an old, winged man.  Everything else plays out realistically.

But that’s the thing.  We don’t mean “realistic” when we talk about realism.  We’re talking about a certain set of narrative conventions.  *Middlemarch* and *Bleak House* aren’t realistic, but they certainly are realism. 

Same goes for a blatantly experimental writer like Robbe-Grillet.  You don’t get more verisimiltude than he gives you, with chapter-long descriptions of a salad.  Of course, it’s in pushing “realistic-ism” to an extreme that his work achieves its eerie anti-realist qualities.  *Jealousy* is as realistic as it gets in modern fiction; it’s also about as experimental as it gets. 

And let’s be honest: magical realism is not experimental anymore, in the sense that it’s been absorbed into the mainstream in a way that, say, the French new novel never has been (even though *The Usual Suspects* and *Momento* are more like Robbe-Grillet than Chandler). 

To discuss the marginalization of experimental literature is sort of tautological, though, isn’t it?  Once an artistic form is mainstream, it really isn’t experimental anymore.  But what is important to note is the way that the cultural field of fiction or poetry works in such a way as to constantly discredit and push experimental work further into the shadows.  It is precisely by giving certain experimental work certain forms of the spotlight that marginalizing works actively.  Perhaps what I’m getting at is that there’s got to be a difference between non-mainstream and marginal.  The former marks “an acquired taste,” while the latter marks something that is actively repressed.  For example, we have experimental poets who have begun to enter the mainstream: Anne Carson, Jorie Graham, Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen.  But on the whole, as Ron Silliman shows again and again on his blog, Poetry Incorporated is constantly on the defense, actively keeping experimental poetics down.  The sheer ignorance of mainstream poetry outlets about experimental poetry is staggering—ignorance both in the sense of “stupidity” and “ignoring.” Poets like Jena Osman, Bob Perelman, Susan Howe, Fanny Howe, Charles Bernstein, Silliman, and others should be fairly represented in *APR* and *Poetry* but never will. 

Think I lost the thread somewhere back there.

By on 10/04/05 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"the” thread, LB?

I need somebody to explain to me, simply as possible, how a farflung, abstract, complex social network narrated in a novel like Bleak House is materially different from one which we narrate the experience of to each other or to ourselves.  It’s a kind of algebra, isn’t it?  Not made of atoms.  Made of words and thoughts.  But nevertheless real.

By on 10/04/05 at 08:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura, I don’t think the difference is necessarily qualitative, but that’s because I think of narrative itself as a form of social thinking (and thinking about social experience).  In Jameson’s terms, narrative is a socially-symbolic act.

This is obviously true of the great “realist” writers, whose works generally attempt to offer a wide array of social types, a version of the big picture, examining the relationships between people and institutions, and between various sorts of people themselves.  Nancy Bentley, a scholar of late 19th century American realism, refers to the work of writers like Wharton and James as an “ethnography of manners,” and I think that’s a superb model for thinking about realism: the anthropological narrative of one’s own culture.  Realist fiction is often “experimental” in another sense of the word: one can see it as the use of narrative to explore the probable consequences of a set of social actions among a cast of socially recognizable types.  A “thought experiment,” as my high school physics book called them. 

Who was it who distinguished realism from romance on the basis of the probable and the possible?  A useful distinction, but I think romance is still legible as a socially symbolic act, even if the relationship between, say, *Treasure Island* and Victorian society is (maybe?) more opaque than that between *Bleak House* and the same society. 

Just thinking out loud at this point.  Not sure if that helps.

By on 10/04/05 at 10:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a nice essay by Poirier that contrasts the James-es—William and Henry—by instancing a certain inconsistency in William James: on the one hand, in the Principles of Psychology, he writes that “language works against our perceptions of the truth.” Yet, in a passage in a letter he wrote to Henry about the Golden Bowl he was patronizing in the best “paintball vs. novel” mode about what Henry was doing: Why won’t you, just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing the dialogue, psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in style.”

I don’t think the conflict is really between realism and experiment, but between ways of thinking of the dignity, or not, of the novel. Henry’s notion was that the novel was worth doing in itself, quite as much as doing, say, psychology, and William’s notion was that the novel had to plead for one’s free time. I’m not sure that it follows from a novelist having no sense of the dignity of what he is doing that his novels will be bad; but the novelist will certainly be irritating to other novelists if he writes about the novel.

By Roger on 10/08/05 at 02:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I like that Roger.

By on 10/08/05 at 04:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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