Posts Tagged ‘ben marcus


A Prick is a Prick: Still Hating on Jonathan Franzen After All These Years



I know the Ben Marcus V. Jonathan Franzen thing is an old debate, but I’ve been recently reminded of it so thought to weigh in. I’m not responding directly to Marcus V. Franzen, though I’d obviously come down on Marcus’s side. I am instead responding to the argument that it is silly to dislike Franzen- that he’s fine, that’s he’s a good writer just doing something different than Marcus and we should be happy they both write, that instead of engaging in polemics we should just appreciate them both.


I tried to make an argument for Mr. Franzen. Let us assume that we enjoy reading his work, that we find it touching, that we don’t find his very essence to be of smugness and pedantry. We could say: Jonathan Franzen is a competent chronicler of the condition of people of a certain class and period. He uses the conventions of ‘literature’ to produce finely wrought craft items. He is sensitive to and thus helps make sense of the human condition in his era, and in so doing he entertains and enlightens his readership.

At the very most, he is a member of a rather large class of very talented writers. Quite frankly, I don’t see how this is a laudable position. This kind of literature is not, at the level of its construction and goals, in relation to or in conversation with its moment. It is stale by design, a decadent expression of nostalgia, an analgesic comfort food for a self-satisfied middle brow.

I firmly believe that Ben Marcus’s work is of greater worth and greater artistic value than Franzen’s. I believe there is a place for a polemics that stresses the value of innovation, ambition, and serious grappling with the material and ontological condition of text as a medium.

Still, I am well aware that, as much as I dress it up with theory, any opinion I may have on Mr. Franzen and his work is only a matter of taste. However, laying aside general questions of the literary value of innovative vs. traditional writing, I think there is still a strong case to be made against Franzen. It ought not be controversial to say that there are more very well written conventional novels published every year than any person could possibly read. Many of these books are written by people with humility and a simple desire to tell a good story; by people who don’t take lack of artistic ambition and market-based aesthetics as badges of honor.

Which is to say: No, I don’t think that A) -it’s ok for people to like what they like- correlates to B)- it’s ok for people to like Jonathan Franzen. Given the volume of equivalent writers of erudite middle-brow fiction, it is unethical to support a huge fucking asshole who contributes nothing new to literature.


Whoa, Grad School!

Just got this acceptance to Columbia! Check it out:

Dear Mr. Segal,

I was awake last night, late, thinking of my father, vacuums, my father’s speech suspended in a vacuum and on hooks. I was reading a small online journal to feel like I was ‘supporting independent literature’. When I am feeling like my work is meaningless, I like looking at small online journals to see all of the people who take on my voice in the hopes of becoming ‘important writers’. Lately, I’ve taken to throwing ‘scare-quotes’ around phrases that make me uncomfortable, as if by bracketing them as such, I can re-animate and heighten their meaning. As if I can distance myself from the draining-power of dessicated cliches.

One thing that did not make me feel the need to employ ‘scare-quotes’ was your writing. I have been google searching you since 2:00 AM this morning. I found pictures of your face that I’ve printed out with an ink-jet printer and drawn hearts on. No, that is a lie. But what is not a lie is that I think you are doing a kind of new weird that is newer and more pure, that is secretly activating otherwise vestigial brain-parts, that is apt to set real physical fires all on its own, independent of readers. What I’m saying is that if this were seized by the state as samizdat, the text would leach into the steel containers in which it was locked and re-figure the metal in its own image.

So here is what I am thinking: I am thinking you ought to be at my side, co-instigating the destruction/revival of American Letters. We will write books that get up in the night and crawl down Jonathan Franzen’s throat, and Jonathan Safran-Foer’s, and every other middle-brow Jonathan within a 200-mile radius of New York.

All this to say: Congratulations on your acceptance to the Columbia University MFA program in Creative Writing. Although you did not apply, I have taken the liberty of accepting you and waving all fees and application requirements. You will also be given a full tuition waver and stipend. Please respond to this offer as quickly as possible. Language Helmet fittings begin next week.

Ben Marcus

July 2020