In his cheekily-titled “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It: A Correction,” published in the October 2005 issue of Harper’s, writer Ben Marcus defends what he terms “experimental fiction” against its detractors—most publicly Jonathan Franzen, author of such bestselling books as The Corrections and Freedom. Marcus was, at the time, author of two novels—1995’s The Age of Wire and String and 2002’s Notable American Women—and an illustrated novella, 2002’s The Father Costume. He received an MFA from Brown University’s Literary Arts program and served as fiction editor of Fence for several years (a position also held for a time by Jonathan Lethem). Since then, he has published another novel and taken up a teaching position at Columbia University. For better or for worse, the elapsed time has also served to cement Marcus’s status as a controversial literary figure—if literary-scene politics can still be said to exist and command popular attention—thanks in large part to his Harper’s essay. Almost seven years later, the author is still mentioned in near constant conjunction with his polemic. On March 1, Ben Marcus gave a reading at Brown last month while touring his anxiously awaited book The Flame Alphabet. The novel, released by Knopf in February, details a fictional plague that spreads through the language of children. The book follows Sam, a father of one, as he struggles to keep his family together in the face of this new, word-borne disease.
In many ways, The Flame Alphabet is a novel of conventions. We follow a single, more-or-less reliable narrator through three narrative acts—this compared to his earlier Notable American Women (Vintage) with its multiple, conflicting points of view and The Age of Wire and String (Knopf), which relies on a vignette style construction. When I expressed this point to Marcus over our table at Blue State Coffee in the University Bookstore (where copies of his latest, loudly colored hardcover were on table-display), he returned: “It’s okay that you say that. Everyone’s saying that.” Evident from his tone was his disagreement.
“Why Experimental Fiction Threatens” may or may not be the sensational polemic it is often characterized as being. The essay was written in response to a series of articles and stories by Jonathan Franzen published in The New Yorker, including “Mr. Difficult”—an attack on the late work of William Gaddis (the article’s uni-faceted angle should be obvious from its title)—and “Two’s Company,” a short story about which Marcus pronounces: “to write experimental fiction, is to be a miserable narcissist, obsessed with the pleasures you left behind.” Marcus told me that he “was really arguing against a series of claims,” that Franzen’s pieces were not belletristic, but propositional. Franzen’s concern is that the writer does not occupy the place of cultural primacy he or she once did. He makes a scapegoat of experimental fiction, claiming that it obfuscates and makes literature prohibitively difficult. The experimental writer is a fringe-figure that compromises the legitimacy of the entire medium in his navel-gazing, hyper-complex work.
Meanwhile, Marcus holds that literature that engages in conservative pandering is, in fact, doing the reader a disservice in its closing of the text. The distinction between experimental and mainstream, as Marcus sees it, is one of the readerly versus the writerly book, irrespective of sales figures or publishing house. That is, meaning and significance as derived from the work by the reader versus prescribed to the text on the part of the writer. If the nonconventional exists in relation to the conventional, the territory it occupies is necessarily reactionary. “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens,” then, can be read as Marcus’s attempt at denotation by something other than disassociation. “I really wanted to suggest,” he said in the course of our conversation “that there’s room for everyone. The categories are hard and there’s room for counterexample.” Considered in this light, the Harper’s piece is not attack, but advocacy.
For lack of a less problematic term, Marcus belongs to this tradition of experimental fiction—literature whose primary concern is, among other things, critical interrogation of the preconditions by which its own being is possible. Ben Marcus’s first two works engage with problems like narratorial reliability, the problems of plot structure, and the fundamentals of language. All but the last are absent from The Flame Alphabet—and though this last theme is detailed, its treatment is explicit where before it might have been more ambiguous, multivalent. Such a move is necessarily either artistic growth or commercial concession. But has Marcus closed his text? Are we, on finishing The Flame Alphabet, left with the naïve takeaway that language is imperfect but necessary, so be careful with it around the ones you love? Maybe. But this should not be our only criterion for the novel’s success or failure.
In creating a disjunction between the conventional and nonconventional, Marcus perhaps did himself a disservice. Unquestionably, challenging fiction needs advocacy, and “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens” is a well-argued, engaging essay. However, in putting it forward, Marcus effectively and paradoxically chained himself to his shattered plot and syntax. In championing the experimental, Marcus denied himself access to second-order experimentation: forays into the more conventional. Counter-intuitively, it is the staid, old forms that offer new possibilities for Marcus. “What I’ve started to really feel…I don’t mind the delivery systems…It’s quite a strange book, I feel fated to have a certain set of ideas. This is more difficult, more ambitious.” If experimentation is Marcus’s first principle, certainly he’s allowed to experiment with conventionality. In this way, it’s possible to save The Flame Alphabet—but I’m not sure that’s necessary. Apart from the politics of what it is, it is still a successful and engaging read. Separated from the Literary and Historical Ben Marcus, Ben Marcus’s work still stands.
DREW DICKERSON B’14 is necessarily either artistic growth or commercial concession.