The Franz Experiment

By Neal Comment

marcus.jpgPW Daily has heard about the October issue of Harper’s, and predicts offended sensibilities throughout the literary community over an essay by Ben Marcus (left): “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen and Life As We Know It: A Correction.” (I think Stephen Zeitchik might have actually read the article, but it’s not clear whether Harper’s gave him a copy or just told him the highlights.)

“Franzen’s first two novels, Strong Motion and The Twenty-Seventh City, included elements of experimental fiction and, according to Marcus, didn’t work very well as novels. The piece argues that Franzen turned to The Corrections (which Marcus likes, by the way) because Franzen couldn’t do more challenging styles very well and, Marcus implies, because he craved fame.”

Yeah, that sounds like it might be just a tad too snarky for The Believer. Yet it’s actually not too far from the way Heidi Julavits feels; Marcus’s wife described Franzen in a 2001 interview as one of the most obvious examples of “writers who performed decently as youngsters but were clearly NOT at the peak of their powers when they debuted all those years ago.”

Marcus, you might recall, was the leading candidate to take over the Iowa Writers’ Workshop before Lan Samantha Chang wound up with the gig. I interviewed him three years ago, and he had one of the best insights I’d ever heard about creative writing instruction:

“I try to see what people want to do and then offer myself as a really serious reader of what they’re pursuing. I’m as challenging as I can be, but on their terms. I think every writer has a fantasy of what their piece might be if everything went well; I try to help recognize what that is and give constructive responses that help the students get to where they want to be… You teach a writer to read himself or herself as closely as possible, and let that scrutiny lead to more complicated, stronger work. That’s how we get better–by reading ourselves and finding things we want to work on.”

Now I’m sort of curious to see what it is Marcus believes Franzen decided to work on in The Corrections–and dying to find out what they might have had to say to each other when they shared the dais for a New School panel on Proust back in 2003.