Thursday, January 28, 2010

we're excited about learning

So one of the books I got for my Experimental Forms class is The Age of Wire and String, a collection of appropriately weird short fiction by Ben Marcus. I jumped the gun by a few weeks by starting it, but my prof. said it was the roughest brainfuck on the syllabus (not his exact wording), and lord knows I can't resist THAT kind of challenge. And yes, it's weird. I like it so far, though.

Marcus also wrote something in Harper's as a response to Jonathan Franzen's nervous hand-wringing about what fame does to writers, and how fiction compares (and loses out) to other modes of entertainment. Marcus gives him a pretty sound drubbing overall, but this part of his response jumped out at me.

Franzen has argued that complex writing, as practiced by writers such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett and their descendants, is being forced upon readers by powerful cultural institutions (this is me scanning the horizon for even the slightest evidence of this) and that this less approachable literature, or at least its esteemed reputation, is doing serious damage to the commercial prospects of the literary industry.

Uh, dude, been to college lately? I know he teaches at one, so he can't seriously deny that there are intellectual litmus tests in fiction, and that powerful cultural institutions DO force complex writing on a portion of the American readership, and insist that no one in said readership qualifies as a Literary Mind unless they like Joyce, or Marquez, or Burroughs, or Woolf, or whoever. Now, challenging a collegiate audience with the above authors is fine, welcome even, but there is often little room in that kind of academic environment for asking if their work is relevant or interesting, as well as experimental. "Who gives a shit?" is not an invalid response to work that's just weird for the sake of it. Marcus' larger point, that this attitude doesn't extend to readers beyond academia, stands up fine, but I feel that he ignored certain things to get there.

And I'm not saying that the question of "who gives a shit?" can't be answered in a fulfilling and enlightening way; that very process is often the thrust of higher education. I am saying that the question shouldn't automatically be barred from the discussion of experimental literature, and that haughty appeals to authority aren't a useful substitute for guiding people through bouts of overwrought intellectual masturbation (Tao Lin, Burroughs, this means you) to moments of clarity or insight.

Anyway, just an immediate reaction there. I'mma go get food.

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