I recently had the pleasure of visiting Joe Tabbi’s graduate seminar on “World Fictions” at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Tabbi asked me to discuss my response to Ben Marcus’s scouring of Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s last fall.
My essay, “Notes from the Middleground: On Ben Marcus, Jonathan Franzen, and the Contemporary Fiction Combine” (Electronic Book Review) proffers that Franzen’s position—non-mainstream fiction (read: the stuff we talk about on this blog) is destroying American literature—and Marcus’s well-meaning response, to some extent, makes an aesthetic argument out of an economic problem. I ultimately suggest that the most interesting works express the tension between art and the market in their material substance, and cite Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland and good ol’ Tristram Shandy to this point.
I’ll leave the nuances of this to those interested, and instead comment on a provocative notion Tabbi articulated during the session:
Tabbi argues, quite convincingly, that the first generation of postmodern authors (Barth, Gaddis, etc…) focused on the literary work above all else. They may have indeed been/be great show(wo)men, as demonstrated by William H. Gass at the &NOW festival at Lake Forest College last spring), or by Raymond Federman or Kathy Acker any time those two, well, do/did anything at all…yet, Tabbi says, many current writers who have moved into non-textual environments sacrific this same intense attention to literary production.
Not that there is any less value in multimedia endeavors, but that these writers, if I take Tabbi correctly, are perhaps not writers in the same sense. And, just maybe, the literary tradition suffers, because literature becomes, well, something else entirely.
My first instinct, as one of these sometime-multimedia folk, is to recoil. I see my non-print, non-text work, really, as writing in different forms. But then I start to wonder if the technological transformations overtaking the work that we now do may not be fundamentally changing what is it is, exactly, we end up doing. No great lament from me about these changes, and if we take Gilles Deleuze seriously, the death of the book has been a long time comin'.
As someone who schedules many writers on the academic circuit, I must admit often considering entertainment value, in many different forms, before extending an invitation. This doesn’t mean that great writers can’t be damn entertaining, but perhaps reinforces Tabbi's claim that writing has lost real cultural ground in the age of the Xbox.
Against my better judgment, this takes me back to Franzen’s seemingly ridiculous claim that literature needs to compete with things such as extreme sports.
Bungee jumping while reading Swann’s Way anyone? Or am I just expressing the bowhunter’s fear of the gun?