First in a Series.
WITH HIS October Harper's essay, McSweeneyite Ben Marcus behaves like the David Horowitz of the literary world.
David Horowitz is the chameleon of establishment politics. In the 60's, as an editor of radical Ramparts magazine, Horowitz associated with leftist groups like the Black Panthers. Currently he's employed on the neo-conservative end of the spectrum. His attacks on billionairess Katrina vanden Heuvel (a bonded member of the establishment) as a dangerous Leftist gives the centrist aristocrat radical cred she doesn't warrant.
Similarly, in his essay Ben Marcus tags author Jonathan Franzen as a populist, though Franzen's writing style, focus, and point-of-view are narrow, not populist at all.
The Ben Marcus argument exists without context. He manufactures a gulf of difference between himself and Franzen, when both are certified members of the approved literary club. Marcus fails to reveal himself as a Columbia prof, or mention that his wife Heidi Julavits is editor of insider mouthpiece The Believer. Marcus doesn't explain that professors he champions like Larry McCaffery and John O'Brien receive funding from the same sources as Franzen. (The National Endowment for the Arts, for instance.) (Marcus hero Rick Moody was on the NEA panel which gave Franzen his money.)
What of Franzen's novel The Corrections, which Marcus points to as polar opposite to his own "avant-garde" views? For even the comfortable folks its million-dollar marketing campaign was aimed at, Franzen's "populist" novel was a decorative coffee table book more bought than read. It's filled with pretentious description of coagulated prose-- is hardly a page-turner in the 1950's Herman Wouk mode.
The Marcus essay, in short, is a fraud, designed to narrow the spectrum of literature by positing as opposites writers who have few differences between them. This is an old trick (used in 2004 in politics with two rich Yale graduates). It doesn't always work. Only writers dwelling in the same establishment literary skyscraper with Marcus and Franzen will buy the Marcus argument; will sympathize with him for having a smaller office than Franzen's, though on the same floor and right down the hall.
(To be continued.)