Experimentalism v. realism: a facile dichotomy?
Jess Row examines Ben Marcus’ “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It: A Correction,” and Franzen’s original remarks, and concludes that both arguments suffer from a fatal lack of nuance.
I agree, although I wouldn’t arrive there quite the way Row does. I’m still trying to collect my thoughts — a slow process — and will let you know if I do.
James Wood launches a pro-realism argument, one cornerstone of which rests on the apparently blindingly obvious and incontrovertible fact that the novel’s high water mark came with Balzac and went with Conrad. Disputing this charge, says Wood: “is a little like dismissing as beneath comedy the idea that English poetry reached any kind of pinnacle from Shakespeare to Milton, or that music reached any pinnacle from Beethoven to Mahler.” (Incidentally, I’ve read Wood on Borges and Pynchon, but would be curious to know how he purports to reconcile his appreciation for “the delightful story-writer Donald Barthelme” with the fervent proscriptions of his aesthetic criteria. No disrespect to Barthelme, whose short stories stand among my favorites.)
J.M. Coetzee’s Slow Man exposes by categorization- defying example the folly of the realism v. experimentalism dichotomy. As “concerned with the mysteries of creation” as with the struggles of its aging protagonist, the novel is a stunning and very strange achievement that left me ashamed of my initial impatience with it.
Emma Garman provides a condensed version of the Marcus essay.