.. to enjoy more difficult art again. Ben Marcus with “Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it”.
What interests me about this kind of writing is its desire to discover meaning where we might not think to find it, as if it’s burning entirely new synaptical pathways, and this is a very different pleasure than the kind I might get from narrative realism. It’s a poetic aim that believes in the possibilities of language to create ghostly frames of sense, or to prove to me that rational sense might be equally unstable, and I can get a literally visceral thrill when I read it, because I happen to actually enjoy language.
Although Stein’s individual sentences do not require excessive deciphering, the connections she attempts between them are far more challenging, mysterious, and wide-ranging than the transitions Franzen uses in his narrative realist mode, which generally builds linearly on what has gone before, subscribes to cinematic verisimilitude, and, when it’s not narrating, slaps mortar onto an already stable fictional world. I find a terrific amount of complexity to be possible in Franzen’s approach, and it frequently comes in the form of characterization. Characters are built to be intense webs of plausible contradiction, and their often conflicting desires, which can be emotionally self-destructive, war within them to produce dramatic tension. When it’s done well, this can be immensely satisfying to read. But the notion that this is the premier paradigm for art made with language is like suggesting that painting should have ceased after Impressionism.
As much as I enjoy Stein’s more slippery work, I understand why Tender Buttons is not popular, but that doesn’t discredit it artistically, nor does it make me believe that Stein wrote to create a cloud of difficulty that would intimidate readers into thinking her work was important.
(My resolution this year is to live on a budget. From big thoughts little thoughts grew).