I had intended to write something a while ago about Marcus v. Franzen, or Franzengate, or The Only Literary Feud We've Had in a While 2005, but the more I thought about it the less I had to say, except that it's fun that famous writers are still giving the finger to other famous writers in very public ways, and that the current spat is totally civilized. When men were men, back in the days of Lewis and Dreiser, they just hit each other. Whatever else can be said about Ben Marcus's October Harper's piece "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It," it's given book people something to talk about at parties—which book people are desperate for. It gave an audience member at Zadie Smith's reading at Neumo's in October something to ask about during the Q&A. (Smith's answer: Both men should lay down their swords and work on writing books.) It was something writer Matthew Stadler broached with me a few days later at an art opening. (Stadler's position: Marcus made his point clear early on in his essay, and the rest of it was repetitive.) And it came up with an acquaintance of mine, another Matthew, a writer, while we stood in line for the New Yorker College Tour event featuring Jonathan Franzen and Sherman Alexie at UW. Matthew was excited to see if someone would ask Franzen, who hadn't spoken publicly about the article, what he thought.
Alexie's reading was rageful and explosive and Franzen's was fine too, if sort of patrician. Then the audience got to ask questions, the second one addressed to Franzen: Essentially, what do you think of Ben Marcus? Franzen said, "I could care less about him but I'm irritated at Harper's." Franzen said he hadn't read the piece but friends of his had, and had told him he didn't need to. He said something about a factual inaccuracy, something that wouldn't have happened in the New Yorker "because the New Yorker has fact checkers." He said, obliquely, "I'm not running for president. This is not a Swift Boat ad," which got applause. He said, "I feel like I'm intellectually a centrist, and some of the heavy weather you get in the middle is the populists spit on you as elitists and the elitists spit on you as populists..."
Alexie lightened the mood and came to Franzen's defense, saying that while he's disagreed with things Franzen has said about books, The Corrections is a masterpiece and Marcus "can't do anything without one eyebrow raised so far up that it's down his back and up his ass." Pause. "I just made that up, but that's pretty good." Alexie described a letter he'd written Harper's comparing the spat to the Far Side cartoon in which a penguin, in a crowd of other penguins, shouts, "I just have to be me!" And then he described his favorite scene in The Corrections which, it turns out, isn't in The Corrections at all. Different book. Different writer. Hilarious. Franzen took it well.