The State of the State of the Novel

Another decade, another lengthy Harper’s state of the novel essay.

In the October Harper’s, Ben Marcus offers a lengthy state-of-the-novel essay, subtly titled Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It: A Correction, in which he spends 13 pages beating up Jonathan Franzen–snubber of Oprah and William Gaddis alike–and the middlebrow fiction establishment he represents.

Marcus’ essay follows Franzen’s own Harper’s state-of-the-novel essay, Perchance to Dream, from 1996. And Franzen’s essay had followed Tom Wolfe’s Harper’s state-of-the-novel essay, Stalking the Billion-footed Beast, from 1989.

Using time-travel technology, The Media Mob has moved on to the year 2014 to read the next Harper’s state-of-the-novel essay: Reading Harry Potter to The Machines: Crisis of Metaphor and Meaning in the Time of Our Robot Overlords by Josh Schwartz.

How do they all stack up?


Marcus: Experimental fiction is just as valid as mainstream fiction and deserves to be read despite critics like Franzen who think it a) is insulting and unreadable; and b) makes writers like himself feel dumb.

Franzen: Why isn’t anyone reading anymore? Specifically, why isn’t anyone reading young writers like Jonathan Franzen? He’s good, I tell ya.

Wolfe: Fiction writers need to leave their comfort zone and do some reporting if they want to salvage the novel from preciousness.

Schwartz: These robots we built that control all aspects of our lives just don’t get fiction.

Frighteningly Overwrought Metaphor

Marcus: “As a writer of sometimes abstract, so-called experimental fiction that can take a more active attention to read, I would say that my ideal reader’s Wernicke’s area [of the brain] is staffed by an army of jumpsuited code-breakers, working a barn-size space that is strung about the rafters with a mathematically intricate lattice of rope and steel, and maybe gusseted by a synthetic coil that is stronger and more sensitive than either, like guitar strings made from an unraveled spinal cord, each strand tuned to different tensions. The conduits of language that flow past in liquid-cooled bone-hollows could trigger unique vibrations that resonate into an original symphony when my ideal reader scanned a new sentence.”

Franzen: “The library America in which I found myself after I published The Twenty-Seventh City bore a strange resemblance to the St. Louis I’d grown up in: a once-great city that had been gutted and drained by white flight and superhighways. Ringing the depressed urban core of serious fiction were prosperous new suburbs of mass entertainments. Much of the inner city’s remaining vitality was concentrated in the black, Hispanic, Asian, gay, and women’s communities that had taken over the structures vacated by fleeing straight white males.”

Wolfe: There’s no such thing as a billion-footed beast, OK?

Schwartz: “0100000111110000011110000100010000010010100011001111011100001010111100001
(The essay, such as it is, is written in binary code and hard-wired onto a ROM chip.)

Negative Impact on the Culture

Marcus: Numerous citations by bloggers, most of whom only read the excerpt online.

Franzen: The continuing existence of Jonathan Franzen.

Wolfe: Melanie Griffith’s accent in Bonfire of the Vanities; The thoroughbred sex scene in Man in Full; I Am Charlotte Simmons.

Schwartz: Robots punished mankind with a mandatory curfew; Destruction of Harvard’s Widener Library.

Matt Haber The State of the State of the Novel