September 15, 2009
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Franzen, Marcus, and Chabon

Nina Siegel revisits the best seller lists of the 20th century to ask, “Are today’s best-seller’s worse?” Are popular books more ephemeral, and are good books less likely to be best-sellers?

This goes to the heart of the grand literary argument of the generation. Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus have been debating , chiefly in the pages of Harper’s, the value of experimental and realistic fiction.

Franzen, for his part, worries in a Harper’s piece that was once titled, “Perchance to Dream,” and then reissued in his book, How to Be Alone, as “Why Bother,” that the social novel no longer has a place in literary culture because it can’t possibly expect to deliver to readers what other forms culture — from television news to the Internet or even extreme sports – already provide to mass audiences. Ben Marcus, in a piece in [October 2005] Harper’s magazine, “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It,” argues that Franzen shouldn’t do so much hand-wringing over the question of literature’s popularity, or the fame of great contemporary authors as compared to that of movie stars or sports heroes. He, instead, writes that because literature is an art form, it is, like all other art forms, dependent upon experimentation and innovation for its very survival.

Is there a good annotated bibliography of this debate? Anyone want to throw one together? Email me.