Russell Smith makes a worthwhile point in last week’s (October 20) column:
I am surprised, although I suppose I shouldn't be, that there has been so little Canadian media reflection of the whirling literary discussion in the United States right now, as provoked by Ben Marcus's savaging of Jonathan Franzen in this month's Harper's. It's an important piece of writing, published in a mainstream magazine, about the merit of experimental fiction as opposed to what Marcus calls "realist" fiction.
(Harper’s link here . Slate debunking the entire Marcus/Franzen debate here.)
He also rightly points out that ad hominem attacks are stupid. (Although he once called Noah Richler a ninny.) Anyway, the only place where I think Smith’s column lets us down is near the conclusion, where he explains why there has been so little media reflection about the Marcus vs. Franzen:
At any rate, the whole thing is both invigorating and somewhat scary for a Canadian: I don't think we need more personal nastiness of this sort, but we could benefit from robust debate about the role and value of different styles.
The thing is, we don't really have schools of writing here.
His argument is that, unlike in the United States, our avant-garde fictioneers make absolutely no ping on the radar, so they will never be in danger of being attacked. They are protected by their invisibility.
A few things about this. First, I think Smith completely overlooks the contribution of Coach House, who has done a good job to maintain debate and attention on avant-garde works. Avant-garde for Thee and Biting the Error come to mind, and there are many others. I think there is more of an avant-garde tradition in Canada then Smith lets on. And Smith knows this, but it makes for a better column to argue that we are culturally impoverished as compared to our US neighbours.
A far more problematic oversight is that Smith, in expressing surprise that no Canadian media reflection has occurred about the Marcus and Mothra battle, fails to tells us: Where exactly might such a reflection occur?
Monthly magazines like the Walrus, Toro, Saturday Night (which is now dead) are planned well in advance. The only outlets able to respond quickly to the Marcus article (which is now off the stands, as I just received my November Harper’s in the mail) are newspapers or websites. And since Harper’s provided only an excerpt on its website, Canadian blogs (Bookninja comes to mind) might not have been able to respond as they might have liked.
The Ideas section of the Sunday Star could have tackled the Marcus article. Or the National Post. An essay in the Globe and Mail books section might have been good, but the books section doesn’t run many essays anymore. But unless I’m overlooking some other print media whose publishing schedule is limber enough to rapidly respond to an interesting literary debate, it really isn’t that much of a shock that an article in Harper’s about two American fiction writers lacks a Canadian vehicle for its debate or dissemination. Dare I say, Russell, that it appears that you are complaining about something that falls squarely into your job description as a cultural columnist for the Globe and Mail?
Instead of expressing disingenuous surprise that no one leapt at the chance to discuss the Marcus article, Smith should focus on writing about the debate at length, full stop. It is probably a far more effective rhetorical technique to attempt to start the debate about a worthwhile article than fling the martyr shawl about one’s shoulders and sigh about the silence. I feel confident that it is not an ad hominem to suggest that Smith appears much smarter than that.