Ben Marcus on David Markson’s Reader’s Block

 . . . when, for example, David Markson, an expository novelist who fired the starting gun for fictions of information and proved that pure exposition can be alarmingly moving, who purposefully tells instead of shows, is dismissed in The New York Times for failing to provide a story in his novelReader’s Block, no discussion follows about why, exactly, fiction must have one (at 150 words in the book review, how could any discussion follow?). Nor do we learn what a story might have looked like in such an exquisitely felt book that, to summarize, catalogs the various ways historical figures have hated whole races of people and/or died by their own hands. (Yes, you should read this book.)

Markson should have presumably, under the fiction-must-have-a-story criteria, zeroed in on one of his hundreds of characters and gone deep, doing that good old-time psychological work, the person-making stuff, dramatizing how such an interesting fellow had gone on to hate Jews and/or kill himself. Markson should have used more words like “then.” He should have sequenced. He seems to have forgotten that literature is supposedly a time-based art.

Markson’s amnesia is one of the happy accidents of the last decade of fiction writing. By eschewing a fetishistic, conventional interest in character, or a dutiful allegiance to moment creation, to occurrence itself, Markson accomplishes what a story, slogging through time and obedient to momentum, arguably could not: a commanding, obsessive portrait of single behaviors throughout history, a catalog of atrocity that overwhelms through relentless example. In truth, it’s a novel that can be read as an essay, but unlike most essays, it’s lyrically shrewd, poetry in the form of history, and it’s brave enough to provide creepy, gaping holes where we normally might encounter context (the burden of the conventional essayist).

From Ben Marcus’s essay “The Genre Artist,” published in a 2003 issue of The Believer.

4 thoughts on “Ben Marcus on David Markson’s Reader’s Block”

  1. Like all good reviews, you made me want to read Markson, not through advocacy, but through description. I’m also intrigued because successful innovations if form, whether novel or essay, are rare. I’ll add him to my reading list. It keeps getting longer.


  2. Well obviously the NYT reviewer is a bit pre post modern shall we say to be kind. Thank you for taking him to the woodshed. The revered Times also trashed DeLillo’s Cosnmopolis. Have you read and reviewed that? You could just read me instead.


    1. Ben Marcus took him to the woodshed, not yrstruly. I tried to find the Times review and couldn’t. I read Cosmopolis but I don’t think I reviewed it here.


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