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All Kinds of Worlds

Writer and editor Ben Marcus on the challenges of reading, writers as artists and the vast possibilities of fiction.
 
 
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Every generation has its defining breed of writer. The twenties had the French-inspired literary salons, the fifties had the rebellious beats. Now, we have an edgy 30-something crowd delivering fiction that screams "we dare you to pin us down" and includes in its minions McSweeney's poster child Dave Eggers, and the multi-faceted Ben Marcus – educated in philosophy and literature at New York and Brown Universities.

This new breed of writer tends to use fiction to explore the pathos and myths of American life. Marcus claims to have grown up in the Midwest, Europe, New York and Texas, which could account for a literary aesthetic that has been described as both "twisted" and "genius" and compared to the divergent likes of Samuel Beckett and George Orwell. He is a former senior editor for Conjunctions literary magazine, known for its experimental fiction, the author of the novels "The Age of Wire and String" (Knopf) and "Notable American Women" (Vintage) and most recently the editor of "The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories" featuring a range of writers including Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, George Saunders and more.

His work is both familiar and surreal and has earned him a dedicated, if cult-like, following.

Jordan Rosenfeld: What were you looking for when you began collecting the authors for "The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories"?

Ben Marcus: I wanted each story to be really different stylistically and for this to be a source book of short fiction that showed the range and variety of the kinds of stories that are being written today. I didn't want to have only realist fiction, or just lyrical or meta-fictional or minimalist fiction. With some anthologies that I've read in the past, even with some I've really loved, I've tended to find that those anthologies reinforced a single way to write a short story. When I teach I've always ended up making these course packs of Xeroxed stories from different kinds of writers and giving them to students as an inspirational model to show that originality is still possible. That was my operating principle for this book.

In order to collect these stories into an anthology, you must have had some kind of aesthetic at work that allowed you to look at a story and recognize its merit. What did you look for?

Some old fashioned standards still applied. I wanted it to be memorable, to transport me, to consume me, devour me and completely engage and fascinate me, as well as trouble and confuse me. I wanted to be overcome by stories in different kinds of ways. The aesthetic was attempting to allow as many kinds of aesthetics and sub-aesthetics as I could find. I wanted to pick the kinds of stories I thought I might not normally like. That was interesting to me because I deliberately read all kinds of writers I hadn't read because maybe I had felt they weren't for me. I tried very hard to read into all kinds of worlds. I kept proving myself wrong and finding ones that I did like.

Can you think of an example where you were really surprised by a writer's work?

It's embarrassing to admit now – because they all look like such beautiful stuff now – that I can't really recall why I might not have thought I'd like them. For instance the Deborah Eisenberg story in this collection which is now one of my favorites, called "Someone to Talk To" is just a devastating story. It's intimate and fierce, and terrible, terrible things happen on the interior of these characters. I had stereotyped it 100 percent incorrectly based on god knows what. I hate to admit that. I'm glad I was able to knock down a few prejudices I had.

I wonder if you can address the word "new" in the title. Is it intended to mean that these stories are doing something new and different?

That's a good question. New could just mean it had to have been written today, and it's a slower timeline in literature, so if it's been written in the last 15 years we could call it new. I was using it more temporally rather than that these are all new kinds of styles, because I think, as I say in my introduction, quite a few of these styles are an extension of literary styles of the past. That's an ongoing conversation that writers have with each other. That's what a tradition is, to absorb the work from the past and engage it and make your own version of it and maybe modify or supplement or subvert it in some way. I guess I'm not a real believer that there are all the sudden a bunch of new styles; I think there are tiny gradual shifts that go on all the time.

Would you say that one of your hopes for this book is to expose people to stories and authors they might not have found on their own?

Absolutely, because I think as readers it's hard to always find the kind of work that we might like. It's difficult to get access to things. I believe that a writer who might like the Deborah Eisenberg story would be curious to see the Joe Wenderoth story "Letters to Wendy's" which is entirely different. I believe that readers want a lot more than we might give them credit for. I do hope that by putting a lot of unlike writers in one place readers will enjoy the opportunity to see stories produced in such different ways.

Publishers, agents and editors are always talking about how short story collections and anthologies don't sell very well. And yet, it seems to me in light of the American attention span, especially if you give merit to reports like the NEA's "Reading at Risk," the short story is the ideal length of literature for the average American.

I have also heard this about them not selling well. And yet every season publishers are publishing a lot more collections. So it's not really clear why they're doing it if they feel they don't sell. It seems that some of the most noteworthy books of fiction of the last decade have been collections of short stories: "Jesus' Son," by Denis Johnson. "Pastoralia," by George Saunders. I know students devour short stories. There are lots of reasons other than a short attention span to like the form of the short story; it's beautiful when done well. It's got speed and urgency and complexity and is capable of being really transportive. I think that whether or not it should sell more is a really complex issue. Reading is hard; it's not something you can do passively. It takes attention and it also challenges us. The kind of reading I'm presenting in this book is not the kind you can just escape into and forget about your life.

Earlier you said that the stories in this collection, while they may be original, are very much building on older techniques. Is there anyone in this book you feel really is writing from a cutting-edge point of view, or doing something more different than everyone else?

I think Sam Lipsyte is writing very charged prose with complex sentences that explore the limits of grammar but still connect emotionally to the characters. His stories are a bit other-worldly and slightly outside of reality, yet the emotions are completely true to life. Gary Lutz, to me, is a writer at the outer limit of what can be done right now with language. He is an actual language artist as opposed to simply a writer of short fiction. It's interesting to me that we refer to artists as people who make paintings or sculptures or installations but a writer is not often referred to as an artist. I think Gary Lutz is somebody who reminds us that simply putting words together can be an art form. He writes sentences that actually do tell a story but on top of that they stir up our insides and completely shift around our sense of how the world works. I see him as a philosopher of language.

When you were preparing to pull this collection together, what did you have to do in order to find these stories? How well versed were you already in seeking these people out?

I just started making big piles of books from my own library and I contacted a whole bunch of writers and readers and friends and editors and asked them, 'Who is crucial to read? Who am I overlooking here? I made list after list and bought hundreds of books and just went through them and if I found a story that struck me I put it aside. I would test myself by seeing how well I remembered it, how much it stayed with me, haunted me. That is really the standard I used. I would also go back to writers I rejected and reread their work to see if I might have been wrong. I tried to get as much advice as I could, then locked the door and did a lot of reading.

Who are some of your personal influences – writers – on your own writing?

Donald Barthelme has always meant a lot to me. He was probably a writer I read in a short fiction anthology and then went and bought his books. I was in high school and early college and I didn't realize you could write such funny, strange stories that could still have so much grief and heartache in them. When I read his work it really created a sense of possibility for me that you didn't have to shut down or kill a part of your personality but rather you could try to engage it and turn all the jets on. He was a really exciting writer to me. Also Tom Bernhard, the Austrian writer, who wrote long, angry ranting, very cerebral and difficult but wonderful novels. He is a complete original; there is just no one at all like him. The degree of ferocity in his novels including "Correction" and "Woodcutters" is still a real inspiration to me.

Are you still one of the assistant editors for Conjunctions literary magazine?

No. I edited for another literary magazine after Conjunctions and I'm not even there any longer. I am not officially an editor anywhere.

How did being an editor influence your writing life?

Being an editor certainly puts you in the company of lots of interesting manuscripts every day. You get to read people from around the country and see what their ideas about fiction can be. I've always thrived on immersing myself in the possibilities of fiction and surrounding myself with provocative ideas. What is frustrating about being an editor at a literary magazine, unless it's your own magazine and you make the final decisions, is that you find work you're crazy about that you can't get published for any number of reasons. So putting an anthology together was a really interesting opportunity for me because I was not necessarily going to be vetoed by anyone. I was not engaged in a political battle with other editors about what would go in and what wouldn't. I was the sole decision-maker and I got to see if my decisions were substantive or not. I consulted lots of people I respect to challenge my decision-making process so that I wasn't being dictator-like with the choices. Anything a writer can do to help make space for the writing he or she really believes in is a really important service.

What's on your agenda these days? What kinds of things are you working on?

I'm finishing a collaboration with the artist Jasper Johns. We have put together a little book. I've also finished a collaboration with a painter named Terry Winters. It's a sort of series I've been doing with artists. I'm at work on a novel that sort of explores the world of allergic response and it envisions a slightly, slightly, slightly futuristic world in which people are allergic to language. Other than that I'm writing some short fiction and book reviews and teaching in the graduate creative writing program at Columbia.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld is a freelance writer living in Northern California and the host of Word by Word: Conversations with Writers, on KRCB Radio.