I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
This interview is featured, along with thirty-four others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.
I found the prospect of interviewing writer, editor, and Columbia professor Ben Marcus intimidating, to say the least. I came across Marcus’ first collection of short stories, The Age of Wire and String, in 1995, randomly flipping through new titles in a San Francisco bookstore, reading first sentences. I was just beginning to write short stories, and I had a craving—I wanted something different, something … I didn’t know what, exactly. Until I found it: “Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery.”
Bizarre, morbid, hilarious, and perverse: the sentence literally stopped me in my tracks. On the other hand, frankly, I didn’t know what the hell the man was talking about. That said, I bought the book on the spot.
As promised, Marcus’ stories proved liberating, exasperating and extremely humbling—I had to struggle with the book, and nine years later, I still do. Which was exactly what I wanted, and what I still want: writing that has as many expectations of me, as a reader, as I could possibly have of the story and its writer.
Marcus’ latest project is as editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and not surprisingly, the stories Marcus selected for the anthology offer a wide cross-section of the same—frustration and delight, wonder and confusion, a balance of stylistic innovations and emotional truths. Quite simply, stories that remind me how little I know, and how much I have to learn. Which, I like to believe, is what we all crave.
Courtney Eldridge I thought I’d start with a pretty broad question. What’s the state of the art, where are we today with the short story?
Ben Marcus There is an interesting melding of traditions going on in which distinctions between what used to be called experimental, traditional, realist, lyrical—all these different genres seem, to be getting conflated.
CE In a good way?
BM In a way that I like. Writers seem to be feeling that various techniques are up for grabs, and you’re not necessarily called a postmodern writer if you write self-reflectively or if your story performs strenuous formal leaps. Traditional writers are using techniques that would have been anathema to them 20 years ago. On the other hand, the trickier writers, the ones more interested in invention, seem to be looking to have a much deeper emotional effect in their stories. It’s pretty exciting. Hard to keep up with all of it but there’s some excellent work out there.
CE Why does the short story seem to be the poor relation of literature? Why do people still go after the novel and shy away from the short story?
BM Do you mean that people want to write the novel instead of short stories?
CE Publishers are tentative with short story collections, to say the least.
BM I agree, but I wonder if that commercial distinction really means that there is a distinction to be made in the larger culture of writing. Readers are reading just as many if not more short stories. Of course you’re right that novels always sell better (which is never the best indication of what’s interesting). I guess if that’s what matters, then novels are more important. I don’t see why there’s a competition. They’re distinct art forms and they’re both important in different ways. Some of the most memorable books of the last 15 years are collections of stories like George Saunders’ book Civilwarland in Bad Decline, or Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Short stories seem to have a bigger impact on younger writers, the sort of writers I might encounter when I teach. They’re not arguing over whether Philip Roth is a better writer than Coetzee. They’re talking about who the good story writers are. So I don’t think the short story is the bastard cub of lit.
CE Which brings me to teaching. Where do you begin with your graduate students at Columbia? What do you say on the first day?
BM I try to stress how important it is, when you’re asking for the attention of a reader, that you’re doing the most intense, interesting, compelling, fascinating thing that you could possibly do. I focus on getting writers to recognize when they become bored while reading other people and why. And then why they might allow themselves that boredom when they’re writing. Students want to give themselves permission that as readers they won’t give to another writer. Graduate students in fiction are some of the least forgiving readers I have ever met. They tend to be very critical of almost everything.
CE Why do you think that is?
BM When I was that age, I wanted to denounce everything because I was terrified. For me, the easiest stance was to say it all sucked. I’m a little more lenient now that I’ve written books. The people that I hung out with in grad school weren’t terrible people, but we did walk around shooting arrows at all the great writers.
CE It’s an adolescent phase of a writer’s life, isn’t it?
BM I’m wary of saying that some new young MFA student’s highly developed critical faculties are defensive, but mine were. In teaching, I’m interested in turning those critical faculties around. Teach people to read themselves the way they might read others. I try to promise them that I will be their most serious reader that term. I will read every word they write. I’ll look at what their work is dreaming of being and help them get there.
CE Do you have your own personal canon that you teach?
BM No. I did at first. I would push the books that had really amazed me. But now when I look at a student’s work in a workshop situation I might say, “This person would benefit by reading Eudora Welty or Grace Paley.” Or with someone else I might say, “Read Dennis Cooper,” because they’re flirting with his territory, or they need to read their Burroughs before they do this. So I look at the writer’s particular space and try to make suggestions that make sense for their interests.
CE As opposed to approaching the class on the whole?
BM As opposed to saying, these are the good books that everyone has to read. I teach lit classes also. In those courses I do come up with a book list, but it’s not necessarily a canon so much as a set of related ideas tied together by good books. I taught a course called Technologies of Heartbreak in which we looked at sad novels and tried to figure out how emotions of that degree were achieved in fiction. We examined questions of sentimentality, heightened drama and descriptions of emotional states. Books with really extreme grief, what they flirted with, and what they risked. Sometimes I’ll teach a class because I’m interested in a larger issue, and this interest ideally should help me be a more engaged teacher.
CE Can I ask who your favorite teacher was?
BM Yeah. Robert Coover. Far and away.
CE Why? What about him really brought out the best in you?
BM I never had a creative writing class with him. But at the writing program I attended, Brown, he taught a course called Ancient Fictions which included the Bible and Homer’s Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Ovid; early works of fiction. He was enormously erudite, generous, challenging, fascinating, filled with ideas. He didn’t seem to mind when a student did really well, he was extremely supportive of a whole range of younger writers to an incredible degree.
CE If teaching is learning, what is it that you’re learning?
BM My students have an incredible litmus for insincerity, cliché, soft thinking. They’ll catch me if I say anything that’s half-assed in class. They’re the toughest audience. The classroom is where we all have to do our very best thinking. I can’t go in there and repeat a bunch of platitudes that sounded good when I heard them. What they teach me is to think on my feet and to never feel like I know anything, to always try to outsmart my easiest assumptions. Because as soon as that comfort settles in, some smart-ass in class is going to point out the nine ways I’m wrong.
CE Do you leave class feeling dumb?
BM Oh yeah!
CE In a good way?
BM In a good kind of hungry way. The community is challenging. Like, say, a group of friends who all get together and each tries to be funnier than the other, or smarter or wittier. Everyone’s trying to perform for each other, which by itself could be annoying, but that’s not all that’s going on. The standards are high and there’s a deep commitment to be interesting, to write well. There’s the hope that that alone might lead to better writing because you’ve exercised your mind really hard for one or two hours.
CE How do you describe your writing to someone who doesn’t know your work?
BM It’s a horrible thing to have to do. I just wouldn’t.
CE It’s an awful question, isn’t it. “What’s your work like?”
BM “What do you write about?” I was once at this Four Seasons bat mitzvah. They have these incredible theme parties now.
CE They have djs, don’t they?
BM They have djs. They had line dancing. They had these hot pants dancers. They got the dad of the bat mitzvah to stand up and sing. The line dancers were probably 15 years old. And maybe religious rites of passage should be this blatantly sexual but … I was at the table with a bunch of old-timers and they had heard I was a writer. I had tried to keep that from them. They asked me the title of my book. At that point I had just published my first book and I said, “The Age of Wire and String.” And they said, “What? ‘The Face of Wire in the Wings’?” I said, “No, The Age of Wire and String.” They said, “‘Why the Caged Bird Sings’?” (laughter) I don’t want to have to proselytize in order to describe it. If I’m trying to be nice I say, “I write about family.” I used to be a smart aleck and when people asked me what I wrote about, I’d say, “I write about you, you and people like you. And I’m never wrong.”
CE (laughter) When did you try to not be a smart aleck about it?
BM Well, for instance, my wife and I are living up in a little town in Maine this year.
BM We have good friends who live here year-round and for months we kept from them that we write, not that they were dying to know. We have plenty of aspects of our identities that don’t involve writing. It was just nice not to have to explain. I think my wife, who writes a little more readably, you could say, was better off maybe. I just felt, if they even got hold of one of my books, I’d be in big trouble. They would be embarrassed because they would not like it, or would not be able to read it. And we’d have to somehow talk about it. Sure enough, there’s a little library here. I had to give a reading; some of them came. We’ve never talked about it since.
CE You write, you’re an editor, you teach and you’re married to a writer. What do you do to let off steam, get out of your head? Do you garden, do you cook?
BM Well. I’ve been building furniture.
BM Yeah. And I also love to cook. When we got to Maine, there was work that needed to be done on the house. So I started picking up some tools. The town is a boat-building town. Everybody is a master carpenter; it’s a high-end skill. I’ve made friends with all kinds of people who have taught me stuff. Around here, people talk about clearing land, whom you buy your firewood from, or how to make a certain wood joint fit together properly.
CE But you like that because you’re very interested in structure.
BM And I also like it because it’s just two people talking about things that interest them. Also, I’m sensitive to the blow-hard who talks about his writing all the time.
CE I guess it’s good to be out of New York then.
BM A lot of my friends have a code not to say, “Oh, I really kicked ass on the page.” There are some friends I love to talk about writing with, it’s not as though I don’t do it. Maybe just when I’m trying to have a little more fun and relax, it’s nice not to talk about it. When you’re doing it all day, it doesn’t seem that necessary to talk about it.
CE Craftmanship and wood. Inevitably it will bleed into your work.
BM I must have bought 50 or 60 woodworking books. My skills don’t reflect that at all, and yet I have this library. I’ve read them all cover to cover, I reread them, I take them into the bathroom. I read them instead of fiction.
CE Do you enjoy the language of the books, the writing?
BM Yeah, I do, but I feel kind of on the tail end of my romance with the fictional uses of nonfiction. I’ve pretty much rubbed that idea into the dirt, had my fun with it. I used to more or less pick up any book of nonfiction and feel really inspired by how close it could be to being fiction if you tweaked it. I would read it as though it were fiction.
CE Which leads to mimicry.
BM Yeah, but it’s also being available to a different component of language other than fictional narrative language. I don’t have the exact, ready excitement about that idea anymore.
CE Writers think that other writers have this ability to sit down and get to work in a way that’s not true at all. Many writers spend their time doing just about anything else, and then they finally get down to it because they’ve exhausted all of their options. What is your writing schedule, do you have any rituals around it?
BM Yeah, definitely. There are no interesting stories surrounding any of those subjects for me. If you can come downstairs and have gotten something done, it doesn’t matter what you wore, what you drank when you were doing it, coffee or tea, pajamas or bathrobe. We have a new baby, my wife and I.
BM Thank you.
CE Boy or girl?
BM It’s a girl. Delia. A lot of people say, “Yeah, that’s a cool name except you know, you have that problem because she cut off all of Samson’s hair.” She doesn’t have a problem, that was Delilah.
CE How’s the baby changing life and writing? Not to ask the obvious … but? (laughter)
BM Not at all. Before we had the baby, everyone we ran into was saying, “Dude, life as you know it will never be the same.” We both got so resentful, this promise of change, it can come out as patronizing.
BM It’s true and it’s not true. Change is incremental. It’s fascinating and fun and really incredible to have a baby around.
CE How old is she now?
BM She’s seven weeks.
CE Oh my gosh! Oh, she’s a little thing. Are you guys sleeping?
BM Yeah, we’re sleeping plenty. But we both said to ourselves that this summer with the new baby, we weren’t going to try to do a ton of work. I think taking a little pressure off ourselves in fact has helped. We both work every day now already. It actually, in terms of work, focuses things. If I know I have a two-hour window, I don’t just go and look up the history of ink on the Internet because I’m curious. I actually try to get some writing done.
CE Let’s talk about the anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. I’m curious how you began the editorial process. One of the stories, This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate, by Diane Williams dates back to 1988. Obviously you had a pretty wide net. You must have come to the table with certain stories in your mind.
BM I did, and the table got tipped over a bunch of times. I had a very different idea when I started and that was to put together an anthology of styles from direct to circuitous to realist to experimental, sci-fi, mystery—an anthropological selection of short stories with completely different styles that would highlight the range of languages we use to make fiction. But that would have involved including the bigger giants of American short fiction: Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Conner, Donald Barthelme, Joy Williams. It made no sense for me to be republishing those people. Does Raymond Carver need to be in another anthology? No. So the parameters kept changing, and you’re right to point out that there are these discrepancies, which I worried about for months. Should I set firm timelines? Who gets in? Who gets left out, and why? In the end, I don’t know if this was the right choice, but after I’d read these stories 10 or 15 times as I was trying to decide, I copped out and scrapped any rigid way of looking at the book. In some sense, it’s a reconciling book that takes the kind of storywriters who would never be in the same book and puts them together. I wanted to make a little bit of a dream book for somebody who’s just starting to write fiction to see—
CE —What’s possible?
BM Yeah, arrange the stuff that to me still seemed vital. The more I did this, the more I realized this is an extremely subjective book. For instance, if I put it together today, there are five or six writers I should have put in that I didn’t.
CE Let’s talk a little bit about its organization, how it came out in the end. I mean, it’s kind of an impossible feat, don’t you think?
BM There’s also a concrete explanation and it comes back to teaching. Students ask what they should read. Like a lot of teachers, I develop course packets, a collection of things that I can never find in one anthology. Anthologies, including some that I really love, often represent a single artistic idea. Tobias Wolff’s Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Storiesreinforces a single—granted, a big—artistic idea of short fiction, and in the intro, Wolff takes a potshot at what is called postmodern fiction. The anthologies that are supposedly more cutting-edge, whatever that is, go into a different ghetto. I wanted to make the sort of anthology that I could actually use in teaching, that would fulfill a variety of desires in a reader. There are some really eccentric stories in this book, but there are conventional ones as well. I was imagining the kind of reader who would be turned on by that. There are always younger readers who don’t feel spoken to by the conventional ways that writers do things. Then they suddenly come across an author like Anne Carson and think, “This is so enabling, so interesting and fascinating, this is exactly the sort of thing that I’d like to try to do or try to push past.” I wanted the anthology to have all of these little pockets of promise, all these little side alleys of provocation. And I also thought it would be pretty interesting to put stalwart realist stories right next to those pieces like Carson’s or Joe Wenderoth’s.
CE When you pick up an anthology, do you just open a page and start?
BM I probably look at the contributors. I might thumb through it. I like to read first sentences—
CE I do too, it’s a habit I have at bookstores; picking up a book and reading the first sentence. Actually, this is what drew me into The Age of Wire and String; the sentences were unlike anything I’d ever read. Do you have a favorite first sentence? For example, I’ve always loved Amy Hempel’s “My heart it stopped.” Can you throw some at me—from the anthology? I think this relates to the point you made about not wasting a reader’s time, not allowing boredom.
BM I’d like to think I don’t have a specific requirement for what a first sentence should be, but at the least, of course, it should create desire for the second sentence, and so on. Provocations, and strong statements like Hempel’s are an obvious choice. But flat openers have their place, too, sentences not so obviously concerned with seduction. We don’t necessarily want to get a deep kiss on the mouth right away. Something plain, without, say, the self-conscious grammar inversion of the Hempel sentence, could work just as well, because it would conceal the larger artistic project; it would be more reluctant than a self-conscious gesture. The mystery of artistic intent would play out more gradually. Does Hempel’s deliberately clipped rhythm tie her to something for the rest of the story, commit her to a specific approach? Having read the whole story, I’d say it does, since the story is just as much, if not more, about acoustics and the sounds of sentences as it is about their meaning and we could have a happy argument about whether these things could, or should, even be separated. What I’m saying, though, is that the opening sentence does not necessarily have to grandstand an artistic project. It can be far humbler or modest, and still just as interesting to me.
But that said, I’ll list a first sentence that has stuck with me, and this probably refutes everything I just said: This is Gary Lutz, from “People Shouldn’t Have to be the Ones to Tell You”: “He had a couple of grown daughters, disappointers, with regretted curiosities and the heavy venture of having once looked alive.”
This is grammatically intact, easily parsable, but filled with the most complex rabbit holes. The phrase “regretted curiosities,” by itself, could inspire an entire story. Here it’s used as a character detail for two people—they regret the things they were curious about. An emotion is already created here, even though we’re still in abstract territory. Earlier in the sentence, the daughters are called disappointers, and this too is beautifully loaded. It is the only thing we know about the “he” who starts the story that his daughters have disappointed him. But because they are defined as “disappointers,” we can guess that they have disappointed others. This sounds heavy and bleak, but upon examination is really universal, or at least it’s hard to imagine the reader who believes that he has not disappointed people. So a connection is being made to the reader, and it’s not a happy one. The closing line of the sentence, that the girls once looked alive, is horrible and amazing and puzzling. In theory, the girls could now be dead, but chances are they merely look dead, which seems somehow worse.
The danger with a sentence as rich as that, however, is when it encounters a reader who is looking more for the journalistic Ws, some basic info. This Lutz sentence tells us to slow down, that the pleasures of this story will be in the phrases, they will be hidden and clustered around punctuation, and a patient reader will be rewarded. Another kind of reader might zoom right by all the good stuff and end up finding no story there.
CE Ben, how has your work changed since your first book? Where do you think your work is headed?
BM I saw the apparent impenetrability of my first book as something that was a liability and was curious how to write exactly the way I wanted but to somehow make it less opaque, because readers matter to me. In some sense just telling a story, just announcing that something’s going to happen can lessen everyone’s anxieties when they’re reading you. This isn’t necessarily true for me, and yet there are a lot of pleasures in storytelling that I denied myself in the first book. So the second book, Notable American Women, was more narrative. Instead of portraying an enormous abstract world, I was interested in having a little bit more unity to the portrait I was making of a world and a set group of characters. A real, physical place and a real set of people. The first book could not really be reduced to that. And so in that sense, there was more legibility, but probably less poetry—a bit less interest in linguistic play in the second book.
CE More emotion?
BM I was trying for more emotion in the first book. The criticisms that stung the most were about its coldness. I just tried a different angle at emotion. It’s something I can’t imagine writing without. But to me it’s an enormous challenge and problem. I can’t write a conventional story where a kid’s family gets molested by an elk and he ends the novel weeping. I take a lot of circuitous approaches to emotion, not as an effort of trickery, but so that I can get at it and make it feel genuine. I wanted that first book to be emotional, but it seems like a lot of people didn’t see it that way.
CE What things do you like best about your work?
BM It’s a constant struggle to make the sort of writing that I can feel is my own, something that comes out of a pretty deep place and is not a contrivance or a response to other writing. Writing presents this interesting challenge to work within the confines of grammar, sense, and narrative, and then still do all the artistic things that you’re attracted to. That there are a handful of writers in the mode of storytelling who are being intensely creative and artistic and innovative is a miraculous event. A large bulk of writers are practitioners of established modes of storytelling. They can be fantastic to read, but their texts don’t look like artistic advances to me. And certainly they don’t have to be—I would imagine they’re not even intended to be. But I like it when writing can do that without seeming like it’s navel-gazing, forbidding, and impenetrable. Writing is in a hard place in that respect. A strange painting on a wall asks you to stand in front of it and get an impression of it, whereas a strange, weirdly unreadable novel asks something so much more and it’s much harder to engage. So I get excited about writing when I think about the possibility of being artistically relevant without alienating lots of readers.
CE What are you working on right now?
BM I’m working on a bunch of short things and a novel. The novel is pretty much in its formative stages, so it’s hard to talk about. I’m trying to find the sound, the voice of it. The book deals with a lot of deep allergies that the characters have to almost everything, and at the top of the list is language: people get sick when they speak. But I always have my conceptual ideas first and in a way they can become a bit of a problem because I need to find ways to make that world come to life in fiction. I always seem to feel like I have to reinvent the wheel and I can’t just tell it as a story. So I’m still working on the form and the language part.
CE Was either of your books an easier birth?
BM My first book, The Age of Wire and String probably came along more innocently and haphazardly, when I had no idea what a book was, and no real hope of publication. I had almost no notion of an audience and was writing purely to satisfy myself. But the willfully obscure elements of that book look somewhat easy to me in retrospect, at least when I compare that impulse to the unifying narrative I attempted in Notable American Women. And while I was slightly more worried about readability for that book, it’s hardly a crowd pleaser. What I’m saying, I guess, is that I’m not really crazy about finding an easier birth for a book. The struggle and impossibility of bringing a book to life is what’s attractive to me.
Courtney Eldridge lives in New York. Her first collection of short stories, Unkempt, was published by Harcourt in August.
Originally published in
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee