An Interview With Fiction Writer Ben Marcus

Kevin Larimer

According to a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of people reading literature in the U.S. is declining rapidly, but the tower of books published each year continues to rise (175,000 book of fiction were published in 2003 alone), as does the number of fiction anthologies, several of which were published in the last month.

In his introduction to The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, editor Ben Marcus writers, "If we are made by what we read, if language truly builds people into what they are, how they think, the depth with which they feel, then these stories are, to me, premium material for that construction project. You could build a civilization with them." The 473-page anthology includes stories by George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Anthony Doerr, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anne Carson, Gary Lutz, and more than 20 others.

Marcus is the author of the novel Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String, a collection of stories. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and lives in New York City. Poets & Writers Magazine asked Marcus where he found the stories that he included in the new anthology.

Ben Marcus: A good handful of the stories were new to me, among them those by Joanna Scott, Kate Braverman, William Gay, Deborah Eisenberg, Anthony Doerr, and Ann Cummins. I read many writers I'd been hearing about but hadn't got to yet, and I also canvassed writers and editors for their favorites, so I could get turned on to as many new writers as possible. Most of them come from literary magazines, in particular ones that have meant a lot to my reading over the years, including the Paris Review, Conjunctions, and the Quarterly. Anchor set no restrictions on my choices whatsoever, so I was lucky to be able to choose only the stories that mattered the most to me.

P&W: You make it clear in your introduction that you are not interested in labeling the short stories in this anthology. You offer no convenient compartments—movements, schools, or camps—into which the reader might shelve these stories. Is this a purposeful survey of American fiction, or are the choices you made entirely personal: The Ben Marcus School of Fiction?

BM: I wanted to look at as many camps, schools, and movements as I could, and pick good stories from all of them, to come up with a book that reflected the stylistic variety of the short story today. In this sense it is a purposeful survey, and not simply a reflection of my tastes. In doing so much reading to prepare the book, I gained respect for many different kinds of short stories, rather than the sort I knew I already liked. I hope it’s a bit beyond the personal, and that it shows how flexible language can be when used to make fiction. The idea was never to say: This is the best way to write a story, but rather to prove that sworn enemies in the world of short fiction might have more in common than we thought, and also that readers don’t necessarily see the distinctions between types of short fiction that writers do.

P&W: Do you think you have brought together sworn enemies, at least in terms of aesthetics, in this anthology?

BM: No, obviously the writers themselves are not sworn enemies, but I’ve seen readers more or less ignore the writing from other styles and behave pretty heatedly, or at least indifferently, toward each other. Tobias Wolff’s excellent anthology, The Vintage Book of New American Short Stories, announces in its introduction that “realism” has seized back the mantle from more self-reflexive or supposedly postmodern kinds of fiction, and the book is certainly an advertisement for what a realist story can do. It was an important anthology to me growing up, but then again so was one called Anti-Story, and I don’t see why those two divergent impulses can’t be reconciled. I would not have minded reading those stories up against each other and never learning that they were from partisan camps.

P&W: The stories certainly do demonstrate how flexible language can be when used to make fiction, but several of your selections resist a definitive genre label as well. I'm thinking of Anne Carson's "Short Talks" and Joe Wenderoth's "Letters to Wendy's." I wouldn't be surprised to see either of those pieces in a poetry anthology. In fact, I think I have. Prose poetry and flash fiction may have blurred the line a bit. Is genre just another label that you'd like to avoid? Or do you feel strongly about claiming certain work as fiction over poetry.

BM: Joe Wenderoth and Anne Carson are poets, but I’d argue that so are Lydia Davis and Diane Williams, among others in the book. And I chose the Carson and Wenderoth pieces precisely because they have so much superb storytelling in them, more even than some fiction. Yet they operate with more overt formal structures than a typical short story, which I feel is an exciting but under-represented area of the fiction world. So I felt that they very much belonged in the book. I’m not too worried about genre terms in the end. I see the need for them, but they just don’t seem too hugely interesting to me. I hope that readers can just encounter the pieces in the book as works of fiction invented with the English language.

P&W: The creativity and imagination on display in the book certainly does overshadow these distinctions. As a fiction writer and editor who is obviously passionate about reading, what do you make of the recent NEA study that shows an accelerating rate of decline in literary reading in the United States—the one Dana Gioia called a "bleak assessment" of reading's role in the nation's culture? Who do you hope will read this anthology, and did questions about the size of your readership (shrinking, if we are to believe the NEA) effect the way in which you edited this collection?

BM: I think it’s pretty clear that very few people are reading, and of that group just a small portion reads literary fiction. But rather than lament this, which I’ve done enough of, I’d prefer to see it as an artistic challenge. Writers have every right to expect more people to read their work, but it hardly helps to passively complain. Language is still clearly a vital part of being human, and a writer is an artist of language, so the question is how to put language to a use that speaks to the deepest part of people. Of course it’s not that simple, because many writers are already doing this, but to people who don’t read, this sort of work can look like a foreign language. Reading is a muscle that needs to be exercised, and it takes work. If I was aiming at a readership in particular, it was an interested readership: those who are curious about short fiction today. I don’t think the book has much to offer people who don’t have that curiosity.

P&W: For that interested readership, for those insatiable readers, do you have any recommendations for further reading? Are there any fiction writers that you wish you could have included in the anthology but didn't?

BM: There are new collections coming out by Judy Budnitz, David Means, and Jonathan Lethem that I wish I had seen before I finished choosing work for the anthology—and these are just a few that I can name. To list the writers I wished I could have included would be to list the table of contents for an entire other collection—the book could have easily been twice as big. As to further reading, I think an anthology, at its best, should be a launching pad into a writer’s work, and most of the writers I’ve included have collections, as well as novels, that a reader can go out and discover. But I would also recommend that readers pick up literary magazines, from small to big, because often the editors behind them are doing excellent work to sift out the really interesting writers, and this is where a curious reader can find some of the best fiction to read.

P&W: What are you working on now? Any plans for a new book?

BM: I’m working on a novel, as well as some short stories and essays. I’m also completing a collaboration with Jasper Johns.

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