Read as Yourself: Ben Marcus on New American Fiction and the Art of the Anthology

Later this month, Vintage Contemporaries will publish New American Stories, a richly variegated anthology of American short stories edited by Ben Marcus. The collection, which Marcus put together more as a playlist or mixtape than a “museum piece,” is a stirring arrangement that presents a strong case for the American short story as a vital, living thing. And, like unmediated life, it is uncategorizable.

With its recent fictions by American masters (Don DeLillo and Joy Williams), contemporary favorites (Zadie Smith and Rivka Galchen), so-called writer’s writers, and relative unknowns, New American Stories is refreshing in the way it rejects easy emotion in favor of a derangement of the senses. In other words, as Marcus notes in his introduction, these stories form “a kind of atlas, or chemical pathway, to the sort of language-induced feelings that…are no longer optional.” We spoke to Marcus about the contemporary short story and the idiosyncratic art of putting together a literary anthology.

Flavorwire: I was just considering how daunting a task it must have been to put together such a robust anthology of new American fiction. What was that process like?

Ben Marcus: Part of what allowed it to happen was my feeling that there could have been six volumes of this thing, that this was meant in no way to be some definitive text or the last word on stories that matter. Really, I thought of it more as a playlist or a mixtape, something that could hopefully draw you further in — to explore more and branch out. What made it possible was taking some pressure off of myself. Instead I had more fun just looking at the stories I could love over a long period of time, the stories that grew and became more complicated and richer when I read them, re-read them.

In one way, doing an anthology becomes a great excuse for reading everything that you can get your hands on. We’re so busy doing tons of other things, trying to get our own work done — I also read a lot of student work. So years go by, and all of these writers I want to read go unread. I have these piles and piles and shelves of books. It occurred to me that there was so much terrific work happening, that I was falling behind. Doing the book became an amazing excuse to take this vacation completely structured by intense reading. To be honest, the most fun part of it was just sitting with stacks of books, just having no real set of principles or rules other than reading and reading and reading, making smaller piles. Just getting to the bottom of something.

On the other hand, there are all of these agonies. There are writers I know are masters that I can’t get my own traction with as a reader. I know I’m surrounded by people who love and worship these writers. Then I try my best to get that feeling, and then I can’t. Then I feel guilty, like there is something amiss with my own reading apparatus. In the end, I can’t read as anyone other than myself, and I hope no one gets their feelings hurt if they’re left out, or if they feel that there is something, again, that is supposed to be definitive about this book.

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So you actively avoided a prescriptivist, “this is the American story” approach?

When I was growing up, we had anthologies — like the Norton anthology — that were really trying to be definitive. I suppose I kept telling myself while working on this that other people should do their own versions. I wish other people would collect thirty-two stories and present them to me. We’d just swap anthologies. Of course it doesn’t work that way, but I think that helped me realize that I just had to read as myself, and not some type of figure trying to present to a culture the stories that matter.

I guess the title isn’t The New American Story. You have some room to work…

We went through a bunch of different titles, by the way.

In the introduction you call the short story the “ideal deranger,” and you liken it to a drug, or maybe you suggest that stories actually are drugs in the form of language. One great thing about this approach is that it cuts a path away from both comfort and alienation, realism and vanguardism. I guess what I mean is that derangement is neither easy satisfaction nor a lack of pleasure — it’s something else. How did you come to this idea?

I feel a little self-conscious that I’ve exhausted that metaphor, but I know that — no matter what else is going on in my life — when I get captured by a story, when I get up at the end of it, I’m different. I do feel like I’ve just gotten viciously baked. Then I get to go back out into the world with this filter over my perspective. Or at least a different level of adrenaline.

It may seem like a stretch to see reading these stories as essentially chemical, but I also like it because it takes me away from genre distinctions. When I first started compulsively reading short stories, I was not aware of genre. Or I was not aware of what is seen as a sort of battle between the realist story and the postmodernist story. Though I do remember reading these two anthologies. One, a really great one, called Matters of Life and Death — it’s just tremendously good. But even by [Tobias Wolff’s] own admission in the intro, it concerns only a certain kind of story. Then there was a different anthology that was much less good — but still occasionally explosive — called Anti-Story. It was sort of declaring itself in opposition to the realist story. So I understand why people become entrenched and want to defend a certain way of doing things. On the other hand — and this might be connected to teaching, or being with younger writers when they’re first thinking of writing themselves — you begin to notice that when you leave out these polarities, readers and writers can be a little bit more liberated, a little more engaged. Possibilities open up when you don’t present these things as sides of a battle.

Maybe, in retreating from these critical categories, I felt most comfortable talking about the physical experience of reading stories because they do fuck me up. They do really get inside me. It’s not something you can shake.

Your introduction also works as a story of sorts, and it avoids becoming a boring critical or theoretical summation of the state of the American story. Was this something you wanted to avoid?

There is an awful set of questions around the short story and its accepted irrelevance (against the novel) and its commercial inferiority. I just fucking hate it all. I hate that it’s even a conversation. It’s as if people are just asking the questions they think they’re supposed to ask, but it’s such a strange way of looking a story. You’re really just making an arrangement of language, and the length of it starts to seem — imagine trying to justify a song. If you think about a shorter poem versus a longer poem, it just seems so irrelevant. I suppose after enough time spent trying to justify a story to someone you just want to walk away. Maybe it’s not really for them.

Then there is just the problem of: “What the hell do you put into the introduction of an anthology?” I wasn’t going to itemize the stories. People just want to kill themselves when they read that sort of thing. Nor am I really a critic. I can’t write an introduction that is going to situate everything, that is going to clarify the trajectory of these writers. I’m not the kind of writer to do that. So the intro just becomes this problem I have to solve. Like any piece of writing it had to feel honest. That’s easier said than done after a while. Probably in the end all that I was left with was how it feels to read a story. That’s what I tried to do.

One unavoidable requirement of the anthology’s title is that these stories must be somehow American. I didn’t think much of this until I read the first story, Said Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia,” which is set in an America at war. Is there something to be said about what’s happening to the “American” short story? How did you negotiate that requirement?

Well, from my perspective it’s sort of expanding and dilating at once. I knew that what I could do was show the range and slipperiness of the work being written in this country. For instance, Zadie Smith has lived and worked in New York for quite a while. On one hand, I sort of consider someone looking at that and saying, “What the fuck? That’s bullshit! She was born in England.” In a way, I just don’t want to be so hung up on that. Encouraging a sense of flexibility around the “American” requirement was something I wanted to do. Did I look at the content of [Sayrafiezadeh’s] story and hope it would trigger thoughts about American identity? — definitely, definitely not. Frankly, there were four of his stories that I was trying to choose from. I’m really enamored by his work. I knew that I wanted his work — I just didn’t know which story. But I didn’t consciously choose it because it dealt with American things.

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What about the “new” requirement? If I remember correctly, one of these stories dates back to 2004. Some are from last year…

I edited an anthology about ten or eleven years ago, and I think that the rule there was stories from the last ten years. I had a vague idea of doing that with this one. In some sense it’s arbitrary. In fact, there is a story in here that — I found out when the manuscript was being copyedited — came out in 1995, and I thought: “Wow, that’s actually kind of great.” Another case was Joy Williams. I knew I wanted something by her, and I was reading some of the stories in a book she has coming out called The Visiting Privilege. I gathered some of the stories that were going into that, and there was one that blew me away. We were going to the next step before I found out it had been written in 1969.

So there was no singularity, no specific point where you felt the American story had changed?

Well, that story of [Williams’] struck me as so contemporary in its idiom, its rhetoric, its tonal structure, everything. But of course it’s not. It’s a necessary and humbling thing to encounter. To feel as though you have some connection to what’s happening to the story right now, then to find all of these tendencies, strains, and techniques going way back to these little errant pockets of literature — for me that’s always a reminder that I just actually haven’t read enough. Everyone right now is making this documentary, technical, dry, detached stuff, but it’s also not true that there is anything particularly new about it. If you read enough, you’ll find a precedent for everything. As much as we’d like to think that we’re onto different stuff.

So I don’t know if I was trying to do anything other than present a range of things that feel vital, that feel vibrant, that feel complex. Maybe then it’s for other to notice, with a critical language, what those things are. Frankly, when you read a lot of short fiction in limited amount of time, it’s interesting to see the overlaps and redundancies, the modes that lots of people use. I would find ten stories by ten different writers that started to seem really similar to me in the way they were put together. And I would have a hard time including all of those stories. In the end, I wanted a range of approaches. So if a story was not playing in the same sandbox as 90 percent of the stories out there, I was more alert to it. I worked hard to read a lot of stuff that was quite unusual, that was formally adventurous, strange, difficult — whatever you want to call it. A lot of it I would get excited about, but halfway through it would just fall apart. There would be tremendous paragraphs followed by plodding dullness. I saw a lot of stuff that delighted me, but when I read and re-read and kept it on my desk for a month, by the end, because I could see through it, I was less disposed to it, if that makes sense. But there were those pieces that were beautifully constructed from the first word to the last.

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This may sound strange, but while reading the anthology I was reminded of something the filmmaker Pedro Costa told me, that contemporary cinema “doesn’t contain any death.” He also explained it in terms of failure, that cinema is now afraid to fail. It seems like these stories contain plenty of death, in that sense, and failure. I’m thinking most of all of Robert Coover’s amazing “Going for a Beer.”

That’s interesting. I’m sure in some sense that is going on. I’ve been reading [Coover’s] stories my entire adult life. He was a teacher of mine long ago in school, and I’ve always loved and appreciated his adventurous approach to writing. What was interesting to me about his story is that, yes, it has this formal playfulness, but it scratches into this deeply human place. This is something he usually resists. He’s more comfortable in an antic, satiric mode. I thought he sort of did it all in that story. I’ve talked a lot with him about when he was first writing, when there was a conscious resistance to move away from the Richard Yates variety of domestic realism. He came up feeling that was the king to dethrone. You can feel that animating a lot of his work — an anti-psychological, certainly anti-sentimental mode. But that story felt like such an amazing mixture — it has something that I feel is quite tender. That’s why it was such a shoo-in for me.

There are stories here that could be “accused” of straightforward realism, but there are also stories that could be seen as “experimental.” Though I guess they aren’t experimental in the sense that William Gaddis rejected the term — they aren’t “experimental” because they aren’t experimenting. The authors know exactly what they are doing.

I would totally agree with that.

Do you think both readers and writers are now rejecting the idea of the experimental short story?

I thought that. And in one interview I sort of said it. I think I asked, “Does anyone really identify with being an experimental writer?” I caught all kinds of shit for it. Of course, I just don’t feel legislative about those things at all. Writers should just do exactly what they like. To me that term is often used in a derogatory way. I guess I just don’t really think about it that much anymore, and I’m not sure there is a lot to be gained from head-scratching about it.

I wanted to make an anthology that tries to ignore most of this, one that just wonders what could happen if we make bedfellows out of all of these approaches. The world of the short story is already just so small. The audience is pretty small. So the fact of creating a whole subset of softball teams — it starts to seem so pointless to me. It’s as if you like painting but you only like Cubism. I guess I’m imagining a reader who is not indoctrinated by this stuff. Obviously there are going to be pieces that people love and dislike — I learned that with the last anthology I did. People would say, “That’s not even a story!” But what kept me interested was putting all of these stories in conversation with each other, and, in some kind of cheesy way, imagining myself at a certain age. What book would I make? I’m the only reader I am, that I have access to. I’m creating this thing, a book for myself, that I would have wanted to read and do want to read and re-read. You just hope that you’re not alone in this set of responses you have to the stories.