Attacking Our Tendency To Feel Too Little: An Interview With Ben Marcus, Editor Of New American…
The first anthology Ben Marcus edited — The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories — was my textbook in my first undergraduate creative writing workshop, led by Kevin Miller at Emerson College. I was a freshman who had read Amy Hempel, Joy Williams, Laura van den Berg, and approximately no one else. So Marcus’ anthology was where I discovered many writers whom I now count among my favorites, writers like A.M. Homes, Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, William Gay, Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Anthony Doerr, Diane Williams. The list goes on and on. I remember the collective horror of the class in reading Gay’s to-this-day-still-haunting “The Paperhanger,” and our collective awe at the character work done by A.M. Homes in her masterful “Do Not Disturb.” It was and remains an anthology I turn to often, and each time I return to it I feel such gratitude to Ben Marcus for gathering all of those wonderful stories into one book.
Anthologizing, I think, is a way of inviting all of these disparate, brilliant minds into one room, giving a party of sorts, and no one hosts a better party than Ben Marcus. Which is why I was delighted to see that, more than a decade since the Anchor anthology was released, Marcus would be coming out with another anthology: New American Stories, released by Vintage this month. (You can read Marcus’ introduction to the anthology here, on Electric Literature.) It is, unsurprisingly, another terrific party. I had the pleasure of seeing some newer work by favorites like Eisenberg, Doerr, and Gaitskill, as well as reading for the first time writers I’d never heard of. The stories are precisely selected, and not a single one failed to move me in some way, move me with language, emotion, thought, vulnerability. By the end, I had a whole new list of writers whose work I needed to seek out, and whose collections I needed to purchase — the true sign of a successful venture.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Ben Marcus over the phone to discuss the process of putting together this instantly necessary anthology.
Vincent Scarpa: Editing an anthology such as this seems like a total dream gig for story nerds like myself. It’s maybe all I want to do. But it’s also, I imagine, a ton of work, and fairly stressful, too. Can you talk a bit about the process?
Ben Marcus: At the technical level, the thing that would keep me from ever doing it again is just the world of permissions — getting approvals from publishers who seem to sometimes guard the property rights of these short stories as if they’re the Torah. But the other side of it, the big side, is the fun, long process of reading, and catching up on reading. You know, years go by and I hear about writers that I don’t have the time to check out, and so doing the anthology, in one way, was just about ordering hundreds of books, going online and getting PDFs, and having people send me stuff; just creating these huge shelves of stuff that I had been meaning to get to. That part is really amazing because you just get to read everything you can think of. The real chore is: who am I leaving out? Which is, of course, agonizing. I don’t even mean leaving out from the book, but leaving out from the larger consideration.
VS: How large was that pool at the beginning?
BM: I’m actually in my workspace right now and I’m looking at three shelves that each have about thirty collections of stories on them. And that isn’t even really half of it. You know, I’d write to friends who I know read short stories and pay attention, or sometimes former students who I know are really plugged in — so, a lot of what I ended up with were links to websites, or PDFs that people sent me. So how large is kind of a good question. I don’t really know.
VS: How long will it be before you start getting emails about inexcusable omissions?
BM: That’s already happened. And I can’t even laugh about it. It’s sort of horrible. As soon as the list of contributors was made available, some people were really upset and wrote to me directly about it. I don’t really know what to say about it. I mean, as writers, don’t we all constantly just feel excluded from everything good all the time? And I think my only real response is that this isn’t The Norton Anthology of All Stories That Are Good. It wasn’t my job to be comprehensive or to even say who matters. It’s a really subjective book. You know, one of my answers is: more people should do these books. I’d love to read someone else’s anthology, where they — let’s say with the rough parameter of ten years — looked at American short stories. I guess I vaguely understand if someone feels a terrible injustice has happened if they’re not in this book, but I also don’t think these books launch careers.
VS: I like what you say in your introduction: that it’s a sampler, not a museum piece. It doesn’t claim to be this all-encompassing anthology.
BM: Right. In the end, I was really just creating a book for myself. In a lot of ways, what it really came down to was: what set of stories could survive multiple, multiple, multiple rereads, and still fit into this vision I had for this book? So I guess that’s kind of a peculiar criteria. Because I could read lots of stories and be really astonished and full of admiration for the technique and just really in reverence of the work, and then if I kept looking at it and looking at it and found it didn’t fit or sort of resonate with the other stories, over time it would slowly get pushed to the side. And it wasn’t a dismissal of those stories at all.
Different things come into play. If I read five stories by five different writers that start to seem roughly artistically similar in their modes and their methods and their trajectory, the way they proceed — it’s harder for me to say I’m going to put all five in. When I start to notice variety, it matters to me. I like, in a way, thinking of stories that might almost refute each other a tiny bit and yet each still succeed.
I wish there was some way to have a shadow anthology of all the stuff that didn’t go in that I still really loved.
VS: Were there writers whose stories you’ve included in this anthology whose work, until compiling the anthology, you hadn’t come across before? For example, I’d never read Rachel Glaser before, but “Pee on Water” completely floored me and I thought, How have I not read Rachel Glaser?
BM: Isn’t that story so killer? A few different people recommended her to me. I hope I don’t get this wrong, but Blake Butler told me about her and so did Justin Taylor, I think. But there are others, too, whom I hadn’t read at all. I had not read Mathias Svalina, I had not read NoViolet Bulawayo, I had not read Said Sayrafiezadeh. I had read very little Lucy Corin and I love that piece, “Madmen.” I had not read Charles Yu, although I had his books and was excited to read them. I had not read Kyle Coma-Thompson and now I really worship that guy. And I hadn’t read Donald Ray Pollock! Which was just my oversight.
Some of these people I’d been hearing about for years and I’d own their books and intend to read them. I wanted to believe at the beginning of this project that I didn’t know who was going to go in. There might have been a small handful of writers who I have kept up with, whose work I would’ve been surprised not to include — just writers whose fiction I’m really enthralled by and really devoted to. But beyond that, I wanted to feel like it was really fair game. And I was especially excited if it was someone new to me.
VS: I wondered if you revisited the first anthology you edited in working on this one, or if that was that sort of just put aside and made separate from this project.
BM: I mean, not really. I can kind of do that in my head, I suppose. It’s funny, because some people are referring to this as a new version and it’s not. There was never, when I signed up to do this book, any sense that I was revising that one. And in fact, that one’s still available. You know, they’re just different. I thought at first that I would try not to repeat any contributors, but that then that seemed dishonest and a bit crazy. But when I did repeat a contributor, I thought quite a lot about real stylistic differences between what they had in the Anchor book and what they have in this book.
VS: The Tony Doerr story is a great example of that.
BM: Totally. And the Wells Tower story, “Raw Water.” I mean, you can hear Wells’s voice in that — it’s not like I wanted people to transform and become unrecognizable — but it’s a different kind of story for him. But whenever I had some criteria like that — like, “well, I won’t repeat a writer” — it just couldn’t hold. It started to seem preposterous. In the end, it was really about enduring enthusiasm, enduring fascination and curiosity. What stories stayed with me after I read them, and when I’m thinking about them in bed, which ones have resonated?
VS: I was really excited to see that Joy Williams story, “The Country,” in there. I worship that story.
BM: Oh, I know, right? Wait, did you and I talk once at Bookpeople after a reading of mine? And you were with Alexander Chee?
VS: Yes! That’s right.
BM: I feel like somehow that Anchor anthology came up and you and Alex said, you know, “I can’t believe Joy Williams isn’t in that.” And I thought, “Well, she is. Because I love her work.” And of course she wasn’t! And I still kind of don’t really know how that happened. You know what I mean? I love her work. So there was never any doubt that her stuff would go in here.
VS: You seem to always manage to talk about fiction, about stories, in new ways that actually make meaning. I think a lot of talk about craft is a bunch of BS — Dean Young, for example, has said, of poets, “we don’t build birdhouses, we build birds,” which sounds lovely, but I don’t think can actually be distilled down to something tangible or useful, and maybe it doesn’t have to be if it’s poetry and/or maybe I’m cranky — but your introduction to this anthology was extremely instructive and enriching to me. There’s a way in which fiction, stories especially, are malleable and elusive enough that any metaphor or analogy can work, anything can be stretched or bent to serve the writer’s thesis on how a story ought to function. And there’s also a part of writers — at least this writer — that will always get a little turned on by even the most general broad-stroke declarations of what a story is and isn’t, what it must and must not do. But you talk about stories the way I’ve longed to hear them talked about, and I don’t think anyone has put it better, truly — you say they are “strategies in language to attack our tendency to feel too little.” I love that.
BM: Thank you, that’s really nice to hear, because I really feel totally crippled in the face of writing introductions like those. It gets so bad that I end up kind of wanting to convince everybody that there shouldn’t even be an introduction, that it’s pretentious by default, that the whole thing is kind of doomed. I circle around the whole problem of getting in the way of the stories, and I think about the kind of introduction that kind of just enumerates the stories and somehow provides a little jacket copy on each one, and I can’t do that, so I guess in the end I exhaust all possibilities and end up really just trying to say, personally, what stories mean to me. And even that’s hard, because you resort to metaphors quickly. I don’t really know that I’m trying to present some kind of different vision of what stories are. In promoting a book like this — and it’s an anthology, obviously a minor pebble in the waters of publishing — invariably you’re asked to assert the importance of the short story, and I’m actually just fucking sick of it. We don’t say, “Why are songs important? What do we like about a song?” It’s like, fuck you. At a certain point, in the end, it’s just a conversation that’s meant to be had to ease someone’s commercial fear about what is or is not sellable. If you’re not somebody who can be physically felled by a short story, then fine. You’re not going to get persuaded into caring about one. But, to me, it’s one of the great art forms. There’s an amazing legacy of it. We have a tremendous long, rich, varied tradition. This idea that one has to prove the importance of the art form is just a huge snooze to me at this point.