Ben Marcus Curates Emotionally Devastating Tales in New American Stories

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The best thing about talking with Ben Marcus is his infectious passion for stories. Reading fiction is his lifeblood—the part of living he cherishes. He’s the sort of person you’d gravitate toward for book recommendations, making the author and professor the ideal editor for Vintage’s collection of New American Stories.

The hefty tome includes 32 short stories from celebrated authors like Deborah Eisenberg and George Saunders to rising voices like Wells Tower and Rivka Galchen. Tales of realism rest alongside pieces of “mind-blowing experimentalism,” delivering a literary feast that will appeal to every palate.

Paste chatted with Marcus about making playlists (literary and musical), what it means to be an anthology editor and how making a character cry might be the worst way to make a reader care.


1newamericanstoriescover.jpgPaste: In the introduction, you talk about making mixtapes back in the day. If you were to make a mixtape or playlist right now, what would be on it?

Marcus: It all depends on who I was making it for. I make playlists all the time, actually; I love doing it. I’ll do it for myself or, sometimes, for my kids. That’s a big, broad thing, and now you can listen to anything you want at anytime. Music curation is such a weird, wide open thing. There’s no limit anymore. When I think about making mixtapes back then, it was really just a few songs you happened to own. You worked with such a tiny batch of stuff.

I love listening to electronic and experimental music. There’s this guy, Nicolas Jaar; [his music] sort of verges on being background noises at an airport to weird stuff that’s much more deliberate and musical. It’s beautiful sometimes and sometimes barely there. There’s another guy named Valentin Stip who’s on the same label. I like a lot of that stuff. I have a six-year-old and an 11-year-old who are plugged into straight up mainstream hits. I listen to that a lot, too, and everything in between.

Paste: Do you think the process of literary curation is similar to that of music curation these days? Has it proliferated in a similar way?

Marcus: It’s a funny question, because you can’t dial up any story collection you want and suddenly have a book to read. When I was curating for this book, I didn’t want to limit myself. But if I were to purchase every collection I was interested in, that would’ve been prohibitive. You can find a lot of stuff online, but I believe in buying books and try to do that. There were times where I would hit a limit in my budget and wonder, “Do I buy a collection when I’ve already read a story online and just wasn’t that interested in it?” Normally, in my regular life, I’d say no. But with this anthology, I’d think I needed to give any writer a better chance than that. Maybe that one story in an online magazine wasn’t representative of the whole.

With music, you can dial up anything, listen to it and, within 30 seconds, have a good sense of your response to it. But stories, in a good way, still have this slightly obstructed degree of access. I felt I owed it to the book to constantly dig up stuff I hadn’t read or heard of, but that also involved a lot of correspondence with people who read stories (writers, editors, friends) and getting names. I constantly asked people to press on me stuff they’d been obsessed by. I wanted to go out to all kinds of other people who were informal curators on their own, hoping I didn’t overlook anything. At the same time, I realized it was futile. You can’t ever be comprehensive. Even now, I have a bookshelf where an entire shelf is filled with stories that didn’t make it in. I’ll think, “Why? What happened again?”

Paste: I believe there might be an unfair assumption that a fiction anthology editor is the person who picks the stories. Could you more accurately describe the tasks and demands of that position?

Marcus: If you think an anthology is an official collection of things, you’re crazy. There are a lot of these out there. There’re some coming out every year, like the Best American series and the O. Henry series. There’re lots of them that’ll look at a specific time and pick out lots of stories worth reading from then. I think the idea is to look at these things as tantalizing entryways into stories and what they’re capable of rather than as anything definitive. I don’t know I’d ever trust one that presumed it was definitive.

I really believe my job was to pick the stories that stayed with me, haunted me, moved me. Operating with any other criteria started to seem crazy. I’m not a critic, and I’m not trying to assess the history of literature to say what matters and what doesn’t. While doing this, I wanted to say to anyone who’d read it that they should do their own, and I’d love to read it. I love to read the collections of anyone whose taste in reading intrigues me. What 32 stories would anyone pick? If I did this again in a few years, even if I did it again now, the 32 stories I chose would be different. There’s too much good work and interesting stuff. I still stand by it, and when I look at the contents now, I’m still really stirred by these stories. But I guess I just don’t see culture operating in a way where there’s meant to be a definitive list of good stories with the assumption the ones not in the collection are bad. I see no point in that.

I grew up reading collections like these. There was one called 20 Under 30 when I was in college 25 years ago. It was edited by someone named Deborah Spark and included writers who were still pretty young. Great stuff in there. There was a Tobias Wolff anthology called Matters of Life and Death. The thing I loved about that one is I never thought he was saying these were the stories that mattered. He was just turning me onto the possibility that if I liked a story by a certain writer, it was an indication to go get a book by them and keep reading. It’s like an onramp to a bunch of possibilities.

I think about when I was a younger writer. If you just pushed a book into my hands, what would’ve blown me away, confused me, excited me, freaked me out a little bit? I’ve sometimes thought about making a book for a younger version of myself.

Paste: You’re a writer and a professor as well. What did teaching and writing teach you about putting your editorial stamp on a collection like this?

Marcus: When you teach, one of the things you’re doing is giving people things to read. You’re looking at where a young writer is and asking, “What could they read right now that’d completely light them on fire and tear up everything they thought they knew?” At the same time, you want to guide them into rebuilding the way they see themselves and the world. I’m always pushing writing to my students, and it’s always interesting to see how they react. I find myself thinking whether you like a story or not to be the most disinteresting thing. What it’s meant to do is provoke and stimulate and show a set of possibilities.

When I was first working on this book, I partially used a class of mine to test a bunch of stuff I hadn’t read yet. There are tons of collections and short story writers I kept hearing about. I was doing a seminar at Columbia and I put a bunch of them on my syllabus without even reading them. I read them and reread them over the summer as I was prepping for the class. It was a way to get myself to read them and, also, to think about them in front of students. I was curious to hear their reactions, and I suppose it probably influenced me if everyone in the room was like, “Yeah, whatever.”

When you’re doing editorial work, you do think about choosing stories that’ll resonate with others. For me, though, even in writing, it’s hard to think explicitly about an audience in any way that helps. I pick stories that really do resonate with people, but, in the end, I can only choose stories that resonate with me first. It’s just impossible to guess what other people are going to love.

Paste: I read about a class you taught called “Technologies of Heartbreak.” You were talking earlier about stories that get under your skin and change the way you look at things; that class appears to have been about that sort of thing. What was the class like? Can you suggest some stories that emotionally shook you?

Marcus: That class was really a way to talk about how to create feeling out of language in fiction. How do you make a reader feel something? I think that’s a goal for most writers. It’s not to suggest that’s at all an easy thing to do. We read really deeply emotional works of fiction, which could, in short order, generate a lot of feeling really quickly. We took the readings apart and asked how we, as readers, come to care about the invented space within a novel. What are we doing to stand in the way of that happening and what are we doing to allow it to happen?

Some of it was pretty rudimentary. Sometimes, with students, they want to create feeling and they’ll show a character crying. They’ll think that’s the creation of feeling and sadness or sorrow. What it’s really doing is illustrating a symptom of sadness or sorrow and, in fact, when a character cries, it’s usually sort of annoying. The creation of feeling requires a lot of counterintuitive moves. You can’t just say, “Here’s a character, her whole family died, now she’s crying and alone.” A lot of the class was reckoning with how we fail to create feeling and then asking, “What approaches are left?” It’s always a fun, interesting thing to do.

In terms of the anthology, I hope all the stories produce feeling in different ways. Off the top of my head, the Deborah Eisenberg story would be an example. The same goes for the Denis Johnson or the Anthony Doerr stories. I’d single out the Deb Olin Unferth story; that one gets to pretty intense level of feeling. The Jesse Ball story, too. Did I say George Saunders yet? That story is completely devastating. In the end, I wouldn’t select a story for this book if it didn’t resonate emotionally for me. They do it differently; they have really different operating principles. They get at their special power in individual, unique ways. That was what drove the book a little bit. I tried to pick stories that were diverse in their approaches. The [Robert] Coover story is unlike anything else in the book. It seems like it’s going to stay on the surface, but then it does really cool, messed up things with time. Still, even in that one, he’s driven the knife in by the end and you’re devastated. I thought that belonged in the book, because devastation had been achieved, but in a way I hadn’t seen anyone else do it.

That’s why I love stories and writing in general. You can’t just do that and find a way to repeat it. It’s super elusive. The writers who do that well have to keep finding new ways of doing that. It’s not like you can just crack some code and be happy with it.

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