Ben Marcus on short fiction

Jordan Rosenfeld interviews Ben Marcus about how he selected short stories for the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories and about the state of short fiction in general.

Publishers, agents and editors are always talking about how short story collections and anthologies don’t sell very well. And yet, it seems to me in light of the American attention span, especially if you give merit to reports like the NEA’s “Reading at Risk,” the short story is the ideal length of literature for the average American.

I have also heard this about them not selling well. And yet every season publishers are publishing a lot more collections. So it’s not really clear why they’re doing it if they feel they don’t sell. It seems that some of the most noteworthy books of fiction of the last decade have been collections of short stories: “Jesus’ Son,” by Denis Johnson. “Pastoralia,” by George Saunders. I know students devour short stories. There are lots of reasons other than a short attention span to like the form of the short story; it’s beautiful when done well. It’s got speed and urgency and complexity and is capable of being really transportive. I think that whether or not it should sell more is a really complex issue. Reading is hard; it’s not something you can do passively. It takes attention and it also challenges us. The kind of reading I’m presenting in this book is not the kind you can just escape into and forget about your life.

Earlier you said that the stories in this collection, while they may be original, are very much building on older techniques. Is there anyone in this book you feel really is writing from a cutting-edge point of view, or doing something more different than everyone else?

I think Sam Lipsyte is writing very charged prose with complex sentences that explore the limits of grammar but still connect emotionally to the characters. His stories are a bit other-worldly and slightly outside of reality, yet the emotions are completely true to life. Gary Lutz, to me, is a writer at the outer limit of what can be done right now with language. He is an actual language artist as opposed to simply a writer of short fiction. It’s interesting to me that we refer to artists as people who make paintings or sculptures or installations but a writer is not often referred to as an artist. I think Gary Lutz is somebody who reminds us that simply putting words together can be an art form. He writes sentences that actually do tell a story but on top of that they stir up our insides and completely shift around our sense of how the world works. I see him as a philosopher of language.


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