Interview: George Saunders and Ben Marcus

George Saunders & Ben Marcus

Since his first book appeared in 1995, Ben Marcus has been an essential, radical and incendiary presence in American letters. What distinguishes his work is the way it uses a sacred awe for language to seek the emotionally resonant new. The effect on a reader (this one, anyway) is to rejuvenate one’s relation to language – which is to say, one’s relation to life. In addition to writing short story collections (The Age of Wire and String, and Leaving the Sea), a novella (The Father Costume) and novels (Notable American Women and The Flame Alphabet), Marcus is an important editor and anthologist. His 2004 anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, has now been followed with New American Stories, published this year by Vintage in the US and Granta Books in the UK. These anthologies are essential, important, and often controversial – Marcus is as original, thoughtful, and passionate an anthologist as he is a writer – a radical chooser, we might say. I had a chance to talk with Ben about the anthology and the ways that compiling it has affected his views on the short story, and on American culture.

 

George Saunders:

I thought your introduction to the anthology was so good – should be required reading for any workshop of young short-story writers. One of the things I admired about it is how succinctly you stated an essential and, I think, undervalued idea: that the primary storytelling goal is magic, achieved by mysterious means – that what we do isn’t ultimately an analytical or linear thing. And that its goal is . . . delight. You describe wrapping your young son up in a blanket and giving him a wild ride around the house and the pleasure he takes in this game: ‘he is asking to be amazed and afraid in this situation we’ve contrived’ – a perfect description of why we read fiction, and also a description that is very useful for writers – sort of freeing, to be given a charge like that (‘Go forth and delight!’). So I guess what I wanted to ask was: Did you always feel this way about fiction? That it is a sort of experiential machine, designed to do something to us? If not, how did you used to feel about it, and how did your current understanding of it evolve?

 

Ben Marcus:

Before I ever wrote an introduction, or answered questions about stories, or tried to teach fiction writing to students, which I imagined required some sort of certainty, I’m not sure what I thought. In some ways it was a happy time. When it came to writing, I had a mistrust of mechanics and analysis, or maybe explanation in general – why we do this, what it’s for – which was convenient, because I happened to be colossally ignorant on the topic. It wasn’t hard to be monkish and mute about what I did not understand. But it’s hard not to feel pushed into the role of the explainer. And as much as I try to embrace and insist upon uncertainty and mystery as a teacher, the whole enterprise often pushes one into statements that pose as wisdom, even if it makes me feel crummy to declare it. In the end, with this introduction, I knew I could not write a definitive critical statement about the American short story, as much as I would happily read one, so I was left with trying to write something personal that might track how and why I read stories – how they feel as a substance we consume, just what literary language can do to us. In some ways this meant thinking back on those early inarticulate days. Even if I didn’t spell it out to myself, I read because I wanted to feel things, and I came to rely on the fires short stories could start. So maybe I have always felt a version of this all along – that story writing is mysterious and elusive.

 

Saunders:

Beautiful answer. So let me follow it with an obnoxious question. Given that you read because you want to feel things, how does one (how do you) go about reverse-engineering that? In other words, how does the artist on the other side of that exchange impel his or her story toward becoming something that will cause feeling in the reader?

 

Marcus:

This is what we’d all like to know, right? How the hell you do it. The unanswerability of the question is, at least in part, what draws me to it. Any specific, actionable insights I gain about how to write stories are woefully unstable. And disposable. A kind of single-use set of ideas that, in the end, might apply to a specific story I’m working on, but no more. In the end it’s hugely humbling to complete a short story thinking that I’ve figured something out, only to find that those ways of working and thinking are useless for a new story. You have to solve for x again, every single time. But I believe I do fumble along with a story looking to rouse myself somehow – you know, tying off the arm and squeezing the liquid in, seeing if there’s some part of the brain or heart I haven’t scraped before. I guess I’m stirring sentences together and sampling them, seeing how they make me feel. I am trying to notice if I can lock, or unlock, a certain kind of gravity, or levity, in the language – whatever feels right. All of this sadly presumes that what strikes or moves me, what makes me laugh or feel horrified, will do something similar to others – and this cannot be counted on. This is always a terrible realization to have, the sheer indulgence of the whole enterprise, the way it necessitates a reckless assertion of deeply subjective stuff, along with the hope that others might be wired as I am. I do know that attempting to entertain other people based on some guess of what they will like – when they are ultimately unknowable – has always backfired. So the whole thing amounts to a performance I put on for myself, while also heckling and grumbling from the audience, calling out fraudulence, demanding revisions.

 

Saunders:

This distinction, from the intro, really intrigued me, and rang true: ‘stories that help us ignore our troubles (vs) . . . stories that rub our faces in them.’ And then you admit that you personally favor the second type of story: ‘a story not in flight from something elemental and inescapable – we are going away soon.’ This reminded me of something that happened a few years ago when I was teaching an undergrad class in the short story using your earlier anthology (The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories), working through it chronologically. When we got to that wonderful Jhumpa Lahiri story (‘When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine’) we had this wild, emotional discussion – the kids felt that (or noticed that) they had been sort of viscerally trained, by the stories preceding that one, to expect something horrible to happen. Like maybe Mr Pirzada would molest one of the kids or kill everybody at dinner or something. And I had to admit that I’d had a similar expectation – that the purpose of the story was somehow going to be, vaguely, to ‘show the dark underbelly’ – and then a sort of relief when the story turned out to have a different agenda. And that was interesting – it led us to a lively discussion of darkness in American art, a discussion I’ve found myself having many times in relation to my own work. So I’m trying to work my way around to a question about darkness, or edginess, or (as some people have called, with respect to my work) ‘negativity.’ You seem to be saying that stories that provoke a sort of fear or anxiety – stories that remind us of the scary situation we’re in here on earth, and/or underscore the way we tend to fail at fulfilling our better nature – are just more pleasurable – they cause more, or more intense, feelings. (Have I stated this correctly?) Do you feel any need to defend or justify the (let’s call it) ‘darkness’ in your own work, or in the stories you selected? Is ‘dark’ vs ‘not dark’ even a useful distinction? Is this one long-ass question, or what?

 

Marcus:

That’s the third longest question I’ve ever been asked. And I’m tempted to answer briefly: yes. Yes to all of it. But there’s so much more to say, I know, and these are things I wonder and worry about all the time. So starting with the Lahiri story, I first of all like that one piece from that book might subvert a reader’s expectations after reading the others. I think the introduction promises aesthetic variety, hoping the range of work can show that stories might succeed under even antithetical artistic principles, different marching orders. So that’s one kind of reaction I would hope for: that with good stories you can’t prepare yourself, you can’t know them in advance, you can’t expect them to operate according to a set of received principles. But had I been in that classroom of yours, sitting in the back with my mustache, trying to blend in, I might have said that while the end of that Lahiri story is not brutal, as some of the others are in the anthology, the beginning and the middle are infused with a hard sorrow, and quite difficult, emotionally. Mr Pirzada is cut off from his family, fearing the worst, while comporting himself quietly, holding his suffering perfectly within himself. He and the family he visits in America follow the situation in his homeland and they are both highly engaged and totally powerless. It’s tragic. And the girl in the story – in her safe, loving, intact family – has to reckon with Mr Pirzada, who is too polite to even grieve. She comes to see that there is something arbitrary and lucky about her own happiness. She has a mediated encounter with tragedy – it is remote yet intimate. It is in her house. Why is she happy? Why hasn’t this tragedy happened to her? Her imagination is tested. Honestly I am getting worked up even remembering the story. It’s desolate and heartbreaking, however controlled the surface, however undeclared the feeling. So I would say the story lands pretty high on this metric of darkness. It just arrives there differently.

 

The larger question, about ‘dark’ vs ‘not dark,’ kind of asks for its own paragraph. Joy Williams, in an interview, said that ‘what good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time.’ That sounds pretty fun, right? In the end I find pleasure, value, stimulation and provocation in stories that take me closer to what it feels like to be alive. Stories that take me closer to the natural wonder and confusion I feel as a kind of baseline reaction to life. I don’t think of this as an addiction to misery, or as a kind of literary ambulance chasing. On the contrary, it is paradoxically comforting to be in the presence of what feels like honesty, even though I know this isn’t exactly the word. The stories of Joy Williams, in their prickly difficulty, their revelations of vulnerability, soothe me because they don’t gloss over what things feel like. You experience a kind of deep companionship. She is cutting into something real, revealing a natural state of awe, fear, confusion, delight, despair. It’s a relief to read it, it feels medicinal. Could we call this sort of work emotional realism? That’s how I would characterize your story ‘Sea Oak.’ Despite an uncanny and invented set of circumstances, with a conspicuously impossible plot development, you systematically build an utterly convincing emotional portrait, full of yearning. I’m not sure how that story is ‘reflexively dark.’ I laugh and I’m horrified and I’m amazed when I read it, but most of all I feel a kind of deep comfort – you’ve shown what life feels like.

 

What I find far less appealing, for the most part, are stories that would seem to be in flight from all this, stories that hide some central kind of depth or complexity or fear, that do not tip a hand to a vast inner life, a primal reaction to impending death, or that sort of thing. Call it emotional artifice. It’s always a little bit depressing to be lied to, particularly with platitudes . . . It’s all good. No worries. That sort of thing. Really? No worries? None at all? OK. That said, there are poorly executed versions of the supposedly braver kind of writing, and all the distinctions fall away, because the result, without artistry, can be weak, unconvincing, embarrassing, pretentious. You can’t just introduce a bunch of characters and have them die, one by one. So, you know, caveat caveat. And I would also say that there are some mediums in which I have nearly come to prefer evasive, emotionally artificial, life-forgetting approaches. I just think that writing is particularly good at revealing the predicament of mortality, dramatizing or illustrating it. Making it goddamn funny, in fact. Beckett funny. Jane Bowles funny. Flannery O’Connor funny. Writing does this well. Obviously we all enjoy medicating ourselves against the awareness of our mortality. Relishing this kind of writing does not mean we do not love life. It means we love life enough to want to be present to its difficulty and complexity. We experience pleasure when we feel that someone has arrived at something essential. And, by the way, we also love swimming in the ocean, cooking in the backyard, playing with our kids and fixing up the house. We love a bike ride, and state-sanctioned intercourse, and, if the mood is right, a good toss on the trampoline. I’m not sure how I came to be speaking for others there. It just seems important to state that there’s a shit-ton of elation to be found in the so-called darker literature, and you’re not a joyless goon if you look to it for entertainment.

 

Of course it’s clear that we each read for different reasons. In fact I was just looking at the Amazon reviews for a book I was about to purchase, because I find those reviews so tremendously insightful – really, who knew that the American intellect was pouring itself so fruitfully, so freely, into the customer review – and there was a fairly long thread in opposition to what was called a ‘depiction of cruelty’ in the book in question. Someone said, to a chorus of echoes, that it was pointlessly miserable and dark, and that they’d prefer not to think about this sort of stuff. Got it. I don’t think an argument is going to change these people’s minds, and nor do I want to. It’s deep, it’s private. Let’s all read for our own reasons.

 

Saunders:

So it sounds like you read hundreds of stories and then winnowed them down to the thirty-two you include in the anthology. And I found myself wanting to ask if this experience taught you anything about the form itself, and especially the form in our time. For example: what is the American short story doing well? Where is it failing or lacking? Did you come away with any sense of what the American short story is these days?

 

Marcus:

Oh boy. I was worried someone would ask me this. I hope it doesn’t sound like a dodge to say that I encountered nearly unfathomable variety all across the board while reading for this anthology, and I’m pretty glad that I’m not an anthropologist whose job it is to document the patterns and currents of the American short story. Of course, in the work I read, I saw the same micro trends that are erupting in the novel these days: a documentary tendency, an embrace of the non-fiction effect. It’s all true! I noticed a love of that authority, alongside a suspicion of the blatantly artificial – narrative techniques that feel mannered and overtly fictional. War is everywhere in the short story. Wars we can recognize, wars we can’t – lots of wars set in a vague future. Stories lately don’t seem as locked into particular American settings. There are debut collections set everywhere overseas, and there’s a love of the non-specific setting, either post-apocalyptic or set outside of any recognizable period of time. Fantastical effects are a pretty common piece of the toolkit as well, so long as they have that deadpan implementation (exuberant, self-reflexive strangeness seems on the decline – or else I’m missing it). The magical and disruptive inventions that used to feature prominently in some stories have now been folded into more typical domestic realism. You know, the Cheever story has a robot in the closet, or whatever. Bad example, but I mean to say that domestic realism, to me anyway, used to have its walls up around the fantastic (see the old war between the writers called the dirty realists, or the minimalists, and the so-called postmodern ones), and now I see it there more and more – it’s a little glowing feature. How do you advance Alice Munro’s project? You tweak the setting into the future, or open up a wormhole or whatever. Also, like the novel, there’s a small love affair with the future in general, so long as that future is grim, which it mostly is due to human greed and folly. American imperialism is a given, along with American greed and stupidity etc. America, just as a concept, is a kind of evil force. That said, when I was deeply into the work of a single writer, I was struck by how independent and eccentric and complex and almost hermetic their vision was, how hard it seemed to really connect them to too many other people. And part of my motive for putting this anthology together was to show how slippery and elusive and endlessly expanding the category of the short story really is, how it defeats generalizations about its own species. When I read Deborah Eisenberg, then Rachel B. Glaser, then Yiyun Li, then Lydia Davis, these writers seem apprenticed on entirely separate planets, with unique machinery, operating according to deeply individual private missions. And, honestly, that’s what I love about short stories, how artistically pliant they are, and how much room there still seems to be to make something distinct and – can we still say this word? – original.

 

Saunders:

That makes me think of the way I feel every year after our admissions process at Syracuse, when we’re reading 600-700 stories in a compressed period of time. I always come away with a pretty visceral sense of what’s going on in American fiction (at least as modeled in the applicant pool), but also finding it hard to articulate just what that is. I can also feel my own aesthetic sense redefining itself – like a tightening of the perimeters, or circling of the wagons – a reawakening of what I really believe about fiction. When you were done reading – and if this isn’t too intrusive a question – did you come away with any resolutions or impulses vis-à-vis your own work? Things to embrace or avoid? Motions that felt played out? New notions of what a story could be that particularly excited you?

 

Marcus:

Well, I felt a wee bit undone after reading for this anthology. DeLillo, Eisenberg, you, Lipsyte, Zadie Smith, Anthony Doerr, Christine Schutt, Mary Gaitskill, Rebecca Curtis. Kind of everyone. I felt sure I couldn’t manage the type of depth and intensity of some of what I’d read. It was daunting. I remember thinking, before I started reading for the book, that by the end of it I would have read many hundreds of stories, and what better possible education, or preparation, would there be than that? There was always that selfish side to the project. I’d learn a lot and I’d feel focused and propelled. I’d steal everybody’s tricks. In the end the whole thing was a taunt. Not that I’m bitter. But, uh, I did get back to work, and wrote some stories. My demons and difficulties were sort of the same, so far as I can tell. I’m still a bit fat and slow out on the field. I’ve got the same chronic injuries. I fight to make things matter, to myself first of all. And I struggle for propulsion, a formal engine to drive the story. I love how others do it, but it hasn’t really helped. I often say to myself that I am going to really study a story I love, really figure out just how it operates, but somehow I never get down to it. The story itself, when it’s sublime, keeps me away from its own inner workings. Watching people play baseball has similarly not improved my own game.

 

Saunders:

The anthology aspires to ‘present the range of what American short-story writers have been capable of in the previous ten years.’ How have you seen your students’ stories evolve over those same ten years? What do their implicit goals seem to be? That is, what are the unstated assumptions they seem to be bringing to the process? Where are we headed? (You will note that I am circling back to my earlier question, re the state of the short story in America. When I am the interviewee, I always fall back on the ‘Hey, it’s mysterious’ response; as an interviewer, I am finding, I am one reductive fucker.)

 

Marcus:

It’s OK. I would keep asking, too. I should have better responses to this question, and maybe, had I been smart, I would have kept better track of my reading so I could chart the techniques and subjects and styles. With students, there is some obvious stuff to observe in terms of their influences. There’s always an iconic collection, or writer (or two, or three) being worshipped, and one can count on part of the student population to work in that shadow. Fifteen years ago this was Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson. It’s powerful, unforgettable, and has the feeling of inevitability and originality. It seems so simple, which of course is deceptive. It’s funny and horrifying and full of life. You can read it in two hours and feel as though your face has been ripped off. Students were all over this book, toiling in its wake, trying to punch up stories in that mode. I recall a similar version of this with Cormac McCarthy’s stuff. But in that case it’s such a conspicuous prose style, and even if you do a good version of it, all you really are is a better Bob Dylan imitator, or whatever. More recently a few other writers have captured, and sometimes crippled, the imaginations of students. Lydia Davis. A certain George Saunders. Amy Hempel. In other words, writers with the whole package: a compelling world, a distinct language, a depth and complexity achieved through exquisite craft. And then, in the last few years, there’s been some interest in writers like Sheila Heti, Tao Lin and Ben Lerner. Oh, and I forgot the Sebald phase. That happened. Knausgaard is coming into the whole thing, too.

 

Anyway, I’m not sure why I’m giving a lineage of this, or what it’s really worth. Newer writers, and older ones too, have always been enamored by the prose styles of others, hoping there’s a short cut. And who knows, maybe there is a short cut. I just haven’t found it.

 

I realize this doesn’t get at the more interesting part of your question. What do student writers really want, what are they trying to do. I get most excited when they arrive with a lot of reading behind them, along with the drive to make their own way, difficult as that is. Lately I have been offering a short talk when I visit schools. It’s called ‘The Future of the Short Story.’ I ask, among other things, for students to envision the short story in fifty years. To think about skipping ahead and writing that story now. What would it look like, how would it sound, what would it be about? This exercise pushes us to wonder about how the art form moves. If it changes, how does it change, and in response to what. Are we, as writers, consciously trying to change the form? Is that even a goal? It’s not a particularly topical form. In the US, the short story has not often been marked by political curiosity, or even political awareness (with a few great exceptions). The American short story has been criticized for being small and domestic, but it’s been cherished for the same reasons. Like the US itself, it’s been charged with being somewhat self-satisfied and small-minded. It always seems worthwhile to wonder about the trajectory of an art form. The whole idea of progress, or innovation, at least when it comes to literature, seems to have been flogged into the ground. Novelty for its own sake is obviously problematic, while genuine innovation seems ever elusive or slightly impossible. But forcing ourselves to think ahead fifty years makes it really uncomfortable to say that there won’t be refreshed perspectives or techniques, different formal energies, etc., or even downright disruption and radical change. And yet we often see traditionalism and stasis ratified out in the world, credited with innovation when it’s clearly party-line fiction, just stuff we’ve seen a thousand times before. So if I don’t know just what the most promising students want, I know to help them interrogate themselves and push themselves towards it, whatever it might be.

 

Saunders:

I notice that when I am on the receiving end of an interview like this, or in the middle of writing something that purports to defend art or explain the purposes of art, I always get to a point where I just go, ‘Oh, forget it, I don’t want to defend it, I just want to do it.’ (I suspect you may be feeling that way about now, Ben.) But getting to that point always makes me realize anew how different the two things are: the doing and the discussing-of-doing. But you teach, I teach, you have put out two important and magnificently well-done anthologies, I yammer on endlessly, including in my own head, about the ‘purpose of art’ – so I guess what I want to ask you (one of my favorite living writers, and somebody whose work I turn to again and again for inspiration) is: What is the functional relation, for you, between (a) the doing and (b) the articulating-the-doing? Does (b) help you with (a)? If so, can you say how? (I ask this in part because I’ve been thinking lately that the literary world seems, to my taste, to be trending toward a model of art that is too far skewed toward the analytic and the reductive, and I loved the way that your intro refused to give into that – was articulate and precise about the need to respect mystery. And also because, as the semester looms, I find myself again wondering what the relation is between all of the discussing and pontificating I’m about to start doing in class, and the wonderful summer I’ve just had, which was all just me working, in the most intuitive and silent way possible.)

 

Marcus:

Yeah, there’s a nice reckoning with August. I work with more urgency, or more desperation, and I find that I start talking to myself a bit, in teacher mode, usually while riding my bike, testing out ways of addressing students, things I hope to articulate. I give entire talks in my head, never transcribed and lost forever. And then I repent and try to purge this monologue until the last possible second. I imagine you get this question a lot, too, because you’ve been teaching for a long time and you are notoriously brilliant at it (I have talked to many of your ex-students). One version of the question is, how has teaching impacted your writing? And my honest answer is that I just don’t know, because I have been teaching full-time for just about twenty-five years, so I don’t know my writing life without it. Teaching has always been in the background, or the foreground, sometimes. The part I value is that when I first encounter a group of students, I feel especially keen to not be full of shit. The experience of not wanting to sound like an idiot, or a know-it-all, or a fatally certain and out-of-touch old guy, is actually pretty useful, because you can’t reach for things you’ve thought before. You have to work and think and be nimble. On the opening day I talk at length, and the students don’t really say much. So I see their faces while I talk, and I attribute the most critical thoughts to them, certain they see through me and don’t trust me etc. I think of myself at that age, or stage, and wonder what would have reached me, moved me, tested me. I am trying to deliver something to them that will have the right blend of provocation, revelation, support, exhortation etc. It feels difficult and healthy and sometimes worthwhile, and throughout it all I try to argue for diligence, discipline, rigorous reading, elevated personal standards, a resistance to certainty and, usually above-all, some aesthetic flexibility. These kinds of talks are probably just as much for me as they are for the students. You know, it’s manifesto time, and what the hell do you really think?

 

Saunders:

But I guess what I really want to ask is this: since we seem to agree that the thing that makes Writer A more interesting than Writer B is some series of mysterious, instantaneous brain farts (we did agree to that, didn’t we?) – or (to say it another way) that the fundamental process is intuitive, iterative, subrational – then why should it help us to conceptually analyze a story, say, or talk at length about literary lineage? I know that it does help, but at this time of year I always find myself wondering about the mechanics of this.

 

Marcus:

I wonder if just being in proximity to the mystery is useful. Watching others wrestle with it. I try to tell students that they might learn far more about writing by trying to unravel and edit and critique the work of their peers. Empathy about other people’s technical or formal problems with a piece of fiction can, strangely, be self-serving, because it opens you up to the kind of organic, unselfconscious problem-solving many of us would like to internalize. But, also, it’s important to remember that going to school for writing is a new thing, that there was brilliant writing before there were writing classes and that, in the end, it’s up to each of us to somehow know how best to cultivate our work. In a classroom, at home alone, in a community, in solitude. Understanding what feeds one’s work, and what does not, is hard, but it’s important to try to do it.

 

Saunders:

One thing that has struck me recently is that writers seem more comfortable with the idea that, yes, the goal is to move the reader (define ‘move’ as you will), and that whatever strange/‘experimental’ (so-called) moves or conventions get brought into the game are there for that purpose – i.e., to increase the pop. So the purpose of some odd element is not just to show off, or underscore some conceptual idea (like, say, the (lesser) postmodernists). But it seems to me that today’s writers have also left behind the (lesser) so-called minimalists’ belief in the ‘what we see is what we get’ model of the world – that is, they are rejecting the idea that simple realism is sufficient to represent the true scope and unknowability of the world. Does this way of looking at it make sense to you (i.e., is it useful to you) and, if so, how does it apply to your work, and/or to the stories you selected? (And I’m aware that the above has a USA Today quality: ‘Are we loving the workplace more? Or are European values prevailing?’)

 

Marcus:

I think you’re right. The battle between the (so-called) minimalists and the postmodernists has given way, with metafictional tricks now readily being used for emotional gains that those old dudes (I do believe it was mostly dudes) never would have dreamed of. How useful is this realization to me? I’m not sure. In the last few years, having reached various kinds of dead ends in my approach to fiction, I have tried to back up and shop from a bigger narrative tool bag. In my dream of what I might write I am deeply promiscuous when it comes to artistic approaches, but in practice I resort to a familiar set of maneuvers.

 

Saunders:

Yes, I know that feeling. Sort of like: these sets of approaches are what got you to the party in the first place, so to what extent can you jettison them entirely? But then again, if you’re not willing to jettison them entirely, you run the risk of stagnation, aka, ‘the old phone-in.’

 

Marcus:

My early stuff didn’t have much narrative to it, and so for a little while I could feel that I had a new set of things to explore once I tried out different techniques. But I soon saw that I could change the costume and not really change the monster underneath. I feel painfully aware of how limited my imagination really is, and so I spend a lot of time trying to hide this problem by taking on new skins, new modes, different approaches. But it’s wearing thin.

 

Saunders:

So one of the things that’s happened during the period covered by the anthology (‘the last ten years’) is the rise of American TV, which is said to be in a sort of renaissance moment. Because of the relative freedom of the form (as compared to film), talented young writers are flocking to it. I’m reminded a little of the old saw about photography forcing painting up to higher ground – since the then-new form of photography was doing realism so well, painting had to go off and find something else it could do, better and uniquely. So: what is this new TV moment doing to those of us who tell stories in words? Or, to put it more provocatively: can you make the case for why we still need stories in prose?

 

Marcus:

Is it possible that our desire to believe that we are having perhaps profound cultural or artistic experiences while watching TV, rather than simply going into a tranquilizing rabbit hole after a long, hard day, has allowed us to believe more readily in its artistic merits? I read rhapsodic, hyperbolic reviews of certain TV shows and I’m kind of baffled. Now I probably watch these shows, and like them just fine, in terms of face-numbing diversion, but when I hear that the great art of our time is happening on television, I feel some dissonance. Maybe it’s that there’s been so much dreadful TV, that passable and entertaining shows are received with great enthusiasm. It seems that if, on a given TV show, the furniture of the period is being represented correctly and the characters dress exceptionally well, we fall all over ourselves calling it great art. You know, that’s the exact kind of cocktail shaker they used! The soundtrack was perfect! Amazing! For me, though, too often the emotional representations in shows of this sort are exceedingly simplistic and rote. The insights are received, and the psychologies are patronizing. The bad childhood is there to explain the troubled adulthood, etc. In fact the past, in narrative terms, is the worst sort of cudgel, and we’re punished with infantilizing explanations of how things have come to be. Back story until death. No matter how stylish and well-shot and interestingly-paced many of these shows are, they are defined by emotional artifice, regulated by storytelling conventions that seem destined to keep us at arm’s length, or, worse, alienated from our own true experience. Otherwise, you know, hooray for TV. I love some of it. Particularly the really depraved stuff. But the other part of your question interests me. The writers I know who have decamped for TV work have all suffered broken hearts after tremendously near misses, cancelled shows, dropped pilots, etc. They’ve watched their ideas get cleansed of substance by committee after committee, and even the paycheck they dreamed of contains a smaller, sadder number than they ever thought possible. But, you know, maybe that’s just my friends. In the end I think that what happens in a certain kind of prose fiction is not happening anywhere else. Writing is one of the best surveillance tools there is. It lets us see inside people. I don’t encounter that much on TV. Maybe that will change, or is changing. But language without accompaniment is still potent and decimating, no matter the popularity of other forms of entertainment.

 

Saunders:

It also just occurred to me that the period encompassed by the anthology is roughly that of our ‘response’ to 9/11 – the two wars, that strange shift to the right, the gradual process of becoming willing to trade freedom and decency for security, all of that. Do you have a sense that fiction has ‘responded’ at all to this national energy? (Even as I ask this I am cringing a little, because I don’t really think fiction responds, or has the responsibility to respond, in this way. And yet.)

 

Marcus:

Some of it has, sure. I remember all of the hand-wringing, in the fall of 2001, that fiction was not equipped to tackle the complexity of what had happened. It was one week after 9/11 and why were the novelists all silent? But thank God fiction doesn’t operate like a news feed. It seems important to remember that there will be many different stories informed by those events, and not just American stories. Certainly that early taboo around the topic seems to be gone, and the American psyche seems sort of uniquely humbled. Maybe over time we’ll see an increase in curiosity and empathy, along with stories vectoring in from formerly quiet places.

 

Saunders:

If they ever get around to building The Short Story Museum, I think they’d better carve this over the doorway: ‘A short story works to remind us that if we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.’ Just beautiful. To me, this implies that one purpose of art is to get us to wake up, recalibrate our emotional life, get ourselves into proper relation to reality. Which sounds to me a lot like what we ask our spiritual life to do, if we have one. And I’d argue that this goes in both directions: we are affected this way when we read (through immersion in someone else’s mind, basically) but also when we write (by subjecting our first-pass thoughts to revision, we train ourselves in looking deeper, and in empathy for an imagined being, and for empathy and connection with an actual being (the reader)). Does this way of thinking resonate at all?

 

Marcus:

I like the way you put this, and I’d especially like to think that this matters to me. Empathy is inextricable from curiosity, along with the belief that there are many, many things yet to know. And to feel. I worry whenever I think I have come to understand something, because I notice my brain shutting down, a box getting checked. And I find certainty increasingly less attractive in others. We live in a tremendously interesting time and it would seem to be undeniable that some kinds of identities – ways of being in the world, experiences, histories, and perspectives – have been revealed ad nauseam, in all kinds of forms, while others just have not. While I know that, as fiction writers, we have a license to take on other identities and project ourselves into various imaginative spaces, I have also come to think that now is a great time to listen. In general it’s far more interesting to listen than to talk.

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