George Saunders and Ben Marcus in Granta:
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?