Short shrift to dumbing down - an interview with Ben Marcus

American short story writer Ben Marcus tells JP O’Malley that it’s important to learn from tradition but that it’s also important to redefine it.

Short shrift to dumbing down - an interview with Ben Marcus

BEN MARCUS has a precarious relationship with words. Essentially, he mistrusts them.

‘The Father Costume’, a story from his latest book Leaving The Sea delineates this suspicion. Here, the narrator begins by telling us that he cannot proclaim his father’s name aloud. He then explains why: “I do not know the grammatical tense that could properly remark on my father. There is a portion of my time that my own language cannot reach. A limitation, probably in my mouth. In this portion of time is where my father is hidden. If I learn a new language, my father might come true.”

Marcus admits that he is sceptical about what purpose language serves sometimes, even when speaking face-to-face, like we are.

“For most of this conversation we feel like we are reaching each other. I feel like I’m saying something to you. And I’m guessing that you partially understand it. Yet I somehow can’t shake the suspicion that the language isn’t getting at everything,” explains the 46-year-old writer, from his home in Brooklyn, New York.

“I think this is what compels me to write. Language is a tool to excavate something inside us. We settle on common usage and familiar phrases, and we can all agree that certain things mean the same thing.

“But it also seems productive for me to worry that this isn’t so accurate. That we are not really connecting. This certainly happens to me after many conversations, where I wonder, after walking away: what was really exchanged? I love language, but it worries me. I am completely depended on it, but I cannot trust it.”

Leaving The Sea contains 15 stories. But only a handful of them resemble the traditional short story. This lyrical form — which has its roots in the Chekhovian and Joycean tradition, where the story builds up to an epiphany — is one that Irish writers have come to pride themselves on. So, is tradition overrated in the short story?

“There are no rules,” says Marcus “The short story is not a legal document. It’s not as those one has to conform to a specific approach.

“But it’s foolish to ignore tradition because you have to acknowledge those geniuses who have worked their whole lives to extract feeling and meaning from the form. I want to learn from that. But you can you also follow tradition, refine it, and try new things.”

Marcus is ultra polite, in a way American writers tend to be. He’s cerebral, yet unpretentious, unapologetically knowledgeable about his literary heroes, and above all, extremely keen to engage in a conversation about what purpose literature should serve in our culture. He also enjoys a good public brawl every once and a while.

In 1995 Marcus published his debut novel, Age of Wire and String, an impressive debut that had its own surrealist language and opaque logic. A year later, he published an essay in Harpers Magazine with the title: ‘Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen and Life As We Know It’.

It was, as the title suggests, a riposte to his fellow American novelist, Jonathan Franzen, who had argued in several articles that writers should be attempting to engage readers more easily, by steering clear of stories that were taxing on the brain. Franzen went onto to say that if literature was to compete with cinema and extreme sports, its authors should be aware of this fact.

Basically, he claimed that literature should be simplified to attract a larger audience.

Marcus was infuriated and wrote a long and eloquent essay expressing his disgust. Today, nearly two decades later, he attempts to play downplay this intellectual brawl between two distinguished American men of letters. But the more we talk about it, the more his rage intensifies.

“That essay came about because I felt that nobody was really responding to something that seemed to me preposterous,” he says.

“If you are a writer, the language is your tool kit. And if you open up your took kit, you want to use it and try new things with it. Imagine us saying to a painter: ‘Go stuff yourself if you want to use those colours. Nobody understands the colour blue, you clown!’

“So I’m certainly not worried if people want to create arbitrary rules about how writers can or cannot use the language. And if I do it in a way that nobody is interested in, then they don’t have to read it.

“The stakes are pretty low here. But we do need our artists to explore the things that most interests them. And it’s a reader’s right to ignore that.”

Marcus has no time for trends in the book world, marketing strategies, or what publishers think about his slightly leftfield style of prose. And this commitment to his art comes across as 100% genuine. If critics accuse him of being an elitist, his articulate answers make them look like philistines.

“I think if I want try something very odd and different I should be allowed,” he says. “But then I can’t complain if I’m not world famous as a result. This is why I admire the work of poets so much because they feel that the work is not done. They know that language is going to keep showing us to ourselves.”

Marcus begins speaking about some of his biggest literary influences, Kafka and Beckett. He claims that it’s the sheer uncertainty in both men’s work that he is attracted to. One of his stories in his latest collection is called ‘First Love’, also the name of a Beckett short story.

“I more or less worship Beckett,” Marcus admits. “He seemed to absorb all the grammatical rules and the history of literature, but profitably forgot everything. And produce a beautiful register of language that is moving and gripping.”

From Beckett and Kafka, Marcus has gleaned a fascination for how anxiety haunts the human mind at every moment, be it in a conscious or unconscious state. In the story ‘The Dark Arts’, the narrator wonders “if other people [felt] this way — listless, strange, anxious dull scared, you could pretty much go shopping from a list of adjectives — and did everyone just clench their jaws and endure it?”.

“I guess when I put anxiety into a story it feels honest,” says Marcus. “I think many of us soldier up, go out into that day and do our jobs. But you can kind of claw away at that, and there has got to be a lot of fear that we don’t like to think about.

“We are not on the Earth for too long. We are going to feel pain and some bad things are going to happen to us. This doesn’t mean that a lot of pleasure and great things aren’t going to happen either.”

Creating art that seeks to question what we may call ‘normal existence’, it seems, is an uphill battle in our present culture.

But it’s one that Marcus is well prepared for. And, he seems to have plenty of followers behind him.

“Sure, my work is not all good times and pleasure,” Marcus admits. “But I think it’s a speciality of literature to reveal that. And that can be paradoxically uplifting. Because it feels honest and that we are not looking away from the flame at all times.”

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