New American Stories - Collected here are practitioners of deep realism, mind-blowing experimentalism, and every hybrid in between. Luminaries and cult authors stand side by side with the most compelling new literary voices. Nothing less than the American short story renaissance distilled down to its most relevant, daring, and unforgettable works,
New American Stories, Ed. by Ben Marcus. Penguin Random, 2015.
read it at Google BooksIn New American Stories, the beautiful, the strange, the melancholy, and the sublime all comingle to show the vast range of the American short story . In this remarkable anthology, Ben Marcus has corralled a vital and artistically singular crowd of contemporary fiction writers. Collected here are practitioners of deep realism, mind-blowing experimentalism, and every hybrid in between. Luminaries and cult authors stand side by side with the most compelling new literary voices. Nothing less than the American short story renaissance distilled down to its most relevant, daring, and unforgettable works, New American Stories puts on wide display the true art of an American idiom.
If a nationwide literary ration were instituted tomorrow and you were told you could have only one single, solitary book of contemporary short stories, you should spend your allotment on The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, a 2004 anthology edited by Ben Marcus. It’s the only book whose cover I’ve worn off from over-reading, a kaleidoscopic collection that wonderfully encapsulated the variety and power of American short fiction, its range of voices and styles, the cross-pollination of genres and the boundless forms, both shocking and classic.
If the ration is increased to two, however, you should head straight for New American Stories, a decade-later spiritual sequel to Marcus’s earlier anthology. It’s a treasury and a who’s who of literary fiction, ideal company for any lover of the form. The breadth of subjects and moods includes DeLillo writing presciently about the Eurozone and Greece in crisis to the wry humor and desperate narrators of Joy Williams and Rivka Galchen to unusual, exciting stories by several less well-known authors. The result is a bird’s-eye view into the state of American short fiction over the last decade, the concerns of our authors, and—through contrast with Marcus’s last edited collection—an intriguing look at how the field may be changing.
Only a handful of the authors are repeats from the 2004 anthology. The Anchor Book introduced many readers to George Saunders, who’s gone on to become a critical darling with his collection Tenth of December; that collection contributes a gutpunch of a story, “Home,” to the offerings here. Christine Schutt and Anthony Doerr appear again, too—since The Anchor Book, the former was nominated for a Pulitzer and the latter won one. Marcus is himself a compelling argument in favor of content curation, spotting authors like these and helping to canonize masters like Lydia Davis and David Foster Wallace. His track record and the sheer quality of this newer batch of fiction means that you’re sure to hear names like Charles Yu, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, and Kelly Link more and more often, and that Donald Antrim and Deborah Eisenberg, among others, have been anointed modern masters.
Throughout New American Stories there’s a level of political and social awareness often absent from the 2004 anthology. Mary Gaitskill, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, and Zadie Smith all deal with our changed relationship with war, the security state, and nationalism; they describe strained and porous divisions between civilian and military life, and the bizarreness of normalcy in a world where armed violence doesn’t cease so much as move from place to place. Many of the stories share a heightened anxiety about the ramifications of rapid technological change as well. Characters are deposited in versions of China, England, or Los Angeles with shades of the dystopian, seeming to borrow from popular fiction and film a notion that near-future science fiction settings offer a compromise between realism and the fantastic. A greater socio-political awareness seems to affect the book on a macro editorial level, too: more than half of the stories—seventeen of thirty-two—are by women (Hello, VIDA!) and there are several more writers of color present than there were in The Anchor Book.
The stories in this newest collection are generally more narrative driven and accessible; fewer are ultra short, with stories averaging about twenty-three pages to The Anchor Book’s sixteen. One of the starkest differences in the stories is seen in the handful of experimental pieces. While the innovations of the last collection focused on language—Gary Lutz’s convolutions of grammar, the poetic turns of Anne Carson, Joe Wenderoth, and Dawn Raffel—the most innovative stories here play with frames and scale. There’s Rachel Glaser’s “Pee on Water,” which careens back and forth at high speed between magnified images of the personal or domestic and a kind of scattershot history of humankind. In Robert Coover’s spectacular “Going for a Beer,” the whole of a man’s life slips past him over the course of a few pages, almost unnoticed. There is a heaping helping of the unnerving, too, in the anatomy-class violence of Kyle Coma-Thompson’s, “The Lucky Body” or Mathias Svalina’s descriptions of imagined, frightening children’s games, not to mention Jesse Ball’s, “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr” with its combination of violence, surrealism, confusion, and Kafka-like inevitability.
Some of the excellent voice-driven work in New American Stories, like Saunder’s real-feeling, earnest idiots or Tao Lin’s deadpan millenialisms, feels less shockingly experimental today than it might have a decade ago, no doubt by virtue of its success. If this new collection is lacking anything, though, it may be a few short, swift pieces from a poetic background. Lyrical, roomy, poignant pieces by Carson and Wenderoth allowed The Anchor Book to breathe; the absence of something similar this time around may reflect changing aesthetic ideals.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s the experimental stories that seem most different from those collected a decade ago—why wouldn’t fiction at its innovative margins be more volatile? But Marcus himself would prefer that the word experimental wasn’t used. He’s been called the “vanguard” of experimental fiction and its “unabashed apologist,” thanks to his own challenging, inventive early fiction and to his “spirited defense of experimental fiction,” as the New York Times put it, in a 2005 Harper’s essay combatively titled “Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it.” But Marcus has done his best to keep the label “experimental” at arm’s length. In his introduction to New American Stories he explicitly says that he is against genre labels: “[R]ealist and experimentalist… [are]… minor labels that… scar our writers… someone else’s nicknames… lie[s].”
This is only the latest volley in a battle Marcus has been fighting for some time. In that Harper’s essay on experimental fiction he abandoned the term as a slur while embracing authors who had been so labeled. “Calling a writer experimental,” he wrote, “is now the equivalent of saying his work does not matter, is not readable, is aggressively masturbatory…. [A] writer with ambition now is called ‘postmodern’ or ‘experimental,’ and not without condescension.” Where he used the word experimental Marcus often preceded it with “so-called.” And when an interviewer at HTMLGIANT brought the word up a few years back, Marcus reacted sharply, “This issue… is hollow to me. I’ve never tried to write anything experimental, because I don’t even know what that would be. I’ve just written what most compels me at the time, what I’d most want to read myself. Does anyone self-identify as experimental? Anyone?”
Perhaps that’s a reasonable response for someone who’s been sidelined—or witnessed his favorite writers being sidelined—by a genre label. There’s even a history of conflict over the term in literature and criticism. Marguerite Young responded to being labeled an experimental writer by sarcastically asking, “[Is] it experimental to be influenced by the bible? By Saint Augustine?” Gertrude Stein rejected the label wholeheartedly too. “Artists do not experiment,” she said, “Experiment is what scientists do; they initiate an operation of unknown factors to be instructed by its results. An artist puts down what he knows.” Stein’s opinion, however, is not necessarily a dominant one: “I write to discover what I know,” wrote Flannery O’Connor; “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking,” wrote Joan Didion; “I write precisely because I don’t know yet what to think about a subject that attracts my interest,” said Michel Foucault.
Is there any reason to call fiction experimental? Perhaps the comparison to questing into the unknown, the implication that experiments can fail or turn up surprising results, could be found attractive. Actually, many authors have found it attractive. George Saunders, for instance, is on record saying he aims for his stories to have “as much weirdness and experimentalism as is necessary to access the emotional core.” According to Saunders, his former teacher Tobias Wolff said, “All good writing is experimental by definition. If it’s not experimental, it’s just a museum piece.” Kathy Acker described her own writing as “experiments” wherein she imposed arbitrary restrictions to see where they would take her.
John Hawkes has said, “Of course I think of myself as an experimental writer.” When David Markson’s editor suggested he ditch a blurb from David Foster Wallace that called Markson “the high point of [American] experimental literature,” Markson is reported to have told his editor, “As an obvious experimental writer, and with this being an obviously experimental book, I think you’re wrong to shy away from the word.”
When Marcus—who has written, edited, and curated fiction called experimental—recoils from the word, calling it a nickname instead of a genre, there’s a strong resonance with his own fiction, in which names function as tricks and weapons. In his first book he defined Marcus as a “false map” in a glossary entry definition, and later lent his name to the pathetic narrator of Notable American Women, a balding child who is molested by a beloved dog and experimented on by his mother. The narrator’s sister is experimented on, too, by being periodically renamed. When she is called “Carla” it causes bloating, while “Susan” makes her act like a stranger, “Father” transforms her into a violent domestic tyrant, and “Mary” weakens and ultimately kills her. Then there are Marcus’s many fictionalized references, which play with and undermine the authority of names. His first book opens with an epigraph ascribed to Emerson that reads, “Every word was once an animal”: Emerson never wrote that. Elsewhere Marcus provides quotes ascribed to Thoreau, Montaigne, Blake, Pasteur, Teresa of Avila, Luther, Schopenhauer, Shelley, Nietzsche, Picasso, Ovid, Hippocrates, and the bible, to name a few. Just a few pages into the novel The Flame Alphabet, Marcus’s narrator blames names themselves for a plague seemingly borne by language, saying, “The sickness rode in on my name.” On the same page, attributed to Revelations: “Beware your name, for it is the first venom.”
This is a writer deeply concerned with how language affixes the world, how it is haunted by names, filtered through names, distorted by them. The wrong names cause pain, and even less-wrong ones shape our perceptions of the world. But the way he uses names in his fiction, mixing and severing words and meanings, cutting and pasting, gives a template for how the word experimental might be redeemed through redefinition. Neither Marcus nor any of the writers he likes and collects has to suffer by virtue of being called experimental: if the word is a lie, it might nonetheless be bent toward beneficial service, if authors desired it. The word might not be a death knell, anyway. Just seven years ago Marcus bemoaned the fact that experimental fiction, “is not appearing in The New Yorker. It is not being published by mainstream presses. When published, by a small press, it is mostly not being reviewed by the New York Times, let alone any number of other newspapers or review outlets.” In the intervening seven years, in spite of his strong association with experimental fiction, Marcus has done each of those things himself: the boxes are checked, and checked, and checked.
We can’t wish genre away. It’s a way of categorizing, of recognizing difference, elemental to how we think. But we might be able to escape suffering by it. There’s a brain hack I found a while back, one that reroutes the wires of your brain ever so slightly. It’s just this: works of art don’t “belong” to any genre, but rather “participate” in genres—plural. If you let that sink in, you can avoid getting headaches from our culture’s endless arguments about categories. In the case of New American Stories, you could go through all thirty-two stellar pieces of fiction and consider each as participating in various genres to greater or lesser degrees: there’s a little more sci-fi dystopianism in the Zadie Smith and Charles Yu, a little more prose poetry in Schutt and Davis. There is a little more of the experimental in the Rachel Glaser, the Robert Coover, and maybe a little less with Eisenberg or Antrim.
If we’re able to think this way, to accept a plurality of overlapping genre clouds instead of placing our stories like pills into labeled boxes, we might gain a more nuanced understanding of genre, and we might be liberated from what feels like our powerlessness against the ghettoization of ostensibly low, unseemly, or marginal genres. We might see genres as similar to geotags, or even hashtags: as a way to find, or to be found. “There are only realists,” Donald Barthelme once said. We should say as well that there are only experiments. - Joel Breuklander
Later this month, Vintage Contemporaries will publish New American Stories, a richly variegated anthology of American short stories edited by Ben Marcus. The collection, which Marcus put together more as a playlist or mixtape than a “museum piece,” is a stirring arrangement that presents a strong case for the American short story as a vital, living thing. And, like unmediated life, it is uncategorizable.
With its recent fictions by American masters (Don DeLillo and Joy Williams), contemporary favorites (Zadie Smith and Rivka Galchen), so-called writer’s writers, and relative unknowns, New American Stories is refreshing in the way it rejects easy emotion in favor of a derangement of the senses. In other words, as Marcus notes in his introduction, these stories form “a kind of atlas, or chemical pathway, to the sort of language-induced feelings that…are no longer optional.” We spoke to Marcus about the contemporary short story and the idiosyncratic art of putting together a literary anthology.
Flavorwire: I was just considering how daunting a task it must have been to put together such a robust anthology of new American fiction. What was that process like?
Ben Marcus: Part of what allowed it to happen was my feeling that there could have been six volumes of this thing, that this was meant in no way to be some definitive text or the last word on stories that matter. Really, I thought of it more as a playlist or a mixtape, something that could hopefully draw you further in — to explore more and branch out. What made it possible was taking some pressure off of myself. Instead I had more fun just looking at the stories I could love over a long period of time, the stories that grew and became more complicated and richer when I read them, re-read them.
In one way, doing an anthology becomes a great excuse for reading everything that you can get your hands on. We’re so busy doing tons of other things, trying to get our own work done — I also read a lot of student work. So years go by, and all of these writers I want to read go unread. I have these piles and piles and shelves of books. It occurred to me that there was so much terrific work happening, that I was falling behind. Doing the book became an amazing excuse to take this vacation completely structured by intense reading. To be honest, the most fun part of it was just sitting with stacks of books, just having no real set of principles or rules other than reading and reading and reading, making smaller piles. Just getting to the bottom of something.
On the other hand, there are all of these agonies. There are writers I know are masters that I can’t get my own traction with as a reader. I know I’m surrounded by people who love and worship these writers. Then I try my best to get that feeling, and then I can’t. Then I feel guilty, like there is something amiss with my own reading apparatus. In the end, I can’t read as anyone other than myself, and I hope no one gets their feelings hurt if they’re left out, or if they feel that there is something, again, that is supposed to be definitive about this book.
So you actively avoided a prescriptivist, “this is the American story” approach?
When I was growing up, we had anthologies — like the Norton anthology — that were really trying to be definitive. I suppose I kept telling myself while working on this that other people should do their own versions. I wish other people would collect thirty-two stories and present them to me. We’d just swap anthologies. Of course it doesn’t work that way, but I think that helped me realize that I just had to read as myself, and not some type of figure trying to present to a culture the stories that matter.
I guess the title isn’t The New American Story. You have some room to work…
We went through a bunch of different titles, by the way.
In the introduction you call the short story the “ideal deranger,” and you liken it to a drug, or maybe you suggest that stories actually are drugs in the form of language. One great thing about this approach is that it cuts a path away from both comfort and alienation, realism and vanguardism. I guess what I mean is that derangement is neither easy satisfaction nor a lack of pleasure — it’s something else. How did you come to this idea?
I feel a little self-conscious that I’ve exhausted that metaphor, but I know that — no matter what else is going on in my life — when I get captured by a story, when I get up at the end of it, I’m different. I do feel like I’ve just gotten viciously baked. Then I get to go back out into the world with this filter over my perspective. Or at least a different level of adrenaline.
It may seem like a stretch to see reading these stories as essentially chemical, but I also like it because it takes me away from genre distinctions. When I first started compulsively reading short stories, I was not aware of genre. Or I was not aware of what is seen as a sort of battle between the realist story and the postmodernist story. Though I do remember reading these two anthologies. One, a really great one, called Matters of Life and Death — it’s just tremendously good. But even by [Tobias Wolff’s] own admission in the intro, it concerns only a certain kind of story. Then there was a different anthology that was much less good — but still occasionally explosive — called Anti-Story. It was sort of declaring itself in opposition to the realist story. So I understand why people become entrenched and want to defend a certain way of doing things. On the other hand — and this might be connected to teaching, or being with younger writers when they’re first thinking of writing themselves — you begin to notice that when you leave out these polarities, readers and writers can be a little bit more liberated, a little more engaged. Possibilities open up when you don’t present these things as sides of a battle.
Maybe, in retreating from these critical categories, I felt most comfortable talking about the physical experience of reading stories because they do fuck me up. They do really get inside me. It’s not something you can shake.
Your introduction also works as a story of sorts, and it avoids becoming a boring critical or theoretical summation of the state of the American story. Was this something you wanted to avoid?
There is an awful set of questions around the short story and its accepted irrelevance (against the novel) and its commercial inferiority. I just fucking hate it all. I hate that it’s even a conversation. It’s as if people are just asking the questions they think they’re supposed to ask, but it’s such a strange way of looking a story. You’re really just making an arrangement of language, and the length of it starts to seem — imagine trying to justify a song. If you think about a shorter poem versus a longer poem, it just seems so irrelevant. I suppose after enough time spent trying to justify a story to someone you just want to walk away. Maybe it’s not really for them.
Then there is just the problem of: “What the hell do you put into the introduction of an anthology?” I wasn’t going to itemize the stories. People just want to kill themselves when they read that sort of thing. Nor am I really a critic. I can’t write an introduction that is going to situate everything, that is going to clarify the trajectory of these writers. I’m not the kind of writer to do that. So the intro just becomes this problem I have to solve. Like any piece of writing it had to feel honest. That’s easier said than done after a while. Probably in the end all that I was left with was how it feels to read a story. That’s what I tried to do.
One unavoidable requirement of the anthology’s title is that these stories must be somehow American. I didn’t think much of this until I read the first story, Said Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia,” which is set in an America at war. Is there something to be said about what’s happening to the “American” short story? How did you negotiate that requirement?
Well, from my perspective it’s sort of expanding and dilating at once. I knew that what I could do was show the range and slipperiness of the work being written in this country. For instance, Zadie Smith has lived and worked in New York for quite a while. On one hand, I sort of consider someone looking at that and saying, “What the fuck? That’s bullshit! She was born in England.” In a way, I just don’t want to be so hung up on that. Encouraging a sense of flexibility around the “American” requirement was something I wanted to do. Did I look at the content of [Sayrafiezadeh’s] story and hope it would trigger thoughts about American identity? — definitely, definitely not. Frankly, there were four of his stories that I was trying to choose from. I’m really enamored by his work. I knew that I wanted his work — I just didn’t know which story. But I didn’t consciously choose it because it dealt with American things.
What about the “new” requirement? If I remember correctly, one of these stories dates back to 2004. Some are from last year…I edited an anthology about ten or eleven years ago, and I think that the rule there was stories from the last ten years. I had a vague idea of doing that with this one. In some sense it’s arbitrary. In fact, there is a story in here that — I found out when the manuscript was being copyedited — came out in 1995, and I thought: “Wow, that’s actually kind of great.” Another case was Joy Williams. I knew I wanted something by her, and I was reading some of the stories in a book she has coming out called The Visiting Privilege. I gathered some of the stories that were going into that, and there was one that blew me away. We were going to the next step before I found out it had been written in 1969.
So there was no singularity, no specific point where you felt the American story had changed?
Well, that story of [Williams’] struck me as so contemporary in its idiom, its rhetoric, its tonal structure, everything. But of course it’s not. It’s a necessary and humbling thing to encounter. To feel as though you have some connection to what’s happening to the story right now, then to find all of these tendencies, strains, and techniques going way back to these little errant pockets of literature — for me that’s always a reminder that I just actually haven’t read enough. Everyone right now is making this documentary, technical, dry, detached stuff, but it’s also not true that there is anything particularly new about it. If you read enough, you’ll find a precedent for everything. As much as we’d like to think that we’re onto different stuff.
So I don’t know if I was trying to do anything other than present a range of things that feel vital, that feel vibrant, that feel complex. Maybe then it’s for other to notice, with a critical language, what those things are. Frankly, when you read a lot of short fiction in limited amount of time, it’s interesting to see the overlaps and redundancies, the modes that lots of people use. I would find ten stories by ten different writers that started to seem really similar to me in the way they were put together. And I would have a hard time including all of those stories. In the end, I wanted a range of approaches. So if a story was not playing in the same sandbox as 90 percent of the stories out there, I was more alert to it. I worked hard to read a lot of stuff that was quite unusual, that was formally adventurous, strange, difficult — whatever you want to call it. A lot of it I would get excited about, but halfway through it would just fall apart. There would be tremendous paragraphs followed by plodding dullness. I saw a lot of stuff that delighted me, but when I read and re-read and kept it on my desk for a month, by the end, because I could see through it, I was less disposed to it, if that makes sense. But there were those pieces that were beautifully constructed from the first word to the last.
This may sound strange, but while reading the anthology I was reminded of something the filmmaker Pedro Costa told me, that contemporary cinema “doesn’t contain any death.” He also explained it in terms of failure, that cinema is now afraid to fail. It seems like these stories contain plenty of death, in that sense, and failure. I’m thinking most of all of Robert Coover’s amazing “Going for a Beer.”That’s interesting. I’m sure in some sense that is going on. I’ve been reading [Coover’s] stories my entire adult life. He was a teacher of mine long ago in school, and I’ve always loved and appreciated his adventurous approach to writing. What was interesting to me about his story is that, yes, it has this formal playfulness, but it scratches into this deeply human place. This is something he usually resists. He’s more comfortable in an antic, satiric mode. I thought he sort of did it all in that story. I’ve talked a lot with him about when he was first writing, when there was a conscious resistance to move away from the Richard Yates variety of domestic realism. He came up feeling that was the king to dethrone. You can feel that animating a lot of his work — an anti-psychological, certainly anti-sentimental mode. But that story felt like such an amazing mixture — it has something that I feel is quite tender. That’s why it was such a shoo-in for me.
There are stories here that could be “accused” of straightforward realism, but there are also stories that could be seen as “experimental.” Though I guess they aren’t experimental in the sense that William Gaddis rejected the term — they aren’t “experimental” because they aren’t experimenting. The authors know exactly what they are doing.
I would totally agree with that.
Do you think both readers and writers are now rejecting the idea of the experimental short story?
I thought that. And in one interview I sort of said it. I think I asked, “Does anyone really identify with being an experimental writer?” I caught all kinds of shit for it. Of course, I just don’t feel legislative about those things at all. Writers should just do exactly what they like. To me that term is often used in a derogatory way. I guess I just don’t really think about it that much anymore, and I’m not sure there is a lot to be gained from head-scratching about it.
I wanted to make an anthology that tries to ignore most of this, one that just wonders what could happen if we make bedfellows out of all of these approaches. The world of the short story is already just so small. The audience is pretty small. So the fact of creating a whole subset of softball teams — it starts to seem so pointless to me. It’s as if you like painting but you only like Cubism. I guess I’m imagining a reader who is not indoctrinated by this stuff. Obviously there are going to be pieces that people love and dislike — I learned that with the last anthology I did. People would say, “That’s not even a story!” But what kept me interested was putting all of these stories in conversation with each other, and, in some kind of cheesy way, imagining myself at a certain age. What book would I make? I’m the only reader I am, that I have access to. I’m creating this thing, a book for myself, that I would have wanted to read and do want to read and re-read. You just hope that you’re not alone in this set of responses you have to the stories. - Jonathon Sturgeon
Editor’s note: the following is the introduction to New American Stories, an anthology of contemporary American short stories edited by Ben Marcus. The anthology will be published by Vintage on July 21st.]
My son does his best to avoid capture, even though he circles my hideout, risking the worst. He cannot yet play this game silently. He advertises his location with badly muffled squeals. He sprints through rooms, taking the corners too fast. He’ll stumble, wipe out, right himself, and charge again. I always hear him coming. Maybe he wants to be captured just as much as he dreads it, but you can hear the conflict thumping inside him. He produces frightening sounds, a pure bullet of feeling. How does one body hold so much? What will I do when he grows up and learns to conceal this feeling, or, worse, when the feeling stops rising up so strongly in the first place?
My son can’t be sure where or when the ambush is coming. But it always does. When he tears past me I roar from his blind spot, ensnaring him in a blanket. Down he goes, kicking and laughing, a thrashing little figure under cloth. I close the bundle, cinch it in my fist, and drag it from room to room.
My son is five now, as easy to lift as a pillow. I hoist him over my head, teeter on one leg for suspense, then plunge him onto the couch. He bounces high, still tucked inside the blanket. I hold on tight and swing until we’re spinning. His little voice drifts up from far away. Inside his trap he is in heaven, or so it sounds. I swing him and drag him and toss him until I’m ready to collapse. When I let him go he is red and sweaty and wild. Usually he glares at me. Why did I stop? What is wrong with me? He begs, begs, for us to play again. It’s all he wants to do. He promises not to peek, and I steal off to hide again.
My son would not put it this way, because he knows better than to try to dissect his own pleasure. But he is asking to be amazed and afraid in this situation we’ve contrived. He cannot really come to harm—the boy is so small that it is child’s play to keep him safe—but by surrendering control, submitting himself to the darkness, to the fast passage inside a careening world, he can take himself to the bursting point. He is looking to suddenly feel a great many things, and to feel them intensely, inside this fictional crisis. And I can’t blame him, because, more and more, I would like that very same thing.When I want to be ambushed, captured, thrust into a strange and vivid world, and tossed aloft until I cannot stand it, until everything is at stake and life feels almost unbearably vivid, I do something simple. I read short stories. When I was young I read fiction because nothing much happened to me. As a reader I could fight a war, lose a father, be pushed from a bridge with a noose over my neck. I could grow up and grow old, turn angry and sad. I could love and hate and harm and get away with it. In stories I had children of my own, got divorced, worried, wondered, rode shotgun inside intellects far swifter than mine. My earliest reading was not just a romance with what was possible, but a romance with what was not. If something was never likely to happen in real life, I was doubly committed to live it in fiction. I think back to when I have had the most intense feelings, and most often those moments resulted not from cruising through a so-called real world of bodies and things, collecting actual experiences. Those feelings arose out of something invisible yet strangely more powerful: the language of others. Language has made some of the most durable feeling this world has seen. Not the functional kind of language we bleat at each other out in the world when we want something, or need to declare or deny something. Not the quotidian language that showers down everywhere around us to block us from our true thoughts. I’m thinking of the much more unusual and spell-like language of fiction, which generally does not occur out loud: razored, miraculously placed, set like stones into staggeringly complex patterns so that, somehow, life, or something more distilled and intense, more consistently moving, gets made.
I have been reading stories for forty-two years and I still find it astonishing that, by staring at skeletal marks on paper or a screen, we can invite such cyclones of feeling into our bodies. It is a kind of miracle. Our skin is never pierced and yet stories break the barrier and infect us regardless. We study these marks, move our finger along them, and they transmit worlds. If we could paint what happens between the page and our face, the signal channel saturated with color and shape, the imagery would be so tangled that the picture would blacken into pure noise, a dark architecture of everything that matters.A story is simply a sequence of language that produces a chemical reaction in our bodies. When it’s done well, it causes sorrow, elation, awe, fascination. It makes us believe in what’s not there, but it also pours color over what is, so that we can feel and see the world anew. It fashions people, makes us care for them, then ladles them with conflict and disappointment. It erects towns, then razes them. A story switches on some unfathomably sophisticated machine inside us and we see, gloriously, what is not possible.
And yet language is a prickly delivery system. It requires attention, effort. It does not produce reliable results across the population. The same text that makes one person weep makes another blink with indifference or spit with contempt. By reading more, and more variously, we decimate our immunity, increase our vulnerability to this substance, but our private wiring does something profoundly subjective to this material that would seem unique from body to body. Language turns out to be the most unruly of medicines, the most unknowable, and yet, provided we collaborate with it, still among the most powerful.Language is a drug, but a short story cannot be smoked. You can’t inject it. Stories don’t come bottled as a cream. You cannot have a story massaged into you by a bearish old man. You have to stare down a story until it wobbles, yields, then catapults into your face. And yet, as squirrely as they are to capture, stories are the ideal deranger. If they are well made, and you submit to them, they go in clean. Stories deliver their chemical disruption without the ashy hangover, the blacking out, the poison. They trigger pleasure, fear, fascination, love, confusion, desire, repulsion. Drugs get flushed from our systems, but not the best stories. Once they take hold, you couldn’t scrape them out with a knife. While working on this book, I started to think of a it as a medicine chest, filled with beguiling, volatile material, designed by the most gifted technicians. The potent story writers, to me, are the ones who deploy language as a kind of contraband, pumping it into us until we collapse on the floor, writhing, overwhelmed with feeling.
Imagine trying to assert the importance of water. Food. Love. The company of others. Shelter. There are some things that we need so innately that it feels awkward and difficult to explain why. To this list of crucial things, without which we might perish, I would add stories. 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.
In high school I made mix tapes for girls. The term for this now would be playlist. You can create one with a few clicks, and no one much cares. Back then a mix tape was an act of love, a plea, a Hail Mary, an aphrodisiac. In other words, it was an anthology, published in a limited edition of one copy. Then it was surrendered to an audience of one, a girl not even guaranteed to listen to it, because sometimes it must have seemed like it was made by a stalker, a creep, a card-carrying freak. To make a mix tape, before computers, you needed a mule cart, a bag of hair, and a padded suit. It seemed to take a whole year to produce, and I wasn’t even one of those kids who decorated the case with snakeskin and neon markers. I just dumped songs from one tape to another, pulling from the vast catalog of seventeen albums and twenty-four cassettes that I owned. And when I handed it off to some poor girl, she might regard it as a grim example of my biology, dropping it like medical waste into her bag. The tape needed to perform the charm and seduction that, with my own body and words, I could not. Not that I didn’t try. I wrote plenty of poetry in a literary tradition that never took off: the wrong words in the wrong order. And even though I hoped some handcrafted poems would reveal me as a person worth shucking one’s clothing for, my verse was embarrassing, far too easy to understand. I had yet to realize how easy it is to dismiss what comes to us with no thought, no struggle. If there is nothing left to think about, we stop thinking. I did not understand that my poetry needed to at least seem eligible for further reflection. It had no time-release feature, as do the stories in this anthology, to crack open in the body days later, bleeding out inside us until we start to glow. Obviousness was a clear turnoff. My poetry shut people down, maybe invited death into the home. I’m sure my fondness for rhyme didn’t help, either.
I also made a classic mistake. I confused the description of feelings with the creation of them. I wanted to cause feeling in others, but all I did was assert, somewhat grandiosely, that I had feelings myself. This is an unpleasant thing to announce. I had a lot to learn.So I retreated from creation to curation. As with the stories in this anthology, I chose music that somehow, in ways I could not understand, came spring-loaded with insights about me, a youth from nowhere who knew no one, who had said and done precisely nothing that mattered. The songs I liked already intuited what I thought and felt, deep within my well-guarded interior. No doubt this wasn’t particularly difficult, because I had not thought and felt all that much yet. But this feeling—of being known, understood, seen, accounted for—seemed in urgent need of passing along. The songs, as fiction would later, worked a kind of excavation, breaking down resistance to reveal a territory that I otherwise did not have access to, fears and desires and mixed or half- formed feelings that had been hidden. When a song surfaced this stuff, I felt destroyed and remade, gifted with a new body, a weapon, a helmet. We don’t just have our feelings. Our feelings have us, and change us, and the endorphins triggered by this kind of change became compulsory. If a piece of noise, or later a string of words, could perform this kind of archaeology, I hoped to undergo such surgery as often as I could, and I looked for others who could enter the very same operating room. Life without it no longer seemed like life. To listen was to grow one’s inner self, to become more of a person, to see and feel more possibility. A sweet medication for solitude? Sounds as ointment for some impossible sorrow? Maybe, but those were the minor spoils up against the feeling of purifying one’s oxygen and sharpening the very air so that all I saw and felt leapt to a nearly unbearable resolution. It’s one reason we read, listen, and look at things made with exquisite skill. I’m sure I also thought that I would somehow get credit for these stirring songs—the sad and introspective ones, the punchy and danceable ones, the oddball ones that came out of nowhere with beeps and glitches and clicks. Certainly I thought that I’d be seen differently after the girl had listened to the tape. If she liked these songs, and if she felt similarly discovered by them, she would, if not disrobe, at least see I was no caveman. Or, more likely, she’d copy the tape and pass it on to whomever she wanted to impress, whoever was, for her, someone she wanted to show her true self to.
This anthology aims to present the range of what American short-story writers have been capable of in the last ten years or so, not as a museum piece but as a sampler of behaviors and feelings we can very nearly have only through reading. A sourcebook of required emotions. For months I collected books, stories, links, and names. I asked writers, readers, editors, friends, and strangers to alert me to strong stories, favorite writers. Who should I read? Who am I missing out on? What is the most memorable story you’ve read in the last ten years? What story has shaken you?The range of work I encountered was staggering. I have sometimes wished for a bookstore organized not by genre but by feeling. You could shop by mood, by emotional complexity, by the amount of energy and attention that might be required. There’d be a special section for the kind of literature that holds your face to the fire. Until there is such a bookstore, we have anthologies.
Had I worked strictly from my passions, collecting the most intense and beautiful and memorable work I could find, stories exhibiting the highest degree of artistic mastery, this book would have grown so huge that you would have needed to carry it in a wagon.I sought stylistic and formal variety in the stories not to be fair, but because there seem to be endless ways, in fiction, to make the world come alive, to reckon with our time, to fearlessly reveal what’s in front of us. To look to the past, to posit the future. To lean on language and bend and try to break it. To preserve and refine tradition, or to struggle otherwise. If writers can’t genuinely make it new, they probably can’t convincingly make it old, either. They are helpless but to make it now. But who we are now is impossible to fix, and impossible to generalize about. The minor labels that would scar our writers—realist and experimentalist would be the obvious ones—seem like someone else’s nicknames, sounds we use to call off a dog. We say these words out loud and we feel the instant shame of having told a lie in a language we hardly even speak.
The idea was to put together a book that shows just what the short story can do. Had I chosen thirty-two stories that showcase the exact same methods and make love to the same traditions, that would be too many hammer blows to the face, when a single one will do. Each story here is a different weapon, built to custom specifications. Let’s get bloodied and killed in thirty-two different ways.
Inside this book you’ll find language smooth and seamless, jagged and mean. The kind of language you use and hear every day, and the kind you never thought possible. If these stories were paintings, one might depict the human figure in angry detail while another might puncture the figure until it spills over its frame, leaking color down the wall.
Therefore there are stories of the past. Stories of the future. Stories set in some gummy mixture of the two. Stories rocketing inside a character’s head. Stories casting out into the world. Stories that burn out inside a few seconds. Stories that blanket a lifetime. Stories set here, stories set abroad. Stories set in some unsettling elsewhere. Speaking of which: stories that could happen, stories that couldn’t, stories that did, stories that didn’t. Stories that confirm our beliefs or assault them. Stories that hurt the mind. Stories that ate a poem. Stories that refute the dictionary. Stories pretty, strange, or plain. Stories so monstrously intimate I was often scared to reread them.What resulted started to feel like a kind of Whole Earth Catalog. Not of things and goods, but of the strategies, in language, to attack our tendency—my own, anyway—to feel too little. I wanted to bring together stories I would not care to live without, a kind of atlas, or chemical pathway, to the sort of language-induced feelings that, to me, are no longer optional. The names of the moods and states and spirits these stories provoke, like the names of animals, or the names of people, are woefully inadequate.
When I could not shake a story, was kept up at night by it, and days or weeks later began to confuse the story with my own life, there was a sign that the story had taken seed. As I read, the stories I sided with were the ones that began to own me. They won’t relax their hold, and the more I read them the more this arrangement seems secure. I kept the stories that won’t unhand me. If I could forget a story then I suppose I did. And yet even then, the stories I forgot formed their own pile, where I revisited them each at least once, believing the defect to be mine.
In my reading I found stories that make us forget our troubles, and stories that rub our faces in them. The first kind of story relieves us of the burden of some basic truths: We are made of flesh, it often hurts to be alive, and we are in a constant state of decay. If we lived in relentless contemplation of these facts, we would burst. Some of us already have. Pleasure arises when we forget our fears. Relief, an illusory break from time. A break from ourselves. Such stories provided entertainment but left no residue. When I examined myself for evidence of them days or weeks later, I could find none. A respite from some basic emotional reality—the central predicament of being a finite, feeling thing—came to seem too much like a vacation I hadn’t earned. And didn’t really want.A deeper pleasure arguably comes when our fears are admitted, revealed in full color, enlarged and even strengthened, in the world of language. It was this kind of story I favored, a story not in flight from something elemental and inescapable—we are going away soon. Meanwhile, what is worth noticing, what is crucial to feel and think before we do? Why is it pleasurable, deeply so, to read sorrowful, dark, often difficult stories? What need is being satisfied? It’s challenging to answer this without sounding like a glutton for end-times entertainment. When a story achieves a degree of moral honesty, not in its specific plot or its claims, not in its subject matter, necessarily, but in some of its deeper materials, its methods, language, style, and mood, in the emotional space it carves out within us, the result is eerily comforting, like being wrapped in a blanket and hurtled through space. In the end it is far more disturbing when our entertainment denies our fears, our mounting suspicions, estranging us with a version of the world that is too safe and easy to be real. A story seemed to find its place here when it did not look away from what was coming. - electricliterature.com/language-is-a-drug-ben-marcuss-paean-to-the-contemporary-american-short-story/
When a book presents itself like this, you can’t help but think it’s a statement of intent. The intent, in this case, is so clear that it’s plastered all over the (handsome) cover: a chunk of Ben Marcus’ introduction to the collection is superimposed on the title. This is not a mere collection of stories, this, it suggests, is a manifesto.
“Language is a drug,” begins the cover extract, “but a short story cannot be smoked.” Marcus has described the intoxicant powers of language before (his novel The Flame Alphabet imagines a world where children’s language becomes a fatal poison for adults), and conjures its incantatory qualities again here; it goes on: “You can’t inject it. Stories don’t come bottled in a cream,” its charm and power starting to creak a little until it tells you, “You cannot have a story massaged into you by a bearish old man.” No indeed, you certainly can’t. While Marcus is to be admired for fully exploiting a powerful metaphor, this veers dangerously close to lit theory Alan Partridge.
But turn to the introduction proper and the whole thing is rather more nuanced and thoughtful than this breathless extract may seem. Marcus tells the tale of play-scaring his young son, and claims stories have the same effect on their readers: “When I want to be ambushed, captured, thrust into a strange and vivid world… I read short stories.” The book, on the whole, achieves this aim: the thirty-two New American Stories variously ambush and capture, create strange and vivid worlds, and – occasionally – simply baffle.
Yet if the book isn’t quite a manifesto, its cover and weight do perhaps stake a claim at making it a statement publication, a landmark in the development of the American short story. And while the introduction certainly makes no grandiose claims about representing American life (pace Richard Ford’s introduction to The Granta Book of the American Short Story in which he snarkily refutes the possibility of such a thing), it can be difficult not to extrapolate something State-of-the-Nation about such a portentous collection: thirty-two contemporary writers amassed to glimpse into America’s soul.
And what there is to see there isn’t entirely pretty: almost all the stories possess some sense of queasiness, something very much not quite right about the world. This is an America which is distinctly unheimlich. In Lucy Corin’s ‘Madmen’, American adolescents are required to choose a person with severe mental health issues to take home, and live with. Charles Yu’s ‘Standard Loneliness Package’ has call centre workers taking on outsourced emotional pain, while Tao Lin and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh set their stories in a land where the characters are haunted by the spectre of terrorism. Families, too, are put under the microscope and found wanting: Rebecca Curtis’ ‘The Toast’ has a brilliantly unreliable narrator composing a wedding address to her estranged sister, venting a controlled anger while her own world seems to be falling utterly to pieces around her. Don DeLillo works with his familiar themes of power, money and corruption as a jailed trader watches his teenage daughters becoming TV-star celebrity financial commentators. Christine Schutt’s ‘A Happy Rural Seat of Various View’ offers anything but its title, as a couple move into a house offering rural bliss despite their relationship already having disintegrated.
The historical is a rarity: the stories here are almost all present or near-future set, or – as Marcus himself notes – are “set in some gummy mixture of the two”. It is interesting, then, that two of the strongest stories have historical settings. Anthony Doerr’s ‘The Deep’ and Claire Vaye Watkins’ ‘The Diggings’ look at salt miners in Detroit and gold hunters in California respectively. Neither story offers comfort (an oft-levelled criticism of historically-set fiction), but glances at the barbarous, the brutal, at histories out of tilt, little known episodes of things locked away in America’s attic.
Mostly, this is an America that is defined through language itself, a culture only perceptible and intelligible through those “skeletal marks on paper or a screen”, as Marcus puts it in his introduction. In ‘This Appointment Occurs in the Past’ Sam Lipsyte writes “Martha was a junior at NYU, heiress to a fuel-injection fortune. I was the cheeky barista who kept penciling my phone number on her latte’s heat sleeve”, a sentence so intimate with American culture it almost needs footnotes. Tao Lin describes “a new era in terrorism. The terrorists were now quicker, wittier, and more streetwise. They spoke the vernacular, and claimed to be philosophically sound,” hinting at advertising copy (“The 2015 terrorists are now in!”). George Saunders’ narrator goes into a shop selling plastic tags marked ‘MiiVOXMIN’ and ‘MiiVoxMAX’ and buys one without even knowing what it is. Some of the most interesting stories here are part of what Marcus isn’t crass enough to refer to as a ‘school’, but there is some recognisable DNA shared by him, Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders and Wells Tower, for example. These are stories intensely aware of themselves as stories (Lipsyte’s ‘This Appointment Occurs In The Past’ is not so much a nod to Chekov as a full on nut), and as language. These writers seem to be brothers from the same strange and brilliant family, entertaining and hugely talented, but reading them has the cumulative effect of being repeatedly battered around the head by an undeniably clever but somewhat irritating child. When Lydia Davis arrives with the one paragraph ‘Men,’ it’s like a soothing glass of cool water. The smartass brothers’ more intelligent and rather more modest older sister.
It is Davis, of course, who picks at the very notion of what ‘story’ is – Marcus repeatedly uses this term instead of the more specific (and market-unfriendly) ‘short story’, and never bothers (thankfully) to define quite what he means by it. It is interesting, though, that everything Marcus says about story in his introduction could certainly apply to the novel, or to the short story’s closest sibling, the poem. Some of these stories feel like novels: the Vaye Watkins story mentioned above runs to fifty pages and has separate chapters, as does Denis Johnson’s brilliant ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’, detailing the slow breakdown of an adman (a classic American tale). But they stick out notably given the remarkable consistency of Marcus’ aesthetic (many reviews even seem to be treating the book as if Marcus had written the whole thing himself).
Other than their settings and the above-mentioned hyperinflated language used by some of the writers, there is also no clear sense of why these should be American stories. (Marcus’ inclusion of Zadie Smith has raised one or two eyebrows, but if someone lives in a country and writes about it, that’s good enough for me.) Frank O’Connor said that for Americans the short story was practically “a national art form”, something that Nicholas Royle and Salt’s ongoing annual selection Best British Short Stories, now in its fifth year, would seem to give the lie to. It would be facile to contrast the supposed American quality of brashness with the British virtue of modesty, but Best British Stories 2015 does no more than it claims on its cover, has a brief grumble of an intro from Royle which then turns into a modest yet strong statement about the vitality of the form. While it is true that there isn’t the readership in the UK that there may be in the US, Royle notes with approval “the rise of the single short story publication” (citing Daunt Books and Knives Forks and Spoons Press, coyly not mentioning his own Nightjar Press who also publish excellent single-story chapbooks), and the growth of a number of small magazines (Lighthouse and Gorse, in particular). Rather than pontificating about the wider significance of the form, the introduction is a simple enticement to get on with the stories.
This is to compare like with like – as an annual event, BBSS has less pressure on it to be a statement and its continual reappearance makes it a seam, a vein of ore, rather than a monolith.
Another intriguing contrast comes from looking at the two books’ lists of contributors. Almost all of the thirty-two Americans note the college or university where they hold a teaching position; only two of the British do likewise. In a 2006 essay in n+1, ‘Short Story & Novel’, Elif Batuman bemoans this state of affairs, claiming that the short story is a zombie form, only kept alive by its use and practice in the Academy. Despite the undoubted brilliance of New American Stories, this does ring true: of course there’s no living in writing short fiction, and I don’t begrudge the NAS contributors a good job, but it would perhaps have been interesting to read stories by writers not associated with academia. Best British Short Stories, and Royle’s introduction to it, deny this state of affairs, showing that short fiction can thrive outside of MFA workshops.
The short story is an odd form, forever dying out or undergoing a revival, impossible to define, sometimes seeming to be united by being nothing more than a text which happens to occupy around thirty pages or less: novels for people who can’t be arsed reading novels. Yet the best stories in both of these books show what the form is capable of: the world reflected in a puddle, the light gleaming for an instant, fireflies. If I had to pick the best stories from each collection, I’d go for two which have much in common: Robert Coover’s ‘Going For A Beer’ and Jim Hinks’ ‘Green Boots’ Cave’ both fold entire lives into a few pages. They are both intensely focused on language and narrative, yet poke out of the page, looking at you, unsettling everything you think you know. They bring themselves into being, they aren’t even about anything other than being the thing themselves. They are hermetic: sealed, mercurial, enigmatic. Indeed, the best stories couldn’t exist in any other form: call it a prose poem or a ten page novel, if you will, it matters little. The best stories in these books hold the heritage of Kafka and Gogol more than that of Hemingway or Carver. Short stories are slippery things, and have no truck with nationality or borders, but mess with identity and time itself. - C.D. Rose