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Spring/Summer 2001Volume II Issue II


portal to our archives

from the editors

failbetter presents

who we are & how to submit


Ben Marcus is author of a novel, Notable American Women, to be published by Vintage in March, and a book of stories, The Age of Wire and String.

 Artspace Books will publish his collaboration with the painter Matthew Ritchie, The Father Costume

He has published fiction in Harper's, McSweeney's, Grand Street, BOMB, Conjunctions, Fence and Tin House. Before joining the faculty at Columbia, he taught for three years at Brown University. 

He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, an NEA in fiction, and two Pushcart prizes. He is the fiction editor of Fence magazine, and he has reviewed books and written essays for Time magazine, Feed, The Village Voice, and Salon.











































































If you appreciate these few words from Mr. Marcus, you might want to check out failbetter's interview with 

Donald Antrim

in our Winter/Spring 2001 Issue.

 And while you're at it...  you can read our interview with this year's Pulitzer Prize winner,

 Michael Chabon

CLick Here For Chabon Interview

© Random House

 in our Fall/Winter 2000 Issue


with Ben Marcus


With the appearance of The Age of Wire and String in 1995, Ben Marcus emerged as one of the most original voices of American literature. Displacing the meaning of such things as Ohio, food, animals, and even air, Marcus gave them new meanings that—very strangely—seemed to predate their former definitions. Forthcoming is Notable American Women, in which Marcus continues and expands upon this initial vision. Ben was kind enough to speak with failbetter about his latest work and the work involved behind it.

failbetter:  For a successful writer, you have spent the better part of the past decade also succeeding at other literary endeavors, whether they be as an academic professor at Brown or Columbia University, or as an editor—first with Conjunctions, then with the online literary journal Impossible Object, and now with Fence. All this activity aside—how and when do you find time to write? Do you have a daily routine? Or are you a slave to inspiration?

Marcus:  If "successful" writer means that I earn a living at it, then I'm not very successful, which is mostly why I teach, to earn a living and have health insurance, to buy some time for writing. Teaching is far more time consuming than editing, which I mostly do because I enjoy it. Editing gives me the opportunity to read exciting new writers and possibly assist their work into print. Teaching can be incredibly stimulating and rewarding, but it does make it harder to get writing done, particularly if you try to dispose yourself toward the progress of your students—reading and commenting on their work, etc. You fill up on other people's language and can rather obliterate your own. Not often a bad thing, since I could stand a good obliteration, but even when there's time left in the day after teaching, I'm often mostly capable of staring at the wall, eating, and grooming. So I do my best to work during the breaks—summers and winters. They're not vacations at all, but periods of pure work, which also seem to involve much staring at the wall. Then, my routine is pretty dull. Mostly I try to sit down first thing in the morning. If I let myself get distracted, then I can blow my chance at the absurd concentration I seem to need to write something even remotely un-loathsome. I'm not so sure what inspiration is. In my case, it all comes down to discipline and labor, to sitting down and making myself available to whatever happens. Even then, the chances of success aren't so good. But at least I'm sitting there.


failbetter... Your forthcoming book, Notable American Women, will, without a doubt--as was the case with your debut, The Age of Wire and String--be hard to categorize. Is it a novel, a collection of stories, or what? The answer, of course, is that such categorizing is both senseless and useless, that the book is the book, and nothing more. Still, in our culture, people need labels, and publishers want to give the people what they want. What "label," then, will your new book carry? And do you, the author, protest such labeling, or do you have minimal say concerning this and other marketing strategies for the book?

Marcus:  My new book is actually a novel, and I have no trouble calling it that. The publisher will also call it that. It may even be written on the front of the book. Some reviewers might disagree, because it is episodic in structure, and good arguments can be made, by people who care about that stuff, against its novelness. I wonder how many people take these arguments seriously anymore. The genre categories don't worry me so much. The confusion around The Age of Wire and String was somewhat accidental. I think the paperback edition calls it both stories and a novel, in different parts of the promotional text. This was probably a typo, and it no doubt fueled the confusion, which was never intended. I never thought of it as either stories or a novel, only because those thoughts didn't much help me work on it. It was always just a book. But certain publishers do require the label, and it didn't bother me to call it "stories," since I saw the distinction as promotional, one I myself wasn't making. At the time, it seemed to get me off the hook from making a larger sense, and I was glad for the excuse. I suppose, if I had come up with a clever new genre name, I might have tried to force a publisher to use it, but I guess it's just not interesting to me to do that. It's like naming an album of music, calling it a song cycle or something. You can attract attention to the wrong things, you front your identity as the creator. I'd rather not appeal toward something possibly pretentious, or try to announce innovation. Maybe for me, hiding in plain sight is better.

failbetter... The book's title (or subject matter) might lead one to believe that the text is factual history. Also, the text itself may incense certain special interest groups--especially, though ironically, feminists—with its beautiful, yet twisted and satiric stance. Do you consider the notion of audience as you compose, and, if so, who are you aiming at? Are your books strictly for the upper most reaches of the so-called literati, or are you trying to shake things up a bit for our culture as a whole?

Marcus:  I'm not looking to upset special interest groups. But do special interest groups even care about or read obscure fiction? I'd flatter myself to think anyone will be in an uproar over a book absolutely drowning in artifice, a book so clearly contrived and invented. The title does reference an actual set of women's histories that, in their early edition, were begrudging and condescending, a kind of "scholarship" that fascinates me, like the wrong anthropology of the turn-of-the-century. Pompous, expert voices that get it all wrong and insult the subject. We can see how fucked-up they are in retrospect, while at the time they might pass as sober voices of authority. Authority, in its rhetorical form, becomes dated in an interesting way. It turns demonic and vicious. The language of expertise can be appallingly mean. As a writer I am attracted to these potent mis-uses of language. My early drive to write this book was an idea to write missing entries for this scholarly project of women's histories, to make up fantastical lives of women. I almost thought of it as a reparatory action—to conceive of glorious and graceful, highly fantastical, lives. The book is no longer that at all. It's turned into the story of a family and the emotion removal practices they get into. Some women's cults lurk at the fringes, but I don't see it as explicitly incendiary toward women. There is one rogue female leader, Jane Dark. The rest is just normal stuff, a family gone wrong, the usual fear and paralysis in the face of life. Men don't come out looking that good either. I don't know how explicitly I consider audience, but audience does matter to me. I'm pretty sensitive about not writing exclusively for the over-prepared writing crowd, what you'd call the literati. But at the same time I end up feeling more interested in language itself than in narrative drive, and this can be a conflict, as many readers could just give a shit about how a sentence is written. They're looking for the information it imparts. I tried in this book to be less turgid than I was in the last one, to have more coherence, unity, etc. There's even a good bit of narrative. I'm attracted to the idea of writing a narrative book that has the capacity for the conceptual stuff that can interest me. It's just very hard for me to do. Which is probably why I'll try to do it.


failbetter...  Two sections of the book--"The Launch" and "A Message From The Father Of Fathers"--are testimonials from a mother and father, respectively, largely concerning the well or not-so-well being of their son, whose name is Ben Marcus. The use of your own name is incorporated in the text of your debut with a very funny, though clinical tone. In the above selections, the tone is more emotional. Are they as personal as they imply, or, rather, are you using yourself and your family as a kind of vehicle to re-render familial archetypes?

Marcus:  Instead of writing about my family, and changing their names, I guess I'm using their names and changing the story. Writing "as" my father or mother just felt so creepy to me, in a good way, particularly as I started to attack "myself," and once I started doing it, it took off on its own. I had so much anger towards myself, as my father. But I don't know that anyone else will experience it as creepy or interesting at all. I was trying to find a way for what I was writing to matter emotionally, which is always my struggle, and I think to write as my mother, and to condemn a character w/ my name, adds a disturbing level of both artifice and realism. Or maybe it's just a gimmick. I got perverse pleasure out of imagining what my father would say were he to renounce me. To impersonate him in an unfathomably angry moment. It's a fantasy of being hated by the ones who love me. That maybe over-simplifies it. And maybe there's a form of self-pity in that. But using my name, for me, was an attempt at realism in a text that was so patently fictional, made-up, aka inconsequential. What you call the "personal," is to me also something that can be faked, the way a memoir can fake emotion, the way even "true" events can be gilded and hyperbolized and rendered unreal by their method of writing.


failbetter...  Are you familiar with Henry Darger's work? He is the urban myth personified: the lonely janitor returning home nightly to create his own curious, wonderful world. Your, "The Weather Killer," from The Age of Wire and String, might be called a successful misreading of Darger's world. Was he an influence on your early work? If not, do you see the parallels between your work and his?

Marcus:  I love Darger's stuff, and the story of his life is definitely interesting. I've always connected him to Raymond Roussel's work, which was an early inspiration. I'd have to also mention Harry Mathews in that regard, an often sublime writer. Giddy and unreal, yet totally threatening. Diane Williams wrote a novella called "The Stupefaction" that seems Darger-like to me.

failbetter...  Your vision, as we see it, is a sort of burning away of both national and personal histories, in order to make way for a truer American myth. What surprises me is that there are so few current American writers that share with you this very American quality—the "spinning of yarns," as it were, to redefine our cultural fabric. Can you cite any current writers who, like yourself, are utilizing language to the very hilt of subversion, to renew not only the idea of myth, but the nature of language itself?

Marcus:  Gary Lutz does stuff to language, to grammar, that is truly shocking to me, in the best way. You can spend hours with his stories and the grammar works like a muscle, squeezing you into hard places where suddenly meaning and feeling are rampant and you feel desperate. Padgett Powell, in his collection Aliens of Affection, also does some truly disturbing things that I can't forget. He's got about nine emotions going at once, in several registers of language, and if you hang with his maneuvers it can be immensely rewarding. There's an athleticism and purity to both Lutz and Powell that make me feel enormously attentive to their projects. In terms of newer writers, I like Jane Unrue and Matthew Derby, both of whom are starting to publish in magazines.


failbetter...  You made quite an astonishing literary debut back in 1995. And even before receiving the Whiting Award in 1999, many where asking you, "What's next?" Now with a forthcoming second book scheduled to come out some six/seven years after the first, can you describe any pressures (whether they be internal or external) that you may have experienced during these recent years to produce another critically acclaimed work?

Marcus:  This might all be dull stuff to talk about, the way I beat myself up, the way I slowed down my progress, the strategies I had for failing. It was all a case of bad hygiene, mentally, and I don't have any fancy insights about it. So it took me a while to write this book. My pressures were probably similar to what many writers might feel after publishing a first book. I also have managed to live in five cities in the last six years, and hold four different jobs. That sounds like an excuse, I guess, but it was something I let get in the way of steady work, moving around the country, trying to set up a life. I was just confused about this book for a long time. I didn't know what I wanted it to be. I wrote a lot and tried to fit it all together, but I never knew what I was doing. Being done, in some ways, is arbitrary. 

It's not entirely clear to me why publishing this book means I should stop working on it.