On David Markson and Ben Marcus: An Interview with Ben Marcus

Posted by @ 3:19 pm on February 18th, 2013

[Note: In 2000, Albert Mobilio of Bookforum asked Ben Marcus to interview David Markson. Though questions were sent, the interview was never completed. In 2012, after reading the questions on benmarcus.com, I decided to redirect them (with modifications) to Marcus himself. The interview took place via email.]


David Markson (1927-2010) was born in Albany, New York, and spent most of his adult life in New York City. His novels include Springer’s Progress, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Ballad of Dingus Magee.


Ben Marcus is the author of The Age of Wire and String, among other books. His new book, a collection of stories, will be published in January of 2014.


Interviewer: Do you consider exposition to be deadly, inert territory?

Ben Marcus: There’s the infamous rule fed to beginning writers that you should show and not tell, but telling is one of the great and natural features of language—it’s part of what language was invented to do. It’s just that when telling is done badly—”she felt sad”—it’s conspicuous and embarrassing, it works only to remind us of the insufficiency of the mode. I always dislike hearing this rule, even if I understand why it’s given, but Robbe-Grillet is a perfect refutation of it. Sebald, Bernhard, Kluge, Sheila Heti. And of course Markson himself. Even the great narrative writers use exposition in masterly ways: Coetzee, Ishiguro, Eisenberg.

I: Do you find metafiction too cerebral and dry, limited in emotional range? How is it, for you, that a self-conscious literary mode such as metafiction is able to deliver devastating emotional results? (cf. “This book is unfortunately designed for people.”)

BM: I asked this of Markson because it struck me then that self-conscious writing, or the metafiction of the sixties, was for the most part cerebral, a reaction against the tear-jerking, alcohol-soaked fiction of the fifties (John O’Hara, etc.), i.e. — fiction about people doing bad things to other people, then feeling badly about it. When you read John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, or look at some of the early Fiction Collective writers, it’s hard to miss the glee of the practitioner releasing his craft from previous constraints. There’s something moving in that kind of work, but it still seems predominantly brainiac in conception. Markson is just a different animal when it comes to metafiction. He works directly in mood and tone, and he seems driven to produce truly visceral levels of feeling. The metafictional approach had not often been applied that way. In retrospect, like many brilliant ideas, it’s almost an obvious synthesis. The novelty of the technique wears off and there’s a desire, in new generation of writers, to use the skill set differently, to make the material matter to more people.

I: What are the interesting problems that occur for you while writing a novel?

BM: The problem of why someone should keep reading. I worry about momentum. What is it, really? I worry about boredom, my own and maybe the reader’s. I can satisfy my boredom in certain extreme ways, but that does not always translate well to others. I picture certain people who I’d like to destroy with amazement, and they worry me–how to forever disrupt their experience of the world? Probably the most vivid problem for me, one that occurs after the first sentence, is what change will look like in the piece of writing, and how fast it will come. I get some momentum out of escalation and reversal, but it has its traps, too. This can all be summed up as the problem of caring. How do you make interest in another person?

I: Does the word experimental mean anything to you? How do you locate yourself in the contemporary fiction culture? Is originality something you value and consciously pursue? And, if so, what are the risks for you?

BM: It’s a shame the word experimental has been so gutshot, pimped out in such dismissive, hollow ways. At its best it could indicate the tremendous yearning and ambition some writers feel—to not look and sound and read like anyone else. Striving, desire, a certain ferocity of technique. I think there’s a lot of anxiety in the air about sounding explicitly alienating, and the word experimental, the way it’s used and owned by the monsters of our time, too often means unreadable, an insider’s game. In other words, I rarely encounter the word being used in an interesting or even helpful way. I guess I’m trying to remember the last time a piece of writing was pushed at me with the earnest, enthusiastic declaration that I would love it because it’s experimental. When I read people’s work I can sense, if it’s there, a desire to come at the page in a new way, and I love this experience. Absolutely love it. In the end, I want to see the writing itself, rather than worry too much about its label.

I: While it would seem dangerous to become nostalgic for a time when reading was a skill and not just the opening of a slack orifice, it does create a challenge for an artist who happens to work with language. Is being demanding a function, or a necessary result, of writing artistically? If the actual ability to read and decipher a sentence is diminishing, does that concern you as a writer? And do you have a particular relationship, at least in theory, to readers?

BM: This is a very interesting question. If you were a painter living on the island of X, where the people were blind to the color blue, would you use it anyway because blue is so beautiful? Maybe you’re not painting for the people of the island? Or maybe you believe that if only these people could see your version of blue, then their blindness would lift? You’d like to fix your audience, correct them. If, upon encountering your relentless use of blue, the people of X chastised you and called you an elitist, would you strengthen your resolve and add more blue, or would you apologize and try to determine what colors might please them more? I think about these issues with pretty mixed feelings, but some writers I love, Lydia Davis and David Markson, for instance, use highly transparent language that is deceptively simple. The obstacles and conflicts and complications in their work don’t tend to appear on the surface, in the access to their language. I have more recently become interested in this approach.

I: Could a novel work for you that is purely a collection of stylized historical anecdotes? How crucial is character, as it is traditionally conceived?

BM: Markson’s final novels answer this question. And he forfeits nothing in those books, certainly not character.

I: Could you discuss how you use sound and syntax to turn statements (even definitions) into loaded elements in your work?

BM: Gary Lutz wrote a great essay about this. When I’m struggling with sentences and paragraphs, because they are dead and without feeling, I explore shorter or longer versions, along with different kinds of syntax, because it seems, for reasons I can’t understand, that feeling can get unlocked if a certain cadence comes into place. This is only ever about trial and error though, and not some blanket endorsement of alliteration.

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