Ben Marcus Job Talk

Thanks to our intrepid secret reporter, no one will be penalized for my inability to arrive at anything on time, although to be fair, this was yet another instance of the workshop secretly moving the time of the talk and failing to inform me. How dare they? Our mole is responsible for everything below except the occasional snarky comment and my overall thoughts, at the end. Thank you, intrepid mole!


BM starts by announcing he's not going to talk about Richard Yates and Stanley Crawford and that he's not going to talk about the novels Revolutionary Road and Instructions to my Wife. He then observes that though the novels couldn't seem more different, both are "really crushing, really devastating" and made him gasp for breath in different ways. And though he won't be talking about either, both illustrate how emotion can be achieved through drastically different forms. He will also not be making the case for his belief that there is no ideal form.

In fact, he'll be giving up his intended talk altogether because a) he had far too much time to prepare and write and scrap many different craft talks (his efforts didn't test well with his craft talk confrontation group) and b) something happened to disrupt his attempts. The thing? The New York Times Book Review. Halfway through Tom Perrotta's review of Judy Budnitz's Nice Big American Baby, Perrotta claims he's "probably not Budnitz's ideal reader." This phrase, BM reports, "scoffed at all my craft talks." He says he's always had a problem the notion of an ideal reader. Writers are often asked to describe their ideal readers--Tobias Wolff, for instance, says his is a farmer who listens to books on tape while farming--and he often hears this phrase in workshops. But if the workshop is functioning at its best level, the teacher is the ideal reader. The kind of reading he does is what he expects students to do as well: read widely and generously.

Introductory remarks complete, BM says he wants to speak about how he reads as a teacher and his approach to workshop. He also wishes to be frequently interrupted by questions, which he loves. Suggested questions: How are you? Would you like to stop and consult your notes?

First principle: absolutely respect the artistic instinct of the student. See the dream of what the student is trying to do. Every story aims for something, and even if it falls short, the mistake can be beautiful and lead the writer to the next level. However misguided, there is a fantasy of originality in every work. The only way progress can happen is if a really deep, honest, and respectful reading occurs.

Cultivating relations with student writers works: he likes to get to know his students so as to know how to help them better. Some students like workshops in which they're torn up and spit out; others would be shut down for six months under the same circumstances. To figure out what kind of workshop would help, he meets with students in pre-workshop. This meeting, in conjunction with a post-workshop conference [TWO OUT-OF-WORKSHOP CONFERENCES, GOT IT?], helps him to find out what will help a particular student produce the best work. He also likes to know what people are reading, what context affects their artistic endeavors, etc. [At this point our intrepid reporter was interrupted by another workshop grad claiming s/he would "reapply" if BM got the job, so some stuff may have disappeared into the ether.]

Moving on to biographical information: BM says that he can’t talk enough about what a good critique is. At the time he was an undergraduate (as a philosophy major), workshops weren’t common, and when he discovered one, he was tremendously excited (so much so that he showered twice and put on a clean shirt to attend). But he left the class “so, so discouraged.” He says it was one of the dullest experiences of his life. How this could be—how twelve people with a fervent desire to write and a love of literature could turn out to be so dull—is a mystery to him. It seems that the workshop consisted of students staring at their hands and making bland, vague comments along the lines of “I liked this” and “I didn’t like that.” BM believes that going around the room and saying what we like and don’t like is not at all helpful—it’s like shopping. The disappointing workshop led him to formulate his early pedagogy as “a promise not to be dull,” and admits that this attitude can lead to all sorts of clownish behavior that has little to do with teaching.

The notion of a useful critique is really vexing and really elusive—he always wants to chase it, but never assumes he knows it. What has helped him get closer to the “actionable critique” is to have a conference with a student a week after the workshop. The student brings in the pile of critiques, and together, they sift through all the contradictory information. He says it’s quite interesting to see what the student is defensive about and what he/she is open to. In this meeting, he tries to narrow down the criticism to what is useful to the writer. A good workshop actually produces too many ideas: it produces every idea and its opposite. In the conference, they throw some critiques away, and select and keep only the useful ones. He wants to ensure that each student’s “artistic horizon” is as ambitious as it can possibly be.

BM also collects all the students’ critiques, at least at the beginning of each semester. Reading critiques can offer possible avenues into the students’ own compositions. For example, if Chip and Louie always offer the same critique no matter the story, this is a sign that Chip is obsessed with POV or Louie with back story. (He pauses to remark that his talk on obsessions sounds strangely like psychoanalysis. Though much cheaper.) The recognition of students’ reading habits and their biases can lead to all new writing.

The conversation takes a new turn as BM reports that at Columbia, more and more people are writing novels. He has no patience with students who automatically become “surly” or are generally disdainful of workshopping novel excerpts. “It’s our job,” he says, “to adapt to the work on the table.” It’s “inexcusable” to claim that something simply can’t be critiqued, or that a work “’just isn’t my kind of thing.’” He also thinks that novelists “deserve fewer turns in class,” meaning that it is not helpful during the “long sprint” of a novel to be forced to put something up every three weeks.

At this point, BM pauses to see if there are any questions. Several hands go up. The ensuing discussion is so lively that BM never returns to his talk proper, though no one seems to mind.

Question 1: If we’re all ideal readers, how do you feel your role as a teacher is different?

BM: [Answers will be a bit random, due entirely to the scribe’s inability to write quickly.] Sometimes I am a choreographer of ideas. Sometimes I play devil’s advocate, but not capriciously. I like to turn on my own ideas because I’m worried about students just agreeing with me. My role is to manage discussion, to knock it over a lot…to make it stop looking like a mob group, or stop us from agreeing with each other too much. Because a group of people think something, that alone is no reason to believe it. After the din of the workshop, the question is, What is the best confusion we can have now? What will activate us to write at full speed?

Question 2: [Your mole missed this entirely. She was listening to more whispered praise of BM.]

BM: I don’t try to control people’s critiques. My ultimate goal is to help the student feel he’s getting on to the next level of his work.

Question 3: Can you tell us your ideas about a novel workshop [double entendre not intended]? How would it work? [note--questioner said question might be reduntant of things he'd discussed in workshop, which she'd missed. BM responded, "too bad--it was awesome. Laughter and merriment ensued.]

BM: One could easily create a workshop that accommodates novels. In a novel workshop, there’s a lot more room for outside reading and little craft discussions. Frequent workshops of small novel excerpts are unhelpful; the novelist should get an entire class [three hours]. There are so many wrong turns and mistakes made over the course of a long work; it’s better to put up, say, 150 pages of a novel and have the class workshop that. One could, however, present small excerpts to the class and have a fifteen-minute conversation so as to focus on one issue, such as voice. Lots of novel issues are really technical—Am I willing to risk a year of my life trying out this voice?—and this is where the short session could be very helpful.

Question 4: Would your personal aesthetic come into play as director [when vetting applications]?

BM: [BM takes the question to be about faculty]: I would want to hire someone who can do what I can’t do. And teaching ability is very important to me. [Questioner clarifies: he wants to know about student applicants.] BM: At Columbia, I’m the director of the fiction program. [Note: He reads all the applications (around 600).] I’m looking to have my attention held, to be captivated. I’m looking for who has passion and authority: “good writers are demanding to be read.” My taste is all over the place.
- He mentions Carver, Dubus, Joy Williams, Deborah Eisenberg… and then he discovered Barthelme, who was a “huge turn-on.” He mentioned Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote “defiantly boring” work (such as detailed pieces on rope).
- He says that “one of the strange casualties” of how he writes is that students approach him with work that’s “like word salad,” where one word isn’t related to the next word.

Question 5: If you were director, what relationship would fiction and poetry have?

BM: They have one. We’re all making art out of language. It’s strange to think that there’s that much difference between us—we’re all a super-marginal group the world doesn’t care about at all because we don’t use language in the way USA Today does…. We should have the biggest possible appetite for all kinds of language art.

- As for poets and prosers swapping workshops, BM says he doesn’t necessarily believe in “mixing.” People have worked very hard for years to get to a graduate level class in their genre, and it’s not fair for a curious poet or two to sit in on a prose workshop—all members of the class should be writing at a similarly high level. He doesn’t see why a seminar can’t cover issues of craft, though. At Columbia, one thing that has worked very well is a series of Master Classes. These are 3-4 week modules in one seminar—in other words, 3-4 week mini-seminars—on fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction, and so on. At some point a writer has to specialize, but there is no reason fiction and poetry should be entirely divorced. That said, he firmly believes that we “should not create divisions. We are language arts.”

BM then says that he’d throw away everything he’s said in the talk “in favor of telling everyone just to go read. We have to consume language in all its forms if we expect to write anything that other people will care about.”

Question 6: A 2nd-year fiction student wonders about a class on submissions, magazines, agents, etc. He points out that that the Workshop does little to nothing to guide students in getting their work published. [five bucks if you can guess who. okay, i'm lying, but guess anyway. lovingly, of course.]

BM: “Honestly, I don’t think that’s a course.” He says it would be very easy to arrange for events, however, such as bringing agents or others in to talk about this subject. He explains that there is not enough information for an entire course, and that he may be “too marginal in the publication world” anyway.

Random closing remarks:
“I do love things that, if they work, cause me to throw away everything I thought about fiction. It’s rare. But there are a few who make it all worthwhile.” (He mentions Honored Guest by Joy Williams and Agony by Joe Wenderoth.)
“Language is everything to me.”

-Despite having a more quiet demeanor than Bausch and Shepard, the only two I saw personally, BM seemed to generate more buzz.
-Today's event was more fun than the two previously, at least for me--more opportunity to show humor, etc.
-BM did an outstanding job of deflecting any potential critiques re his personal aesthetic--effective to point out that as director at Columbia, he's losing his top picks to Iowa, which I interpreted as him saying a) we're looking for the same things, and b) i'd rather work w/my top picks (no insult to Columbia intended, particularly as were it not for the Columbia fiction program I would never have written again).

That's all I've got for now.


TLB said...

Thanks for the update MSF. I wish I could have been there but these notes really help. He sounds almost too good to be true.

I have my personal fave but from the sounds of it the place won't fall down with any of these folks in charge. The question I'm thinking is...do any of them still want the job? Do we know when the decision will be posted?

SER said...

Apparently, the only hard-and-fast deadline is the end of the semester, but I have to think they'll do it sooner if they think that one of these four is the chosen one.

I think that 3 of the 4 really want the job.

dunkeys said...

Two things: another excellent recap!

And, "Wow."

I didn't know a summary of a talk given by a person I've A) never met and B) been critical of based on a quick reading of his first book and a reading attended three years ago could be so absolutely pedagogically inspiring. Thanks MSF. And even more thanks to BM.

(Was he dodging bullets during the talk, too? Snatching flies out of the air with chopsticks?)

Still . . . is anyone else skeptical about sitting down with your workshop prof to go over workshop feedback? "Not only will I run a discussion about your story and give you 4 typed pages of feedback on your story, but I'll also help you understand the feedback everyone else gave you."

It sounds great on the surface. But potentially . . . well, less so.

cj said...

Great synopsis. I thought BM was tremendous, and I wasn't predisposed in his favor. He seemed so conscientious -- in the attention he paid to student work, and also in how thoughtfully he seemed to be wrestling with the question of what a writing program should be.

He certainly dispelled any concerns I may have had about whether he would try to impose his aesthetic on the Workshop. His vision of aesthetic pluralism seemed very genuine. He seemed the exact opposite of rigid or theory-bound -- always questioning himself, reconsidering his approach, playing devil's advocate.

I loved his insistence that the Workshop somehow make a place for the novel-in-progress.

Count me as one of the people who wishes he could re-enroll if BM is chosen. He passed out some syllabi from seminars he has taught, and they looked great, with very diverse (though mostly contemporary) reading lists. (Apparently no one has informed him that the Director doesn't have to teach a seminar...)

Can't wait to find out what happens.

MSF said...

i must reiterate that the bulk of these notes were taken by the intrepid mole, so i can take little if any credit for their excellent quality (though perhaps i should try). and now that we're off the reporting record, i'll just say that it seems we may have a new front-runner, though our options are looking pretty solid. i also had forgotten to mention the ridiculously cool-looking syllabi, so thanks, cj, for bringing them up. if a) he gets the job and b) deigns to offer a seminar, i may have to abandon my pretend-i'm-not-a-workshop-hanger-on and sit in on a class next year because, let's face it, i'm not going anywhere anytime soon.

TLB said...

If you do, MSF, count me in--I'll bet it would be really interesting.

kclou said...

An impressive review, so many thanks to those who contributed.

I really appreciate how he seemed able to distinguish between what he wrote, what he liked, and what one can learn from as a writer. He seemed neither disingenuously democratic nor limited in his reading. What he looks for in workshop stories reminded me some of what Marilynne says, though the articulation was different.

I'm a big fan of his comments on seminars and fiction/poetry interaction. He also sounds like he wants the job, which I don't think should be downplayed, especially for a younger candidate who could be there a while.

PJKM said...

Thanks so much for this, MSF - and intrepid mole, of course (can Celebrity Mole: Iowa be too far away?). My fickle heart is completely won over by BM. I'm not sceptical at all, by the way, about having MORE one-on-one time to discuss work with faculty, especially if the time is used to sift through the ideas of the workshop rather than promote some professorial agenda.

ian said...

Wow. I'm sold. In addition to what everyone else has said, I like his competitive, ambitious edge: his 'I lose students to Iowa every year' reason for wanting the job.

Grendel said...

Wow. All hail MSF and the Intrepid Mole! This wonderful report, along with SER's typically stellar one on el workshop especial and interview, puts me at ease now with all the remaining candidates. I don't have anything new to add, I just really like what he says here regarding just about everything -- especially his eclectic aesthetic tastes and focusing the workshop on What the Writer in Question Is Trying to Do. That reminds me of Elizabeth's and Sam's. Four single-spaced pages of notes? And the meeting one week post-workshop is a fabulous idea. Trying to sort through all that stuff was too much for me on more than one occasion, and those piles of contradictory comments lie there to this day at the bottom of my file drawer. I can see dunkeys' concern were it to happen right afterward, but with a week sliding by between the Hammering and the Understanding/Pruning, I do think it would be beneficial. And I second what ian said fo sho.

Whichever candidate gets the job, I feel like the place will be in good hands. Still, I have my own horse leading by a nose. I'd like to do an anonymous poll. Need to check to see if that's possible on this blog.

El Gordo de Amore said...

From the rumbling, whispering, and scuttlebutting, it seems Mr. Marcus is the man. So I would have to throw my Extreme Sexiness in his favor.

...Unless the Workshop finds and interviews a hyper-intelligent, genetically modified monkey from the future.

And then I think all of you would understand my dilemma.

Pete said...

The monkey issue is exactly why I nominated Dick Cheney.

Brando said...

The advantage of the monkey is really the future part. Knowing which criticism will actually work in the future would make the post-workshop revision experience much more efficient. The Workshop party discussion experience would also be fascinating. "Did you hear Jim got hit with feces on Tuesday?"

An Unfrozen Caveman Workshop Director would be equally intriguing. "I'm just a simple caveman. Your postmodernist structure and symbolism frighten and confuse me. I do not know how you make your magic boxes print out your stories. But I do know this: your story would work much better from the close third person."

SER said...

My sources reveal that this contest is still wide open...and that any one of the four could be chosen. I wish they'd get on with it and decide.

PJKM said...

E-mail Connie now!