An Interview with Ben Marcus About His Syllabus
This is the first in a series of conversations with writers who teach, where we discuss how they develop an idea for a course, generate a syllabus, and conduct a class.
Ben Marcus is the author of Notable American Women, The Age of Wire and String, and The Flame Alphabet. His most recent book, Leaving the Sea, was released in January. He has been published in Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, among other publications, and he is the recipient of several awards, including the Whiting Writers’ Award, three Pushcart Prizes, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Most importantly for the purposes of this interview, he taught at Brown University before joining the faculty at Columbia University, where he is currently a professor.
See the syllabus for Marcus’s fiction seminar, Technologies of Heartbreak.
I. A KIND OF TECHNOLOGY
STEPHANIE PALUMBO: How did you begin to design this course?
BEN MARCUS: I created this class when I first arrived at Columbia, which I think was in 2000. There are workshops, which are the standard creative writing classes, and there are seminars, and back then, there was a more open question about what you did with writers outside of a workshop. What were lit classes really for? A lot of times they would mimic an English department class, where you’d read some good books and talk about them interpretively. It seemed like there was this opening to not be tied to that format. So I thought, what did I struggle with as a writer when I was a certain age? What did I not know how to do, what was confusing, what did I not even know was a problem?
I kept returning to something that I value as a writer—creating feeling out of nothing. We open a book and within half a page, our heart is racing, there’s all kinds of biological stuff happening, there’s actual physical emotion. How is that done? In some sense, it seemed obvious that the goal of so many writers, regardless of aesthetic, is to create feeling. It is a kind of technology.
SP: Did you ever take a class like that in college?
BM: I went to an MFA program and I was perfectly happy, but I never got this kind of instruction. I had a really good course called Ancient Fictions with Robert Coover, who was a favorite teacher. We read some of the oldest fictions, including the Old Testament, Gilgamesh, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and looked at how recurrent and timeless some of their tropes are. But it wasn’t really about parsing technique.
SP: In your syllabus, you asked, “Is it impossible to isolate our reaction to a book in terms of its language?” Were you able to answer that question through this class?
BM: I think the answer is yes and no. Fiction is too complicated and too elusive to break down into a set of tricks. But making students ultra-aware that they’re in the business of creating feeling out of sentences can help. This class tries to reach into a writer’s process and push on it a little, form it, test it, and get students to ask hard questions and practice different approaches. I wanted my students to read some books that are teeming with feeling and take them apart, sentence by sentence, to try to figure out exactly how that feeling is created.