Ben Tanzer is the author of the books 99 Problems, You Can Make Him Like You, Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, My Father’s House and So Different Now.
"Every story left me feeling intense emotions about the protagonist or his situation, weather it was victory, defeat, or a just plain, that totally sucks, and that’s what Tanzer does."
During the final session of my MFA advanced fiction workshop, my classmates and I read our answers to some questions our professor had cribbed from Paris Review interviews. The idea was to take a step back from our work, which we were all probably sick of by that point, and examine it from more neutral ground. The exercise reminded me of that SNL sketch where James Lipton was interviewing himself, but I did the best I could to not sound like an asshole as I read mine aloud.
In response to the question about hidden flaws in my work, my response was that I have a lot of trouble writing from character because I don't really understand human interaction at all. I mean, I engage in it (with varying degrees of success), but it's largely out of reflex. My professor told me that the best writers didn't understand people either, and that great characters come from those questions about how people would act in certain situations or circumstances, or around certain other people. The unspoken second half of this theory, I think, is that being able to decode people interferes with the process of developing characters and telling stories through them.
It's a gratifying theory to hear, but it flounders before a writer like Ben Tanzer, who really does seem like he understands people. He sets his own parameters on his characters' interactions and familial circumstances, as we all do, but you never get the sense that his characters are being moved around like chess pieces for some grander literary purpose.
I've reviewed Ben's work over at my own blog before, and I remember saying that Ben makes writing, specifically the process of building a character arc, look way easier than it really is. His new collection of short stories, So Different Now, shows that his already-impressive gifts for astute narrative observation have sharpened. It's infuriating. And you can't even hate him for it because he's so damn nice and helpful.
Anyway, “Stevey,” the third story in the collection, is the best example of what I'm talking about. The story is anchored by the advice doled out by Stevey, the titular character, to a small congregation of nerdy younger kids that includes the narrator. Any credibility Stevey has is due to his hot girlfriend and cool dad, and because the narrator and his friends “didn't yet know the difference between being confident and being smart.” This should ring true for anyone who looked to their peer group, rather than their parents or siblings, for guidance.
With this story, Tanzer displays a tiered understanding of how young men seek out role models. The shallow reason is because they're attracted to success, whose definition is relative to their peer group, and another explanation might be that the narrator is “careening from one fuck-up to the next,” so the illusion of control Stevey has might as well be the real thing. Tanzer's approach gives the narrator much more agency – he is so desperate for some kind of help structuring his entry into adulthood, which he knows is above his head, that he chooses to heed advice like “don't ever date girls with dirty nails,” even though he identifies it as one of Stevey's quirks rather than something to be generally assumed.
Even when this relationship unravels, when the narrator sees evidence of domestic abuse in Stevey's house and laughs at Stevey's insistence that “sweat is the biggest fucking turn-off you can imagine,” the writing avoids melodrama. The narrator may brush off his own skepticism, but actual evidence that Stevey “wasn’t in control all the time, that he was flawed, and . . . he struggled just like everyone else did” can't be so easily brushed aside. It's the moment where the narrator sees his own path emerging, whereas before it was either follow Stevey's advice or spend adolescence rudderless and adrift.
I don't think a writer who didn't get people could drag those last few paragraphs out of me, because that writer couldn't handle a coming-of-age piece without relying on the same stereotypes and operatic emotions we've seen play out for generations. Hell, someone who didn't get people couldn't write teenagers at all, I don't think – they'd read like miniature adults on the page. Tanzer's work, by contrast, makes statements like “good writers don't have to 'get' people” sound like flailing self-justification.