I read with interest your symposium in Issue Four on current American writing, and greatly enjoyed most of the pieces. Elif Batuman’s piece “Short Story & Novel,” however . . . it is hard to know where to begin. For one thing, judging the current state of American short fiction based on Best American Short Stories 2004 and 2005 alone is like judging the current state of American film based solely on the Golden Globes. I myself have complained about the stories selected (or not selected) for BASS, an annual bellyache somewhat Lactaid-ed by my inclusion in 2005’s volume. (I subscribe to Kingsley Amis’s view that prizes and the like are all bullshit unless you win one.) What BASS represents, if anything, is merely the peculiarities and peccadilloes of each year’s guest editor, and, if you read through these guest editors’ invariably hedged and apologetic introductions, all avoid any claims that these are the best stories of the year. Michael Chabon, last year’s editor, is no exception. Batuman, with her fatuous claim of reading two whole years of Best American Short Stories in “the name of science,” sneakily places these stories upon an exalted pedestal that only the most droolingly credulous would accept. Ms. Batuman’s pedestal, not surprisingly, quickly becomes a cucking stool.
My story “Death Defier” catches a tomato or two. First, she claims that, in “acknowledgment of the times,” it takes place in the Middle East. My story takes place in Afghanistan, which is in Central Asia. Central Asia and the Middle East are at least as different from each other as the short story is from the novel. She then claims—using my story as an example—that “the first sentences” of so many Best American selections, afflicted with their “barrage of names,” are “specific to the point of arbitrariness.” My first sentence reads thus: “Graves had been sick for three days when, on a long, straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of orange-yellow sparks.” “Would Pushkin,” she writes, “have managed to inspire anybody at all had he written: ‘The night before Countess Maria Ivanovna left for Baden-Baden, a drunken coachman crashed the Mirskys’ troika into the Pronskys’ dacha’? He would not.”