Symposium on American Writing

Dear Editors,

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.”

Batuman has some ideas about the story—namely, that a story “can only
accommodate a very specific content: basically, absences.” As for the “in-your-face in medias res” of my story and others, with their “maze of names, subordinate clauses, and minor collisions,” well, gosh: the masters (she cites Chekhov, Updike, and Munro) would never do such a thing. This sounds like critical snake oil to me, and nothing destroys one’s trust in a critic more quickly than a sweeping categorical statement that dovetails with the critic’s ignorance:

In the summer of 1979, I walked into the kitchen of my friend Sunny’s house near Uxbridge, Ontario, and saw a man standing at the counter, making himself a ketchup sandwich.

—Alice Munro, “Nettles”

A not quite slight earthquake—5.4 on the Richter scale—afflicted Morrison’s area early one morning: at 6:07, it said later over the news.

—John Updike, “Slippage”

This was six or seven years ago, when I was living in one of the districts of T—– province, on the estate of the landowner Belokurov, a young man who got up very early, went about in a vest, drank beer in the evenings, and kept complaining to me that he met with no sympathy anywhere or from anyone.

—Anton Chekhov, “The House with the Mezzanine: An Artist’s Story”

Of course, I am stacking my deck, just as Batuman stacked hers, with one difference: I am aware that this is three-card Monte, and representative of nothing more than how three writers chose to begin a story—a surprising, organic, supple form as variable as the human mind itself.

Here is John Updike himself, in his introduction to Best American Short Stories 1984: “I want stories to startle or engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving me a sensation of completed statement.” Nothing like that can ever have truly “exhausted the conditions for its existence,” unless the critic herself is dead to its pleasures, and reads as an accountant of the meaningless: where it was published, by whom, and how many proper names it uses. “Guilt,” she writes, with a sagacity matched impressively by its mistakenness, “leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence. . . . Dear young writers, write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.” As for her dignity suggestion: Thank you? As for her terminal sentence: You don’t say.

—Tom Bissell

Dear Editors,

The title of the opening feature, “The Intellectual Situation,” proclaims your writers “intellectuals.” They’ve paid big money to gain that word and won’t give it up! They embrace that designation, that difference, and as long as they do they marginalize themselves. About the larger society and how to reach it they remain clueless.

An image pops into my head of one of those hybrid French museums in which the contemporary is planted hopefully amid the walls of classicism. A large plexiglass box hangs suspended from the ceiling. Inside the box, holding wineglasses, stand today’s literary caretakers. The conversation is filled with standard academic jargon: “derive” this and “derive” that; derived specificity derived from the arbitrariness derived from the inutility of “an inverted vitalist.” (Throw in some “genetic mysticism” and a few “imprimaturs” while you’re at it.)

The buzz among the people suspended in the box is at a polite murmur. Look! James Wood and Jonathan Franzen, our culture’s (supposed) Best Critic and Best Novelist, “mutual almost-admirers,” are locked in debate—almost. Museum patrons struggle to listen, expecting to hear words of energy and wit, of sharp-edged conflict or sparkling wisdom, finding instead the dullest such exchange, from two big names, ever.

Doubleday editor Gerald Howard bemoans the conglomerates (of which he’s part). He’s “gloomy-hopeful” someone will find a way out of their plexiglass trap. He never asks, “Does anyone have a hammer?”

Meanwhile, outside the museum runs a stream, fed by underground springs, representing the life force of authentic culture.

—King Wenclas
Underground Literary Alliance

Dear Editors,

There is a category of financial support for writing that Keith Gessen seems to have overlooked in his essay on “Money”—that of living off the earnings of one’s spouse. Ralph Ellison discussed this at length in his foreword to Invisible Man, in which a neighborhood woman accuses him of being a “sweetback.” I am such a sweetback, although my being a stay-at-home dad would seem to counter the notion that I do nothing in exchange for my wife’s support. In any case, there have been legions of housewife writers who were neither embedded in the academy, independently wealthy, working in journalism, nor waiting tables in order to support their writing.

—Greg Partch

Dear Editors,

I was enjoying Benjamin Kunkel’s incisive essay “Novel.” But then he takes a moment to imagine what novels people will be reading in the year 2050. If the “Intellectual Situation” [“Global Warming”] is any guide, we surely will not be reading novels in the year 2050. We will be busy building igloos and fighting off our friends, and free time will be very different.

—Chip Mitchell

In Extremis

Dear Editors,

Andrew Ellner [“First, Do No Harm”] is an observant, compassionate, intelligent house officer, and already a good writer. I have no doubt that he’ll be a wonderful doctor. But one gets the sense that he hopes his teachers will show him a moral direction. My experience over the past forty years is that they won’t. Not because they don’t wish to do what is best for their patients in extreme illnesses, but because they are themselves constrained, frightened, and confused.

I recently received a patient transferred from a hospital some distance away, rushed with his family to my care for treatment of a lung cancer metastatic to the brain. He was comatose, but his wife and family were led to expect that I would operate on him immediately and save him. I spent an hour explaining that, while such treatment was possible, the end result would be that he’d wake to a severe neurological disability in order that he could live another six months—painfully and dependently preparing again to die. The family understood the folly of that idea, took him home, and enrolled him in hospice care. He died peacefully after a few days, never having awakened, never having suffered, and never having seen the inside of an ICU.

The lesson is, of course, to keep people out of the ICU.

The major task Ellner and his generation face will be to keep life-and-death decisions out of the courts, and out of religious politics. Because I myself grow older now, I pray they will be successful.

—Richard Rapport, M.D.

Free Love (I)

Dear Editors,

There’s a bunch of us here in Minneapolis who are reading your work, though not as many who are paying for it. Love,

—John C.

Free Love (II)

Dear Editors,

Thank you for Mark Greif’s incisive essay, “Afternoon of the Sex Children.” The first solution he suggests is to extinguish the worship of youth in our culture. This daunting task seems well worth trying, only how? I hope Greif pursues this.

His second proffered solution, to trivialize sex altogether, is his antidote to our culture’s elevation of sex to something of unsurpassed importance. Greif muses that Aldous Huxley warned us about a future world where sex would be arranged as casually as a coffee date. He passes over the word warn, and reflects that this is “an impossibly beautiful idyll.” What is missing here is an understanding that sex is intrinsically intimate. Perhaps it is more so for women due to the fact that it is an internal experience. Even if sex is drained of emotional intimacy, it is far from a coffee date. To deny that is to distort reality.

—Lynn Schneider

Free Advice

Dear Editors,

Greetings from Chicago . . . Moments ago I found n+1 on the web—I had heard of its existence, but hadn’t found it in any bookshop in the city. Distribution in a world as large as this is key. Your work has to be in people’s faces—like that single black hair the razor always misses under your nose.

(Don’t fret. I know this has the makings of one of those letters—you know the kind.)

Twenty-seven months ago, a friend and I had an idea to launch an underground pamphlet. It was to be called Scattershot, which referred to the method of distribution. Instead of going the usual route and asking indie bookstores and comics shops and cafés and hookah lounges and record stores to carry a stack of copies at the door—we decided to drop copies of Scattershot in the toilet. Not in the toilet bowl. But on top of the porcelain. Our hit list was random.

Looking back, this idea couldn’t have been more appropriate. The toilet was where Scattershot belonged. Despite a decent, hand-printed layout, the writing sucked. Where we succeeded, though, was distribution. A note on the inside cover asked that you read the pamphlet with clean hands and not take it with you after you flushed.

I don’t want to end this without talking about silence and noise. You yell out and no one responds. We had an email address . . . We never heard a single word. Looking back, it didn’t make much sense that anyone would write us unless they carried their laptop to the bathroom. Still, the resounding silence made us bitter. (We never published again.)

I think differently of n+1. At a minimum, it belongs in a clean facility.


Towerless Brooklyn

Dear Editors,

A comparison of the two pieces [“Building Miss Brooklyn” and “A Sporting Chance”: see the Web Archive at nplusonemag.com] you ran on the Atlantic Yards development highlights some curious divisions between the writers. Nikil Saval focuses his attention on questions concerning political coalitions, rhetoric, city zoning policies, and housing. Jonathan Liu, by contrast, focuses his discussion on architecture, sports, and the image of “history.”

These discussions converge on a key figure: Robert Moses. Saval acknowledges the (usually overlooked) fact that Moses provided New York City with an astounding quantity, much of it centrally located, of public housing units. The presence of these facilities has all but guaranteed that New York will never gentrify as thoroughly as, say, central Paris or London. This acknowledgement attends Saval’s support for “liberal projects [that help] the poor and displaced” of New York. All this Saval is able to do without advocating the full, problematic scope of Moses’s entire building program, which was in many respects anti-poor.

By contrast, Liu’s understanding of Moses stems from a more familiar narrative, in which Moses is held up as responsible for ugly “cookie cutter” constructions all over the city and for massive highway-building programs that destroyed neighborhoods. A (surely not permanent) political rejection, in the United States, of the sorts of “liberal projects” that Saval endorses for American cities has bolstered this narrative. Yet an inspection of conditions on the ground reveals that such a story is in many ways quite contrived. For instance, many of Moses’s constructions—Lincoln Center, the terraces in Riverside Park, the Verrazano Bridge—are, to say the least, unique. Moreover, as Saval suggests, highways and other major government building programs are not alone to blame for the postwar destruction of urban neighborhoods. If anything, protecting a neighborhood from a highway has tended to facilitate gentrification, which is a process whereby all of the residents of an area—and not just those who live inside the highway corridor—are forced to leave. Through gentrification, the neighborhood is “saved” only insofar as its architecture remains.

Indeed, Liu makes clear that architecture fascinates him far more than do the people inside of it. Certainly this bias would explain why he is able to write an entire article about the role of architecture in the Atlantic Yards development conflict—a conflict which is, ultimately, about housing prices—without even mentioning the word “housing.” For Liu, architecture’s primary responsibility is not to provide shelter, but rather to project certain images (conveying “history,” or “humanism,” or the “transformative power” of athletics, or whatever). Such a notion of architecture usually gets branded “postmodern,” but to make the definition more relevant to Saval’s discussion, we might instead use the term “neoliberal”—since it is a definition that regards society as composed of image-consumers, and not of human beings with a shared fundamental need for shelter.

Liu begins his article by self-identifying as a fan of the NBA. One wonders: is it necessary that such self-identification lead to his thinly veiled pro-corporate political position? Perhaps; after all, above all else sports fans want for their “home” team to win a championship. This desire calls for the best young players, which calls for money, which calls for expensive arena seats and ludicrous amounts of public funding for arena construction. Most fans, whether rich or poor, are comfortable mortgaging their own futures in their longing for that elusive ring.

And yet a professional sports league is by definition limited. The season, the game, the court, the rules—all this is bounded. The whole point, the whole excitement, hinges upon the fact that the competition is supposed to be “only a game”—the merciless hypercompetitiveness of which is not supposed to spill over into all other aspects of our lives. Liu himself, in celebrating such “old-fashioned” sporting venues as Ebbets Field or Fenway Park, suggests the importance of the stadium as a bounded, autonomous construction (neither ballpark was built as part of a “multi-use complex”). To this end, the proposed Nets arena would be acceptable if it weren’t part and parcel of a far vaster corporate building program, one which will annihilate the presence of economically struggling groups as thoroughly as a great basketball team annihilates a lousy one.

Bruce Ratner is using the overwhelming cultural popularity of sports to sell his plan for Brooklyn. He is banking on an uncritical understanding of sports as “justifying” capitalism at its most cutthroat. Yet sports is, and has always been, salvageable for a politics of resistance. Think of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising the “Black Power” fist during the 1968 Olympic medal award ceremony.

Saval’s “renewed attention to and investment in the notion of public development” need not come at the expense of any cultural practice, be it architecture, sports, or the celebration of history.

—Jacob Shell

Dear Editors,

A glance in the mirror Jonathan Liu offers me in “A Sporting Chance” shows a creature of straw, wearing my name. Liu indulges the same caricature of an anti-Ratner position as Charles “There’s this small culture of inertia” Schumer and Frank “They should have been picketing Henry Ford” Gehry—i.e., that to stand against this particular development is to stand, somehow, against progress—and the contemporary city—itself. Hooey. Balderdash. Flapdoodle.

Let’s make it simple. A thousand different futures could be projected for that zone (and if you chose from a thousand at random you could hardly do worse than Ratner’s top-heavy, over-dense, privatized, underplanned, compromised-yet-railroaded vision). Who ever claimed the only choice was between this and “stasis”? (If you’re not for wiretapping, you must be in favor of terrorists.) I like sports too, but when did basketball come to mean towers? Why not ask for better, instead of consoling ourselves in advance for acquiescence to yet another triumph of capital’s brain-dead imperatives? “Growth for growth’s sake is the logic of the cancer cell.” Edward Abbey said that. I don’t find anything more persuasive than cancer logic in Liu’s elaborate rationalizations.

—Jonathan Lethem

Germans Everywhere

Dear Editors:

Perhaps if Johannes Türk [“The Trouble with Being German”] had limited himself to the discontents of Berlin his commentary would be less annoyingly coy. Berlin is a special place and remains oddly depressed—both economically and psychologically—for the capital city of Europe’s (yes, still) richest country. Subsidies propped up the city during the cold war, and it was arguably the best place in the West to get good, cheap drugs as well as high culture. German students still flock there in droves for the nightlife and cultural attractions, but finding a living wage is difficult and most never settle permanently. The city relies on an intermittent rush of young foreigners both from within Germany and without to stay fresh. Cheap rents have been a boon to expat artists from Williamsburg, Paris, London, Tokyo, you name it. Cheap flights, cheaper alcohol, and an impossible wealth of grants, fellowships, and other stipends help keep it going. The German government wants you to love Germany—and what better way than to present a theme park of trauma, history, and rebirth?

This is the entire point of the newly dubbed “Berlin Republic”: lots of communist architecture interspersed with glass and steel, makeshift clubs in abandoned buildings and ethnic restaurants to boot. The ’68 generation changed some things for the better (no doubt), but keep in mind Schröder now heads a finance group building an oil pipeline between Germany and Russia, aided by his best friend, the virtuous Vladimir Putin. Principles? The man wants to get paid. To see that the Iraq war was foolish took little political courage or genius, especially in a country where appealing to pacifism is like appealing to God.

I am also surprised to hear that Heidegger isn’t being taught at German universities. Really? Countless works on Heidegger have been published in the German language in the last fifteen years. Perhaps Türk should have mentioned Carl Schmitt as one of the doyens of German political philosophy who’s getting little exposure in the Fatherland. There are a host of interesting and creative German intellectuals that compete on a much vaster plane—Peter Sloterdijk comes to mind—than many American self-styled intellectuals. And that Germans are embarrassed to speak German outside of Germany (a typical lament of the German university student)? Have you been to Spain, Portugal, or Tuscany recently? Germans are fucking colonizing these places; you can order food there in German, I promise; you may even find a Bretzel or a good Schnitzel if you’re lucky.

—S. C. Gummer

(n+1) x 2

Dear Editors,

We were very surprised in discovering some months ago another magazine with the same title we chose in April 2000 (first issue of Italian n+1). Now some guy registered as admin. in Italian Wikipedia told us that n+1 already existed when we made the encyclopedia article. We don’t believe that will create an ambiguity, but . . . damn! Why did you adopt such a title among the millions possible? What does it mean for you? We are interested in the answer, but not for copyright (we adopted a politics of copyleft).

(for the editorial staff)

Marco Roth replies:

It’s one of those strange intellectual coincidences. We chose n+1 as the working title of our journal. For us, it was a metaphor for the possibility of progress, the infinitely open set, at a time when Americans seemed to have lost faith in both progressive politics and the possibility of individual improvement, in literature and thought, without the aid of capitalism. Only then did we discover your journal. We attempted to come up with an alternative title, but nothing pleased us as much or suited us as well. We hoped the world would be big enough for both n+1s: yours dialectical and Marxist, ours progressive and eclectic, both united in a belief that we deserve better than what our governments and culture presently offer.

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