The latest article to cause a stir in the literary blogosphere is Anis Shivani’s The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers posted at the Huffington Post. The list has gotten a variety of negative responses around the web, which is of course what Shivani must have expected. Jezebel takes him to task over a perceived anti-feminist stance, HTMLGIANT finds it ballsy if nothing else, The Rumpus comments and then decides it isn’t worth comment, and Publishers Weekly finds the whole thing distasteful and responds with a list of underrated writers.
Unlike many commenters, I personally don’t have a problem with a little literary bickering. I do think Shivani is correct that the literary culture has gotten a little too nice. Unless an author is super mainstream, they are unlikely to receive any real negative criticism from the literary world. There is no reason why book reviewers shouldn’t be as critical as movie or music critics. The reasons why they are not should be saved for another post (certainly the fact that most book reviewers are active writers themselves, unlike film or music reviewers, plays a large part), but suffice to say that a healthy amount of criticism and even a little bit of nastiness is not a bad thing.
The problem, however, is that most writers who do go on the attack don’t really say much. Instead of truly analyzing a perceived issue or problem, they end up flinging random insults that bring more attention to themselves than their targets and leave readers without any greater understanding. Kneejerk attacks produce kneejerk reactions and don’t enlighten either side of the conversation.
So what about Shivani’s piece? The first problem with the article is its scope. The list itself is a hodgepodge series of attacks on a variety of writers–from aging postmodern poets to mainstream young literary stars–who seemingly have little to do with each other. In what ways are these 15 authors “rated” in order to be overrated? Are there many people out there highly rating Vollmann and Safran Foer and Billy Collins and Amy Tan? Is it a list of writers that MFA students overrate? Mainstream literary awards? Small magazines? The reading public? It is like making a list of overrated musicians and putting Lada Gaga and Drake next to John Cale and Children of Bodom.
This ties directly into his larger problem of the article not having something to say. His individual critiques may each say something, but the article as a whole is muddled. He takes pot shots at MFA programs, big publishers, political correctness, and a half-dozen other things that don’t necessarily have that much to do with each other. Shivani does have arguments to make, but the article lacks focus. An essay on the problems of multiculturalism in modern American writing could be quite interesting, especially from the perspective of a Pakistani-American. An analysis of modern poetry or mainstream literary writing or niche indie books might each serve a purpose, but not all at the same time. Another attack on MFA programs might be tired, but at least it would have a point. As it stands no time is devoted to any of Shivani’s complaints. Everything is subsumed in a generalized snark.
A second problem, for me, is that Shivani–despite perhaps being “brave” for writing an attack article–seems timid in his targets. With the exception of Junot Diaz and perhaps Micheal Cunningham, none of the fiction writers attacked strike me as writers that the literary world is currently terribly excited about. Vollmann seems too niche for this list and, as someone who famously eschewed an MFA program to travel to Afghanistan, doesn’t seem like a prime target for an anti-MFA world critique. Safran Foer already has, how do you say, a mixed reputation. Poetry has been marginalized to the point that calling any poet “overrated” seems bizarre. Even still, certainly it is several decades too late to be attacking someone like John Ashberry as representative of contemporary American writing.
What I found interesting is that Shivani takes a quick jab at five writers who actually would be a bit daring to attack in 2010: “Cloying writers like Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, and Charles D’Ambrosio are held up as models of good writing, because they’re easy enough to copy.” (I must note that several of these authors are often critiqued for being too bleak and emotionally cold, so I’m confused by Shivani’s use of “cloying.”) I recently went through an MFA program and all five of those writers were frequently read and talked about. I would not say the same about Amy Tan or Antonya Nelson, who were likely most famous fifteen to twenty years ago. Even though I admire all five of the alleged “cloying” authors–and at least two I consider greats–I’d be interested in seeing a critique of them in a way I’m not about Billy Collins in 2010.
In short, I’d like to see Shivani focus his attack and provide readers with a fleshed-out argument that makes them think instead of a series of mud clumps slung in random directions.
Although I don’t want to nitpick all of Shivani’s comments, I do feel like ending by looking at his–far too brief–description of bad writing:
If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself.
This feels like a rather cliche string of complaints that one often hears about writing. It is an attitude that has always baffled me. Let’s be clear: writing is a form of art. It is a cousin of painting or film or music. Would anyone say that that a song needs a moral core or that a painting shouldn’t emphasis style? Yes, writing is a narrative art and thus lends itself to “substance” as it is sometimes defined, but great writing has both style and substance. Different works of art employ different tactics to different ends. Obfuscation can be used brilliantly and likely no artist ever devotes himself to pushing his work on the public without a healthy dose of narcissism. Shivani does not list any contemporary authors he likes, but he does mention authors like Faulkner, Hemingway and Henry Miller as past greats. I have no problem with him praising those authors, obviously, but after a dismissal of “obfuscation” and “narcissism” some of those choices feel a little odd.
Shivani did claim he would release a list of underrated contemporary writers, but so far it hasn’t appeared. I’m sure we will see a new set of responses around the web when it does.