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Anis Shivani: The most overrated arbiter of what’s overrated in literature

August 12, 2010

Anis Shivani: Looking down his nose at American writers.

I had hoped to ignore Anis Shivani’s pointless and stupid screed, “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers,” which appeared at Huffington Post over the weekend. But the thing has legs, provoking continued nonsensical comment all over the bloggerverse. So — sigh — here I go:

Oh, where to start? Has it been only eight years since Dale Peck announced, in The New Republic, that “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation?” It used to be a couple of decades would pass before some sullen wannabe savaged the established literati as a way of making a name for himself.

But I guess Shivani got tired of sitting in neglected glory down in Houston, where his novels, short stories and poems are published by small presses and nominated for second-tier prizes.

In Shivani’s case, as in Peck’s, critical judgment, grounded in a specific, defensible aesthetic, has been replaced with angry subjectivity. And, I suspect, resentment. The entire problem with the 15 writers Shivani assails seems to be that that are more famous, honored and successful than Shivani himself.

That’s not to say that writers cannot be overrated, some for a time, others for, apparently, all time. John Steinbeck, now there was  a second-rater for you. And the urge to humble the unjustly puffed up is common to all critis (here’s the number I did on Steinbeck in 2002, on the occasion of his 100th birthday).

Indeed, for what it’s worth, I agree with some of Shivani’s judgments (though not for the same reasons): Amy Tan is not a great writer (but did anyone say she is?). Jonathan Safran Foer’s meager talents do not justify his literary Q quotient. Billy Collins is a puddle-deep careerist (but he’s also clever and funny).

Shivani drifts far off base by including William T. Vollman, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Junot Diaz, Louise Gluck, or Jhumpa Lahiri. I mean, no writer is above criticism (Not even Shakespeare! Not even Twain! Not even God –what’s up with all those begats, anway?). But these are all serious artists who deserve more than the summary executions Shivani doles out.

Sniff: Is that a whiff of self-hatred I detect? For a critic who does not appear to be a White Anglo Saxon Protestant, Shivani’s list is curiously weighted with writers belonging to outsider groups: Jews (Foer); gays (Michael Cunningham); Hispanics (Diaz); Chinese (Tan); South Asian (Lahiri).

And women! As Anna North noted at jezebel.com, nine of Shivani’s 15 “overrated writers” are women. In a piece titled “Literary critic hates vaginas, ‘Ghetto Volume,'” North dismantles Shivani’s misogyny (“Yes, Gluck has committed the first deadly sin of the female writer: thinking she’s important”), while also assailing the aesthetic poverty of his criticism.

Really, Shivani’s writing is unintentionally self-revealing to a hilarious degree:

“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. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear.”

It’s almost too easy to pick apart this mess of nonsequiters. The first sentence is nonsense. The second makes sense, but it also describes Shivani’s own performance –the very definition of a showboating, narcissistic lack of moral (or aesthetic) clarity. Furthermore, what does “they are uneasy with mortality” even mean? I’m uneasy with mortality, aren’t you? But not a single writer on Shivani’s list has failed to engage the subject of mortality.

I mean, c’mon, Anis: You can’t castigate Foer for riding “the 9/11-novel gravy train with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”  and also accuse him of dodging the unhappy fact that we are all going to die. Any book about 9-11, even a bad one, is by definition about mortality.

Shivani’s introductory essay baby-shakes some tiresomely familiar bugaboos: Deconstructionists; creative writing programs; multiculturalism; “conglomerate publishing;” the Pulitzer Prize; reviewers. But: deconstructionists hold no sway outside the academy; Flannery O’Connor was the product of a creative writing workshop; multiculturalism is a good thing; conglomerate publishing was a really big problem 10 years ago; reviewers — the only problem with reviewers is how few remain.

Which makes Shivani’s blistering attack on Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times downright risible. She’s not my favorite critic, either, but if you think she’s “no more than the blurbing arm for conglomerate publishing,” then you should have a word with Martin Amis, Yann Martel, Ian McEwan, T.C. Boyle, Adam Haslett, Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro, or Jonathan Lethem, all of whom have come in for rough handling by Kakutani in the past few months.

Dale Peck, though guilty of the same kind of self-aggrandizing vandalism, at least had the brass to take on the major writers of the day, including Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, Julian Barnes, Jim Crace, Kurt Vonnegut–although he does share with Shivani a distaste of Michael Cunningham.

Shivani’s victims are not exactly small potatoes, but the absence of bigger names, especially among the novelists, makes this s weirdly selective list. And not in a good way.

Finally, let me point out that Rick Moody seems to have survived Peck’s attack quite nicely. He recently published a major novel, The Four Fingers of Death, that’s receiving respectful if mixed reviews. The targets of Shivani’s broadside will fare as well, I expect.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. Gwen permalink
    August 12, 2010 2:25 pm

    Stop mincing words, Chauncey–what do you *really* think?

    (hee–I looooooves me a good rant!)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 12, 2010 5:25 pm

      Why, thank ye, ma’am. I loves writin’ ’em, too.

  2. August 12, 2010 2:59 pm

    Ah, I can’t believe you gave in and gave this man some publicity! You know what they say about bad publicity…..

    But nonetheless, very entertaining.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 12, 2010 5:26 pm

      Yeah, yeah, I know. Contributing to the problem I wish to solve. Sigh. But it’s my job to comment on the book news of the day, and this dimwit just won’t go away.

  3. August 12, 2010 3:42 pm

    Who is this Anis Shivani getting all the attention for writing such BS about some very fine writers? I’m talking Denis Johnson, Amy Tan, Antonya Nelson, Billy Collins and many others. By what authority does he rip them to shreds? Meanspirited, ugly article. Any one of us could trash Shivani’s own “creative” work. It’s easy to kill ignored, failed writers lashing out because they’re not in the same league with the writers this attention-craving nitwit is so small-mindedly picking to pieces. I mean Junot Diaz “Doesn’t realize the fine line between presenting the dark underside of reality and glorifying it.” Really? Shivanit [sic], you are overrating yourself. Get a grip and quit being so nasty, your jealousy smelling to heaven. What a creep this guy is, the Ann Coulter of literature.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 12, 2010 5:29 pm

      I believe that anyone can say anything about anyone in a critical essay — so long as you back it up with closely reasoned arguments and good solid writing. Alas, Mr. Shivani fails on both counts. Which is why I thought his diatribe would be ignored and then fade quickly of its own accord. But for reasons beyond my ken, people are taking it seriously. Criminy.

    • August 13, 2010 3:37 pm

      Duff,

      Good points. I think it’s the mean-spiritedness of the piece that turns people away from seeing his points. Do you think he may have/will experience a spike in his own book sales because of the article? Is it worth it to him?

  4. August 12, 2010 3:53 pm

    Anis Shivani: The most overrated arbiter of what’s overrated in literature.

    What a great title, Chauncey. Gooder than grits.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 12, 2010 5:29 pm

      High praise, Duff, ’cause grits are gooo-ood.

  5. August 12, 2010 9:09 pm

    One of the authors he attacked, Antonia Nelson, is laughing at him. She asked if she should invite him to be her friend on Facebook. Go Antonia!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 13, 2010 12:39 am

      It would be a kindness. Maybe he’ll learn something.

  6. August 13, 2010 12:40 pm

    Thanks for the read, Chauncey. You called Shivani’s article “pointless and stupid,” but then took the time to address his points (after sighing). I’m sure you have no problems with the spike in web-hits you’re getting by taking a swing at Shivani, either. He’s published quite a nice bit of literary criticism, so there are more than a few who think what he has to say isn’t necessarily pointless and stupid.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 13, 2010 2:12 pm

      I address his “points,” such as they are, because to do otherwise would be to indulge in the same kind of flaming opinion-mongering rampant in Shivani’s essay. He may have published “a nice bit of literary criticism” somewhere, but this isn’t it. For the reasons I mention in my blog post. And more’s the pity, but I’ve enjoyed only the most modest of spikes in web-hits on this one. I’m still at a loss what attracts the attention of Internet readers.

  7. August 13, 2010 12:43 pm

    …and that isn’t to say I agree with everything he has to say…I like Antonya Nelson’s work; I loved Foer’s “9/11” book; and I think Wells Tower’s prose is innovative, descriptively…I think people who are taking shots at Shivani are kind of scared to reassess their views of literature, writing, and MFA programs.

  8. b.g. permalink
    August 13, 2010 3:46 pm

    What the heck is wrong with Steinbeck? If I’m a rube for liking him, so be it. A lot of what’s proclaimed “brilliant” in modern lit is, indeed, unreadable, though I’m not interested in passing judgment on the writers on Shivani’s list.

    • August 13, 2010 5:49 pm

      Love Steinbeck…No shame in that. I think it just proves that the subjectivity of literary preferences makes these interesting conversations as best. I think the delivery of the opinion goes a long way in garnering the respect from people, whether they agree with you or not.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        August 13, 2010 9:03 pm

        Steinbeck is demonstrably a weak novelist. Click on the link to my 2002 story, and you’ll find why I think so. You’ll also find that a) I’m not the only critic who feels this way, and b) I still find some value in Steinbeck’s work. Here’s the crux of my problem with Shivani: He doesn’t really analyze the writers he criticizes. Opinionering and pet peevery are poor substitutes for critical reasoning.

  9. September 20, 2010 7:21 am

    This is bullshit. I can hear the sound of you masturbating over Shivani’s article from here. Your mealymouthed spray does little but strip away from your own credibility. So Anis is perhaps smaller fry than Safran Foer and the others he targeted in his article? Big fucking deal. His piece is at least not as self-congratulatory and limpid as the reams of nonsense we’re supposed to digest as “good literature.” At the very least one person wasn’t too terrified of calling out some dull writing. I can’t say the same for you, disregarding Steinbeck doesn’t make you a Discerning Reader.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 30, 2011 10:41 am

      Yes, mindless insults do put me in my place much more effectively than actually attempting to dismantle my arguments, a courtesy I did, in all modesty, extend to Mr. Shivani.

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