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