categories: Cocktail Hour
The Huffington Post has picked up a list of the 15 most overrated writers by a writer in no danger of being overrated, at least not quite yet, one Anis Shivani of Houston and Harvard, or so he identifies himself. You know it’s going to be no fun, but there’s the item and it’s about books and so second or third time through Huffington at cocktail hour I clicked on it, hoping for I don’t know what, entertainment, I guess, since that’s what reading is, right? Even reading the news? I might even have hoped for a smart conversation (which is also entertainment, come to think of it), but.
Mr. Shivani rails in an introduction about conglomerate publishing and the stranglehold of, um, MFA programs, also the gutlessness of critics, also the clubby world of literary prizes, also academics, especially post-structuralists and deconstructionists, also multi-culturalism and political correctness, so you know he’s a guy who’s seen some rejection and other torment on whatever path it is that has taken him from Harvard to Houston.
We know we are on the wrong path when he calls Denis Johnson cloying. That is not the right word for Mr. Johnson, who is blunt and quite hard-edged. The group Mr. Shivani clumps with Mr. Johnson are what I would call pretty much 80s writers, still going strong most of them, minimalists all, heirs to Raymond Carver, and all of them strong voices, good entertainment, if none my favorites, and none very much the names of today. But for Mr. Shivani, they are devils because they’re “easy enough to copy.” In the MFA programs, he means.
I don’t know. At Ohio State when I taught in the MFA program there we were very proud of the diversity of writing approaches our students brought along with them, and even prouder of the diversity of approaches they left with. We weren’t guaranteeing (and few programs would dare) successful writing careers, just offering a chance to learn and grow as writers and readers. We certainly weren’t tied in to any publishing/prize nexus. (Though maybe Dan Brown’s next novel could be THE SHIVANI CODE—wherein the secrets of the writey-prizey-criticky monks are revealed.) And neither was Columbia, where I took my MFA, though I’ve heard different often. I mean, our fellow students would become successful writers (because they were good writers), and editors (because they were good editors, and good readers), and certainly critics (because they were smart and all of the above), and we’d stay in touch, and make this or that social and professional connection (my agent and I were classmates, for example, and some of us helped smuggle Obama over from Kenya when he was born), but that hardly amounts to a conspiracy. And I don’t remember having students copy anything, though it could be a good assignment.
At one point, Mr. Shivani makes a splendid point—mainstream reviewing is crumbling by the minute. It would have been an even better point ten years ago. The point right now is that publishing is crumbling. Serious writers (by that I mean this: writers who are serious)(except comic writers, who are serious too, but funny)(I don’t mean literary exactly)(well, yes I do, goddamnit)(okay, let’s just make it writers in general, no value judgment), I mean most writers, are struggling to be heard. Even the most published, the best-prized.
So what’s needed is some mediocrity to come along and bash them! Let’s not go after the really bad writers who line the best-seller lists (many exceptions, I know, with luck myself one day). The trouble with B.R. Myers (who wrote an annoying article called “A Reader’s Manifesto” in the July/August 2001 issue of the then increasingly and now completely annoying Atlantic Monthly)(B.R. is now an English Professor in Korea), is that he’s too easy to imitate. The writers are different now, but the justifications are just as lame, the picks just as bizarre, with the same smell of vendetta (are any of Mr. Shivani’s picks Harvard Profs, for example?).
Also the definition of good writing. As soon as you see the phrase “lack of a moral core,” you know you’re with someone who stopped really reading back in high school with John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” (a great book by a great medievalist and novelist, but still, “On Moral Fiction,” that was pretty backwards even then).
Who cares who wins the Pulitzer Prize? Mr. Shivani does. Apparently it’s a bad idea to do so. It insures future invisibility, unless it doesn’t. Because it’s both a great goal and a cultural curse. I mean, says Mr. S. (in so many words) who ever heard of John Hersey? Yeah, who ever heard of him? The guy who wrote “Hiroshima,” one of the first books to bring novelist storytelling to a work of journalism in the bravest and most crucial human and fucking moral context imaginable? Also “Blues,” a book I dearly loved, since I liked bluefishing at the time. Also “A Bell for Adano,” a great favorite of my high-school English teacher, Mrs. Fudgepickle. And 17 other books, many still in print.
Probably Mr. Shivani is right. Most of his readers won’t have heard of Hersey. Nor will they have heard of any of the writers he pans. Unless they have MFAs, which insures at least that some reading’s gone on…. Or if they’re interested in creative nonfiction, in which controversial field the dude’s a god. (Please, Mr. S, don’t take on the subject of creative nonfiction–there’s enough mud in that water….)
The other blazing argument against the Pulitzer is that good books in given years didn’t win. But someone has to win. It’s $3000 big bucks! The stuff cabals are built on! And, you know, a couple thousand contenders and then ten or so finalists have to not win. Damn cloying, I know. I should have won seven times over, at least. “But awards are not substitutes for critical judgment.” That’s right. Mr. Shivani is right. He’s right, in fact, about a lot of stuff. But of course this particular observation is a straw man. Who said awards were a substitute for anything? And then again, not a straw man, just stupid, because awards are indeed the results of critical judgment. Just not my critical judgment. Unless I’m the judge. Which I am, sometimes. Which is why I know that if Mr. Shivani never wins a Pulitzer it will only be because of knocking the thing. Insanity! Jesus, doesn’t he know where his gears are greased?
I’m not on board for the kneejerk, jerk-jerk, politically correct, I-got-a-C-in Eighteenth-Century-lit-from-a-lesbian “deconstruction is bad” twaddle, either. All deconstruction really says is that there’s no single truth, no central way to evaluate anything, that point-of-view matters. So, for example, no one biography can really capture its subject (love how historians insist on the excellence and primacy of their research over the romantic ramblings of others and then base whole books on love letters). The plain truth of that hurts when you believe in right and wrong, good and bad. When you’re a modernist, that is, and can’t stand anything published after 1951. But wait, no, that’s the academics who believe that, at least in Mr. Shivani’s estimation. Sorry. My brain is frying a little—many mixed messages coming from our man.
These post-modern games! Stuff that started with that new-wavey Milton guy. Or maybe Homer, I don’t know. Certainly Laurence Sterne and his under-overrated “Tristram Shandy.” Damn them! Too easy to copy! (Hey moralists–whatever happened to the Bible, literature that can only be interpreted one way!)(that’s why there’s only one church in the whole world!)(And only one religion!)(Easy to copy, too).
Anyway. Critical judgment, let’s face it, comes down to taste. More or less educated taste, it’s true, but it’s taste every way you lick it. And more important, reading of any kind except maybe, like, military manuals and camera instructions (but including literary criticism) is ENTERTAINMENT, which, simply defined, is a diversion from the reality of death, suffering, and so forth.
So have your list, Mr. Shivani. But please, take Antonya Nelson and Billy Collins and Michael Cunningham off! They are great writers all. I know it, because I say so! I love them! I love their books! Also, they’re friends and acquaintances of mine, and I don’t like to see them hurt. Not that there’s any major injury likely. Kind of like in Central Park once when a brat with his radio car crashed it into my ankle, slightly scuffing one of my warm new winter boots. I refrained from crushing the car underfoot or kicking in into the boat pond or just simply bending over and breaking the antenna off because, well, even though he was full of spite and malice and will probably cause great problems in the world, he was just a kid.