Critiquing the Critic who Critiques the Critics

Reading and Writing

I read with surprise, disgust, and with a little bit of secret admiration, the recent article by Anis Shivani in the Huffington Post, “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers.” He makes a point and is brave, but his point and bravery are malformed. It is one thing to review, in a logical fashion, a body of work, a short story, a novel, or an essay, but to publicly disparage, on a personal level, authors and colleagues, can be unhelpful, antagonistic, and even hypocritical.

Shivani over-generalizes his complaints, lumping together Lydia Davis and Aimee Bender under the adjective of “cloying.” (could two writers be more diverse?). He describes William T. Vollman as “Unreadable.” And on Amy Tan he writes she “Claims Nabokovian aspirations, but in fact writes pap that allows readers to delude themselves that they know something about Asian culture.” That’s not only an uncalled for blow to Amy Tan, but her culture and the subject matter of which she writes about. To call Antonya Nelson a “conference hopper” is particularly snide, especially when it’s not so clear if conference hopping is a bad thing (teaching at conferences supplements the dreadful pay rate of even the best writer). And lastly, to declare a poet overrated (i.e. John Ashbery) is odd, considering poets are barely even visible in today’s society beyond the “MFA writing system” Shivani so deliberately discredits. Moreover, the excerpts he reviews are taken out of context, and cannot be reliable in this form.

He is legitimate, however, in condemning the reviewing establishment as tedious and generally afraid to reprove certain writers lest they open themselves up to danger of being criticized too (here, Shivani puts his money where his mouth is). That he openly conveys aversion of some well-loved writers is quite titillating in the otherwise unpopular sport of authors reviewing authors. I personally appreciate a deviant writer or critic; I cheer for them, as I often do for those that protect and promote the underdog (of which I am one). In other words, I’m always up for a good fight. But frothy, scantily-clad remarks are irresponsible, especially when published in a forum that holds as much sway with the general public as Huffington Post. The general public, ironically in many of the comments, have never heard about these writers (which is telling, in that we get to see where Shivani spends his bookish time—reading MFA-generated writers). His commentary then comes off as fodder for the Internet trolls and others who are jealous, disgruntled, rabid.

Were Shivani to instead consider adopting some, if not all, of John Updike’s** (classy) rules for book reviewing (I hope these are verbatim) and present an analytical examination of these books, with his eye on the MFA writing establishment, he may just start a revolution (if that is what he intends).

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

Some of his other points are notable and should be examined (I shall let someone else do it though). What Shivani could have, and perhaps should have done, is critique the MFA program and what kind of work they produce or even the literary prizes that are doled out to and from the same. He writes: that “writing programs embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness; as long as writers play by the rules.” Shivani notes, “Since grants, awards, and residencies are controlled by the same inbreeding group, it’s difficult to see how the designated heavies can be displaced.” While possibly true, but using such vernacular as “inbreeding” and “designated heavies” is bellicose, not cogent. But is he really trying to start a revolution, or does he want what he argues against—that “bad writing draws attention to the writer himself.” It’s hard to tell.

Finally, without going point by point (though I am tempted, I have other things to do, like write a book review), one of his more confusing arguments is that writers are “easily copying” MFA-derived authors. Almost any writer would confess to having role models or authors they copy, whether it is in a style, subject matter, or in the sentence structure. We are all forgers since the beginning of writing itself. Shivani dismisses Jonathan Safran Foer outright for “hanging on to J. M. Coetzee’s coattails.” What then is the writer to do? Does Shivani think that writing is going to “revolutionize itself in a vacuum?” (a quote from a colleague I spoke with today regarding this article).

It’s too bad that In Shivani’s treatise, we are only privy to his unbridled loathing and not his smart evaluation, which he is capable of—his writing is fun to read. His arguments have teeth, but they could be done without leaving such big scars to himself or to the authors he betrays.

**Wyatt Mason examines Updike’s review process in a 2007 Harper‘s article. Read it. It’s good.

I daresay I feel a little nervous myself, calling out a writer who has far more cachet than I.

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9 thoughts on “Critiquing the Critic who Critiques the Critics

  1. good response! I wish Shivani had constructed a more streamlined and focused argument. As you and I discussed previously, but is worth repeating here to share with other commenters, if the attack is on writers being taught to model themselves after mediocre writers, then the process should not be to trash a handful of authors who have been given awards. those awards were not given by MFA programs. (Upon close review of Shivani’s piece, it’s clear he’s most concerned with the Pulitzer, perhaps because it seems to be the most “visible” or popular of the book awards handed out annually.)

    I have to add that Shivani’s attack on Junot Diaz is amusing since Diaz thinks MFA programs are not very useful for teaching writing. Perhaps if Shivani knew more about what the various writers thought, instead of making pseudo-critiques of their work, he might have had a more interesting conversation.

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    1. Ah, Evan, thanks for the Diaz note…I wanted to write more, but didn’t want to bore any future and potential readers with a long-winded treatise of my own. Your point is well made: I have read interviews from Diaz, though can’t put my hand on exactly what I want at the moment, though this quote, taken from Narrative Magazine’s interview with him, is somewhat relevant: “If we were really smart, if we really cared about reading and writing, we wouldn’t be having MFA programs for writers, we would have MFA programs for readers.” Thanks also for pointing out his confused message on prize-giving and his aim at the Pulitzer winners.

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  2. I have been following this kerfuffle (sp?) at a couple of blogs and wanted to point out that Shivani is a Huffington Post regular, and has written mostly erudite and calm interview, and more importantly, is a regular in all the high brow journals where many of his targets also write. As such its not fair to put more responsibility on him by saying “well its the Huffington Post so he should show extra care.”

    And he’s in the National Book Critics Circle. I’m sure all those authors he dissed wouldn’t have a problem putting the Book Critics Circle Award on their book jackets if it would help sell more books. You can’t have your carrot cake without carrots.

    This is form his website:

    Anis’s criticism, reviews, and interviews appear regularly in influential literary journals such as the Georgia Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Cambridge Quarterly, Contemporary Review (Oxford), Stand, Boulevard, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, Texas Review, Harvard Review, American Book Review, Quarterly West, Notre Dame Review, South Carolina Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and others.

    Online, Anis has been reviewing, writing essays, and interviewing authors frequently for the Huffington Post.

    Anis is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and frequently reviews books for newspapers and magazines such as the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, St. Petersburg Times, Kansas City Star, In These Times, Brooklyn Rail, and others.

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    1. Thanks much for your comment! I too am an NBCC book reviewer and agree with you that most authors would indeed like the NBCC award. Again, thanks for your perspective and thanks for reading mine.

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  3. Thank you for a well-reasoned, informative response. I deeply disliked the meanness of Shivani’s piece. Such hyperbolic critique could be aimed at any writer, but does it serve anyone’s interests, except perhaps the critic’s own (if said critic’s dying for attention)?

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  4. Wonderful piece, Kerry. So glad I found your blog. Personally, I am not interested in writing reviews of books I don’t like, only the ones that I love. Too often I have not enjoyed a book, picked it up years later, and loved it. So I know it’s not always the author but me who was not ready to appreciate the writing the first time around. But I cannot wait to read Wyatt Mason examines Updike’s review process in a 2007 Harper‘s article. Thanks for the tip.

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