Sunday, August 08, 2010

Who is Anis Shivani?

Book Critic

If, two weeks ago, you took a look at the Huffpost Blogger profile for Anis Shivani, not much would have stood out to you. He submits many posts of the typical style for the Books section of the site, and, at most, they have generated maybe around 100 comments in total.

That all changed Saturday morning when Shivani unleashed his photo slideshow of The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers.

It is now Sunday and there are over 1000 comments and the story has been shared over 5000 times on Twitter and Facebook combined.

Here is just a taste of his introduction:

The academy is ruled by "theorists" who consider their work superior to the literature they deconstruct, and moreover they have no interest in contemporary literature. As for the reviewing establishment, it is no more than the blurbing arm for conglomerate publishing, offering unanalytical "reviews" announcing that the emperor is wearing clothes (hence my inclusion of Michiko Kakutani).

The ascent of creative writing programs means that few with critical ability have any incentive to rock the boat--awards and jobs may be held back in retaliation. The writing programs embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness; as long as writers play by the rules (no threatening history or politics), there's no incentive to call them out. (A politically fecund multiculturalism--very desirable in this time of xenophobia--is the farthest thing from the minds of the official arbiters: such writing would be deemed "dangerous," and never have a chance against the mediocrities.)

The MFA writing system, with its mechanisms of circulating popularity and fashionableness, leans heavily on the easily imitable. 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. And copied they are, in tens of thousands of stories manufactured in workshops. Others hide behind a smokescreen of unreadable inimitability--Marilynne Robinson, for example--to maintain a necessary barrier between the masses and the overlords. Since grants, awards, and residencies are controlled by the same inbreeding group, it's difficult to see how the designated heavies can be displaced.

Shivani is an author of fiction, with at least one book on Amazon. His profile, interestingly enough, lists just about all of the players in the insular world of literary fiction and the Academy:

His fiction, poetry, and criticism appear in leading literary journals such as the Boston Review, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Agni, Threepenny Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Iowa Review, Antioch Review, Colorado Review, Pleiades, Boulevard, London Magazine, Stand, Times Literary Supplement, Meanjin, Cambridge Quarterly, and elsewhere.

He lists prizes he has won and he is also a graduate of Harvard University.

At the moment, he promises to follow up with his lists of "underrated" contemporary American authors, to be followed by the most overrated and underrated global authors. You can bet many will be watching for those posts.


Mother of Invention Acting School said...

I really liked his list. The figures that he listed that I was familiar with had it coming IMHO.

amboycharlie said...

The two that I have read had it coming. I have already said it of Volmann, and I would add Don DeLillo and the late DFW, but I won't speak ill of the dead by name.

Thomas Garvey said...

There are two things that are great about the list: the way Shivani tears into the logrollers (like Helen Vendler and Louise Gluck), and the fact that, even if you disagree with his assessment, you can still recognize in his analysis a precise rendering of each artist's "gimmick."

Anonymous said...

Art Hennessey? Get out. It's been a long time since I "ahn-yong ha-say-yo"-ed.

On a lark, googled some names from our 102d MI BN days and found ya here.

I was in Alpha Co. at Essayons and Hovey... Spec. Ray (or Sgt. Ray, depending on the timing).

Hope the intervening years have treated you well.

Art said...

Hey Ray,

Thanks for saying, Hi! Things have been really well.