You Shouldn’t Throw Stones, Anis Shivani

(Insert race here), Please

A lot of you know that I tweet. I’m a spotty tweeter, but when I do commit to it, I go in. I tweet about lots of subjects: politics, my social views, writing, general f*ckery, otaku and nerd stuff..and I have a small but well informed and intelligent group of people who have elected to participate with me in the ongoing conversation.

Today, I was minding my own business, perusing Twitter when @rochellespencer linked me to Anis Shivani’s article on Huffington Post.

In his article, he presents a scathing review of what he believes are the 15 most overrated contemporary American writers. He posits some interesting criteria for why these writers are overrated, but what seems to be the most reoccurring themes are these:

MFA programs are with the bull, and they’re producing writers that only copy off of the writers on his list

There are no good critics to put these “overrated mediocrities” to the litmus test and really bear down on their writing

Publishers are all about book sales, and not promoting exemplary work

and…

The institution that lauds these writers is defunct, and couldn’t pick a good story/teller “if it hit them in the face”.

Shivani also goes in on the writing styles of the authors he points out, calling almost all of them “unreadable”, and taking special potshots of writers who present different cultural or social values. He is concerned that the authors mentioned have “betrayed the legacy” of modernism and postmodernism, as evidenced by the fact that most of the writers are brooding, politically and socially irrelevant, and most of all, they’re bad writers.

Shivani is a critic, it says so on his website. He studied at Harvard. He’s a writer of fiction and poetry. This makes him qualified to criticize other writers, and point out every element of their work that is wrong, right?

Only in that sitting in a circle, writing workshop way.

Check out some of the initial reactions that I tweeted:

He dislikes philosophy, enjambment, and prose/poetry that he feels celebrates the writer and not the story.

Which is amazing, because his own writing is dense and full of pretense. He is, quite frankly, a literary hater.

Shivani is implacable. He doesn’t like introspective writing, nor does he like realism. He hates trend writers but hates people who stick to one genre or subject area that they do well.

He criticizes the readability of these writers, when his own writing is dense and gregarious. He bashes the self-inspecting nature of these writers while pointing his thumbs at his chest with every entry.

Another intriguing tidbit: There seems to be a recent trend of Non-PoC (or those who refuse to identify as PoC) taking great gains to analyze the strange and magnificent behaviors of PoC, usually analyzing our art, our values, or our  use of social networking sites.

Shivani does quite a few things wrong in flaming these authors. The biggest and most lasting, though, is that instead of coming off critical, he comes off like the petulant child who takes his games home after you beat him in them. There is just enough animus and resentment in Shivani’s article to make you wonder whether he was passed up for a committee position. He bashes writers who dare tackle another culture, or even their own (he goes apesh*t on Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Junot Diaz for taking slices of their own culture and writing works to fit said culture). Shivani also reserves a special space for John Ashbery, a man who, as one commenter said, “Poets who disagree on everything poetic agree on.”

I wonder, and maybe these are my musings alone, whether Shivani aspired to such a catty and infantile showing. He begrudges these authors their fame, even going as far as to imply that it’s not deserved (I imagined him reading the article’s title aloud, and saying “Overrated” like a valley girl.) Shivani’s only point is that the publishing gatekeepers do a bad job of not letting the literary slurry through, but as anyone who’s bought a book knows: the publishing game is a BUSINESS, not a charity. Popularity sells books, and these people are what’s popular right now.

I think that Mr. Shivani should take a break, try and get this next list of underrated writers together. I’d love to see who he champions as the saviors of literature.

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2 thoughts on “You Shouldn’t Throw Stones, Anis Shivani

  1. Interesting article…I read Shivani’s piece on Huff and I think we both might have missed the point. At first I thought the piece was serious, in a “the future of fiction is in these guys hands??? We’re sooooo effed as readers” kind of way. But, Im thinking now that Shivani was the one doing the effing around. Just flexing literary pecs and abs for the entertainment of people like you and I who can appreciate (for what its worth) well written scathing criticism. I was thoroughly entertained and read the entire piece, something i would have never been able to do if A) his writing wasnt clever and entertaining, and if 2) I took Shivani too seriously or believed Shivani truly takes any of this too seriously.
    Thanks for sharing…btw, got turned on to you by Miss Moore, the one and only over at Misadventurous

    Loco

  2. Loco,

    Firstly, thanks for stopping by! I really appreciate that!

    Secondly, I never would have thought that Shivani meant his review to be taken with some tongue-in-cheek. If this is as you say, then the point was indeed missed by me, and I am sore about it.

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