Puget Sound English Department

August 8, 2010

Sure to raise hackles…

Anis Shivani has an article at The Huffington Post on “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers.” There’s someone on the list to offend everyone: it includes critical favorites like Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, and Jonathan Safran Foer, as well as beloved figures like Amy Tan. (There’s an accompanying survey feature that allows you to defend your mislabeled favorites from Shivani’s acid-penned critique.)

Shivani’s specific nominees for over-ratedness aside, he makes a relevant and thought-provoking larger point: while we can blame, to some extent, the overrated authors of the past on the failings of a set of familiar villains (those closed-minded canonical white guys who appear to have run darn near everything, up until the point where they didn’t), the guilt for mistaking chaff for cream is collective. He notes the lack of compelling and authoritative critical voices on par with Malcolm Cowley or Edmund Wilson, and the tendency of today’s reviewers, many of them authors themselves, and graduates of the same MFA programs, to retreat from asking hard questions of a work in deference to their shared professional network (or, he suggests, in a kind of critical quid pro quo that serves the authors, but not their readers). Given the besieged status of literary fiction in general and book publishing more broadly, “reviews” have also become increasingly indistinguishable from marketing.

Shivani joins a larger debate over the nature and value of professionalizing and “academicizing” creative writing, claiming that such programs “embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness” and somewhat inevitably tend to reproduce and reward the “easily imitable” over genuine originality. [See, e.g., here, or here, or even here for a very light sampling of the debates over the preponderance–and value–of MFA programs.]

While Shivani’s selections will no doubt offend many of us (I was a bit taken aback to find a few of my personal favorites on his hit list), he argues, quite convincingly, that many of today’s most acclaimed writers substitute stylistic tics for nuance, solipsism for vision, and topical superficiality for the larger questions–or a greater variety of answers thereto–that have inspired the best authors of yesterday and today. And in his attempt to be intellectually provocative, he risks reanimating the discredited notion that great literature is “universal” (whose universe?). He’s particularly strident, for example, in dismissing the work of Amy Tan. I can’t say I disagree with his overall assessment of her work (or with his unfavorable comparison of Tan to John Okada). But his criticism of her–“Flattened politics and history to private angst in depiction of minority assimilation. Empowered other immigrant writers to make mountains out of the molehills of their minor adjustment struggles”–suggests an underlying bias against stories of (racial, ethnic, cultural) particularity as inherently less valuable than those works that take on broader general questions–universal questions?–like “mortality.” One can certainly criticize Tan’s depictions of cultural assimilation, racial identity, and “minor adjustment struggles” without suggesting (as Shivani does) that the struggles themselves are trivial or unworthy of literary treatment.

And don’t despair; he promises to publish a list of the most underrated American writers, coming soon.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Puget Sound English Department […]

    Pingback by 15 More Replies to Shivani’s 15 Most Overrated American Writers « PoemShape — August 11, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

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