8.09.2010

A criticism of criticism; or, everyone's a critic, but you're a bad one.

I'm sure you've all seen this new list of the 15 most overrated authors:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/the-15-most-overrated-con_b_672974.html#s123773

To summarize, per Anis Shivani, they are:

Amy Tan
Antonya Nelson
Billy Collins
Helen Vendler
Jhumpa Lahiri
Jorie Graham
John Ashbery
Jonathan Safran Foer
Junot Diaz
Louise Glück
Mary Oliver
Michael Cunningham
Michiko Kakutani
Sharon Olds
William T. Vollman

Sure, everyone who reads that list is going to say, "OMG, ____ totally belongs there!" Shivani's "compass" for making these qualifications of this interestingly diverse cadre of writers is this:

If we don't understand bad writing, we can't understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear.

I'm not even sure what that means!

How do we know if what we experience is showboating and narcissism versus a mode, a form, a device? Equally offensive are the cute labels Shivani applies to each author's profile:

Sharon Olds (tampons and lactation)
Junot Diaz (Abuelos and Hijas)
Antonya Nelson (Alcoholics, Abusers, Addicts, and Adulterers)

It is facile to reduce down any author to a single dominant trope, concern, or identity, particularly when those traits seem to relate back to the author more than anything does. Does Shivani imply through his criticism that "tampons and lactation" are unworthy topics of poetry? Then he should similarly avoid Carly Sach's great piece in Court Green.

I'm firing this off quickly in annoyance, but my issue isn't wholly with Shivani. He's clearly stirring a pot, and I although I abhor his approach and his methods, I also argue that a critical dialog is essential at every point in in literature.

I'm at somewhat of a loss to understand why someone would take such a reductionist, offensive, and wholly misguided tone in opening up a dialog about art. Why hasn't he listed the enormous list of male writers who, like Antonya Nelson, have concerned themselves with "alcoholics, abusers, addicts, and adulterers"? Surely she has no corner on the market. And how can we truly assess the work of Junot Diaz this early in his career? We can discuss Oscar Wao, sure, but beyond that....? He may never write anything as significant again. Or he may become the most significant writer of our generation. Perhaps we can say, at least for this one, that it's too early to tell.

When criticism works, it works because it places an artist's work into a context, discusses what it does well and what it fails to achieve. A review that does only one of these three things and sacrifices the other two would be called a book report, literary fellatio, or a rant, respectively, none of which offer anything but the pleasure of their own existence for their authors.

I don't believe criticism must be kind, but it shouldn't expose our own shortcomings as human beings either. While I'd hate to see literary discourse become as structured and stifled as the dinner party in The Age of Innocence, I think we can, in the immortal words of Ouiser Boudreaux in Steel Magnolias, "take the dishes out of the sink before [we] pee in it."

7 comments:

  1. Well said, for one who just fired this off!

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  2. //How do we know if what we experience is showboating and narcissism versus a mode, a form, a device?//

    This recalls the oft repeated defence (in creative writing classes everywhere) that "I meant to be boring because it was a boring moment." Is boredom therefore "a mode, a form, a device?"

    To be honest, I'm not sure what you mean; but if it means "bad" writing is excused because it's a "mode" (purposefully bad) that that still makes it bad writing. Anyway, how do you know Shivani's criticism isn't "a mode, a form, a device?" of its own? Your dismissal of Shivani doesn't stand on any higher ground (and not that it 'has' to).

    //When criticism works, it works because it places an artist's work into a context, discusses what it does well and what it fails to achieve. //

    I disagree. Shivanai does precisely what criticism does. I think you might be conflating analysis and criticism. Criticism doesn't have to be nice.


    //And how can we truly assess the work of Junot Diaz this early in his career? //

    And that's exactly the question Shivani poses.

    I found Shivani's piece a breath of fresh air. To paraphrase the "immortal" words of Ouiser Boudreaux, "if you don't want your dishes peed on, don't put them in the toilet."

    ~ Patrick

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  3. Great post. Thank you. And good point on Junot Diaz.

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  4. I don't know, I've seen narcissism paired with moral examination in literature before. I agree wholeheartedly that substance can't be sacrificed to style, and it does seem that many (even well-reviewed) writers shrink from any solid perspective in their writing. Sad.

    On the other hand, there are writers like Iris Murdoch who could be impugned as self-indulgent because of her plush style; but actually her moral conclusions are never thrown under the bus by it. In some cases, practically narcissistic attention to style just serves to make the moral brunt more enjoyable, more resonating, all of that.

    Also -- Jhumpa Lahiri isn't a favorite of mine, but I do wonder how she fits with these criteria. Her style is bare-bones as Hemingway's, not at all self-aggrandizing.

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  5. Shivani has a book to promote, so he's stirring the shit and my, oh, my he's gotten a ton of publicity. I can't think of any other reason for this kind of hatchet job. His article is not literary criticism, it's just offensive noodling. And I'm not even a fan of some of the writers he's listed.

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  6. Thanks for this! I guess the bright side is that *any* poets can be called overrated?

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  7. Just discovered your blog "Avoiding the Muse". I am fascinated about the idea of making short films from poems. I feel that short films are often times poems in themselves. Where can one see your work?

    Warmly,

    -Ocean



    "When Ego is lost, Limit is lost"
    -Zen Buddhist monk

    www.oceanvuong.blogspot.com

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