More heat than light: life is too short to read crappy books


Ashbery: "turning late twentieth-century American poetry into a hermetic, self-enclosed, utterly private affair"?

I was spellbound by Junot Díaz‘s “Doctor Manhattan structure” for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. On the other hand, there is some merit to the point that he “replaces plot in stories and novel with pumped-up ‘voice.'”  And if it’s true, who will tell him so now that he’s on the Pulitzer Prize Board?

Clearly, Anis Shivani will.

Over the weekend, he blasted the “15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers” at the Huffington Post. I wanted to think a bit before posting a link, so I’m late to the table on this one.

He writes:

Are the writers receiving the major awards and official recognition really the best writers today? Or are they overrated mediocrities with little claim to recognition by posterity?  … It’s difficult to know today because we no longer have major critics with wide reach who take vocal stands. There are no Malcolm Cowleys, Edmund Wilsons, and Alfred Kazins to separate the gold from the sand. Since the onset of poststructuralist theory, humanist critics have been put to pasture. The academy is ruled by ‘theorists’ …

Anis Shivani ... this photo doesn't help him make his case

Some local reputations are taken apart — Stanford’s Sharon Olds (“Childbirth, her father’s penis, her son’s cock, and her daughter’s vagina are repeated obsessions she can always count on in a pinch,” Shivani writes, “Has given confessionalism such a bad name it can’t possibly recover”), San Francisco’s Amy Tan (“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”) and Socal’s Michael Cunningham (“Yet another gimmick man, yet another shtick peddler”)  William Vollmann of Sacramento makes the top spot on the list (“Third-rate Pynchon desperate to impress with quantity rather than quality. Critics taken in by sheer volume”).

Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, Jonathan Safran Foer, Billy Collins, Junot Díaz and literary kingmaker Michiko Kakutani are on the list, too.

The West Coast has fought so hard for considerations in the nation’s literary affairs, I suppose we can consider it an achievement that, in 2010, we’ve finally made the grade with our handful of writers.

Naturally, Shivani will get slapped for this, and already has on the 1,658 comments to date, many of them vituperative.

Tan: "a made-for-success formula of family secrets wrapped in the multigenerational saga"?

But I admire tough reviewers who are willing to put on their hip boots on and do the dirty job of dissing — taking down a reputation that has, perhaps, been subject to inflation.  They keep the rest of the reviewing establishment honest and on its toes, make make the public scrutinize its tastes and herd instincts, and bravely risk making enemies among writers and publishers that they, too, will need for their careers.

And I trust that the good will survive.  Susan Sontag put it best:  “Reading should be an education of the heart,” she said.  “It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”

In other words, life is too short to read crappy books.

Interesting footnote:  I didn’t know that Mary Oliver helped organize Edna St. Vincent Millay’s papers with the poet’s sister, Norma.

3 Responses to “More heat than light: life is too short to read crappy books”

  1. Marnie Heyn Says:

    I shall add his name to the short list of whingers to avoid, Bloom and Bennett topping the roster. He’s potentially useful in the 180-degree manner: If he hates it, I’ll give it a look. This is not to suggest I care for idolatry or slavish tongue-work, but . . .

  2. M. A. Debebe Says:

    I didn’t know Mary Oliver helped organize ESVM’s papers either. Where did you pick up that tid-bit? I’d like to learn more. After spending the weekend at Steepletop a couple of week’s back I was enthralled by the image of a spinster Norma Millay squatting in her dead sister’s museum-like bedroom for 17+ years. Apparently Norma never moved Vincent’s clothing from the closet nor her personal effects from the top of the bureau. I’ve read Milford’s “Savage Beauty” a while back and that was the beginning of my revisit to Millay. Perhaps overly-popular in her day I would count her as re-actively under-appreciated today, at least a strong rival for Frost in a more modern take on the Sonnet form. Also, anyone interested in Millay may be interested in the Millay revival happening among twenty-somethings in NYC. The NYC indie rock band Ghost Ghost recently recorded a concept album inspired by the poet’s life.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Fascinating. I didn’t know she was undergoing revival among NYC’s 20-somethings. Perhaps she is indeed worth a revisit. I’m afraid I burned out on her as a young teenager, going out in the cold winter woods to read her poems out loud to the snow and wind (blush). Michigan woods are a strange place to burn anything, let alone oneself.