Posts Tagged ‘Anis Shivani’

Are they overrated? Anis Shivani knocks the famous 15.

Saturday, March 30th, 2013
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Here comes da judge.

“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? The question is harder than ever to answer today” – yet the fearless Anis Shivani takes a shot at it in the Huffington Post here.  A few days we wrote about the outspoken literary critic. Did you catch his post on “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers”?  Shivani roams freely among genres, condemning essayists, poets, novelists, journalists, you name it.

He writes:

“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.

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Collins – resting on his laurels? (Photo: Suzannah Gilman)

As for conglomerate publishing, the decision-makers wouldn’t know great literature if it hit them in the face. Their new alliance with the MFA writing system is bringing at least a minimum of readership for mediocre books, and they’re happy with that. And the mainstream reviewing establishment (which is crumbling by the minute) validates their choices with fatuous accolades, recruiting mediocre writers to blurb (review) them.”

Sounds a lot like what Dana Gioia was saying a couple decades ago in “Can Poetry Matter?”  (The controversial Atlantic article was eventually published in his book of that title in 1992.)  And Dana spared us the tedious little click-through of the line-up of the condemned writers and their photographs.  But still …

Shivani concludes:

“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.”

The list of the condemned includes: Amy Tan, Billy Collins, Antonya Nelson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Cunningham, John Ashbery, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jorie Graham, Michiko Kakutani, William T. Vollmann, and Helen Vendler.  Something for everyone.

Read it here.

You may not agree, but feel free to mount your defense in the comment section below.  We’ll be curious to know what you think. Truly.

Meanwhile, it’s proving an exceptionally busy weekend, what with editing interview transcripts, answering a backlog of letters, proofs to review, a visit to the East Coast to organize, and weekend engagements.  See you on Monday.

Chinua Achebe: “Some people may wonder if, perhaps, we were not too touchy … We really were not.”

Friday, March 22nd, 2013
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Where was the Nobel? (Photo: Stuart C. Shapiro)

Critic Anis Shivani is better known for wit than reverence, so when I read this deferential tribute on his Facebook page, I sat up straight:

“I acknowledge with gratitude his profound influence. Things Fall Apart was as important a novel as any written in the 20th-century. I always thought he should have won the Nobel. Today a whole new set of figures have taken over the role of the Joyce Cary‘s of old: illegitimate appropriators of ‘third-world’ voices who give comfort to the propagators of new versions of colonialism.”

He’s talking about Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet, who died yesterday in Boston at 82.  Here’s what the Washington Post had to say:

thingsfallapartHis novel was nearly lost before ever seen by the public. When Achebe finished his manuscript, he sent it to a London typing service, which misplaced the package and left it lying in an office for months. The proposed book was received coolly by London publishers, who doubted the appeal of fiction from Africa. Finally, an educational adviser at Heinemann who had recently traveled to west Africa had a look and declared: “This is the best novel I have read since the war.”

In mockery of all the Western books about Africa, Achebe ended Things Fall Apart with a colonial official observing Okonkwo’s fate and imagining the book he will write: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. Achebe’s novel was the opening of a long argument on his country’s behalf.

“Literature is always badly served when an author’s artistic insight yields to stereotype and malice,” Achebe said during a 1998 lecture at Harvard University that cited Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson as a special offender. “And it becomes doubly offensive when such a work is arrogantly proffered to you as your story. Some people may wonder if, perhaps, we were not too touchy, if we were not oversensitive. We really were not.”

According to the Associated Press, the novel was repeatedly rejected, and even the Heinemann advisor’s enthusiasm resulted in an initial press run of only two thousand:

Its initial review in The New York Times ran less than 500 words, but the novel soon became among the most important books of the 20th century, a universally acknowledged starting point for postcolonial, indigenous African fiction, the prophetic union of British letters and African oral culture. …Things Fall Apart has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

Vivian Yudkin’s Washington Post review weighed in at just over 100 words.  Here’s the whole thing:

Customs and mores of other cultures are always fascinating. A 28-year-old Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, takes us inside his world in his first novel, Things Fall Apart (McDowell, Obolensky). Mr. Achebe, writing in English, tells us the story of Okonkwo in the deceptively simple language of folklore. Okonkwo, who yearns to be the great man of his tribe, is instead doomed to failure and exile, for he believes that cruelty and suppression of emotion mean strength.

When misfortune befalls him, Okonkwo blames his “chi,” his personal god, but author Achebe’s message is clear – that there is a parallel between Okonkwo in his 19th century Nigerian clan governed by gods and ritualism, and 20th century man in a moon-ridden world.

The decades since this 1959 review have seen a revolution in the book’s critical estimation, obviously.  From the New York Times:

“It would be impossible to say how ‘Things Fall Apart’ influenced African writing,” the Princeton scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah once wrote. “It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians.”

Mr. Appiah, a professor of African studies, found an “intense moral energy” in Mr. Achebe’s work, adding that it “captures the sense of threat and loss that must have faced many Africans as empire invaded and disrupted their lives.” …

In his writings and teaching Mr. Achebe sought to reclaim the continent from Western literature, which he felt had reduced it to an alien, barbaric and frightening land devoid of its own art and culture. He took particular exception to”Heart of Darkness,”the novel by Joseph Conrad, whom he thought “a thoroughgoing racist.”

Conrad relegated “Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind,” Mr. Achebe argued in his essay “An Image of Africa.”

 

 

Richard Wilbur

Thursday, August 12th, 2010
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My vote

Way over in England, they heard about Anis Shivani’s Huffington Post piece on the “15 Most Overrated Writers”, and ask instead “Who Are Your Favorite Underrated Writers?”  The photo with the article is of Milan Kundera.  Guardian writer Alison Flood seems to think he is underrated because he has not received a Nobel.  Most writers don’t receive a Nobel.  I’m not sure that counts.  (A late hat tip to Dave Lull… I wasn’t able to post this till 9.00 p.m.)

Anis Shivani himself promised in the Huffington Post to offer his own list at a future date, but meanwhile the Guardian’s commenters suggested:  G.K. Chesterton (several votes),  Péter Nádas, Shirley Jackson, Carl Michael Bellman, Elizabeth von Arnim, Russell Hoban, Marguerite Duras, Josef Skvorecky, Ford Madox Ford, Cees Nooteboom, Haruki Murakami, Terry Pratchett, Elizabeth Taylor, Rumer Godden, Antal Szerb, Anatoly Rybakov, Wallace Stegner (several votes, including this one: “Yes! Wallace Stegner! How could I have not mentioned him!  Angle of Repose is the best-written novel I’ve ever read, and one of my two favorites [the other being Forster’s A Room with a View ]. Stegner’s is the only novel to have ever made me cry merely for the beauty of the writing. Eat your heart out, Sherman Alexie!), Andrey Platonov (several votes), Sadegh Hedayat, Amin Maalouf, Guy de Maupassant (several votes), Mervyn Peake, Antonio Munoz Molina, among others.

What’s surprising is how little poetry is represented in the lists.  Anthony Hecht gets a much deserved mention from Alison Flood.  One mention of Edwin Arlington Robinson — which is going back a century.  Why not, say, Weldon Kees?  Or Tomas Venclova?

Fortunately, “Resurgence27” restores my faith in the future of poetry-reading by naming Vikram Seth‘s delightful The Golden Gate, a novel-in-verse (in which case, fiction and poetry) that was hailed when it came out in 1986, and then largely forgotten.

Seth wrote the book in 13 feverish months as a graduate student,  writing at a clip of  600 lines per month, all in Pushkinian sonnets, a project he described as “the whole passé extravaganza”:

How can I (careless of time) use
The dusty bread molds of Onegin
In the brave bakery of Reagan?
The loaves will surely fail to rise
Or else go stale before my eyes.

Gore Vidal wrote, “Although we have been spared, so far, the Great American Novel, it is good to know that the Great Californian Novel has been written, in verse (and why not?): The Golden Gate gives great joy.” Amazon.com’s reviewer says the book “will turn the verse-fearing into admiring acolytes.”

Vikram Seth

It’s not the book’s most glorious sonnet, by far, but those of us who remember the old bookstore/coffeeshop Printer’s Inc of California Avenue, Palo Alto, back in its pre-Amazon days (its current incarnation is a travesty), might appreciate perhaps the only tribute to a coffeehouse ever written in verse:

The enchanted bookstore, vast, rectangular,
Fluorescent-lit, with Bach piped through
The glamorous alleys of its angular
Warren of bookshelves,the dark brew
Of French roast or Sumatra rousing
One’s weak papillae as one’s browsing
Lead to the famed cups, soon or late,
That cheer but don’t inebriate.
Magical shoe box! Skilled extractor
Of my last dime on print or drink,
Mini-Montmartre, Printers Inc!
Haven of book freaks, benefactor
Of haggard hacks like me, who’ve been
Quivering for years to your caffeine.