Friday, August 13, 2010

Overrated writers

Posted on Fri, Aug 13, 2010 at 1:14 PM

Over at the HuffPo, Anis Shivani has listed his "15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers." And three of them have local connections of a sort: poet Sharon Olds appeared in Gonzaga's Visiting Writers Series last winter; novelist Junot Diaz will read at Gonzaga next spring; and Marty Demarest has reviewed three of William T. Vollmann's books for the print version of The Inlander.

Say what you want about his choices, but Shivani has the guts to go public and specific with his dislikes. One of his "revelations" is that the Pulitzer committee doesn't always honor the best books — no newsflash there — but Shivani does provide a reminder that today as in every era, there are revered writers now who will be reviled writers years and decades from now. (And we're not just talking easy targets like Stephenie "Twilight" Meyer here.)

Shivani rightly criticizes conglomerate publishers, MFA programs (which churn out too many mutually imitative writers), book reviewers, and writers themselves (for not taking on the Big Important Topics and for navel-gazing). And he has the courage not just to criticize, but to build up, too: Soon he'll reveal his picks for under-rated writers. And he lists his criteria, too:

"Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite."

(Personally, I think this unwisely privileges Hemingway over [unfortunate term] postmodernism, but let that go ... clarity, moral force, not getting stuck in minutiae — all to the good.)

Shivani's ignominious 15:  —-

  • Vollmann
  • Tan
  • Ashbery
  • Oliver
  • Vendler
  • Nelson
  • Olds
  • Graham
  • Safran Foer
  • Lahiri
  • Diaz
  • Gluck
  • Cunningham
  • Collins
  • Kakutani

Again, he promises more such lists: underrated contemporary writers, over- and under-rated global writers, American writers of the past century.

The point of such list-making is not so much the specifics as the topic-wrestling in itself: In a week, Shivani's blast has inspired thousands of comments and tweets. In the aftermath of Lee Siegel's June 22 article about the death of the American novel, many joined the chorus-lament. Siegel himself wonders why more readers aren't mischievously taking issue with the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list of emerging American writers. But the response to Shivani shows that plenty of folks out there are reading. They may be curled up with Kindles and iPads, but they're consuming a lot of text. And they care about its quality. Do they equal the audience for American Narcissist or America's Got Exhibitionism? No. But a single-digit percentage of a huge country still means millions of sensitive hearts beating. And minds working.

[ photo: Billy Collins, from ] 

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Wild Dust @ The Guardian

Sun., Sept. 24, 2 p.m.
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