Tuesday, August 10, 2010

If you like this, you are wrong

I don't think I'm going to bother commenting much on, and I'm certainly not going to link to, Anis Shivani's dumbass list of overrated writers on Huffingtonpost. Oh, I am not a fan of every writer on that list, to be sure. But the notion that my admiration for Lydia Davis or Marilynne Robinson, who have written some of the most brilliant, moving, and inimitably human books I have ever read, is little more than the result of having been told once by a college professor that they are good, or that their writing is "easy enough to copy," as opposed to actually having read them and enjoyed them multiple times myself, is depressingly stupid. This is the worst kind of argument there is--the kind where somebody doesn't understand something and is so utterly narcissistic and insecure that he can't allow the possibility that others might understand it better. And so he invents an explanation that renders his ignorance virtuous and others' understanding fatuous. He sounds like a guy who was just denied tenure.

If you want to criticize a writer, go right ahead. But just for once, could we have a critical debate that doesn't involve declaring opposing viewpoints morally bankrupt? Can I please like John Ashbery without being labeled a pompous, self-deceiving ivory-tower snob? Can I please be permitted the courtesy of knowing my own personal motivations, instead of having them dictated to me by some dude on the internet? It's a shame, because some of Shivani's actual literary analysis of some of his overrated writers is in fact quite good. I wish he could have just said what he thought without first having to invalidate what I think, based upon my status as a college professor in an MFA program.

At least he deserves congratulations for one thing--creating the first top-whatever literary list in years with more women on it than men. Sweet!

Oh--wait.

21 comments:

Ed said...

But where's the atrocious Dave Eggers?

jrlennon said...

That is not quite the kind of trenchant literary analysis I'm calling for here.

Sean-Patrick Burke said...

I thought the list a bit a-holy too, and altogether unnecessary, but I did give an amen to Jonathan Safran Foer's inclusion. Can't stand that gimmicky twit.

jon said...

He's hardly the first with most of these. What surprised me was the number of poets. There are certainly overrated poets, but given the stakes involved, it seems a bit ridiculous to go after them. What does taking Mary Oliver down a peg really accomplish?
I guess another question would be, how many contemporary writers could survive a trenchant literary anlysis? I assume that dimminishing reputations over time are the result of that analysis.

jrlennon said...

Like I said, I'm happy to agree that some of these writers are, by my estimation, not very good. But I can't say that I am happy to see any of them taken down a peg in this context. "Trenchant" is perhaps too strong a word for what I want. "Agendaless," perhaps. "Unembittered".

Mr London Street said...

I have to say, I agree with anonymous. Not out of bitterness or with an agenda, his voice just isn't for me. I'm sure he's a lovely guy and has done great things in terms of promoting other writers but I find him a bit glib, self-satisfied and overworked. It does however seem a bit harsh to blame an author for their poor imitators, it's not their fault (and heaven knows Eggers has tons of those).

Sasha said...

If you wouldn't feel comfortable saying it while workshopping the piece, it's probably cruel and empty criticism. Which doesn't belong in the newspaper.

Not that he takes the time to condemn particular pieces--no, he condemns whole writers.

Also, his list of "good" writers is ultra-conventional, which I find interesting in terms of his argument style...but which doesn't make me too excited for the "underrated" list.

bigscarygiraffe said...

Why can't we build each other up, buttercup? People read. That's nice. It'd be nice if people read more. It'd be even nicer to have thoughtful critique to encourage more reading. Positive feedback doesn't sell on Huffington, or Drudge, or CNN. It's all about lambasting sensationalism. Thoughtfulness only has so long of a shelf-life in the age of sound byte.

But, that's why I read Wardsix--gotta get my jollies on somehow.

rmellis said...

yeah, I believe Dave E. was on his Best of 2009 list.

jon said...

Every year or two someone like Dale Peck comes along thinking they'll really show everyone what the emperor's wearing. Anyway, I think what you say JRL about distinguishing between a critique of the work, and a wholesale condemnation of the people who happen to like the work is important. Invective is fun, especially directed against rival authors, but when you extend it to a denunciation of who they are it has nothing to do with criticism. A writer who has a conservative style, say, shouldn't be denounced as a fascist. But I have certainly seen a lot of that in poetry circles. It's like the 'dead white men' thing.

Kevin said...

Picking on poets ain't sporting, says I. Their life is a vale of tears anyway.

DannyP said...

Kevin, what if they're no-talent assclowns?

I happen to side with John Gardner on this one: bad art needs to be attacked.

jrlennon said...

Nothing wrong with attacking bad art. Interestingly, there is a copy of "On Moral Fiction" in our bathroom right now, and so I give it a look now and then. It's rather surprising how much he got right vis-a-vis whose reputation would remain strong and whose wouldn't.

rmellis said...

Funny, JR -- we turned to the same page, and I was surprised to see how far off Gardner was. Was also shocked at what an insufferable snob he was, and I don't use those words lightly.

I mostly do agree that bad art should be called out, but I also think that this calling out ought happen in a context of great humility. Some things ARE a matter of taste. It is illegitimate to dismiss a writer as bad without being very specific as to why you think so, and also acknowledging your own prejudices. For instance, I, too, quite dislike Mary Oliver's poems. They seem, to me, to be insufficiently humane: too many birds. However, my inability to admire them could be a fault in myself. I DO believe other people genuinely love her poems, and I could have a fantastic conversation with someone about why this is -- which I could not have unless I admitted my dislike and delineated it. I could also not have this conversation if I thought the Oliver-lover was a pretentious fool.

So, what am I saying, exactly? I think it's important to LIKE and DISLIKE openly, but also to make sure you've given your opinion some careful thought. But most importantly, you have to believe that someone who loves something really does, and they might be able to teach you something about it.

DannyP said...

What's love got to do with it?

A lot of people genuinely love Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, and mass market romance. More people, in fact, than love Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, or whoever else resides at the top of any literary list.

rmellis said...

Yeah, and you would be totally wasting your breath complaining that they're bad! Because the point of those books is to please their particular audience, and that they do.

If anyone tried to tell me that Brown's characters or insight into human nature were better than Roth's, though, then I'd have something to talk about.

And I'd never accuse Brown fans of being idiots, or of having bad motives, as Shivani does in his piece.

jon said...

Taste versus criticism. In rock music, I really don't believe you have much more than taste, given how minimal the thing is. But in literature there's always both. Highly intelligent people can love complete crap. I love crap movies and don't love a lot of 'quality film'...Maybe then it just has to do with time. Ford Maddox Ford hated Don Quixote and Cervantes, but he never defended his dislike with a theory, he always said he just disagreed with everyone else. Either Jonson or Johnson wished Shakespeare had blotted a thousand lines. Jonson said Spenser 'writ no english'. Byron attacked Wordsworth and Southey...Hemmingway said Wyndham lewis had the eyes of a rapist!

jrlennon said...

Didn't Byron refer to Wordsworth as "Wordswords"?

See, I don't like Ford Maddox Ford, and I do like Cervantes.

rmellis said...

Literary rivalry is another thing altogether>>>

ed skoog said...

(note that the "ed" at the beginning of this thread is not me)

You don't like Ford Maddox Ford, John? I had no idea.

I thought I had, though, commented on this list here, to the effect that the Shivari list is like a Sarah Palin speech, enraging and, then, easily dismissed.

Russell said...

Hmmm. Well. Certainly, but the problem persists. If no more than a dozen or so thousand readers are enjoying Lydia Davis's short stories, she's falling short, eh? (To be blunt: she's a big giant failure next to, say, Charles Bukowski.) And did Proust really need her? That's of course a separate question, but Proust has become pretty popular and, in fact, will never die. (If Proust'd been on that list, I'd've dismissed it.)