Book Review

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Against the Workshop: 
Provocations, Polemics, Controversies
by Anis Shivani

Texas Review Press, Nov. 2011

In these 36 “provocative, polemical, controversial” pieces, it is clear early on that Anis Shivani is not that pleased with the contemporary American writing scene. His overall thesis could pretty well be summed up in the intro to the first essay: “Why is American Fiction In Its Current Dismal State?”: 

Contemporary American fiction has become cheap counseling to the bereaved bourgeois. Its scope is restricted too much to the trivial domestic sphere.  It promotes grief, paralysis, inaction:  a determinism for the post-politics society, where ideology has no place.  Mired in appreciation of beautiful (or rather prettified) language for its own sake, without connection to ideology —although that is an ideology of its own, and perhaps the most corrosive and debilitating ideology of all —serious fiction writing today has lost any connection with a wide, appreciative readership.

He had me right there. I’ve been mouthing off in a similar vein for years, finding the likes of Tyler and Munro tedious and small.  All I ever read, however, is praise.  So it came as a welcome surprise —and I do mean surprise — to light on a critique so wholly to the point, so well elaborated, that it seemed in an instant to convey a common wisdom that the literary establishment seems somehow in cahoots to ignore.

Just how this came to pass is touched on throughout the book, but most succinctly addressed in the final essay whose title cuts to the chase:  “The MFA/Creative Writing System is a Closed, Undemocratic Medieval Guild System that Represses Good Writing.”  It’s a rigged system, Shivani tells us, steeped in the halls of academia where most writers reside, doubling as teachers; if you’re not a part of it, you’re left hanging in the wind.  A disproportionate number of awards and honors go to those in the “guild.”  And the guild system, by nature, is conservative; hence, “conservativeness in organization usually results in conservativeness of product as well.”  Tame, politically correct, nicely crafted writing is the result. And there is lots of it because for the MFA program to “survive in today’s politically correct world, it must always present itself as the quintessence of democracy (everyone can learn writing, given enough application and discipline . . .)”.   Elsewhere he states:  “There is not a rebel amongst this homogenous crowd . . . . There is no magic in contemporary fiction. And the players go on celebrating their own death.”  Of course there are exceptions, but taken as a whole it is hard for any serious reader to ignore his basic analysis.

The contemporary poetry scene is not faring any better and reminds me why I read so little of it these days. The Best American Poetry series, “an accurate barometer of the poetry being published in the majority of the nation’s many little magazines, particularly the MFA-affiliated ones . . . Regardless of the volume editor chosen annually by [David] Lehman, year after year the mediocrity rises assuredly to the top, assaulting the discerning reader with yet another collection of self-indulgent poetry, obscure and vacuous.”  Jorie Graham is “master of the line gone haywire, the sentence lost in clouds of pseudo-philosophical confusion”; Sharon Olds’s poetry “is an excuse to exemplify extreme biological determinism, of a sort that has no patience for humanist ideals of any sort”;  Louise Glück is “a poet of modest talents reaching for more than what she is capable of, and eventually taking herself too seriously.”  Shivani appreciates Philip Levine’s “undeniable wit” in some of the earlier poems, but feels he has now “settled into making a revelation of non-revelatory moments”; while Billy Collins’s “characteristic operation – an initial leap, followed by a long train of hypotheses, speculations, wonderments – is poetry candy”; and David Kirby and the “Kirby Poets” – I’ll leave you to relish that bit of criticism for yourselves.

Those who draw positive reviews dedicated solely to their work are Jay Parini, Judy Grahn, Richard Burgin, David Rhodes, David Brinks, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Carrie Fountain, among others.  Shivani argues on their behalf for their engagement with the world as opposed to the all-pervading confessional, self-referential, annoyingly obscure, and/or merely playful poetry that clogs the anthologies and small presses.

 A superb “provocation” comes in “Announcing the Death of the 9/11 Novel.”  I think most readers would agree that DeLillo’s effort missed the mark, and Updike’s didn’t quite take.  But why is the 9/11 novel now dead?  Because some truly good stuff came along beginning around 2009, and like Pope and the heroic couplet, the genre has now been perfected and there is nowhere else to go.  It peaks, we’re told, with Torsten Krol’s Callisto and Teddy Wayne's Kapitoil, two “unimaginably good” works.   I have not read either, but now intend to.  Honorable mention goes to Ken Kalfus, Mohsin Hamid, Claire Messude, Laia Halaby, and Joseph O’Neill.

Another novelist worthy of praise is Aravind Adiga, who, in Between the Assassinations (a “worthy successor” to The White Tiger), pushes the “privileged Western reader to reposition himself toward the enormity of worldwide poverty,” a broad, humanistic approach at odds with the “unrealistic, distorted, and one-dimensional accounts” by the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali.  Other novelists who find favor are those who adhere to a similar principle.

Shivani sets the bar high. He wants a “connection to ideology” rather than the avalanche of  “generally apolitical, domesticated narrative that remains willfully ignorant of modernism . . . leaning strongly toward the confessional, memoiristic, autobiographical, narcissistic, and plainly understood.”   Where is there a poet of Whitmanesque scale today?  Where is there an O’Connor or Yates or Cheever among the current generation?  Not to mention a García Márquez, Coetzee or Rushdie.  Where are the writer-oracles in America? There is only “small writing, with small concerns and small ambitions.”  But it can be so very well crafted! 

Yes, Shivani digs, pushes, goads, provokes; he can be right prickly; he will piss you off here and there, perhaps stepping on the toes of a writer you like – and not many names are left out, for better or for worse - but more honest and engaging criticism you will not find anywhere. And there is some good high humor to be found as well, such as in “The Agent’s Letter,” a laugh-out-loud agent’s response to an upcoming writer in an MFA program, which pretty well encapsulates the state of today´s market.  Unfortunately, his splendid critique of Jonathan Franzen´s Freedom came too late for this collection, but it is available at the Huffington Post and well worth a look.

 In the end, Shivani is standing up for boldly imaginative writing, for the broad brushstroke, for an enlightened sensitivity, an engagement with the world at large and the political arena.  The inward-looking, closed-system “guild” does not promote writing of this sort.   It is refreshing to read a critic who does.  I began, as I always do, with a pencil in hand, to underline key points and quotable passages.  After about four pages of underlining every sentence, I gave up.  This is a trove of intelligent, highly readable critical analysis, the first to come along which clearly shows how the modern-day MFA program forms the writing of the American market today. Not to be missed. J.A. 

See Anis Shivani´s essay Why is American Fiction In Its Current Dismal State? in this issue of TBR.