The Five Most Misconceived Criteria for Determining the Fifteen Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers

Yes, that may be the longest title I have ever placed above a piece of my writing, but only the first six of the words are mine. The remainder is appropriated from Anis Shivani’s post the other day at Huffington Post. It’s gotten a lot of reaction, elsewhere, and, as I write, over 1650 comments at HuffPo. I predict I will receive fewer.

Shivani’s is the kind of provocative piece people write periodically, often in the arts. Not long ago at all – like two months – it was Lee Siegal proffering that fiction is now irrelevant. Here it is Shivani identifying the fifteen so designated writers whose syntax isn’t all it is currently arranged to be. These guys are big thinkers. It’s breathtaking. I’m not that the confident (Y2K) a prognosticator or comprehensive a critic. As Paul Simon sagely summed it all those years ago, “Can analysis be worthwhile?” Ask Woody Allen. “Is the theater really dead?” Apparently not.

So I’m thinking rather smaller – rather than fifteen writers, one: Shivani. I haven’t read him. Actually, I’ve now read one thing, this piece of his on the fifteen writers. It is an essay that one can confidently describe as criticism in both of its common senses. It is negative characterization and it is evaluative analysis. It is, in vitriol, rather a lot of the former and in length more a blitzkrieg of the latter. I’m going to focus on the latter, because the latter is the basis, if not the justification, for the former.

When we evaluate, for our judgments to be meaningful – for they themselves to be evaluated by readers as a basis for the readers themselves to judge well our judgments – we need to operate from a set of criteria. When we are unknown to our readers, it is helpful to be explicit about those criteria. Shivani is.

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. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear.

So, now, as I consider with what regard I am going to approach Shivani’s criticism of his benighted fifteen, I should be considering what I think of his criteria. The latter part of the paragraph above is aesthetic peroration, mostly to the issue of a writer’s possessing a “moral core,” one of five specific criteria of bad writing that Shivani sets forth. Shivani says we must know bad writing to know good writing. That right there is a curious prioritizing of categories. It is true that the process of definition often makes use of negation – the delineation of what a thing is not, in order to establish more firmly the boundaries of what it is. But Shivani seems to conceptualize good writing as whatever has managed to resist the invasive advance of bad writing. Wherever the “38th parallel” may be at which bad writing is stopped sets the boundary of what is good – on the other side of it. But, notably, Plato did not first seek to arrive at the Form of the Bad, and only then by its lights (or darkness) proceed to determine the Good. Kant did not first elaborate a Categorical Prohibition, before enunciating his Categorical Imperative. Shivani is – how can I best say this? – kind of negative.

All right, so what about the criteria themselves, of bad writing. I’m afraid I have a problem at the start. Shivani says bad writing is “characterized by obfuscation.” The problem with this criterion is that obfuscation is an intentional act. It is not a simple absence of clarity; it is purposeful obscurantism. Did Shivani really mean that? I do

Tree of Good Writing

not know, but attributions of intent in such matters are an aimless critical ramble to nowhere. Clarity is certainly a time-honored ideal of good writing (if I may be so positive), but even so, we must ourselves be clear about the kind of writing we address. Creative writing has different purposes from critical or reportorial or even the merely functional. Shivani includes novelists, poets, newspaper critics and academics in his list. Academics are often accused of unnecessary difficulty and obscurity in their writing, but it is not a charge usually leveled against Helen Vendler, the academic Shivani criticizes, though it is sometimes a complaint against Jorie Graham, a poet Vendler has championed. Yet how differently must we address the issue of clarity with regard to poetry, which the uninitiated often find, functionally, unclear, and, in their more insecure moments, even think perversely obfuscatory?

What about “showboating”? This actually seems to create, along with “style over substance,” a redundancy from two among the only five criteria. It also raises an old, irresolvable matter of simple taste. When does style assert itself so far as to overwhelm substance and become showboating? And does Shivani mean linguistic style or style as represented in form? Did Joyce showboat, or Faulkner? David Foster Wallace or Gerard Manley Hopkins? Does Pynchon? Simplicity of style, even minimalism, have long had their adherents, to the point that here, where I live, in the city of angels and roaring lions, with Hollywood nearly an enemy of the word, screenwriting cant for years now has been that “less is more.” Sometimes, however, it is observably so that less is regrettably less. Shivani, if I may say, has clarified nothing with that criterion.

This leaves us with “narcissism” and the question of a “moral core,” which latter criterion seems for Shivani to be related to the question of confronting the “issues of the day” and being politically relevant. On that latter as a necessary characteristic of good writing, I’ll direct Shivani to Vladimir Nabokov (a little something of a showboater himself), who was distinctly disparaging of the literature of ideas. Narcissism, of course, has been a personally unfortunate, artistically blessed condition of many great artists of all kinds. Presumably, confessional poets would qualify, and not be to the taste of the non-confessional in nature (say, a Lutheran, why don’t we), but fine production has not eluded them either.

Which leaves us where, after this review? With a critic who here and there may have hit upon a reason to consider some among his fifteen “overrated” writers with a more critical eye, but who has offered no basis – the criterion upon which his criticism is supposedly based – to credit him with the coherent vision and with the trust to follow his analysis to like judgments of our own.

Got people talking about literature, though.

And about him.

Couldn’t hurt.



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2 thoughts on “The Five Most Misconceived Criteria for Determining the Fifteen Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers

  1. Dear Jay,

    Negativity not withstanding, Shivani has perhaps unwittingly presented a kind of moral (or at least, technical) compass for writers. The next question, perhaps, why? Why write this way or that? What is the writer’s objective or goal or vision for his work? What are her priorities? By what criteria has he chosen those priorities? At the end of the day, if the writer is clear about that, has done at least a basic analysis and is clear enough about why she’s here and what’s she’s come here to say, how she says it will only matter in so much as it serves her purpose or doesn’t. So this is a very good mirror-piece for the writer to hold up to his work while asking, why? Why am I writing? Not just what am I trying to say, but why? How shall I say it, given all the givens of my life and my motivations…plus a few of these, the ones that matter.

    Now, back to the negativity. I like your take on that. I’m with you. I imagine Shivani thought he could attract more bees with hurt-me honey. I’m guessing he’s done the analysis and that was his objective, and that he achieved it. Thank you for posting. I always truly value your work. Peace,


  2. I thought Shivani’s piece might present for you an opportunity you would not be able to ignore. Glad to see you weighed in.

    I’m going to share your link at SheWrites, where Shivani’s post has been noted.

    The Guardian has also run at least two responses, yesterdays (if I recall correctly) was about “underrated” writers.

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