Monday, August 9, 2010

Overrated and Contemporary

Slamming MFA programs and some of today's most lauded writers?  Read it here in this ballsy Huffington Post Article by Anis Shivani. BTW, Mary Oliver, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sharon Olds overrated? Really? Here's a high/low-light from the article: "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."  (I couldn't imitate any of those writers if I tried.)


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more--it's never about the quality of the writing, but about 'getting along:' just like junior high.

I had never heard of Amy Hempel when I started an MFA, at 27, and couldn't see what the fuss was all about. For two years I wasted my time on lazily-taught workshops (where two members habitually passed notes--written on our manuscripts--to each other and giggled in the corner) where the conversation turned, as often as not, to current movie,s and very little writing technique or literature, per se, was discussed.

The experience was so bad that I abandoned writing for a good fifteen years after, and only now am getting back on my feet. My MFA experience was actually damaging to me as a writer!

d said...

(I couldn't imitate any of those writers if I tried.)

How will you know unless you try? ;)

Jordan Devin Murphy said...

I think there is a perpetual debate about the quality of the MFA system. One thing to keep in mind is that there are a variety of programs, which thankfully allows for a diversity of writing.

As for the fashionableness of the Pulitzer, most of them that I have read have been worthwhile--I can easily grab a good ten or fifteen people willing to brag on Marilyn Robinson's Gilead--but that doesn't mean that each novel is for everyone. Furthermore, I don't really see a lot of evidence in the article by Anis that supports his claims about the current literary establishment. In fact, he barely supports his claims at all. I think he was out to stir the pot with some nonsense. That's my two cents at least.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with everything Shivani said, but I think he makes some valid points. Yes, what is the popular "MFA-style" is pretty easy to imitate and does lead to a lot of sameness, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable. Many of the authors I enjoy reading are, admittedly, interchangeable. Literary fashions will inevitably exclude things that are worthy, but it isn't going to elevate dreck. What wins prizes deserves prizes.

Are some critically acclaimed authors overrated, yes. But not by much. Vollman is not as interesting as he himself thinks he is, but he is a good writer. Diaz's and Lahiri's biggest fans are white people who are easily wowed by anything non-white. Yet people who find their stories blase can still appreciate that Diaz and Lahiri are good writers. It's annoying how overpraised they are, but they deserve praise.

I can't write-off Shivani just because he is prone to exaggeration. His photo captions are funny.

Anonymous said...

Here's my critique of Anis Shivani: he's the Sarah Palin of literary critique. Say something incendiary enough and you get noticed. Very little substance to his article. What is his basis, for example, in saying that Marilynne Robinson's writing is a form of hiding behind a smokescreen? That doesn't ring true to me as a writer: you write the book that only you can write. Robinson did that with Housekeeping, and it was brilliant.

Anonymous said...


Is admitting one likes Jhumpa Lahiri becoming the literary moral equivalent of saying one liked Twilight??

Anonymous said...

Anis is right on, and her key sentences are these:
"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."
The stories in the Best American anthology are mostly mediocre, sometimes junk.
After five stories, I just quit wasting my time with Robert Stone's collection, Fun with Numbers. It's been praised to high heaven. One story is fair, at best, but three are BAD, BAD BAD. This is not a debateable issue, it's that clear-cut. Bad is bad is bad.
(The first story was good, in a tawdry, cheapo way.)
So it's not only the youngsters who are off base.
To reverse what Anis said, if you don't know what's good, you don't have a clue. And the clueless are in charge.

Anonymous said...

I know the American and British scenes are infected with the MFA and incestuous prize committee system. But is it different in France, Germany, Russia, Sweden? Are they as obsessed with exoticism and imitation as our cultural gatekeepers are? What kind of connections do you need to become a Writer of Great Literature on the continent?

Anonymous said...

The title is Fun with Problems, fella/gal, and Anis is a man, not a she.
Otherwise you're right -- the stories are bad. Even Kakutani (in the NY Times) recognized that.
Others, of course, thought it was masterful. Like Madison Smart Bell. (Does he work out with weights?)
Why are so many current novels about bizarre people in weirdo situations? I could care less. Ordinary people in real situations interest me, but who writes about a Mrs. and Mr. Bridge anymore?
Actually, nobody is ordinary, if you have the perception to see.
I like Anis's skewering of Junot Diaz. He deserves abuse for that mess of a novel he wrote. (Where's the Dominican Anti-Defamation League when you need them?)

chachi said...

lol about the Dominican Anti-Def League. As a person with Caribbean and South American heritage, I have always found Diaz' short stories cheap and trite. Exploiting stereotypes about poor Spanish-speaking immigrants in the US, but all his stories are the same. A little patina of foreign-ness fools the critics apparently. Guess I should get off my high horse and try it, maybe I'll sell books like Diaz does.

The Oceanside Animals said...

Hmm, I never heard of any of the writers in that quote. Evidently I'm not reading what I'm supposed to be reading.

Unknown said...

I used to really enjoy some of Shivani's critiques on the MFA system because I do think there is such a thing as the workshop story + I find it to be socially-oblivious and politically neutral but also technically proficient. So many writers, so few stylists. That said, the more Shivani I read, the more he looks and sounds like an angry outsider to me. And his so-called impressive list of publications actually includes criticism (read: book reviews). Lastly, it's ironic when you think about who will be actually be interested in Shivani's "MFA-Programs-Suck" book that's he's working on: the answer is of course, MFA students + prospective students! I'm over this guy + his attempt to shock the establishment.

P.S. If you can imitate Aimee Bender + Lydia Davis, good luck with that. Most people couldn't.