Everybody is freaking out about Anis Shivani’s list of “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers,” although I can’t see why. Like any list maker, Shivani wants to provoke, and provoke he does. There’s 1,500 comments and counting on the HuffPo. For the record, to my mind he’s only exactly on the mark about Jhumpa Lahiri, calling her talented but narrow and timid. The rest of his observations are more flippant versions of criticisms leveled by more thoughtful and fairer-minded readers.
Shivani’s overrated writers are called out for essentially the same sin: trotting out the same gimmick from work to work. However, Shivani has a gimmick of his own, and it’s not even an original one. His criticism falls back on cultural wars nostalgia, circa 1992, for the lost age of the great critic. Readers these days have no defenses against mediocre prose and prosody because
we no longer have major critics with wide reach who take vocal stands. There are no Malcolm Cowleys, Edmund Wilsons, and Alfred Kazins to separate the gold from the sand. Since the onset of poststructuralist theory, humanist critics have been put to pasture. The academy is ruled by “theorists” who consider their work superior to the literature they deconstruct, and moreover they have no interest in contemporary literature. As for the reviewing establishment, it is no more than the blurbing arm for conglomerate publishing, offering unanalytical “reviews” announcing that the emperor is wearing clothes (hence my inclusion of Michiko Kakutani).
For what it’s worth, I should point out that the emperor is dead. Poststructuralism expired a decade ago. Whatever you might think of Derrida, Barthes, and Foucault–along with their predecessors Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin–you can’t say they didn’t take literature seriously. They were too respectful of literature to create anything as crass as a 15 most overrated writers list. Nor would Cowley, Wilson, or Kazin. Neither would Michiko Kakutani, for that matter. “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers” isn’t literary criticism. It’s a slide show.