Gimmick Criticism

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.



  1. I made this comment at another blog but I think the same can be said here:
    What’s been funny to me about this little article is that people are acting like Shivani is some kind of outsider. One blog, quite racistly, even called him “a Pakistani-American” as if to imply that he was an outsider. Everything I’ve learned about this guy — admittedly from his website — suggests that he’s “one of our own.” His criticism page contains a citation in nearly every literary journal in the country. Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, Antigonish, etc.
    He had been saying the same stuff in those places for years but no one paid attention, because guess what, even writers don’t read those journals. He then put it up on Huffington Post and people are calling their mothers and demanding (as I read on another blog) for him to be black-listed.
    What gall. If you don’t like his slide show (which by the way seems like a Huff Po thing) then respond to his myriad other articles in the nerdy journals that say the exact same thing. Of course no one is going to do that. People will just say “we want to have a conversation” and then not have it.


  2. I found Shivani’s article to be spiteful, one-sided, and ill-informed. While he shouldn’t be blacklisted, it would have been nice if he’d used his space in the HuffPo, a major journal with a wide readership, for something along the lines of Malcolm Cowley, who made a career of building up the reputations of other writers. If it weren’t for Cowley, we might not be reading Faulkner today. Instead, Shivani chose to indulge in Dale Peck-style invective–a sure-fire gimmick to get published in a major outlet. “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers” is exactly the kind of conversation we shouldn’t be having about contemporary American literature. Check the lit blogs I’ve linked to and you will find many more constructive, well-reasoned, and respectful conversations about fiction and poetry today.


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