Thursday, August 12, 2010

Saying things are "Overrated" is "Overrated"

After reading Anis Shivani's 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers, I was tempted both to attack his critical suppositions (“If we don't understand bad writing, we can't understand good writing” and “As for conglomerate publishing, the decision-makers wouldn't know great literature if it hit them in the face” among other howlers) and defend those among his choices whom I admire (Lahiri, Diaz, Ashberry, among others.) From there I most assuredly would have debased myself by exposing his inability to use subordinating conjunctions correctly  and to construct a parallel list. Ahem.

This would have been both futile and, well, unpleasant. There's really no arguing opinion, and his diatribe, as much as it might be framed as the pleading of the last honest man in show business, is just opinion. So, any attempt to rebut his flame-throwing would have required equally incendiary tactics: questioning taste, undercutting authority, needling intention, and calling out integrity.

What's interesting to me now is the idea of something being properly “rated.” Presumably Shivani doesn't think Sharon Olds should be tarred and feathered; it's just that her acclaim and success does not seem to him commensurate with her ability. At its core, labeling something under- or  over-rated is a call for justice, for an equivalence of achievement to acknowledgment.

Of and in itself this is not a bad motive, as it would theoretically strip some of their excess “rating” and re-assign it to those who don't enjoy a “rating” their work deserves. The problem with this, as I see it at least, is that it requires an arbiter, a critic-king to redistribute the literary laurels appropriately. And no such being exists. Shivani bemoans the lack of a contemporary taste-maker who might restore order (hence the mentions of Malcolm Cowley and Alfred Kazin), but in doing so ,he uncritically re-asserts the idea that there is some objective measure of quality. His argument is that there is some definable characteristics of good writing; it's just that we don't have anyone who is either willing or able to do the measuring.

This is, of course, silly.

The ideological forces that brought down literary taste-making are the same that have opened our collective eyes to the fallacy of objective worth. What remains is discourse—the argument between you and I over who should be read and who shouldn't. That discussion can be immensely interesting, satisfying, provocative, and enjoyable (it is the reason I do what I do for a living.). However, each participant must first acknowledge the rules of the game: that your opinion is only valid insofar as you acknowledge it to be your opinion, that the goal of the discussion is revel in the possibility of art and of each other. We should champion those writers we cherish, but this doesn't require us to besmirch the darlings of others. Such behavior does not become us and can only serve to muddy the already tempestuous waters of contemporary literature.

The desire to rate is the desire to organize and understand the world; if we know something's rating, then we can use that knowledge to maximize our happiness. If Faulkner is 9.0 and O'Connor is an 8.8, then I should make sure I read Faulkner before I get to O'Connor. But as we all know, this doesn't generally work, especially in literature. My 9.0 says as much about me as it says about Faulkner or O'Connor or Melville or Stephanie Meyer, much as Shivani's slash-and-burn approach to opinions that aren't his says more about him than it does the writers he belittles.


  1. I saw a quote recently (I thought it was from Stephen King's book On Writing but I just did a fruitless google search so I can't tell you for sure) that went something like this--write to please yourself. Some people will like it and some won't, but if you try to please everyone, you will end up pleasing no one. Sounds like Shivani doesn't understand this.

  2. I went through all the mental steps of your first paragraph myself a couple days ago, and now reading your post has fully exorcised me of my irritation. I thank you!

  3. Kathryn-
    Thank you, kindly.

    I once heard Toni Morrison say a similar thing: write what you want to read.

    The writing was definitely cathartic and am glad to hear the reading was for you as well.

  4. Amen sir.

    I read that post and I couldn't help but sense a cold and barely restrained fury in Mr. Shivani's criticism.

    He's obviously well read (the writing has problems like you mentioned) but there's something angry/frustrated in his tone.

    I don't mean to undercut his authority (taking your advice here) but I think this anger/frustration/whatever does lend credence to your point that his piece is pure opinion.

  5. Very, very well stated. I've read a few reactions to Shivani's piece now, and all more or less devolve into nit-picking and name-calling and harsh words of judgment. Not that he doesn't deserve them all, but this sort of approach (your approach) raises the level of discourse on literature, rather than dragging it into the mud. This is why your blog is one of my favorites.

  6. Mayowa-
    If I had to guess, and this is getting into the ad hominem territory I was trying to avoid, is that he feels underrated himself. The disdain in his tone definitely undermines his credibility.

    Well, thanks for the kind words. I definitely am trying to keep it civil and save my personal invectives for screaming aloud when alone in my den.

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