A criticism of criticism; or, everyone’s a critic, but you’re a bad one.

I’m sure you’ve all seen this new list of the 15 most overrated authors:


To summarize, per Anis Shivani, they are:

Amy Tan
Antonya Nelson
Billy Collins
Helen Vendler
Jhumpa Lahiri
Jorie Graham
John Ashbery
Jonathan Safran Foer
Junot Diaz
Louise Glück
Mary Oliver
Michael Cunningham
Michiko Kakutani
Sharon Olds
William T. Vollman

Sure, everyone who reads that list is going to say, “OMG, ____ totally belongs there!” Shivani’s “compass” for making these qualifications of this interestingly diverse cadre of writers is this:

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.

I’m not even sure what that means!

How do we know if what we experience is showboating and narcissism versus a mode, a form, a device? Equally offensive are the cute labels Shivani applies to each author’s profile:

Sharon Olds (tampons and lactation)
Junot Diaz (Abuelos and Hijas)
Antonya Nelson (Alcoholics, Abusers, Addicts, and Adulterers)

It is facile to reduce down any author to a single dominant trope, concern, or identity, particularly when those traits seem to relate back to the author more than anything does. Does Shivani imply through his criticism that “tampons and lactation” are unworthy topics of poetry? Then he should similarly avoid Carly Sach’s great piece in Court Green.

I’m firing this off quickly in annoyance, but my issue isn’t wholly with Shivani. He’s clearly stirring a pot, and I although I abhor his approach and his methods, I also argue that a critical dialog is essential at every point in in literature.

I’m at somewhat of a loss to understand why someone would take such a reductionist, offensive, and wholly misguided tone in opening up a dialog about art. Why hasn’t he listed the enormous list of male writers who, like Antonya Nelson, have concerned themselves with “alcoholics, abusers, addicts, and adulterers”? Surely she has no corner on the market. And how can we truly assess the work of Junot Diaz this early in his career? We can discuss Oscar Wao, sure, but beyond that….? He may never write anything as significant again. Or he may become the most significant writer of our generation. Perhaps we can say, at least for this one, that it’s too early to tell.

When criticism works, it works because it places an artist’s work into a context, discusses what it does well and what it fails to achieve. A review that does only one of these three things and sacrifices the other two would be called a book report, literary fellatio, or a rant, respectively, none of which offer anything but the pleasure of their own existence for their authors.

I don’t believe criticism must be kind, but it shouldn’t expose our own shortcomings as human beings either. While I’d hate to see literary discourse become as structured and stifled as the dinner party in The Age of Innocence, I think we can, in the immortal words of Ouiser Boudreaux in Steel Magnolias, “take the dishes out of the sink before [we] pee in it.”

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