Anis Shivani published a piece this weekend in the Huffington Post on the most over rated contemporary American authors and considering the comments, retweets, and likes he has hit a nerve (although the internet is one big nerve so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised). He made some good points, and half his list was poetry, which is good to see since it gets so little play although I seldom read it, but like many lists it suffers from brevity and contextualessness, in other words, examples are pulled out of no where. I waiting for the examples of the good writing before I pass judgment, something the author has said is coming. He certainly is unwilling to pull his punches, although some of them are borrowed from other critics. What he keeps coming back to, though, is moral fiction. However, it isn’t quite clear what he means. Again, a positive example would help. Moral fiction so easily smacks of religious tracks, such as the Pilgrims Progress, or good-for-you works like To Kill a Mocking Bird. Sure there is Dostoevsky, but that was then when everyone was worried about morality. This is an anti-moral age, so how does moral fiction fit in there? I, of course agreed with his list of early 20th century quality (Anderson, Hemingway, Cather, Wharton, Okada), but is what I like. It still doesn’t get me to a moral fiction, what ever that is. I’m curious how My Antonia fits in there, too. For what ever his reasoning, his take downs, at least use better examples: Okada instead of Tan was one of my favorites. I didn’t agree with him on the Junot Diaz. I think he was a little to heavy handed. There is a difference between narrative voice and silly parroting of cliches, and I think Diaz avoided them.
The ascent of creative writing programs means that few with critical ability have any incentive to rock the boat–awards and jobs may be held back in retaliation. The writing programs embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness; as long as writers play by the rules (no threatening history or politics), there’s no incentive to call them out. (A politically fecund multiculturalism–very desirable in this time of xenophobia–is the farthest thing from the minds of the official arbiters: such writing would be deemed “dangerous,” and never have a chance against the mediocrities.)
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.
As for conglomerate publishing, the decision-makers wouldn’t know great literature if it hit them in the face. Their new alliance with the MFA writing system is bringing at least a minimum of readership for mediocre books, and they’re happy with that. And the mainstream reviewing establishment (which is crumbling by the minute) validates their choices with fatuous accolades, recruiting mediocre writers to blurb (review) them.
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 love the last sentence because it is so obscure. If it wasn’t for Hollywood’s late 30s early 40s obsession for Tarkington I’d have no idea who he was (Magnificent Ambersons, Pen Rod, Treasure of the Sierra Madre).