Literary Critic Hates Vaginas, "Ghetto Volume"

People are obviously reading too much these days. That must be why one critic felt the need to list the 15 writers (9 of them women) we should all stop reading right now.

Anis Shivani's Huffington Post list of "The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers" is clearly meant to offend, and it succeeds. Fans of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for instance, may be incensed to find Junot Diaz's work dismissed under the heading "Abuelas and Hijas," or his writerly tone described as "ear-shattering ghetto volume." Also on Shivani's list of things that are a waste of time: ladies writing about lady stuff. Here he is on poet Sharon Olds:

Stylistically invariant since 1980, she writes about the female body in a deterministic, shamanistic, medieval manner. Infantilization packaged in pseudo-confession is her specialty. [...] Her poetry defines feminism turned upon itself, chewing up its own hot and bothered cadaver, exposed since the 1970s. Female poets in workshops around the country idolize her, collaborate in the masochism, because they say she freed them to talk about taboo subjects, she "empowered" them.

For a critic who says "bad writing is characterized by obfuscation," these are interesting claims. What does "chewing up its own hot and bothered cadaver" even mean? But lest you think Olds is the only female poet who's getting way too much attention (seriously, I am so sick of all those billboards of her face clogging up middle America), here's what Shivani thinks of Louise Gluck:

As with Sharon Olds, her poetry is an accurate reflection of the abysmal decline of American feminism from its radical incarnation in the seventies. First book, Firstborn, was stillborn Plath, and it only got worse—though she took 17 years between books at one time to figure out her direction, going from Plath's angry confessionalism to pure domesticity. Takes herself so seriously that her domestic travails are the subject of her own mythology (herself=Penelope).

Yes, Gluck has committed the first deadly sin of the female writer: thinking she's important. Women's domestic concerns are boring, women's bodily functions are disgusting, and no one who writes about either should dare to compare herself to Penelope, who had the decency not to have a period the whole time she was waiting for Odysseus (though she did do a lot of sewing).

But Shivani's disdain for domesticity isn't the whole story here (after all, he also hates Diaz's "ghetto volume"). What's so upsetting about the whole exercise is Shivani's need to pontificate on how people should and (especially) shouldn't write. Observe:

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 [...]. They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded.

There's a lot to question here (Whose moral core? Which great issues? Haven't some of the greatest books been written about uneasiness with mortality?), but the biggest problem with Shivani's whole approach is right there in the first sentence. What true lover of books had to "understand bad writing" before she recognized good writing? What joyful reader, asked to explain what she loves about her favorite authors, responds by listing what they're not? Shivani's also planning a list of underrated writers, and drawing readers' attention to great writers they may have missed is a worthwhile goal. But to make blanket pronouncements about What Writers Shouldn't Do is simply to impose the limits of your own imagination on other people. It's small-minded, and yes, it's bad writing.

The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers [Huffington Post]