Book club and overrated writers

Courtney convinced me. I think I want to re-read and lead a discussion on Beloved for the October book club. She makes a good point that people generally only read it when they have to (e.g., in AP English Lit. in 11th grade or whatever), and it deserves far more attention than classroom reading. I think it’s a gorgeous, chilling book and it brings up so many difficult (and confusing!) issues. I’ve always thought of Morrison as a grittier, bloodier Woolf–the American Woolf, if you will–and so you can imagine my self-assured smile when I found out that she wrote her master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner. It shows: in the best of ways.

This was the most interesting thing I read today: Huffington Post writer Anis Shivani’s list of the 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers. And wow, he knows how to write where it hurts! But as the Guardian book blog points out, he isn’t just blindly slinging insults; these are carefully planned–if occasionally just mean!–take-downs. I was thrilled to see Michael Cunningham–soulless hack-author of The Hours, which I couldn’t have hated any more (ripping Woolf’s working title of Mrs. Dalloway and then trying to mimic her style and failing grotesquely at it)–on his list. And I know Guion was only too thrilled to see poets Billy Collins and Louise Gluck included.

I do, however, enjoy Junot Diaz and Jonathan Safran Foer, both of whom made Shivani’s hit list. Even though I really enjoyed Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I still couldn’t dismiss Shivani’s critiques of them. Of Foer, he writes, “Each of these writers has a gimmick, and gimmick after gimmick is what Foer excels at. Always quick to jump on to the bandwagon of the moment.” And of Diaz: “His manic voice describes everything with the same faux energy, the ear-shattering ghetto volume, as though there were no difference between murder and puking. Seems to work with a checklist as he designs his plots–the dictator Trujillo, the projects, drugs, family secrets, grandfather in prison, yep, everything checked off. Has no clue about the rhythm of language, just strings together discrete sentences until he has enough for a book.” Ouch. But, wow. If you’ve read Diaz and Foer, it’s all kind of true.

I reluctantly agree with his choice to include Jhumpa Lahiri; like Shivani, I think she is a good writer, but it’s almost as if she doesn’t want us to know that she is. And he’s also right about this: She doesn’t have to write anything except stories of privileged, disillusioned Indian/Bengali immigrants to America to get widely lauded. It gets old after a while.

My dilemma is that I still enjoy reading Foer, Diaz, and Lahiri’s novels. I think Shivani is making perfectly astute–if harsh–observations about them. And I guess someone has to call out the literati every so often. Shivani writes in his introduction:

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.

I’m particularly interested in what my fiction MFA friends–Angela and Rachel H.–think of this (as his intro piece somewhat denigrates creative writing program culture). As for everyone else, what do you think? Do you agree with his list? Anyone you would add to the list of overrated contemporary authors? Or defend?

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3 thoughts on “Book club and overrated writers

  1. i love that someone finally had the chutzpah to say all this. i’ve only read foer, cunningham, and tan but i found that cunningham was melodramatic and the other two lacked resonance, particularly tan. to me, the popularity of certain authors seems to be tied in with the same driving force behind silly bandz–inexplicable, but we simply must have them.

    i’m the MFA equivalent of nouveau riche, as my program (writing for children and young adults) is unbearably ‘genre,’ but from what i’ve heard about creative writing MFAs, mr. shivani’s assessment is spot on. my program is…well, extremely loud and incredibly close–a greenhouse of mutual passion, great respect, and amazing creativity–but from what i hear it’s the exception rather than the rule. some very prominent programs in the creative writing world have developed reputations–admittedly underground–for favoritism, snobbery, and putting new authors in their place.

    interestingly, young adults seem to be flocking to children’s literature for the same reasons i want to write it: it’s fresh, it’s unpretentious, and the authors still experiment with form, wordplay, and the fantastic. biz just posted this link on my wall:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/books/review/Paul-t.html?_r=2&ref=books

    i worry somewhat about our generation’s drive for instant gratification and eternal youth a la peter pan, but i appreciate any legitimate critical recognition of children’s literature.* i just hope we aren’t the newest tend in pretension.

    *although not of rick riordan. he’s the very definition of gimmick over actual quality.

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