Anis Shivani might be a bitter guy, but as a literary critic at the Huffington Post  he exemplifies the sort of high-brow hating which pleases like a good nerdy fuck.

Let’s say this much of criticism which pummels its subjects: it will always be closer to the truth. 

Think about your own life.  Really knowing your friends, your lovers, your spouses, your places of unemployment, are you not palpably aware of numerous flaws, faults, stupidities, culpabilities and insanities, and isn’t your intimate experience the reason for this—not because you happen to be mean?

Criticism is—criticism.  Why shouldn’t we expect criticism to provide the insights of the inevitable flaws?  Sure, there are perfect poems here and there, perhaps a flawless short story, but when reviewing the corpus of a fashionable writer, life being what it is, there’s got to be let-downs, just as we are disappointed by our friends, our lovers, our jobs.

Social decorum should keep us from attacking our personal relationships—but why shouldn’t we be honest regarding a book that wants out time and money? 

Anis Shivani is correct—both in his criticism and by what his criticism symbolizes: In Literary Criticism, the bland and cheery is always bad, always a lie.

Anis Shivani is correct—even as we disagree with him; disagreeing with him (he over-values High Modernism, for instance) is not the point, for Shivani’s whole impulse his correct, and his audience responds—people deeply want honest criticism, and despite what the status quo sometimes says, they shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting it.

We disagree with Shivani when he writes of Billy Collins’ work: “escapist denial of death is pervasive.”  Has Shivani read Collins’ poem, “Passengers?” And we are only mildly miffed that Shivani stole our idea—debuted on Scarriet several years ago—that Collins’ poetry is “stand-up comedy.”  We forgive Shivani, for this nice observation alone: “[Collins]poems have lately become mostly about writing poems–in his pajamas, with a cup of coffee in hand.”

We also like that Shivani is well-acquainted with all genres; there’s nothing we hate more than ghetto-izing and niche-ing.   In his recent The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers, 7 are fiction writers, 6 are poets, and 2 are critics.

Shivani opens with a moral, common sense overview:

Are the writers receiving the major awards and official recognition really the best writers today? Or are they overrated mediocrities with little claim to recognition by posterity? The question is harder than ever to answer today, yet it is a worthwhile exercise to attempt (along with identifying underrated writers not favored by bureaucracy).

It’s difficult to know today because we no longer have major critics with wide reach who take vocal stands. There are no Malcolm Cowleys, Edmund Wilsons, and Alfred Kazins to separate the gold from the sand. Since the onset of poststructuralist theory, humanist critics have been put to pasture. The academy is ruled by “theorists” who consider their work superior to the literature they deconstruct, and moreover they have no interest in contemporary literature. As for the reviewing establishment, it is no more than the blurbing arm for conglomerate publishing, offering unanalytical “reviews” announcing that the emperor is wearing clothes (hence my inclusion of Michiko Kakutani).

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.

It’s hard to argue with his general points, and we like his pedagogical earnestness, too: “If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing.”

Here are the summary observations on the 15, and Shivani is definitely a critic of the twitter age, as he packs each line with left-wing, moral outrage:

Ashbery: When reality = language (as his carping cousins the language poets, have it) politics becomes vacuous, and any usurper can, and will step in.

Collins: Pioneered the poet as the stand-up comedian…

Cunningham: Proves the point that to be successful as a fiction writer today, all you have to do is create facile pastiche assemblages.

Diaz: Replaces plot in stories and novels with pumped-up “voice.”

Foer: Always quick to jump on the bandwagon of the moment.

Gluck: Her flatness of tone (mistaken as equanimity by infatuated critics) suggests paralysis after emotional death.

Graham: Started off modestly, but with increasing official recognition, her abstractions, pseudo-philosophizing, self-importance, and centerless long lines have spun out of control.

Kakutani: Simply the worst book critic on the planet.

Lahiri: Utterly unwilling to write about any thing other than privileged Bengali immigrants with PhDs living in Cambridge’s Central and Inman Squares and making easy adjustments to top of American meritocratic pyramid.

Nelson: Workshop writing, dysfunctionality is thy name, and there is no better writer to learn family dysfunction from…

Oliver: A “nature poet” whose poems all seem to follow the same pattern: time, animal, setting, observation, epiphany.

Olds: Infantilization packaged in pseudo-confession…

Tan: Empowered other immigrant writers to make mountains out of molehills of their minor adjustment struggles.

Vendler: Zero poetic feeling…has never uttered one original insight…

Vollmann: Encapsulates ethical vacuity of American fiction after the collapse of 1970s postmodernism.

It does not matter, for instance, that we feel Sharon Olds has written some moving poems: Anis Shivani is entitled to his opinion of Olds’ poetry—and if that’s how he feels about it, he should be allowed to utter it, and everyone should be encouraged to be that opinionated—if only to combat the reverse condition: the true literary nightmare of know-nothing politeness.


  1. Anonymous said,

    March 21, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    mr brady, why you think mr shivani is a left wing critic?

    nobody is entitled to an opinion. biggest untrue cliche in the free world. if mr shivani is not being paid handsomely for his opinion, then, quite accordingly, his opinion is absolutely worthless. how much, mr brady, do you think mr shivani gets paid to post at huffington post?

    to me, mr shivani, much like many self appointed “critics,” is nothing but a sour grapist, forever grappling with deep-seated inferiority complexes.

    there is a very large chasm, mr brady, between book reviewing/career sniping and actual literary criticism. mr shivani’s column is the former, which any seasoned writer should be ignoring.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    March 21, 2013 at 3:06 pm


    You err to presume there is a difference between “Reviewing” and “Criticism.” Literature belongs to the world—it belongs precisely in that place where Anis Shivani exists; what you call “actual literary criticism” is a snobby attempt to hide from what literature is. The New Critic/Modernist power-grabbers (John Crowe Ransom, specifically, in his essay, “Criticism, Inc”) divided “reviewers” from “academic priesthood” to make the latter immune to all reviewing and criticism and judgment. When Shivani faults ‘language-play’ Ashbery for making “politics vacuous” so that any “usurper” can “step in,” we have precisely the same complaint that Brecht made against arty pretension in the name of a people’s audience with real-world concerns. I’m not sure what Shivani’s salary at the Huff Post has to do with his opinions.

    But thanks for your input.


  3. Anonymous said,

    March 21, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    mr brady, my presumptions, in this case, are facts. snobby? perhaps that too. however, i’d rather be a snob than a sour grapist with ethical problems.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 21, 2013 at 5:24 pm

      Not really “facts.” The snobby realm from which you launch your complaint doesn’t really deal with facts, unless you are prepared to disagree “factually” with Mr. Shivani’s opinion on the poetry of Ashbery, Graham, Olds. I’d love to see that: a fact-based disagreement over the poems of Ashbery!

      As for your “Sour grapist” charge: that is the merest ad hominem, which shows you stooping to the very behavior of which you supposedly censor.

      • Anonymous said,

        March 21, 2013 at 6:06 pm

        i am speaking about the professional system of critical inquiry that currently exists.

        as for my very truthful charge of sour grapism, i am not attacking at an established writer, who makes a living at what they do. mr shivani is a volunteer. quite within my ethics to attack whatever no-good he is up to.

        however, say, in the case of a mr logan, it would still be within my ethical realm to attack him for attacking colleagues. attacking your professional colleagues in public is very bad form, and you would certainly be deserving of my scorn. after all, we are talking about literature, literary careers, actual hard working writers. not politics or politicians. there is, despite some similarities, a world of difference between the two industries.

        respect your colleagues, respect yourself. do good work, get respect.

        • thomasbrady said,

          March 21, 2013 at 7:43 pm

          That’s naive. You deserve the scorn of genius. “Hard working?” “Respect?” In literature?? You don’t get it at all, do you. Literature functions precisely to mock attitudes like yours. “Respect” and “working hard” are certainly virtues, but you, in misunderstanding the role of literature, have no right to use those terms…you are a flea…full of blood and happy, probably…but a flea…

          • Anonymous said,

            March 21, 2013 at 9:00 pm

            i’ve misunderstood nothing. literature, as a whole, mocks nothing.
            i’m certainly not any kind of animal or insect. mr brady, if you had even the tiniest bone of professionalism in your body, you would have never said that, especially to one of your only readers…

            • thomasbrady said,

              March 22, 2013 at 1:35 am

              We have writers like Alexander Pope and Edgar Poe and Lord Byron on one hand and the forgotten professional mediocrities on the other…the flea was a metaphor…sorry I ruffled your professional feathers…

  4. Anonymous said,

    March 21, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    bottom line is this: if mr shivani thinks he can write better than anyone, he is welcome to try. otherwise, stfu.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 21, 2013 at 5:25 pm

      So no one should review Ashbery? We should instead go ahead and write “better” than Ashbery? And what exactly would that look like?

      • Anonymous said,

        March 21, 2013 at 6:09 pm

        now, you’re just asking dumb questions to keep me on the line. i’ve said my peace on this issue. you know very well what i’m talking about. if you don’t, then i cannot help you.

        • thomasbrady said,

          March 21, 2013 at 7:33 pm

          I don’t need your help. My question is very much to the point: I’ll spell it out for you. You said “write better” without grasping what that implies. You said Shivani cannot review Ashbery unless he can write “better” than Ashbery, but you, of course, are not able to respond when questioned, because, again, you are hiding behind vacuity as you attempt to take a superior tone. Most people run away after Brady has exposed them, but you keep coming back; I’ll give you credit for that.

  5. March 25, 2013 at 11:21 am

    “Sour grapes!” is a frequent ad-hominem retort to people who are so bold as to challenge the status quo. I was accused of it myself recently by someone who should have known better.

    • Anonymous said,

      March 25, 2013 at 3:24 pm

      nothing bold about challenging the literary establishment. people do it on a regular basis, usually with very little success because the challengers don’t really write well enough to even be noticed.

      • thomasbrady said,

        March 25, 2013 at 5:46 pm

        Is there a literary establishment in poetry? We’re all standing in mud that’s sliding towards the sea… Anonymous, you’re too uptight…relax, enjoy the ride…

        • noochinator said,

          March 26, 2013 at 11:14 am

          Yes, enjoy it,
          And stay dispassionate—
          Happiness belongs
          To those who fashion it.

  6. quixoticle said,

    April 4, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Mr. Brady, perhaps you missed these fashion-related [p word] articles from T Magazine no less, concerning the 2013 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. Young white MFA’ers in Hermés and J Crew, “minority” poets monetizing their self-professedly “marginal” identities – you know, biz as usual. However, beware: “the XX chromosome is not represented.”



  7. thomasbrady said,

    April 5, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    Q, thanks. The expensive clothes, the nice photos, that’s fine, and I’m glad they published poems by these guys. A nice piece.

    The problem, though, is the poetry. There’s no style, no ideas, no drama. It’s a series of noun-verb statements. It’s such empty writing. It’s not even worthy of pulp fiction prose. I’m sure it has a certain social value, because people who write like this have to be–I don’t know–nice. Out of prison, writing…poems.


    • quixoticle said,

      April 6, 2013 at 4:25 am

      It would seem that in the last few years the MFA academic-industrial complex (if you would permit me that phrase) has entered a new phase, where the pretense has entirely melted away. The poetry is itself a mere formality, an accessory to a social game students play with their teacher-elders and amongst each other. As a young poet working on my graduate degree in NYC, I see this everywhere. I’m not an MFAer myself, but I’ve met quite a few writers within the school, and myself attempted taking an undergraduate intermediate workshop with Dorothea Lasky. The only times these kids write, both as undergrads and above, is within the parameters of an assignment. All free time is spent with friends, out and about. I think there is an absolute dearth of time spent alone, and it’s really starting to show, especially in the writing of that 25 year old (I myself am 24). There’s no critical self-reflection, no great fear and trembling, no authentic celebration – it’s this journey that the workshops have almost completely robbed my generation of, a journey that leads to strength and individuality as a writer precisely because it must be suffered alone. Ben Lerner’s novel “Leaving the Atoka Station” seems like an accurate sign of the times – the fact that that’s precisely what he himself was shooting for is part and parcel of the precious metadiscursive kerfluffle. I feel like a great deal of writers are defining each other in relation to whatever is going on at the moment, or their teachers, or they merely imitate, and all this at the speed and depth the internet and social media allows. Or, and this has got to be the absolute worst, they feel entitled to not only expropriate the words of another, dead poet, but colonize the poem of the other itself, as the ongoing trend of erasure poems and homophonic “translation.” This is precisely the faux-avant self-absorbed and bratty poetic mode of the Millenials, who can’t help from recapitulating the consumerist programme in their politics as well as their art. The nepotism within the MFA establishment is old hat by now – it’s ridiculous how one can’t get published, can’t be taken seriously by one’s elders if you (and your work) aren’t prostrate before them, aren’t on the map of your peers if you don’t partake in the same social games. The irrelevancy of the poetry and any evaluation either historical or formal has become so bald it’s ridiculous. But remember, these poets are customers. They’ve paid for the full experience. And the customer is always right. There is no good or bad poetry, only relevant poetry.

      • noochinator said,

        April 6, 2013 at 10:12 am

        Yes, the education-credential complex,
        I’ve been calling it that for years!
        (And as for the medical-pharmaceutical complex,
        One can only numb with wines and with beers.)

      • thomasbrady said,

        April 6, 2013 at 8:09 pm

        Yea poetry is a social game of sorts, and that’s OK, poetry is a kind of social game in many ways, and that’s fine, but what’s sad is when this social game becomes the centerpiece of how poetry is cultivated, taught, kept alive, in academia, publishing, etc. And this is what I hear you saying. And you’re right.

        We have to ask ourselves what poetry is, and right now, what it seems to be, and what I see it as in the poetry of Dorothea Lasky, whose work is on-line, both in print and recorded, is cultivated insanity; she’s a neo-romantic, and we could have put her in this year’s March Madness, because Romanticism is Scarriet’s theme. So what you do is you read the Romantic poets, the post-Romantic poets like Auden and Larkin and the poets of antiquity who all deal with the same stuff that Lasky and young people today are dealing with–heartbreak, mortality, love, beauty, insanity, social convention, relating your life to the bigger life, etc. And you know what I think? You need to read these other poets and not merely sit at the feet of Dorothea Lasky, who comes across as a charismatic sex-pot with a sense of humor, and I’m sure she’s very influential as a teacher—but to what end? I wouldn’t want to be a student studying under that. Because if you leave the Lasky charisma to one side and just look at Lasky the poet, there’s not much there, and so what is the student getting? On one hand they are getting overshadowed by the Lasky personality—which hinders them, and then on the other hand, the essential emptiness of what is in fact being taught: cultivated insanity, that would hinder them as well.

        Poetry is essentially a really educated person getting emotional. If the MFA is only about the social game and not truly getting educated, then it is just a rotten scheme.

        If you’re not giving young people real education, if you’re not giving would-be poets rhetorical, historical, and philosophical substance, but instead trendy glitter, a social reward system, the elaborate ponzi scheme of broken dreams where a few charismatics get their 15 minutes of fame, that’s a real sorry state of things.

        Poetry works as expressive therapy for some, but when that’s all it is, poetry suffers.


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