Anis Shivani, identified as a novelist and poet, recently re-enacted the old literary parlor game by identifying for the Huffington Post the 15 most overrated writers in America. Shivani scored a few hits and witty barbed phrases in rounding up his collection of the usual suspects who frequently draw fire from literary wanna-bes such as Shivani. So, Shivani follows the recent literary ax-swinging carried out by Dale Peck and others.
At least Shivani's piece had me thinking about the present-day literary culture. Like many writers, Shivani apparently dreams of a golden age of literature, when America was blessed with a multitude of critics, novelists and poets of incredble power, insight and originality. In this view, the country once had a broad, discriminating literary public, able to discern the really great writers from the second rate. As Randall Jarrell (well, we once did have some able critics -- sorry, Mr. Shivani, you don't quite reach Jarrell levels) pointed out, such nostalgia for a golden literary age is misplaced.
The writers Shivani singles out - William T Vollman, Amy Tan, John Ashbery, Mary Oliver, Helen Vendler, Antonya Nelson, Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Louise Gluck, Michael Cunningham, Billy Collins and New York Times Michiko Kakutani, definitely have shortcomings. Sivani cites examples of bad writing from each of them. They might be supremely overrated, but the same was said of John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Lowell, Charles Dickens, Alexander Pope. Back in ancient Rome and ancient Greece, similar games were carried out, as writers lampooned each other as overrated and pompous. Remember that jealous fellow who cast a dart or two at Shakespeare, and Shakespeare doing the samew with Christopher Marlowe?
While many of Shivani's comments were justified, and while I've been exasperated and dismayed by each of the writers Shivani cites, I find myself strangely moved to rise in their defense. Each of them must have qualities that caused them to be "overrated." And who, or what institutions, overrates them? Each of them has met muster with publishers, reviewers, magazine editors, universities and readers. So, are the standards of Harvard, which hired Vendler and Graham, wrong? Are editors who print Amy Tan's books total fools? Are readers who love Mary Oliver's nature poems misguided?
While I find Mary Oliver's work a step above greeting card verse, and agree that Jorie Graham's poetry has sailed off into pretension and abstraction, each of them has audiences that find value and meaning in whatever they write. Some of Nelson's stories in The New Yorker are among the few in that once great literary magazine that I've been able to read beyond one or two paragraphs. (The New Yorker's collection of writers under 40 shows that a new overrated generation is taking hold. Yay!) I've like poems by Ashberry, although I consider him the worst of the New York School, and Gluck. And I agree with Shivani that Collins is a "one-trick pony," is it really so awful to entertain people with poetry on the Garrison Keillor show? While Vendler can be awful, I've found much of value in her examination of Keats' odes and other books. New York Times critic Kakutani is as prone to literary cliche and pompous writing as Shivani says, but still I read her work for whatever insights she might muster.
Actually, the country appears to have more of a vibrant and varied literary culture than Silvani supposes. He cites Helen Vender as if she were the only poetry critic in America, but we have William Logan, Dan Chiasson, Adam Kirsch (whom Shivani cites) and many others in literary journals.We now have countless literary sites on the Internet. The country is covered with book clubs and the like. Literary reviews might be declining in newspapers, but many sources of criticism remain. While the bad writing Shavani comes up with is appalling, the same exercise could be carried out for any number of writers, from William Faulkner to Shakespeare.
Still, Shivani, and other writers who have done this kind of hit job in the past, provide a service of making readers more discerning about writers frequently lauded. As Dylan Thomas pointed out, simple visceral pleasure is a worthy reponse to literature, but pleasure can blind us to a writer's shortcomings. Shivani and others make us aware of the neccesity of a second or third reading, of evaluating sentences and paragtaphs closely. But must me? Can't we just enjoy a brief laugh at a Collins poem? Aren't we all quickly aware of a clunky line by Jorie Graham?
History is the final arbiter, of course. If a writer like Shivani would have been alive in the 19th century, he might have seen Tennyson, Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant as overrated, and each of their reputations has declined in varying dgreees over the years. Few if anyone even knew Emily Dickinson or even Walt Whitman at the time. Melville was considered a failure, and who in 1824 could have preducted that Keats would be considered a more important poet than Lord Byron?
Liteary reputations have always been overrated or underrated. Critics, even the best of them, have often been wrong in their judgments. As Jarrell pointed out, we probably never had a broad literary audience waiting breatlhlessly for the next poem by T.S. Eliot or the next novel by James Joyce. The popular, the second-rate, the overrated, has always held the upper hand.