Sunday, August 8, 2010

The assassin left his bullets on the breakfast counter

Someone named Anis Shivani got some column space on the Huffington Post web site for one of those grousing name-writer round ups in which the erstwhile essayist attempts to consign his choices to the gaping dustbin of history. The piece on the 15 Most Overrated American Writers  has entertainment value, to be sure, and the intent is provoke an argument  with large number of readers. We are in time of of blogs and well written, if unexceptional views--some opinions, like some novels, are more interesting than others from the chorus. Shivani has standards, he has tastes, he has grievances. Welcome to the club.

An interesting read, although I have to say that the summaries of the respective writer's sins are hasty and owe much to what others have remarked; the comments on Vollman and Ashbery are evidence of contempt without much inspection of the work. As for Collins, Gluck, Grahame, more or less spot on; being easily understood or hard-to-get are successful only if you're a good writer with a surface quality that makes the respective obviousness or obliqueness worth the time to read them.Well, it is bullshit, and it's a practice that goes back aways in our contemporary literary history. Mailer wrote "Some Children of the Goddess" and "Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room" where he spoke of his, Styron, Updike, Burroughs--in mostly dour terms, the main being, it seems, that they all, excepting Burroughs, liked genius. Gore Vidal opined on a host of PoMo writers like DeLillo and Pynchon in his essay "American Plastic", which had nothing nice to say about the youngsters taking up the pencil. Tom Wolfe wrote a manifesto after he published "Bonfire of the Vanities", saying we need a return to the Social Novel, and that He, Tom Wolfe, was the novelist to show everyone how. Jonathan Franzen, Dale Peck and a host of others have written minor key manifestos of their own to varying degrees of response.

What they have in common, this five decade self indulgence, is that no one, no where writes very well, and what gets said is an assemblage of straw arguments, points that once may have been salient at one time but are now so hackneyed and over repeated that the description is even more formula and stale than the writing their trying to be a corrective to. The targets are indeed too easy in this piece, with the intent seeming to be more to insult book sellers than to give a heads up to unsuspecting readers or to Speak Truth to Power. Shivani sounds like an addled bookseller himself, becoming ...uncorked at a store party after he's heard one more boilerplate praise for a so-so writer. It's a small world with a circuitous stock of conversation topics; the problem with being a bookseller , if Shivani did, in fact, ever happen to be one, is that one reads to keep pace of who's new on the scene; you tend to stop reading for pleasure.

This was my experience when I worked at Warwick's Bookstore in LaJolla, California, when I was reading up to four novels a week; power down, develop a sales pitch and a shelf-talker blurb, go on to the next book. After I left, I stopped reading fiction and read history and criticism instead, saying absolutely rude things about those I had previously praised, all these up and coming scribes. My remarks were, of course, unfair and bitter, and so I suspect that Shivani is a similar state of detox. It would have been more interesting if he'd gone after some recently deceased writers with big reputations--Norman Mailer, John Updike, David Foster Wallace--or had tackled living writers who are frequently mentioned in articles as naturals for the Nobel Prize for Literature, like DeLillo, Joyce Carole Oates, Philip Roth. The collective reps are a hornet's nest of contention, to which Shivani's remarks would have been more compelling , given the enormity of that suggested task.The Huffington Post squib, alas, was too easy to write, too, too easy to assemble. Something braver would have made the diversion more memorable.

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