15 Reactions to Shivani’s 15 Overrated American Writers

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The fat lady’s still singing.

Reading the reactions to Anis Shivani’s post has been as much fun as the post itself.

The number of comments (at Huffington Post) is already racing toward 2,000. That, in my view, makes Shivani’s criticism a ringing success (despite the tidal wave of indignation and posturing). Any piece of writing that can draw that much attention has done something right – and by right I mean more than opinions.  In reviewing these posts, I’ve noticed a trend. Those who are most offended by Shivani seem to be those most vested in literature, either as writers, academics or critics. Those who approve of Shivani’s comments seem to be the reading public. Just my impression.

Popcorn anyone?


The Rumpus

Yikes! Like a virgin who’s touched the centerfold. Contradicting their namesake, this website backed away from their link to Shivani’s article with unrivaled horror and rectitude!

Exemplary Lines: “Yikes. I was the one who approved the original post. Lapse in judgment there! Sorry everybody.”



The news blog of Publisher’s Weekly uses Shivani’s commentary as a teachable moment. “We need some happy thoughts,” they write; then ask: “Who are the most  underrated writers?” The results turn up in their post: PWxyz’s most Underrated Writers. But Publisher’s Weekly turns out to be a dark, bleak night for poets. Such is the shiny-faced law of unintended consequences. Is there a single poet among the 15 most underrated writers? Not one. Lesson learned. A rising tide does not lift poets.

Examplary Lines: “We need some happy thoughts. Rather than put people down, let’s life a few people up and make a list of underrated writers for a bright new week. “(Unless you’re a poet.)


The Guardian

Bring it on! Alison Flood of the Guardian takes a spectator’s relish in the all-car crash & burn that is turning out to be the literary world’s Indy 500.

Exemplary Lines: “I get the feeling that Shivani has been brewing this piece for some time.”


Ask Parliament

The post that sees both sides of the argument, fair and balanced, right up… almost… just about… to the end.

Exemplary Lines: “To be fair to Shivani, many of the writers he discussed are utter hacks.”


The Missouri Review

Disappointed. Michael Nye, the managing editor of the Missouri Review is, in a word, disappointed — which is not to say he disagrees. First paragraph? He lists the skewered authors, but what about the poets? Look for words like rabid, inflammatory, sour grapes, bully-pulpit.

Exemplary Lines: “Well, okay.”


Jezebel: Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women

Feminism anyone? 9 of the writers on Shivani’s hit list are women – and that might be 9 too many. Still no love for poets.

Exemplary Lines : “Yes, Glück has committed the first deadly sin of the female writer: thinking she’s important.” (Note: the author doesn’t write: Glück has committed the first deadly sin of the poet: thinking she’s important.


The Skeptician

A love/hate relationship? David Hill has tried to bite his tongue, but enough is enough. (Perhaps the first respondent to have actually read Shivani elsewhere.) He’s not impressed but, “to be honest”, Shivani “makes some good points”. Shivani “complains alot”, but “oddly, I think if I met him, I would like him.” Why won’t Shivani back up his criticism?

Exemplary Lines: “…I move at a different pace than many of the blogging elite that manage to fire off their own inflammatory musings every time some drivel like this ruffles enough people’s feathers.” (Moi?)


Cocktail Hour

Ritual purification. Bill Roorbach, like David Hill, just can’t resist the siren call of Shivani’s bonfire of the vanities. Guilt. Pleasure. It’s all there. And a sense of humor. In the comment section, Roorbach adds as an afterthought: “The poets on Mr. Shivani’s list are all interesting, too, but that’s a different discussion.” A different discussion? The has to hurt. No time for poetry on his Rolodex.

Exemplary Lines: “I love them!  I love their books!  Also, they’re friends and acquaintances of mine, and I don’t like to see them hurt.”


Quill & Quire

Shivani is the reincarnation of B.R. Myers. Haven’t read Myers’ article? Then you’re in for another treat – not over-easy but well-done.

Exemplary Lines: “Shivani also broadens the field of his attack, including seven poets and one critic (The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani).” (Finally, poets and novelists in the same paragraph, getting the recognition they… well… deserve?)


Ward Six

This blogger is so offended he refuses to so much as link to Shivani’s article. So, because I’m poet and have a license to practice poetic justice, I am linking to him.

Exemplary Lines: “I wish he could have just said what he thought without first having to invalidate what I think, based upon my status as a college professor in an MFA program.” (Yeah… this is personal.)


Carissa Halston

Shivani has a point, says Carissa. We can all improve, right?

Exemplary Lines: “Unless you’re incredibly well-versed in contemporary American literature, at least one of those names will make you ask, ‘Who?'”


Rachel Inez Lane

Her gripe? What a sexist prude!

Exemplary Lines: “And since when were these women ever even roped in with John Ashbery or Billy Collins.” (Ouch.)


The Faster Times

Overrated overrated lists. Lincoln Michel asks: Overrated by who? Any love for poets? Michel calls Shivani’s critique of Ashbery several decades too late. Translation: He’s beating a dead horse. Ouch. What about the other poets?  Don’t ask. Let’s talk about those novelists.

Exemplary Lines: “Is it a list of writers that MFA students overrate? Mainstream literary awards? Small magazines? The reading public? It is like making a list of overrated musicians and putting Lada Gaga and Drake next to John Cale and Children of Bodom.”


The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog

The post that finally demolishes Shivani with, among other things, a devastating critique of his poor grammar. Cortnee Howard proves why she’s Editor-in-Chief.

Exemplary Lines: “There is a semi-colon in the first sentence, but the first clause doesn’t have a subject, which is both wrong and generally confusing.”



Into the fire. This website only provided a link to Shivani’s article but offered up lots and lots of indignant comments. But, finally, someone defends the poets… sort of… in a way… as it were … kinda’… Talk about going from the frying pan into the fire.

Exemplary Lines: “Why are there even poets on that list at all? Nobody is out there rating poets. No poets are getting rich off of being overrated. Leave the poor poets to bitch at each other about who’s winning what contest and who was whose student and all that mess. Jesus.” (Never mind.)

8 responses

  1. I guess we may be in an era of mediocre literary fiction but we have been here before,surely? “The novel” has been declared dead many times before.Most novelists are forgotten quite quickly and to some extent future readers will sort out who of the currently hyped will escape that fate-and no doubt some of those writers will be unfairly neglected.

    I worry about a certain meaness of spirit in this rejoicing over the death of fiction.It is also possible that we are too near to current writing to judge how they might be fairly judged.George Eliot went through a period of neglect and Herman Melville was completely unappreciated in his time.Perhaps fiction is just a bit exhausted.I want it too come back.


    • I see you did the same thing I do – which is to get really annoyed with this whole comment approval business and write the same note twice (just did it myself, yesterday, at another site). Both your comments are slightly different. Which do you want me to delete? – or keep them both? :-)

      Anyway, no love for poets?

      But I’m not sure there’s any rejoicing (I have extra popcorn by the way) and I don’t think this presages the “death of fiction”, only the death of a few reputations. It’s gotta’ happen. And I’m not too worried about the authors concerned. To paraphrase Liberace: I’m sure they’re crying all the way to the bank. If they never publish another book then some school or University will pay them handsomely – if only to advertise their names.


  2. I guess we may live in a period of quite mediocre literary fiction.We have been here before however,”the novel” having declared dead many times before.Most novelists are forgotten quite quickly and to some extent future readers will sort out who of the currently hyped will escape that fate (they may not always get it right).
    I worry about a certain glee about the death of fiction and we must surely remember that we are probably to close to current writers to judge how they might fairly be judged- George Eliot went through a period of being neglected and Hermann Melville was completely unappreciated in his lifetime.Perhaps fiction and the novel is just a bit exhausted but i will not despair about it yet.


  3. OK, Shivani has made a list and can think what he wants. He can even write it. But crying, “Off with their heads!” puts one at a terrible historical risk. Now I happen to admire his willingness to take that risk, but it doesn’t make it any less…well, risky. Judgements from on high have been passed about T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in their time–a time when faith in Tennyson and Swinburne seemed unshakable–only to have the literary courts reverse their decisions. And when public conciousness wakes to the inherent importance of any writer chronicalling his age, the nay-sayers look notoriously silly for a time, then pass quietly into oblivion. So for Shavani to make a list of this nature puts his literary jewels on the chopping block… It’s daring, you have to give him that.

    But what seems unfortunate is his muted point about the lack of critics… Edmund Wilson’s and Malcolm Cowley’s names are invoked as examples of critical examples of the past. Yet there is no mention of, say, Arthur Clutton-Brock. Perhaps because Clutton-Brock panned T.S. Eliot’s third collection, and stayed a life-long decrier of Eliot’s “imposter” status in all things literary. Wilson and Cowley, of course, thought otherwise.

    Now it’s true we need great critics. But it’s also true that we have some. The question is, based on his inflammatory article, will Shivani make it as one?

    In truth, the best critics rarely write articles to “rip the band-aid off.” They focus less on dismissal for lack of understanding, on crying fraud, than an attempt to gain understanding, an attempt to ply their intelligences full force to the works under their miscroscopes. Sometimes, their efforts are rewarded; sometimes not. But, the fault they find in the writing is often related to faults they find in the readers. To decry T.S. Eliot mid-20th Century was pretty easy, as easy perhaps to decry Ashbery now. It is much harder to come to an understanding of their work. And that is the great critic’s job. Shavani may yet be up to that task, but a issuing a literary hit-list is certainly no evidence of it.


    • Hi Ken. That’s a really interesting comment. I wish you were sitting at the table so we could hash it out. But this will have to do. The only point at which I might diverge (after offering you water, coke, or a beer – or maybe milk?) would be how you have defined the “best critics”.

      There’s a whiff of entitlement in the notion that a critic’s job is to “explain the artist” – a peculiarly 20th century notion of the critic. The unspoken belief is that the artist is entitled to his or her own own aesthetic and criticial framework and it’s the critic’s job to “understand” that framework and judge the artist according to how the artist lives up to his or her own standards. I don’t go along with that.

      Why should anyone have to “come to an understanding” of an artist’s work? Since when (the 20th century) has it been the audience’s job to reach out to the artist? Who says this assumption results in good work or great art? It used to be the artist’s job to communicate to the public – see Let Poetry Die.

      My feeling is that it’s proper for critics, if they have reason, to not only dismiss the artist’s skill, but to dismiss the underpinnings of the artist’s aesthetics as well. For example: Is the whole concept of “language poetry” a failed aesthetic? Is it possible to be anything other than mediocre when writing language poetry? If readership is any measure, then language poetry is a demonstrable failure.

      The other facet in which we diverge is in defining criticism. My own approach is to separate analysis from criticism. (The kind of criticism you’re describing appears to conflate the two.) An example of the analytical approach would be George T.Wright’s book on Shakespeare’s meter. An example of the critic would be Siskel and Ebert. The latter duo didn’t exactly “ply their intelligences full force to the works under their miscroscopes.” This, to me, is criticism. ‘Most folks aren’t going to like this movie. It’s awful and here’s why I think so.’ This is what Shivani did, even if some think the why’s were inadequate. If modern criticism has been lacking, it’s because the criticism has tried to judge the artist’s works by the artist’s standards. I could give a fig what the artist thinks, that’s already implicit in the work itself.

      The third point that I would make is that it’s not the critic’s job to think about his or her legacy. If that’s what they’re worried about, then they’re in the wrong business. They should be artists, writers or poets. And you’re absolutely right that Shivani put his neck in the noose, but that’s precisely what he and every other critic should be doing.


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