Since I catch up on the blog Theatre Ideas with some frequency, I ended up reading this article over at the Huffington Post this morning: The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary Writers. Most of this article struck me as something along the lines of, “You damn kids, get off my lawn!” in its contempt for current literature and literature criticism (or lack thereof). Shivani basically argues that modern readers are too swayed by shiny things and advertising to know what an actual good book is. He then criticizes MFA programs for making big deals with publishers to get mediocre books read. There is certainly something to the argument that only the uber-educated end up with enough connections to get into the publishing industry — which is Theatre Idea’s argument with our current theatre community (particularly playwrights and the critics who promote them). Okay, fair enough, it’s an issue in the arts, that only those with MFA’s or PhD’s are assumed to have a critical enough eye to decide whether their own literature is good or bad. And since they’ve gone tens of thousands of dollars into debt, they must be on to something. Sure, this attitude is faulty.
What Shivani actually seems to be arguing, though, is not so much the corporatization of the current system, but that contemporary writers just don’t write well. And yes, maybe the ones that are promoted hugely are not worth anything (I admit to being a big Amy Tan fan, however, and he criticizes her writing in the extreme). This sounds similar to a recent argument I heard on NPR, that there’s no “real” journalism anymore. Considering the history of journalism in the United States, I think we’re actually closer to how the whole mess started than ever before, although that means most of what’s published in newspapers and magazines is either gossip or overblown horror stories.
What I think Shivani, and most of the country, actually suffers from is a deep flaw in the education system. This flaw begins way, way back in middle school, when English classes start morphing from grammar lessons to literature analysis — it has little to do with the MFA programs. These classes have a set of prescribed, canonized books, which are then forced like so much corn down our gullets to make us fat and accepting, rather than strong and healthy. There’s little I’m personally thankful for from those years, but I am thankful that, somewhere in the move to another city between 5th and 6th grade, I discovered science fiction and fantasy literature. I’d been reading young adult pulp novels before that — The Baby Sitter’s Club, Scary Stories, and the banned Goosebumps — but my mind soared further and higher while reading about far away lands, imagined cultures, and mystical powers. So when the time came to read the more prosaic, “realistic” literature, long considered great by those with dying imaginations who, to me, suffered from stunted megalomania, I rebelled. I read only as much of the book as I could get away with, sometimes even accepting failing grades because I just couldn’t get through such boring, trite, self-indulgent modernist crap.
Shivani actually has the (wrongly flashed) cajones to define what makes good literature: “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.” Really? Has he ever read James Joyce’s vague, showy, narcissistic modernist piece Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? That’s one of the absolute WORST books I’ve ever read in my entire life, and I’ve read a lot of Anne Rice. Or how about, well, anything Faulkner published? His obsession with the crumbling post-Civil War Southern Aristocracy is primarily about style over substance, and his style involves so many commas and semi-colons and parentheses that I don’t think the man ever actually finished a sentence. The Inferno was also mightily narcissistic and showboat-y, as are The Canterbury Tales, all of Shakespeare’s plays, The Great Gatsby (at least Chekhov had the decency to mock the upper class whilst bemoaning their demise), and pretty much anything written by Enlightenment and Romantic writers, who set the standard for using THEMSELVES as prime examples of morality and artistry. I think the only non-self-indulgent modernist book I’ve read was Herman Hesse’s Hiroshima, but I still couldn’t get into the writing style.
My point is that the problem with the whole system is not the MFA programs and the publishers joining forces to create an evil empire. The problem is that we have this boring, self-centered crap forced on us all from an early age, then we’re told specifically that 1) we’re reading it because it’s good, AND good for us, and 2) here’s how to write an essay on it. I would add that “writing an essay” means “praising this book in a pre-determined way that your teacher will outline for you.” So we learn that, even if we don’t enjoy it, “good” art will be dictated to us, and once we’re told what good art is, we learn how to regurgitate those ideas with the help of a thesaurus.
This isn’t actual analysis. Actual analysis looks at the work, picks it apart, and probably starts an argument over it in the process. This “moral core” Shivani talks about can only be defined by whether such literature works for you or not. Amy Tan doesn’t work for him for some damn good reasons, but she works for me because she was the first major writer of her kind, she actually lived through similar experiences that she writes about in her books, and although she writes non-judgmentally about racism on all sides (probably because it is a fact in her life), her real focus is interpersonal relationships, rather than the relationship of one cultural body against a larger cultural background. She’s not trying to be the Chinese-American Ralph Ellison.
I agree with Shivani that there’s a lot of bad and pointless writing out there that’s being heavily promoted on best seller lists (Eat Pray Love, anyone?), just like there’s a lot of bad movies being made that still make their money back at the box office, and a lot of bad theatre being produced, particularly on Broadway. But the real problem is that the potential audience is NOT taught how to actually view these works of art: the audience is taught to sit back and take it, from a very early age. And — I keep saying this — since we’re social creatures, and this is used as a standard to measure our fitness in society, most of us learn early on to suck it up and change ourselves, because clearly there’s something wrong with us for not liking the standard.
That’s wrong. If you hate modernist literature, or think Shivani’s article is bullshit, you’re not alone. Just because you like something that happens to be highly popular doesn’t mean you’re a sheep. The real issue is how you decided why you like it, and since art is subjective, the only real way to decide why it’s good is whether it makes you feel something (happiness, curiosity, catharsis, horror, whatever, just FEEL SOMETHING ON YOUR OWN).