What’s wrong with American letters? Ask Anis Shivani, and he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms: “Mediocre new writers, whose only talent seems to be to have understood the rules of the marketing game, are lauded week after week as brilliant” while “[o]ld favorites mired in repetitive self-imitation are still offered as awesome masters” (15). Variations on those lines from his essay “Why is American Fiction in its Current Dismal State?,” appear throughout his book Against the Workshop, which brings together a decade of his essays and reviews.
Shivani offers convincing arguments, but some of his choices threaten his credibility. He chastens journals for “engag[ing] only in the mutual flattery business” (16) while his review of Jay Parini’s poetry and Parini’s introduction to the book present evidence of the same. Shivani calls Parini’s poetry “fiery hot to the touch, the apparent simplicity a form of high art” (134). Parini reciprocates–because Shivani’s pretty hot, too, it seems–writing of him as “one of the sanest voices in criticism today” a “keen vision” and “cruel wit” (xiv).
For Shivani, Billy Collins‘ poems are “single-mindedly predictable imaginative exercises” (61). But Shivani tends toward formula too, castigating in the same mode, repeatedly pinning the failings of fiction and poetry (in Best New American Voices, Best American Poetry, et al.) on an undemocratic system of graduate Creative Writing Programs rife with problems.
Shivani closes his book with an essay that likens Writing Programs to medieval guilds. It’s true; they have their masters, journeymen, and apprentices, but so do graduate programs in all other disciplines. The source of the problem isn’t Creative Writing, it’s the university credentialing system, itself. And that system now faces a challenge from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). I wish that Anis Shivani would consider teaching one, or try working within the current system to effect change.