Would someone give Anis Shivani a nice warm cup of milk?

January 20, 2012 § 15 Comments


Would someone give Anis Shivani a nice warm cup of milk and put him to bed?

Creative writing is not literary writing as has been understood for all of the history of writing. Creative writing is a subset of therapy, with the same essential modalities — except, like everything else in our culture, it comes in a stripped, dumbed down version that partakes little of the rigors of psychotherapy. More appropriately, we might call it the Oprahfied mindset that penetrates workshop. Life lessons and living a more authentic life are always just beneath the surface of any workshop discussion.

The full RIDICULOUS SCREED can be read here.

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§ 15 Responses to Would someone give Anis Shivani a nice warm cup of milk?

  • Lisa Roney says:

    Wow. The cult of genius is not usually so clearly promulgated. Doesn’t Anis Shivani know what goes along with that cult? Like racism, for one. But, you know, Huff Po loves to post stuff just to get a rise out of people. It’s what I think of as its Intentionally Dumb Stuff.

  • Dinah says:

    So yeah, this is childish and chippish and grossly judgmental–this negative-attention-getting is Shivani’s coin in trade–

    and it’s effective! Brevity posts and off I go to read Anis Shivani, who first caught my attention with his over-rated writers list, which went viral, and, as far as I can tell (as I was previously unaware of AS) put him on the map–

    it’s Shivani who wants to get a rise out of us, and it’s working, isn’t it?

  • Cris Mazza says:

    Re: “Students ‘improve’ in the direction of imitating their teacher and the narrow range of models — Carver? Hemingway? Barthelme? Plath? Glück? Levine? — she brings into workshop.”
    I loved the use of a female pronoun for this nameless “creatrive writing” teacher. I’ve never used *any* of these models, and I doubt a majory of my students have bothered to read my work.
    That said, I have heard (from students) of workshops that are far more therapy than critique of the *work* on the page. Nonfiction workshops (suspected) are another breed and benefit from a professor who knows both the distant and recent history of the genre.

  • Rebecca says:

    And sometimes a rant is just a rant….

  • JT says:

    From this criticism and others, it’s becoming clear that Shivani’s goal is to read all the bad books in the world.

  • Chase says:

    Ok. This would be a fantastic example of what happens when a person creates from a wound rather than an offering. Art is therapeutic, not therapy in and of itself. Perhaps, AS would like to reconsider the fainting couch? Though, it might crumble under the weight of that ego.

  • Kyle Minor says:

    A lot of good stories and novels and essays come from wounds, too. Wounds can be made into offerings.

  • Kyle Minor says:

    Some recent examples:

    “The Love of My Life,” by Cheryl Strayed
    “Vien a ca, Beda,” by Bart Skarzynski
    “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” by Lorrie Moore
    Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald
    I Am A Japanese Writer, by Dany Lafferiere
    “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem,” by Bonnie Jo Campbell
    From Our House, by Lee Martin
    Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

  • Chase says:

    Thanks for your comments… I see what you mean. Yet, I don’t look at those as just wounds. I look at those pieces as art inspired by tragedy or a wound, however not just about the wound itself. There is a heck of a lot of craft in those. (Please note I haven’t read all on your list.) Some work just wreaks of pain with little regard to its audience.

    Joan Didion is the queen of spinning pain into silk. IMHO … The reason I made the comment above is because AS does this kind of grouchy thing so often I can’t tell if he just likes the negative attention or what. Blah blah blaaaah.

  • Hattie says:

    To be fair, Anis Shivani echoes a point made by both the editor and series editor of The Best American Short Stories. There is a sameness one finds when reading many short stories these days. Shivani’s argument that “creative writing is not literature” is worth considering. He defines literature as “… about having, first of all, a broad humanist understanding of the tradition, how vastly oppositional styles of writing have sought to grapple with the same human problems over time…to create something utterly unique to yourself. [Yet] Literature is not about expressing yourself — that all-important desideratum of sincerity, so precious in the workshop — but about penetrating, at the deep intuitive level, what other fiction writers or poets have done in the past, as they confronted aesthetic challenges in their own milieus…” His distinction is a bit wordy. I think what he means to say is that literature is about ART which makes a statement above and beyond the personal.

    Unfortunately, Shivani does miss a beat. Minimalism began long before Raymond Carver’s made use of it in his short stories, i.e., Hemingway.

    • Kyle Minor says:

      Would you say that there is a sameness among the short stories of, say, Miroslav Penkov, Laura van den Berg, Paul Yoon, Benjamin Percy, Kelly Link, Lauren Groff, Sam Lipsyte, Blake Butler, Donald Ray Pollock, Nathan Englander, Jennifer Egan, and Holly Goddard Jones? These are all prominent writers who are publishing stories in the magazines from which BASS chooses stories (many of them, in fact, have appeared in the series), and who either have or teach in MFA programs, and yet I can’t find a common aesthetic that unites them. Nor would I describe any of them as minimalists, especially not in the Carver or Hemingway mode. Nor can I think of many young writers whose work is anywhere near that register, except perhaps for Tao Lin, whose work is so distinctively his own that it hardly seems to belong to anybody’s “group” unless you count the young writers of his cohort, none of whom, so far as I can tell, has ever been enrolled in an MFA program. Sometimes I wonder, when reading about this sameness — where is this mythical sameness? I’m trying my best to read as much of everything as the limitations of time and the need for sleep will allow, and yet I can’t find the sameness.

      The best teachers I had were interested in expanding the range of what was possible, rather than being overly prescriptive. I think that if a lot of middling writing comes out of creative writing programs, it’s because a lot of middling writing comes out of any group of anybodies writing anything. Not everyone involved is willing to devote the years, and not everyone involved has the same facility with language or understanding of human beings or the same ability to see what is affecting about their material. But, for me, taking those classes was a chance to gauge my work against the work of my peers and betters and see how it was lacking, to be in conversation with teachers who knew things I didn’t know, and, most important, to learn how to really read, which helped lay the foundation for a lifetime of the sort of reading that has been most helpful to the writing I’m trying to make better, now.

      I don’t disagree with everything Anis Shivani says, but I disagree with a lot of it, and I don’t know where he gets his information. Most of the criticism I’ve seen of creative writing classes comes from people who have never taken them and are operating out of some kind of generic common knowledge that doesn’t hold up against what actually happens in classrooms. I’ve not had any two teachers whose classes were alike in focus. Frequently they disagreed sharply about almost everything, and I benefitted from being party to the disagreements.

      Ultimately, the people who make the best things can come from any place — school is not a prerequisite (see, for example, William Gay) –but a lot of the people who have the commitment to making things will be drawn to writing classes, and they might find some help there. If they do, then I don’t see how that’s an awful thing. And if some people take those classes and don’t become good writers, but they do develop the habit of being a reader, then I don’t see how that’s an awful thing, either.

      I think that I am a lot more likely to make the kinds of things I want to make in the future because I had benefit of attending an MFA program. Also, I have protected time to write, now, because the degree furnished me with the credential and experience that made possible the teaching job that gives me ample time to write. I am grateful for that, too.

      The kind of criticism of MFA programs that would be most useful is the kind we hear least — from those inside the system, who have a deep knowledge of the parts of it where they’ve studied and taught. I believe that privately, in the context of the individual institutions where degrees are being offered, that conversation is happening one way or another every semester. I suspect that one reason that conversation isn’t happening more often publicly is that the public conversation simply gives ammunition to people who aren’t interested in making it a better system so much as they are interested, for whatever reason, in taking it down. For me — and I don’t teach in an MFA program, but I do teach in an undergraduate program — the best thing I can do is tend to my writing and tend to my classes and try to offer them everything I can while we’re together, and steal the good things that were offered by my old teachers, and steal the good things that I’ve been lucky enough to find in books or in any other place, and bring them back to the classroom as gifts for those who will happily receive them. There are good things worth offering, and lots of them.

      • Chase says:

        @ Kyle, So would you say your ‘work’ as a writer is in the publishing world and that your ‘teaching’ is something of a service? Thats an amazing perspective if so. I think you’re on to something. I think to effectively teach / learn generosity is essential.

        When I was in my undergraduate studies, I tended to prefer more mature writing professors because they tended to be more comfortable with ‘offering’. The challenge though is that by then they had been editor of Newsweek for 25 years or something and have romantic recollections of how their first works of got published. Somehow the trenches turned into moon pools.

        How incredible to have a younger professor who might be just on the other side of that initial hurdle into the professional writing world. Fortunate students indeed.

        I hope I understood you correctly…

  • Hattie says:

    Kyle Minor~
    You should read the preface to The Best American Short Stories 2011. Both the series editor and guest editor lamented the quality of the stories they sifted through to arrive at what to include in the anthology.

    As for the MFA business, well, not being an MFA graduate or ever having the luxury, funds, or inclination to pursue an MFA, I can not presume to know if an MFA really does anything more than protect ones time and open one to possibility. Yet from the outside I can’t help but notice that universities grinding out MFA graduates in large numbers, a profitable venture for universities.

  • Katan says:

    Truly, you can’t blame Anis Shivani for his flaws. He is in the wrong niche. He clearly belongs in Poetry Therapy where people do rant about poor potty training and bad mommies or abusive Daddies. It is a cock in the photo, no? Is this his direction? He may become celebrated for his gender related issues later in life.

  • Shivani’s grating verbosity notwithstanding, doesn’t he kind of have a point? There seems to be a glut of postmodern, trivially bourgeois, gutless, passive, amoral, mediocre fiction right now. Emerging writers take the advice of “write what you know” and produce tepid tales of suburban ennui, cynical disenchantment, PC hipster irony, childhood trauma, recognizable domesticity, etc etc. I find too much of modern lit-fic to lack real heart, courage, or insight. This is bad.

    Shivani makes a living being polemical, but I agree with him in this. There does seem to be (and no offense to English majors in general) a wave of MFA-holding acolytes who have mastered craft without art. They all want to be Joyce, turning the ordinary extraordinary, but they aren’t Joyce, and they aren’t ever going to be.

    It’s an inevitable problem in all fields – too much formal study breeds mimicry instead of art. Emerging writers can recognize and (re)create good writing, but that is not all there is to literature. The main element is the writer himself, his insights and experience and sensibilities; and when everyone is walking the same path, there are only so many ways to describe the scenery.

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