Rebutting Shivani

January 23, 2012 § 6 Comments

There seem to be two states of mind regarding Anis Shivani, the constant critic of contemporary creative writing who has somehow found a regular spot on the Huffington Post books page.  One side says “Ignore him, he only wants the attention and is encouraged by our outrage.” We were about to be swayed in that direction until we read Karen Babine’s crisp rebuttal.  Here is a bit of her opening:

…it was my instinct to employ silence as a rhetorical device and not even engage him, because it really seems like his purpose is to incite, not provoke legitimate dialogue—but then once I realized that not saying anything was part of his goal in silencing, that put my back up, and here we are.

And then she moves on to her major arguments:

…the main issue that Shivani overlooks—whether intentional or not, in his purpose to incite as much reaction as possible in his readers—is the difference between creative writing and literature: literature is artifact. As my fiction students identified last week, artifact brings to mind archaeology, digging, brushing away, interpreting this long-dead item for what it can tell us. Creative writing, on the other hand, considers a text as a living, breathing thing, something that puts my students in a chair next to Raymond Carver, because “Cathedral” did not spring, fully-formed, from the mind of Carver. He was once a beginning writer too. He wasn’t always Raymond Carver.


What is clear, however, that Shivani has equated creative writing with the feminine, and “real” writing with the masculine, for the purpose of silencing voices other than his own. Calling creative writing “Oprahfied” certainly genders the creative writing in terms that call to mind powerful women, mass appeal, and to him, little substance.From this argument, only women go to therapy; men do not. But what is particularly interesting about this phrasing is that it is a female mindset that phallically penetrates the workshop. He genders the workshop itself in other ways, using “she” to represent the creative workshop teacher—though it is interesting that as Shivani also argues that students are guided to imitate the models that the female teacher brings to class (Carver, Hemingway, Barthelme, Plat, Glück, and Levine are the ones he mentions), two women, four men, but the method of imitation that he rails against comes strictly out of this classical, masculine, rhetorical tradition.

… Until recent decades, women writing about their bodies and their experiences has been confined to “confessional” writing—and demeaned in the doing—but even as I write those phrases, women writing illness narratives, addiction narratives, and other deeply personal things is still largely dismissed in the writing world, often shelved in “self-help.” Even Susan Sontag, writing Illness as Metaphor at the beginning of this phase, could only write about her experiences will illness in a form that did not recognize her personal experience as a valuable source of knowledge and understanding.

Many folks are taking Shivani’s arguments apart these past few days, but Babine’s counter-punch is one of the best. Her extensive and thorough argument can be read in full on her blog State of Mind.

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§ 6 Responses to Rebutting Shivani

  • Thank you so much for posting Karen’s response, Dinty. I remember when I was an editorial reader for Notre Dame Review many years ago, and Shivani’s work started pouring into NDR. Karen articulates the problems with Shivani’s polemics the best of any rebuttals I’ve read.

  • Tracy Seeley says:

    So great to read someone taking on Shivani in a thoughtful, reasoned way. I do so object, though, to thinking of literature as a “long-dead thing.” As both a creative writer and a literature professor, I don’t think a text is ever dead, and thinking about a work’s meanings in a literature class helps it live again and again in the active minds of new readers.

    The fact that Shivani gets so much air time is distressing. There are so many level-headed, generous minds who might routinely write for Huffington Post…but I suppose the ensuing lack of controversy would be bad for advertising revenues.

  • I’d just like to thank Tracy for her response and say that I never read Shivani before this and most likely never will again.

  • Barry Silesky says:

    The very definitions are at the root of the problem– to say “literature” is “dead” writing is hardly worth the explanation the absurdity elicits. But since I’m apparently +left with too much time,– Isn’t literature the stories/ poems/ essays invented that have historically been valued, hence reconsidered, explained, examined? An aspect of art which is a fundamental human activity sprung from the intellectual desire to understand ourselves and our world? It’s only “dead” for those who don’t pay attentio to it– which is akin to not paying attention to the very world around us.

  • While I’m certain that we can name any number of counter-examples (Nobel-Prize winner V. S. Naipaul comes to mind immediately), I still hold that a literary writer is a humble human being in love with mystery and curious about complexity. By this relatively simple criterion, I dismiss Shivani as anti-literary. He’s a two-bit Bill O’Reilly just dredging up ill will by overstating his polemic. He oughtn’t have the soapbox he has, but he does generate interest and discussion. Oh well. I’ve read enough of his tripe to know that I don’t want to read any more of him.

    Thank you, Karen, for your calm reply.

  • “literature is artifact…”

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