When Failure Succeeds
“Criticism excites me, and prompts me to be a better writer—it is an addiction of sorts, perhaps the most positive one a writer can have, rewardingly self-serving in how it feeds one’s own inner fires. I hope I won’t suffer the charge that my delirium has eased over time.” – Anis Shivani, January 2011 In “‘The Sacred Grove,’ Parody of a Painting by Puvis de Chavannes Exhibited at the Salon of 1884” Henri Toulouse-Lautrec mocked that year’s winner of the Paris prize. His ironic homage is, like the original, a large painting, a wash of yellowish green; but Lautrec turns the muse-filled grotto into an irreverent joke.
A student when he created it, Toulouse-Lautrec painted the parody of Puvis de Chavannes’s award-winning image of “The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and Muses” in a few afternoons, hung it in his studio, and invited his artist pals over to have a laugh at his virtuosic comic jibe.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s winking mural re-imagined the original’s numinous meadow. He punctures it with a modern clock, an angel toting a tube of paint (instead of a lyre), and, of course, an image of himself standing among a parade of other Parisians in modern dress. His back is to the spectator. You can spot him in front of the crowd: he assumes the universal position of a man taking a leak. And with that the young artist cracks on established aesthetic taste, conventional craft, and time. Lautrec demands, with this raucous imitation, that the modern artist draw from – and indeed draw—his social context.
I think of Toulouse-Lautrec’s parody as I try to write this review of Against the Workshop, Anis Shivani’s collection of “provocations, polemics, controversies.” Shivani takes aim at the literary establishment—MFA programs and the professional bureaucracy of the American literary world. Like Lautrec, Shivani is a provocateur. Like the painter, Shivani wants to take the piss out of the establishment.
But in doing so, Shivani reaffirms its position and his own. Each stone he throws dings against the armored Goliath he sees as the MFA world. And with each stone we see Shivani longs to be David. Instead of taking the piss out of the establishment, he pees a circle around it. It is his prize, his preoccupation, and the object of his grumpy adoration.
Shivani comes off as an outsider longing for insider status in this collection. Unlike Toulouse-Lautrec, who arguably broke new artistic ground, Shivani digs himself a hole. The French painter earned himself the moniker “L’enfant terrible,” and Shivani has earned himself a reputation as a caustic, witty, often bitter critic. He is also a fiction writer and a poet, but it his acute skill as a literary critic that Against the Workshop showcases.
The book reveals a writer so preoccupied with the power of the conventional literary establishment that he fails to own his own more irreverent position as literary critic in the era of participatory digital culture.
Many—his fans, his detractors, and the author himself—have pointed out the outsider status Shivani cultivates. In the book’s preface he describes himself as a “self-taught writer and critic, not bound to institutional prerogatives,” and is thus ideally positioned to have a go at the powers that be. Shivani strives to be wry and witty as he describes the players, positions, and dispositions that make up the current field of American literary fiction and poetry. He’s got his eye on the presses, the prizes, the retreats and fellowships, not to mention key players like Jorie Graham, David Lehman, and Sharon Olds. As a literary critic and writer himself, he is acutely aware of the institutional heft of the MFA system in America. Imagine an edgier, angry version of McGurl’s The Program Era. Shivani’s sense of where he stands relative to all of this chugging power is always clear—cowboy provocateur, the outside looking in.
Shivani defends the work of judging bad poetry harshly as a legitimate and necessary service to the reader. But this reader is bored by the wall of snarky sound that washes over her in this collection. Shivani is far more cogent and interesting when he outlines what makes a poem great or a novel or book of poems exceptional (see “Honest Clarity (review of Jay Parini)” or “Midwestern Pastoral at its Best (review of David Rhodes)”). In such moments he expands the reader’s view of what is possible in –or what to expect from—great contemporary literature instead of shutting down the whole project entirely.
As Shivani acknowledges in his preface, most of the pieces collected in Against the Workshop have appeared elsewhere. Shivani is transparent about this; he makes no secret that he has gathered a decade’s worth of his reviews and essays under one cover here. By my count a total of 2 of the 36 essays here have not been previously published. We can find links to most of these pieces online, and most from Shivani’s own website.
Granted many critics and essayists compile collections in the same manner Shivani adopts. They have a few pieces published, then gather the lot under one cover. But for some reason I’d hoped to see longer or more elaborate versions of Shivani’s shorter, previously published essays.
So, if you can find most of these works online for free why buy Against the Workshop? The fact that these essays have appeared elsewhere diminishes the impact of the book as a book. Even so, Against the Workshop has been driving me a little crazy, precisely on that question: why buy the book? The answer is not simple and worth figuring out.
Reading these discrete essays back to back made me feel overwhelmed. As I made my way through this collection I felt clobbered. The first third of the book feels like a solid, compact blow to the reader’s heart. “Why is American Fiction in its Current Dismal State?” “The MFA programs are killing writing in this country.” On Jorie Graham’s Overlord (2005): it is “her most unreadable work to date.” Or this: “Like Graham and Olds, Louise Gluck is a poet of modest talents reaching for more than what she is capable of, and eventually taking herself too seriously until she sputters out in pseudo-profundity.” I could not catch my breath—because these pieces never took one: from the start they are a chronic chronicle of failings and shortcomings in established writers and established protocols within the field of professional creative writing.
That negative focus dominates, even when he tries to lavish praise on writing he admires. Reviewing Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil: A Novel Shivani writes: “Teddy Wayne has written one of the best novels of my generation. Free of the traps recent writers have fallen into—uninteresting, paralyzed, dysfunctional characters; inorganic plots stemming from too narrow an appreciation of reality; overwritten language, pretending to be lyrical, when it substitutes for clear thought—Kapitoil cuts through our cultural moment as sharply as Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop or A Handful of Dust did for their time.” He can’t seem to avoid the litany of woes even in the midst of wonder. And that tendency persists through to the end of the collection: “Why the New Best American Poetry Sucks Even More Than Its Twenty-One Predecessors.”
Some critics have called Shivani’s prose funny, light, humorous—but the incessant snark and negativity of the first hundred or so pages made me less generous, made me want to call him a blowhard. But man oh man when Shivani describes what’s good in a poem or a poet, watch out. He helps us better see why and how to love poetry and literary fiction. My shoulders dropped at the book’s half point, when I got to Shivani’s review of Elaine Equi’s Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems (2007). “Equi has an eighteenth-century rationalist, pragmatic, enlightened sensibility,” Shivani writes, “able to tackle the horrors of the present time without succumbing to the siren song of narcissism.” Relishing her sensibility, Shivani made me want to cheer for the human heart, for poetry, and for Shivani and his bitter outsider’s love of the art of writing.
More to the point: when I picked up the book I wanted to read interlinked essays that made a bigger argument than the jackhammer repetition of the claim that MFA programs have failed us all. I picked it up thinking I’d see an argument unfold across multiple pieces, or read on as an idea gained momentum and dimension—something more than a Manichean sense of the poetry world inside of the MFA terrarium = bad versus the inspiration-blooming-on-the-professional-margins = good. Why? Because the title sets me up for that expectation. But the book does not deliver.
Which is to say Shivani could have used a stronger editor—someone to suggest or highlight an organizing principle that would serve Shivani’s thought process better than chronological order. For a writer with such a righteous sense of audience for fiction (see the excellent “New Rules for Writing Fiction”), there’s a peculiar failing at the level of the way this book hails its reader. It fails to imagine us with the book in our hands, reading as a conventional readers do, with a sense of beginning, middle and end. Instead, I get the feeling Shivani might be used to being read in pieces. Or being read online.
This response prompted a thought about how writing online may or may not make sense in book form. I’ve been co-editing the literary magazine PBQ for almost 20 years. In 2000 the editors and I decided to make the magazine a hybrid publication, meaning we publish four online issues a year and then roll out a print annual. We made no distinction between what goes on the web or in the book—because we did not mean to draw a distinction between the two forms in terms of the quality of the work we select. We did, however, acknowledge a reader’s taste: some may prefer their literature on a screen, others on the page. This choice allows us to preserve a fluid boundary between print and digital media. An online literary journal looks lovely on the screen, even these days when that screen is in the palm of your hand. And at the same time (bonus points) the spine of its print iteration looks lovely on the shelf. We love how our readers can pull PBQ off the shelf, dip in, and dig in to poems, prose, essays.
But a book like Against the Workshop reminds me that such fluidity is not universal—that what appears online does not always work on the page. Nor should it. I made the mistake of reading this book from beginning to end, trying to read it in one go, something I would never, ever do with a literary magazine. But the book invited me to take it that way! “Against the workshop”? That title had me thinking of Sontag’s Against Interpretation and I went all le philosophe lisant. I came to this book, pen in hand, emending, annotating, basically going bananas in the margins until it became obvious that I was working way too hard.
This book’s pastiche-effect is proof that it is a Rubik’s cube of related pieces. He repeats but does not amplify a dimensional argument about the power of the MFA machine. Look, for example, at the book’s subtitle and you’ll see that he has related themes, related rhetorical strategies, but that list should have been my first clue that there would be no unfolding argument here.
The essays in the collection don’t make up a more powerful whole; rather, the whole reveals the power the pieces likely had when they were not crowded between these covers. When Sontag published Against Interpretation in the 60s, most of her essays had been published before, too. Her essays showed up in Film Quarterly or the Partisan Review, and those were pre-digital days. The pieces were comparatively hard to find. The book did the reader a favor by publishing the pieces as a single object. Perhaps wanting more from Shivani’s collection is symptomatic of a deeper desire I have that all essay collections should do more these days, pack a bigger wallop, or include rare ditties, or make my brain tingle in a more sustained fashion than when I would otherwise (easily) read these pieces online.
Advice to the reader? Be your own curator. Curate your own collection of Shivani’s screeds. Dip in, grab one, and delight in the discrete review. Or better yet, find the piece online and read the book as an index not of Shivani’s taste or critical vision, but of the way a writer’s taste or critical vision is shaped by the medium in which it appears.
Shivani is a literary critic for our times. Which is to say he writes strident, ballsy reviews. He can be witty and acerbic (see his faux “Agent’s Letter” and mock “Publisher’s Reader’s Notes on Recent Submission”). He also desires to be genuinely awed, acknowledging how it feels to be moved by great writing. But the sum effect of these “provocations, polemics, controversies” under one cover is to reveal what truly makes him a man of our hour. Which is to say he is a master blogger.
The kerfuffle around his Huffington Post piece, where he made a litany of “overrated writers in America,” did indeed get his audience’s attention. The piece is notably absent from this collection. “A firestorm ensued in the blogosphere” he recalls; “and passions were uncontrollable on both sides of the divide, “ even, and especially, when he posted his ideas about the warping limits and boundaries inherent in the MFA program system. About the backlash he writes “[t]he whole thing was positively medieval, as the blasphemer was secretly admired and publically assaulted at the same time.”
To be clear, I am not here to hate a hater. To write this review is to play a peculiarly post-modern game of Twister—how to write a negative review about a book so chock full of negative reviews that one forgets the excellent work lurking in the other pieces? Right foot green; left hand red.
And yet for all this, I get the sense he has his eye on the wrong system. He’s so focused on the fort-da, insider/outsider game of the world of creative writing, he does not see his own place in the shifting world of digital publishing and the future of the book. I do not mean to evoke a simple-minded panic about the end of the printed word in the digital era. What I do mean to do is make a smaller, more fine-grained argument about Shivani’s medium. His desire to dismantle the current bureaucratic system of creative writing via this collection of barbs and diatribes exposes his flank. He is so busy slinging stones at the conventional field he conjures up as an institutional Goliath in these pages that he neglects his own powerful position as a literary critic with a digital readership.
This book gets better if we see it not as a “collection of essays” but as something else. What if we take it as a depiction of a critic coming into his own in an era in which a new media regime eclipses the old? Instead of illuminating the old insider/outsider boundaries the book winds up reinforcing, Against the Workshop highlights the shifting figure-ground of the “poetry blogosphere.” For example, when The Examiner wrote that Shivani “has once again rocked the poetry blogosphere” their emphasis was on the way he “trashed” other poets. But the real point is that the “poetry blogosphere” has become a taken-for-granted art world at all.
What am I talking about? Consider the joke folks in the field of media criticism often use to define and defend their work: doing media criticism is like introducing a fish to the water in which it has been swimming. Sociologist and media theorist Todd Gitlin uses an even better image to render this idea. It’s a riddle. There once was a border guard who saw the same guy driving a truck across the border every day. The guard had a sneaking suspicion that the driver was smuggling something, but even after he inspected each and every truck, he could not find any contraband. It wasn’t until much later that he realized the driver was smuggling trucks.
Toulouse-Lautrec populated his muse-filled grotto with irreverent contemporary objects and figures. But the “poetry blogosphere” is a new kind of grotto, indeed. Shivani tries to crack on the establishment in an era when the ground has shifted. And yet I don’t think Shivani embraces that shift, or even acknowledges his place in it. The print edition of Against the Workshop is evidence of that shortsightedness. The book is the wrong vehicle for this critic. The book exhausts rather than exhilarates the reader.
Whereas Toulouse-Lautrec cracked jokes by fiddling with the figures in that sacred grove, Shivani (especially when he writes for the Huffington Post or other blogging sites) has been smuggling trucks. Unlike Lautrec, Shivani does not succeed in taking the piss out of the system. Instead, Shivani pisses people off. The “kerfuffles” triggered by his online reviews are themselves exciting to see. But the drama is off the page, so to speak. The flaming reader comments his work often fuels reaffirm the role of poetry as a beloved form – and of criticism as an exciting cultural necessity-- in the digital era.
As a book, Against the Workshop fails. But as a calling card, announcing the place of literary criticism as a thriving, throbbing, necessary aspect of participatory web culture, its failure is worth paying attention to.
Marion Wrenn is a media historian and cultural critic whose recent essays have appeared in Poetics and The American Poetry Review. She earned her PhD from NYU's Department of Media, Culture and Communication. She co-edits Painted Bride Quarterly and is on the faculty of the Princeton Writing Program.