Review by Review by John MacLean
Gradually I came to realize that the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating…
Interview by Interview conducted with William Hastings
Anis Shivani is a poet, short story writer, critic and novelist. His debut collection of short fiction, Anatolia and Other Stories, was longlisted for the 2010 Frank O'Connor Award. A second collection, The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, is forthcoming in 2012. His debut collection of poetry, My Tranquil War and Other Poems, will also be released in 2012. Long known for his forceful, passionate criticism, especially for the Huffington Post, Shivani released his first collection of criticism (reviewed on this site) back in November. Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies solidified Shivani's reputation as one of our finest critics and writers. Despite a writing schedule that included finishing off a new novel and the beginning of another, as well as the rounds of publicity that followed Against the Workshop's publication, Shivani had time to correspond with the me via email about his most recent publication, the current state of literature and the common ground between cooking and writing amongst other things.
Hastings: The diversity of the collection is wonderful. While the title suggests a sustained critique of the MFA system, the book goes far beyond that. To me, the core of it is really your defense of the relationship between a reader and a writer, or a reader and the book. That is, when a reader opens a book, a certain type of pact is being made, one in which the reader should expect to be challenged, fulfilled, or made to think anew. It seems though that too many writers have failed readers by not extending both their talent or their thinking, especially in case of political engagement. Readers seem to have failed writers by not demanding more of them. Talk a little about the dynamic you expect when you read a book, or the dynamic you hope for between a reading public and the writers it supports.
Shivani: That's a good way of framing both the major thrust of the book, as well as my predominant interest as a critic—all the ways the reader-writer contract is broken, or ignored altogether.
I would say the key lies in the last sentence of your question. Does the reading public support writers? I wish that were the case, but for literary writers at least that's not true anymore. Literary writers are subsidized by the state, or by private institutions, to a very large extent. Whether or not they sell books is secondary. Even if they're complete busts in the marketplace, their careers can progress onward and upward, as long as core constituencies within the patronage system are satisfied. And that means abiding by the present rules of political non-engagement, taking a hands-off position toward fundamental class issues, focusing on the self as a coherent whole not besieged by the forces of political economy, and so on. So that's one way the contract between the reader and the writer is non-existent!
As far as literary writers publishing with the major publishing houses, I've long held that the literary publishing divisions of such mega-corporations as Pearson or Holtzbrinck are vanity divisions, not only not interested in making large profits by reaching out to large audiences but actually militating against such a notion. It's the same as with politics. Were political parties receptive to issues of class, enormous participation, both in terms of voting and activism, would easily be possible. But the major political parties are actually interested in depoliticization. Beyond a narrow range of technicalities, they don't want to talk about the bigger issues in a way that large numbers of voters will be drawn into the process. In exactly the same way, the major houses don't want to publish books of a literary nature that might bring in enormous numbers of currently passive or disinterested readers. That would be a very threatening constituency.
The system has gatekeepers at every level who do their job of screening out troublemakers very well. So we're in a situation where the institutional conditions don't obtain for the reader-writer contract to even begin to come into play, because of biased intermediaries who do their best to make sure that readers don't suddenly start bonding with writers who challenge their ways of thinking.
What about the small presses? Again, for the most part you can look at small presses as vanity divisions of universities, or the charitable offshoots of private foundations, interested not necessarily in reaching broad audiences but in meeting the contract for "avant-garde writing," as it has already been defined by the major stakeholders.
In essence, in publishing today, the audience is the most suppressed part of the equation, when it ought to be the most central element. To alter that situation, ways would have to be found to return the audience to a position of centrality.
Hastings: Having a good sense of your likes and dislikes stylistically as a writer, as well as knowing your anti-workshop stance, tell us about how you set forth as a writer. I'm sure many readers will find it a surprise to know that you did not study English as an undergraduate.
Shivani: Literature in my time at Harvard—in the late eighties and early nineties—had already become transformed into theory. Literature was the porn magazine at hand to arrive at the theorist's compulsive orgasm—and each orgasm was exactly the same as before, you only had to perfect a particular masturbatory technique to achieve the desired result each time.
I didn't want to get into that scene; a little bit of that goes a long way to ruin a person's interest in literature. Much of the humanities suffered from a similar malaise: deconstruction was in its heyday, and everyone had to tote the party line. The results have been devastating. I don't consult any book of criticism published in the last thirty years on any subject, because they're all written in an unreadable, jargon-filled insider-lingo that has nothing do with appreciation of literature; it merely shows off the theorist's mastery of certain terms of art. I have to keep going back to books written in the 1970s or 1960s or 1950s for basic insights into major authors' work. All of the criticism written under the sign of deconstruction over almost two generations is sheer waste. Criticism today speaks in a pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo that seeks to demonstrate the critic's superior intelligence (read political correctness) in relation to the author.
This is the context in which I found literature being torn apart two decades ago. I ran as far away as possible, to the safe harbor of the social sciences, specifically economics. Except economics too turned out to have its relentless orthodoxies; in literature at least you could bullshit about anything, and no one cared. In economics, the stakes are high. That's where the rubber meets the road, and you better not try to question things. I worked for a time at the National Bureau of Economic Research, loosely affiliated with Harvard; that purged me of any remaining fantasies of being able to do anything interesting in that field without the wrath of the establishment descending on me.
Meanwhile, I'd been accelerating my own reading, and at some point, once I realized that I'd have to be on my own and sever ties to institutional backing, I returned to all my original loves without the illusion that anyone would ever support me on my terms.
I do understand the world of business and economics quite well (I have experience in the private sector, as Romney might put it!). I think experience in some line of work other than writing is invaluable for a writer—more important, I think, than the common experiences of marriage, divorce, childrearing. Think of the great modernist writers like Broch, Stevens, Eliot, Williams, and so many others, and think of the broad level of engagement with culture that was so true of the great writers before the contemporary MFA regime set in: Faulkner in Hollywood, Hemingway in journalism, Pound in—well, everything.
I think one has to start with the broadest base possible, then later on shrink and circumscribe as necessary, as the parameters of one's talents become obvious. One gathers a lot from diverse, even apparently unrelated or distant, fields, then gives up over time, restricts the scope of the horizon. Writers should ideally be stockbrokers, biologists, musicians by training, not necessarily literature majors.
I think my own writing is fundamentally different because of exposure to different modes of living that the academy does its best to expunge as somehow tainted, compared to the false idols (of political correctness) it sets up for culture industry professionals.
The important thing is to have a broad base to work off of—whether you're a gambler or political agitator or landowner or doctor, something to keep returning you to reality, or rather, to have enough strength to oppose it, since art cannot accept reality as it has been handed down, but must reimagine it in idealistic terms. But how can you protest reality if you're awed by it due to inexperience? Lose your virginity at age twelve, is my motto. And don't spend a moment lamenting false virtue.
Hastings: Describe a writing day for you.
Shivani: I'll describe the ideal writing day, knowing that things often happen to make the ideal difficult.
My writing day really begins with preparation the night before. I like to read myself to sleep—preferably with something linguistically dreamy and drowsy—hoping that the immersion reflects in my dreams, which sets the stage for writing first thing in the morning. I try to wake up early, but I am by nature a night person, so it's difficult, but the working day is always more productive if I can manage a relatively early start. I've managed to run a streak of waking up as early as seven or eight in the morning, which for me is remarkable. Regardless of when I wake up, after coffee and breakfast and a little bit of checking the news and email, I plunge into the writing. If it goes well, I'll produce a thousand or fifteen hundred words of prose, if I'm in the middle of a novel, or on good days substantially more, maybe three thousand, maybe even more than that. I don't revise much, things stay pretty much as they come in their original form, except for minor tinkering later on. I write quickly. Maybe a half an hour for the required number of words, or a couple of hours if it's a few thousands words. Anyway, the spurt is over quickly, and then if it's fiction I'll disengage from it. I don't want to read it too carefully because if I do then when it's time to edit the freshness will be gone and it will be more difficult to enter into it as a fresh stream.
If I've written a poem, I'll edit and revise it then and there until it's more or less finished. I don't edit poetry extensively either. If I've decided to take a break from fiction and I'm writing an essay, then I'll try to finish at least twenty-five hundred words, and ideally up to five thousand words, in the same day. That takes much longer than writing fiction, maybe a few hours, maybe until late in the afternoon. I've been able to write as much as eight thousand words of criticism in a day. Again, I do very little revision, because it either comes to me in an inspired, more or less complete form, or it doesn't come at all, it's no good to begin with.
How much sleep I've managed to have greatly determines the quality of the writing day. If it's six hours or less, I might have a difficult time getting going. If it's seven hours, I can do a great job. If it's eight hours—which is very difficult for me to have—then I'll be unstoppable, I'll write like a madman, work at an insane pace, and always be happy with the enormous results. In any case, the reading I've done the day before, especially at the close of the evening, and the kind of night I've had, the quality of dreams, determines to a great extent whether or not I'll be able to tap into the subconscious and come up with fresh, exciting language.
If I've been disturbed after waking up, if there are unavoidable practical distractions, then that day is shot as far as fiction is concerned. I might be able to manage poetry or nonfiction, although even then it's best for me to write before anything else has happened, before any form of human interaction. Even email or looking at stuff too much on the internet will have a degrading effect on the quality of writing. I save all that for downtime, for later in the day. I'm a meticulous organizer of time, saving high energy periods for high priority work, and all the way down to the bottom of the scale, leaving the greatest drudgery for the lowest energy periods.
It all seems to come down to conserving and marshaling enough intense energy to vacate the rational mind—to be able to submerge myself into the stream of intuition and imagination, which takes a tremendous amount of energy. When one is physically weak one reverts to the familiar grooves of thinking, one doesn't have the strength to fight the inertia of thought. One wants to get to that stage of physical preparation and awareness that one is surprised by the kinds of ideas and language that flow at the keyboard. One leaves one's body and physical existence and writes as though a stranger were composing the words. By definition, this state of mind can't last too long, but it can almost be made to order after years of practice, so that every single day, when one sits at one's desk at the start of the day, the required state of mind can be summoned up, in greater or lesser degrees of intensity.
Ideally, then, if I'm writing a novel—the most desirable state of existence for me—I'm waking up early, spending a little time at the computer composing at least a thousand or fifteen hundred words, then taking care of editing and other writing tasks that require less energy, then taking care of business (answering business-related emails etc.), and then after cooking—I love cooking, it's one of my greatest pleasures in life, and I'm supremely good at it—and spending quality time with my cat Fugu, I'll dedicate the rest of the day to reading, and taking some time for yoga or weight training or running. If I find myself falling over and over into a daydreaming state where situations and events for my characters are upsetting and challenging me, or if I'm half-awake thinking of language and situations that are too far out for the novel at hand, and if these ruminations then carry over into sleep, then I know I've organized my work day perfectly.
Hastings: The intersection of cooking and writing is fascinating. I don't mean the current food blog trend, but rather the great writers who are also fine cooks, gourmands. Or the great cooks that can write. John Thorne, A.J. Liebling, Jim Harrison, James Villas, Escoffier, M.F.K. Fisher. There's an element of jazz to both, isn't there? But only after you've learned the fundamental techniques.
Shivani: Yes, I love to experiment! I think the connection is clear. Writing is a sensual activity, as is cooking—as are sex and romance. Exploration of sensuality in one area seems to heighten perceptions and receptivity in other sensual areas. And at the same time certain less sensual activities and preoccupations fall by the wayside. Memory—the pleasure of memory, and the memory of pleasure—is a large part of the shift. One always appreciates the extreme brevity of human life, but as one becomes a better artist, this fact rises above all others as the only one that in the end matters. One way to assuage the anxiety over the desperate shortness of life is to deepen the moment, if you can't extend the actual lifespan. Indeed, one day can feel like a long time or it can feel as if it went by all too quickly. It's all a desperate fight against an opponent one is guaranteed to lose to, perhaps a form of addiction, but why not, if it makes you feel good?
Anyway, I do enjoy cooking tremendously, and desire to taste as many culinary inventions as possible before I die. I suppose travel serves the same deepening function. Cooking becomes intuitive after a while, and it's like writing in many ways—composition, style, balance, proportion, presentation, the exciting outlier, all of it matters. It's great when it ascends almost to an art form. As with all art, you lose yourself a bit at a time, and you gain yourself a bit at a time. If you're very good at it, you might adopt the ridiculous self-designation "cook," just as you might adopt the ridiculous self-designation "writer." I'm lucky to live in an extremely "sensual" place, perhaps in the most desirable neighborhood in Texas (is that saying a lot?), which I like to call my "writer's paradise." To earn it, I had to survive many years of living in distinctly un-sensual surroundings. Therefore, one illusion replaced another.
Hastings: What have been the formative reading experiences for you? As a writer? As a critic?
Shivani: The influences are too many to recount even at a superficial level, since I try to read everything from every culture, and at the technical level assimilate a bit of everything I take in, whether it's Japanese or African or Latin American or Eastern European or Russian culture at various points in history.
Still, I would say that Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, and Kingsley Amis, and going back a little earlier, most of the major British modernist fiction writers like Forster and Woolf, were major influences on me. Say from around 1920 to around 1970, that fifty year period. There was then a strong element of satire, which really appeals to me, and modernism and postmodernism in their various phases came into their own. This continues with writers like Salman Rushdie, John Banville, Ian McEwan, and Martin Amis. It's a certain kind of worldliness, a certain anti-romance, and I think Britain's ceasing to be an empire was a large reason much of this writing came out in the form it did. Among the Americans, I think the high modernist period of the 1920s and 1930s was most influential for me—the writers of the Harlem Renaissance being a big part of it. Balzac, Stendhal, and Chekhov were also enormously influential early on.
As a poet I was influenced by Wallace Stevens a lot, and also Eliot, Pound, and all of Pound's acolytes—Williams, Zukofsky, Oppen, Olson, or the different vanguard schools of the 1960s. I liked Robert Lowell a lot at an early stage (though not so much now). The British Auden group was pretty formative for me.
As a critic, again I find roughly similar early influences: Mencken, Orwell, Connolly, Wilson, Cowley, Kazin, Macdonald, Aldridge, but also, in terms of having a catholicity of interests and writing ambitiously for a broad public, Gore Vidal, and to a slightly lesser extent John Updike. Early in my career, I used to be blown away by Vidal and Updike's encyclopedic knowledge, and wondered when I would have read enough to be able to write similar kinds of authoritative criticism. You could tell Updike worked assiduously whenever he had a review assignment, he sweated the details, and Vidal brought a rapier tongue, showed off his knowledge in an endearing way. Both are very useful models.
These mentions are just to mark off some high points, but actually I read continuously in every literature of the world from every period, and try to integrate whatever stylistic innovations are useful for me. In poetry I don't like narrative and confessionalist stuff as much as experiments with language, in fiction I never read for plot but for innovations in technique and exuberant interplay with language (so someone like Lawrence Durrell has remained a lifelong inspiration for me, as has Nabokov), and in reviewing I read not so much for exposition but to identify new ways to cut across disciplines and modes of thought to make reviewing an imaginative exercise. I think poetry, fiction, and criticism begin to merge at some stratospheric level of imagination, and I've basically always been interested in this merger of spheres of thought.
Hastings: Do you see a point where you would try to merge all three?
Shivani: Having gotten a realistic novel out of the way, I'm ready to move on to this merger that I talk about. I cannot imagine writing another realistic novel with the standard bells-and-whistles. The whole genre is played out; one learns something about depth of perception, or angles of vision, from undertaking this sort of exercise, but it has severe limitations. My next novel, and the one after that and the one after that (I know what they'll be about and how I'll write them), will be very much attempts to achieve this ideal merger. I think in poetry I'm already unhitching myself from obligations of all sorts, both formal and political, and I think I can see the way forward. I'm writing a long poem on E. M. Forster and Cavafy in Alexandria that I think moves me in the desired direction. After a while, a fiction writer or poet tends to fall into grooves, the writing becomes almost too easy, because the basic mechanics have been mastered. This is precisely the point at which to become really wary—to let go of mastery and give in to mystery.
I think every writer today has to try to attempt the merger in some way. Yes, writers have perhaps never been as alienated as they are today, at the peak of a certain vicious form of capitalism (at least in America), but this is precisely our opportunity to ignore the conventions of genre and recognize the moment for what it is and lay it all on the line. There's nothing to lose.
Hastings: Interesting that you enjoy experiments with language in your poetry reading and yet often come out against the Language poets for being obtuse, inaccessible, non-politically engaged. Is that the hardest balance you find in writing poetry, to remain experimental while politically and socially engaged? How do you strike the balance?
Shivani: I enjoy experimentation with language more than any other aspect of writing. Yet contemporary American "language" poetry is a particularly constricted form of writing, it has very strict rules about what counts as part of the school, and too often it degenerates into a mechanical feel. I gain infinitely more excitement from Apollinaire's ninety-year-old Alcools than I do from all of the language poetry of today combined. These schools start off as valuable, but quickly degenerate into parodies of themselves.
At the risk of contradiction, let me also say that the writer has no obligation whatsoever to be politically or socially engaged. In general, most writing that goes under the label of political or social engagement is of little value. If a writer sets out with the intention, Let me be politically or socially engaged, generally he'll produce forgettable stuff. Writing is not the place to score political points—we have journalism for that. The proletarian American writing of the 1930s is a good example of the sacrifice of art at the altar of relevance. Most of the awful writing produced in the developing world under the regime of neorealism proves the point.
I think writing is above all about writing itself. It engages with the literature of the world to make advances in language and style. To revive language is the writer's paramount function, not to convince the reader that such and such a political issue deserves consideration, or that the rich are exploiting the poor, or that women are oppressed, or whatever. In the extreme case we have the example of a decent writer like Arundhati Roy, who has apparently given up imaginative writing altogether for some misguided notion that activism and political journalism are higher callings. How many minds has she swayed with her political writing, and how many did she reach with her single novel?
What does political or social engagement signify? It means a writer who is aware of the larger issues. There isn't a conflict between technical breakthrough and political engagement, when the writer functions at a high enough level of sophistication—when he doesn't take his own specifically political ideas too seriously, for example. When you read Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, can you say that he's not politically or socially engaged? Of course he is, he's aware of the bigger civilizational issues, he's not writing quaint domestic dramas. (Even domestic dramas can be politically or socially engaged, though not in the stylized form they're practiced under the workshop regime today.) The same applies to Coetzee even when he appears to be least politically engaged. What about someone like Brecht, who was overtly political? His idea was to disrupt the normal flow of the story to hit you on the head with the political point at stake. And it worked, it never lost its charm! At a high enough level of awareness and skill, you can be politically and socially engaged without the emphasis shifting from language and style. I just heard on KPFT a discussion with local poets. One of them read a poem sparked by his visit to Tanzania—a lament for Mother Africa—a very expressive poem, recited with a great deal of emotion. Because the language wasn't fresh, it failed to carry out its own primary purpose of political and social engagement. Engagement at what level, is the question.
This line of thinking opens up charges of "elitism," I realize, and I think writers need to be honest in confronting these issues. I think the greatest art is always elitist—but the paradox is that striving for elitism somehow maximizes its democratic potential too. I think the same effect can be achieved from the other end, i.e., by writing that strives for democracy and ends up as high art. Some of Kurt Vonnegut's writing, when he got the balance right, would be an example.
Hastings: I recently re-read Dos Passos' USA Trilogy and was as enthralled with it as I was when I first read it about a decade ago. There were parts however that have become horribly dated, namely because the political thrust he was making in them has passed and is no longer applicable today. This is the danger of writing politically charged fiction. Do you find that "merging the spheres"—poetry, criticism and fiction—helps prevent writing from dating itself? Though Dos Passos, for example, was attempting to merge multiple genres and new medias.
Shivani: I also like to reread the USA Trilogy from time to time, but I agree that it hasn't aged well. Compared to its popularity thirty years ago, it's almost a relic now. Yet many of the other modernists are as fresh as ever, and we have to ask why.
I think if a writer has a specific, contemporary political focus in mind—a problem to solve—he won't produce lasting writing, it'll have only a temporary effect. It's only journalists who perceive the world in black and white terms, who have certitudes about political ideology, who are on one side or another. All sides are equally messed up. The working class is being exploited, has been so since the beginning of time, yet honesty compels the admission that the working class has always let itself be exploited. If you ignore the latter part of the equation, then that's not all of reality, and without addressing reality as a whole, you can't produce great art. It doesn't mean you have to be a great political scientist or historian or sociologist, but that you grasp reality, intuitively, as a whole, and not in discrete, nonconnecting parts. Generally intuition carries you through the rough patches where your linear mind lacks the full spectrum of knowledge.
Again, if one sets out with the goal of writing politically charged fiction, it's pretty much guaranteed that as art it will fail. The opposite tendency is the workshop credo of going out of the way not to write politically charged fiction, to focus on domestic and purely private travail, as if such a thing prevailed in real life. In its way, it's as bad as the socialist realism of the 1930s, or the failed American proletarian writing of the same era.
Hastings: As a critic, poet and fiction writer, how does working within multiple genres affect your writing in each genre?
Shivani: I want my fiction to achieve the quality of poetry. My poetry to be intellectual. And my criticism to be imaginative.
There's no question that writing in all the different genres profoundly affects each of them. If I'm in the middle of writing a novel, I like nothing better than to read Broch or Musil or Bely or Mann (of Doctor Faustus) or Lowry or Flann O'Brien, to push me deeper and deeper into the dreamy zone where ideas become objects, where symbols melt into reality, where the barriers between levels of consciousness fall down. I like to read a lot of poetry before composing new fiction. I'm afraid of reading expository, journalistic writing when I'm writing fiction or poetry—actually I'm always afraid of reading too much of it—because it takes me out of the dream zone and puts me squarely in the field of linear thought, which is actually easy thought, easy ideas, easy problems and solutions. All of journalism is like that, so much of what we might call industrial or assembly line prose. That is really a damper on imagination, so while I want to read across genres I want to stay away from the easy writing in any of the genres, for fear that it will bring me down to a lower level of consciousness.
I don't believe one ought to decide, when one is writing fiction, Ah, these are the rules of fiction, I need to approach narrative this way; rather, the aim, with surrendering to different genres, is to approach each genre as almost rule-less, because you're saturated with its supposed others, and so you bring a different quality to it than if you were just saying, Let me write standard criticism the way the bulk of it is done. My next challenge is for some of my criticism to ascend to a kind of full-blown encyclopedic poetry, and I'm attending to Williams's Paterson and Jay Parini's The Passages of H.M. (his novel about Herman Melville) with that aim in mind. My next novel, Abruzzi, 1936, is going to be a radical experiment in language—I want to try to do some things that I don't think have ever been done before. I've looked and looked for models of the kind of surrealist lyricism I'm aspiring to, but I really haven't found anything. Some of the French experiments of the 1920s have a bit of that flavor, but my aim is to break down language in some truly radical ways. As for poetry, it really is the essay of our time, isn't it?
Hastings: Poetry is the essay of our time—and, as we've seen, not always for the better. But this seems to be exactly what Whitman predicted in his introduction to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, though too many poets have fallen far short of the power and vitality Whitman both hoped for and represented.
Shivani: I'm not sure what you mean by not always for the better. I meant that poetry often these days carries the burden of philosophical essay, or Montaigne's discursive, half-certain circling around a truth, without settling in one place. I'm thinking of Khaled Mattawa's Tocqueville, or some of C. D. Wright's poetry. Or Anne Waldman, or Ron Silliman, at the more experimental level. Maybe it was Pound more than anyone who set this in motion, a new way to do the historical essay. Maybe we should look at The Prelude as a forerunner. Shelley, even. Olson's Maximus as an extended essay. MacNeice's Autumn Journal. How about Berryman's Homage to Mistress Bradstreet? These are all powerful conveyors of ideas, picking up the slack where academic thinkers have given up.
Poetry has generally carried a far greater philosophical burden than we tend to give it credit for. Poetry can tackle anything, any discourse can be part of it, and if the poet is skilled enough, it will still be lyrical and exciting. We should note how different academic disciplines—literary criticism (now called theory), the social sciences, economics, history, anthropology, philosophy, creative writing—have shut themselves off, turned in on themselves, become entirely abstract, stylized fields in ironic conversation only with their own individual legacies. This opens up a lot of room for imaginative writers to take up the intellectual gap. Heck, we can go as far back as Lucretius for poetry as essay. What is clear is that poetry as only and always lyric self-expression of a constrained nature is a denial of history and reality, and if that's all it remains, then it presumes a minority role for itself in literature, and I'm not sure that's where poetry belongs.
Hastings: It seems the great success of what Debord calls "the spectacle" is the creation of a reality that is difficult to "grasp intuitively, as a whole." It permeates and reproduces in "nonconnecting parts," perhaps now more so than ever. Let's assume Debord to be spot on, and also to assume you're right to say that "poetry can tackle anything." Is our time then, more ripe for poetry to push itself past what it has already done than almost ever before? As a way of both attacking the nonconnected parts and, again as Whitman predicted, draw them back into a recognizable whole?
Shivani: What is reality, and what is the writer's relation to it, may in fact be the greatest aesthetic question of our times. It's interesting that you bring up Debord, whose Society of the Spectacle (1967) is almost a restatement, or reframing, of much of what I've been saying here. As for the separation of realities, or fields of experience, or fields of images, Debord himself later qualified his original thesis by saying that the separations had begun to merge. The other important qualification I'd make is that Debord was addressing Western societies in the midst of plenitude and abundance, whereas scarcity became increasingly the issue after around 1973, and for America at least, has superseded abundance as the crucial paradigm since 2001. Whatever Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Debord may have felt in earlier decades, the last ten years have brought the return of reality—along with scarcity—in the biggest way imaginable since the end of the second world war.
I'm also a bit uncomfortable with the idea of merging nonconnecting parts to come up with a "recognizable whole"—even though I did say this just now in my answer. At the risk of blatant contradiction, let me say that art can be appealing—and perhaps is most important—when attention is focused on the subtleties of a small piece of reality. Connection with other realities may or may not be necessary. Something of totalitarianism always sneaks in when one starts talking about unities and wholes. If one starts seeing a small part of reality in very illuminated terms, then perhaps all of reality starts opening up. It may be worthwhile to spend one's life focused on something "small"; that may be more desirable than to reach for connections before awareness has reached that level.
But let's go back to Debord to see if he's helpful. We might say that writing today is false consciousness writ large—the cultural version of the worker's illusions about his true status in class relations. Reality is almost completely impenetrable; that is Debord's key insight, and he pushes the issue much farther than Daniel Boorstin in The Image (1962)—French utopianism versus American pragmatism, you know. In fact, Debord, in his epigrammatic style, was writing a kind of poetry. I would hazard that the age dawning upon us is an age of poetry, not the novel. The standard realistic novel has little material reality left to hold it up: the class relations, for instance, in the developed world, the society of the perfected spectacle, don't support it.
In the new age of scarcity, buttressed by spectacle-generating social media (imagine what Debord could have said about the refashioning of self on Facebook!), I propose, a bit counterintuitively, that the novel will not be the ascendant form, and rather that it will be forms of poetry—the poeticized novel being a subset of this. Reality is too fragmented—to take Debord at his word—with the collapse of ideology, for the novel to regain its hold on the imagination. The novel in the future will be smuggled in in the clothes of poetry—or did I mean it the other way around?
We're at a point analogous to the early Renaissance in terms of the fundamental rethinking of the self and reality that's taking shape—we're still at the earliest stages, that's why it feels so disorienting and apocalyptic and millenarian, as it might have felt at the end of the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. And such ages call for an avalanche of poetry, poetry that takes in everything!
Of course art's highest aspiration is making connections between disparate realities—getting around the spectacle, in Debord's terms—but for the individual artist, or reader, I'm not sure that's necessarily the main issue. In the enlightenment, knowledge was encyclopedic, and the intellectual masters sought to dominate all of it; I think in this age of fragmentation, writers will have to come up with a new understanding of the encyclopedic—yes, that seems to me the overriding issue in writing, the degree to which specialized fields of knowledge can be prevented from browbeating the ordinary reader, reduced to submissive defendant while all around him affluence and anxiety rage toward "eventful" conclusions. Each entry in the encyclopedia is worth endlessly poring over, knowledge can't be skimmed anymore—the consequences, in terms of personal oppression, are too dangerous, as we were made aware in the 1930s, and as we were made aware again in the last decade.
Hastings: I'd like to talk briefly about the 2010 article you wrote for the Huffington Post, "The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers." The storm that ensued after the article's publication was incredible. Reading some of the reactions to it in the blogosphere provides some serious entertainment. People vehemently attack you for the article, and in many of the cases in very poorly written posts. What did you think when you saw the explosion of reaction to your article? And is this the job of a good critic, to provoke people into thinking?
Shivani: It was unexpected, both for me and I think for my very supportive editor at the time, Amy Hertz. We expected some sharp reaction, but the scale of what happened was beyond belief. It was tremendously gratifying to set off such a firestorm of discussion. People were forced to take sides, lay their cards on the table, put themselves on one side of the fence or other. I'm happy I chose not obvious writers like Philip Roth to take down, but writers like Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri, and William Vollmann, around whom a consensus of no-criticism has taken hold.
As for Diaz and Lahiri, I think there is a conspiracy of silence around some pretty shallow multicultural writing that feeds the vanities of the publishing industry, with students forced to consume all this as somehow being high art, the best literature is capable of. It would have been easier to take on a lesser writer than Lahiri, like Sandra Cisneros or Julia Alvarez, but the idea is the same. People's prejudices about different ethnic communities are reinforced and validated, and this perversely becomes a point of pride for the ethnic community in question. Chinese mothers, Indian fathers, Hispanic daughters—everyone fits into their slotted role, and the publishing industry is happy that they can lay claim to advancing minority interests while leaving the real power equations unchanged.
People were shocked at my inclusion of poets on the list. I've since learned that this is a pretty standard defense among academic writers—don't criticize any poets, or any writers with serious literary pretensions, because by God the culture doesn't respect them at all or they don't get read by the general reader, so they ought never to be criticized. In other words, they're reiterating the unspoken credo that Thou shalt not criticize one of your own, they're reinforcing the idea that poetry makes nothing happen and that it's irrelevant to the larger culture. I find this attitude very demeaning to poetry.
I think I broke a number of taboos at the same time in that one piece, and although I'd written much about individual writers on that list, the supremely bitchy tone is what really got people. Whatever you do, don't be disrespectful! If I'd framed the same criticisms in polite language, the piece would have been purposely ignored, it would have made little or no impact.
Yes, I think it's extremely important to charge the language of criticism in every way possible, to make it vital and accessible and friendly, to pose all kinds of threats with the language itself, if criticism is to get a wide audience. I've also seen some pretty vicious strategies implemented by those in the academic community who're offended by this type of blunt criticism, various sorts of character assassination. At a trivial level, as a group they pretend that I never write positive criticism of any writer, when in fact that's mostly what I do—the negative criticism is actually a small part of my work. This is like claiming Barack Obama is some kind of socialist, when he's a center-right conformist.
So I see various strategies of defense and rage play out against my criticism, but I tell myself that this means the criticism is having an effect, the doors have been thrown wide open to take on the dogmas of the literary industry. Many younger writers, not sure of the path they should take, write me messages of support, as do people in the higher reaches of the publishing industry, so I know I'm not shooting at empty targets. It's the middle level clerks of the literary industry, the D. A. Powells and Dan Chiassons and J. Robert Lennons, who are most vocally offended; they have a direct personal and financial stake in the industry remaining in its present state of equilibrium.
I know that over time, this is how apparently immovable paradigms shift. People have certain notions of what they should do to acquire literary training. Much of it is due to propaganda feeding into profit-making. People have certain notions of how they should go about acquiring literary reputations. Again, much of this is due to institutional inertia, fed by large amounts of money and resources. My role is to point out the half-visible cracks in the surface of the wall of blandness, and point people to the rocky but rewarding climbs behind the fortifications. Over a long period of time, I know this effort will pay off. Paradigms often collapse much quicker than any of us expect.
Hastings: You've written about the difficulties of writing a truly "working-class" novel. Do you think the current depression and continued state fascism will lead to someone writing one?
Shivani: Perhaps they already are, but we'll never know about it, will we? There are institutional constraints to "working-class" fiction coming to light. Let's rephrase the problem to highlight the tautological bind. Present literary institutional structures do not permit a genre such as working- class fiction; and so by definition, even if someone were addressing the current economic crisis or the rising trend of fascism, how would that writing see the light of day?
Let's reframe it another way. Those who get published in standard literary journals and then go on to the writing programs and some form of publishing success have gone through a rigorous process of credentialing. If you're an assembly line worker, let's say, or a construction worker—most likely out of work or underemployed these days!—how are you going to join the writing world? Either you lack education (in the classics) or you have it; if the former, your writing doesn't mean anything anyway, it simply does not have the rigor. You may write for your own satisfaction or share it with your friends, but it's meaningless. Let's say you're taking evening classes or are studying literature at a second or third tier college—you won't have access to the kinds of cultural capital you need in order to break through in the literary world. But suppose you're the rare person of working-class origins or experience who's broken through, by sheer dint of hard work, into the top tiers of education; in that case, even if you end up addressing working-class issues in writing, you'll probably have absorbed the rules of polite writerly discourse to such an extent—or you would never have found your way to the Ivy League or a good university—that your writing will not have a radical impact.
Having said all this, there are still writers who go through the whole credentialing process but end up thumbing their noses at the system. I think Eric Miles Williamson would be an example of this kind of writer; it's hard to put his spirit down, isn't it? Welcome to Oakland is a great working-class novel. But how many such writers are there? Judy Grahn, in poetry, is another example. Or Edward Sanders the poet. I'm already running out of examples. It's not for no reason that so much writing is called "academic writing"—it caters to a certain sensibility, the aim is really reproduction of existing values rather than threatening them. Generally radicals tend to be interested in pure experimentation with language, not so much describing the realities of the working class.
From the past, we might think of Steinbeck or Farrell or Swados—again, you can count them on your fingers. The rarity can only be because of institutional barriers. Today the MFA system prides itself on its democracy—that's about the only value it can claim, right? What have they produced that can give us any clue to working-class life? It's really a stretch to call Raymond Carver, for example, a bard of the working class, or Philip Levine. That's an academic fiction writer and an academic poet.
In fact the MFA programs recruit for the most part very homogenous characters who can be counted on to replicate the generally apolitical gestures exactly as they find them. The MFA graduates are all busy writing about their assorted illnesses (real or imagined) and their various personal and familial dysfunctions. There's no room in this aesthetic for addressing the present economic and political crisis.
We have just lived through a decade approaching the tumultuousness of the decade of the Great Depression. And it should tell you everything you need to know about the publishing industry that we've produced almost nothing of note in chronicling this miserable decade. I can think of Joseph O'Neill (not an American writer) who's chronicled America's decline wonderfully succinctly. And then there's Jonathan Franzen, for whom the great problem of the last decade was the loss of freedom for the upper middle class to play around and indulge in their old vanities—as per his unironically titled novel Freedom!
Suppose the Steinbeck or even Sinclair Lewis of today writes and submits, through pure unformed genius, the great working-class novel of today. The New York agent is likely to recognize danger from a thousand miles away, and shoot it down in a minute. It just wouldn't make it to the stage of serious consideration for publication. The interest of the system—and publishing in this country has become generally an intellectual subset of the apparatus of empire, as is the Pentagon, say, in another realm, or the Ivy League—is to exclude anything that doesn't fit the model. People can't be allowed to think for themselves, and writing that prompts such desire is denied legitimacy. Experimentation with language—the province of the small press world—is generally very safe politically. That's perfectly acceptable. I mean, how pitiful and revealing is it that there is no great novel of the economy or the military or the intelligence agencies or of manufacturing or of business after the calamities of the last decade?
Hastings: Let's assume a major publishing house gave you your own imprint to run. Who would be the first five writers you would publish? Why? What would be the guiding principles behind the imprint?
Shivani: I would publish five writers you've never heard of and I've never heard of. I would try to see if there are in fact writers of the kind I described in the last answer. If I couldn't find them, then that would be it, but I would try. I truly believe that literary writing is intentionally moderated by the present gatekeepers to appeal to the lowest number of people, and so I would find writers that are currently not given credence by the industry. The guiding principle behind my imprint would be to publish the kind of writing that is currently not seeing the light of day, either from the major houses, who are beholden to ideological conformity above all and have no real commitment to literary progress (except for a handful of senior editors still trying to do the right thing), or from the small presses, who are generally into experimentation for experimentation's sake, a kind of formalist literature that has no political charge, that is entirely safe and prestigious to publish.
It might well turn out that I would look far and wide in the land, and end up discovering no one worth publishing. I do know that both the New York houses and the small presses militantly root out threatening writing, do everything possible to discourage those who don't get with the program. The institutionally acceptable writers, those who go through the MFA indoctrination, perform relentless self-censorship, if they have any sense at all, to ensure publication; but most of them, I think, don't really need to self-censor, because they don't have ideas worth censoring, they were born with the program, they were socialized into it, and the MFA is the crowning achievement of this literary socialization.
But there are real outsiders who either naively or willfully don't get the reigning aesthetic. These are the kinds of writers I would publish. I would hope to discover writing that delegitimizes the dominant style, that proves a big readership is possible for big ideas. I would publish writing by those who are against fascism and tyranny in any of its forms. This doesn't mean that the writing would be didactic or polemic in a debased sense, but you know when behind the writing is an author who is a thoroughgoing skeptic, who doesn't accept the received lines of nationalist or patriotic ideology. Whenever the general public comes across such a writer, they respond enthusiastically, because it's the truth and not the polite literary bullshit that really serves the writer's own interest in building his career and reputation.
I would publish writing that was truthful. It seems to me that nearly everything we're seeing in print, ninety percent-plus from both the New York houses and the small presses, is basically untrue. It's untrue to life, to reality, to the way things really are. They're just higher forms of escapism, no different in the end than watching TV or spectator sports or Hollywood films.
Hastings: In the 1960s we saw the mimeograph revolution, a DIY movement that helped to keep writers and the underground connected and "the establishment" well aware of their revolutionary politics. One would think the internet would have expanded on this, but it seems to have failed. Much of the internet is a vast intellectual wasteland, controlled and monitored by the state. Why do you think we've failed to capitalize on the internet's power to generate revolutionary dialogue? Though, of course, the Arab Spring is the notable exception to this.
Shivani: The internet, in the end, is only as smart as we are, don't you think?
I'm not sure about the internet being monitored by the state or even being corporate controlled—that certainly hasn't happened yet, although both liberals and conservatives would love to see such control exercised. But the point is that if there were incredibly smart people bursting with intellectual firepower, they would already have manifested themselves on the internet. The resource is already there.
Let's take it piece by piece. Internet journalism is generally a shallower version of what used to exist in print. More gossipy, more "immediate," more superficial, more attention distracting and fragmenting. Internet literary criticism is, as a matter of pride, spur of the moment and free of much substance. People have the mistaken idea that only short, impressionistic, single-minded, gossipy, off-the-cuff, anti-intellectual pieces do well on the internet; the people writing on the internet don't yet have the confidence that exactly the reverse might be true. Because so much of the stuff on the internet is stupid and superficial and unreflective, precisely the most challenging stuff stands out and does well. Again, however, if there were heroic critics out there, they would already be writing on the internet, throwing the challenge to writers and readers.
So as with all the responses I've been giving you so far, the problem is both one of supply and demand, and the two feed upon each other. Internet editors, like print editors, are generally actively propagating superficiality and shortness and easiness, acting as though these are the only values that will succeed, while the writers are also not intellectually smart enough to rise to the opportunity the internet affords for a global conversation of unprecedented magnitude.
But I think if we have any hope for a real dialogue, it is the internet. Imagine the monopoly of the New York Times, say, over deciding the worth of a book ten years ago, and consider the erosion of that monopoly today. There are so many more competing views. The breadth of views is almost entirely due to the internet. What we need now is depth. That will come over time for sure, that will be the next stage of evolution for the internet.
Hastings: But can't depth only be achieved with time? That is, in order to read an article of depth, great intellectual depth, one must have the time to sit and do so. It would seem that many people's lives in this country are being led away from large spans of time into smaller, more micro-managed parcels. Would we need not only a radical change in the concepts of supply and demand that you brought up, but also radical shifts in how large segments of the population live?
Shivani: Yes, you've hit the nail on the head, with the idea that without reorganization of how people allocate time, greater depth of cultural awareness isn't possible. However, you make people sound too passive, as if something is being forced on them, when in fact it's mostly their fault if they're wasting time. They're not being "led away," they're choosing to be idiots sitting before television, or if they're on the internet, wasting it in diversions. Perhaps ninety percent of the population has no connection with literature or the arts whatsoever. They spend their lives in a meaningless fog, distracted by one emotional cul-de-sac after another, working in meaningless jobs, and they have no aptitude for artistic exploration of their lives. What are you going to do about this segment of the population? It is beyond salvage.
What we're really talking about is the remaining perhaps ten percent, consisting of graduates of decent colleges or those who at least maintain a pretense of caring for art. The proportion may be as low as the low single digits, I don't know. Anyway, even this minority is too easily deluded by glamour and spectacle, it's very difficult for people in this category to venture beyond a few safe, conformist choices. Thinking is difficult.
As I said, the internet—and other technologies of communication—are only as smart as we are. In the old days before the cold war consensus ended, we used to delude ourselves that there was a vast and perpetually growing middle-class, that even if it had philistine tendencies it wasn't beyond recall, that nearly everyone in America went to college and benefited from it, that people reflected on the big issues and tried to live their lives purposefully. The last twenty years of the media explosion, as people's private lives have been exposed, have given the lie to the convenient myth. It turns out that we're a supremely dumb people driven from one stupidity to another, and there's no longer the elite guardian class interested in telling the population that this is not the case. From Jerry Springer to Herman Cain—neither of whom was conceivable when we had a serious global war to fight against communism—our collective shallowness is exposed more and more every day. We're settling down, in political and economic terms, about where we belong.
Hastings: To help those unaware of how to find them, how do you discover new great writing in this country when we are besieged by such immense mountains of shit?
Shivani: It's indeed very difficult. You have to learn to disregard official opinion, which is designed to push you toward certain categories of books that won't challenge your thinking, and you have to learn to do this ruthlessly and figure out for yourself what works for you.
First, you have to disregard academia. They want you to consume "multicultural" piffle like Lahiri and Diaz and Cisneros and Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison (Beloved must be one of the worst books I've ever read, yet predictably the Times calls it the best book of the past quarter century) and all the rest of them. They want you to admire Denis Johnson and Aimee Bender and Marilynne Robinson and Antonya Nelson and Sharon Olds and Louise Glück as the paradigms of excellence. These writers are held up because they're MFA apparatchiks, first, but also because they're easily imitable. Much harder to imitate Machado or Wyndham Lewis, right?
So you have to dismiss what the academy wants you to accept as the pinnacle of American writing. The influence of theory has led to the overvaluation of such obscurantist writers as Thomas Pynchon—if it's difficult to read, and professors can write endless dissertations on the mysteries of the text, then that text is valorized. Here we might also include John Barth, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, John Hawkes, William Gaddis, and William Gass. This is the elitist version of academic writing.
Then you have to discount—entirely discount—what the newspapers and commercial magazines are telling you. They ignore nearly all books of intellectual substance, generally published by the university presses, and nearly all the heftier books from the independent presses. Really, all of the reviewing in the newspapers is worse than worthless—they screen books for ideological conformity to establishment goals, they ignore and dismiss threatening books, they make the whole literary venture uninteresting and irrelevant to real life, and they do it all very much on purpose. One way these newspaper reviews can be a guide is to do the opposite of what they tell you. They love Jonathan Lethem and Jennifer Egan? You might use that as a basis to figure out what's wrong with American writing, and try to find counter-tendencies.
The trade journals Booklist, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly are much more helpful guides to good reading—they cover a broader range of books of scholarly interest, poetry, social sciences, art, history, philosophy, and so on—and are generally reliable for their opinions. A reader interested in finding good books would do well to peruse these journals thoroughly for a period of time, allowing for some discounting of the inflationary value ascribed to popular releases by the major houses.
Beyond that, one can get directly in touch with the university presses and small presses and consult their catalogs. If one does this over a length of time, one can begin to dismiss trendiness and spot the truly original work of fiction or nonfiction or poetry. One can consult the various blogs for a sense of what's being most discussed in highbrow circles. All of this has to be taken with a grain of salt, because there's tremendous cliquishness and writers, especially poets and short story writers, are busy promoting their friends' work.
But all of these are merely practical tools, handy tactics that can serve no helpful purpose except to drown the reader in an overwhelming number of books, if the discrimination and judgment aren't there. One develops taste only by careful reading and rereading of the classics, and that's a lifetime venture. If you aren't familiar with the great works of literature over the centuries and across vast geographical spaces, there is simply no way you can discern quality in contemporary writing. You will be lost, liable to take biased opinion for the truth.
I can tell you, for example, that Rana Dasgupta's novel Solo is by far the best book of 2011, and I've known that since the book's release in 2010 in Britain. How do I know that? I'd have to have read everything that peripherally or directly connects with Dasgupta—Kundera, let's say, or some of Naipaul's work, or William Boyd—to conclude that the work is sui generis. In 2011, perhaps Murakami and Eco are also worth a look. And that's about it for the crucial stuff. Next year Orhan Pamuk's new novel and Salman Rushdie's memoir will be impossible to dispense with. As for poetry, I think this year Adam Zagajewski's book is something I'd consider imperative, but I could only make sense of it if I've read him before, and if I've read some other Eastern European poets.
In the end one arrives at lesser and lesser quantities of writing as being requisite, but one has to sift through a lifetime of mostly dross to identify the life-changing books. Now, the end-of-the-year lists from the Times and others will surely not have Dasgupta's book at the top. The book has already been processed by the puny imaginations of reviewers and mainstream critics who don't have the intelligence to grasp what it means. So to answer your question, it's a really difficult task to find great reading among the oceans of trash that come flooding out of Manhattan. But when you end up developing your own judgment, independent of fads and cliques, it's a very rewarding thing. Confidence builds upon confidence, and once you become a great literary reader, I think little bullshit in any area of life gets past you.
Hastings: Which is ultimately the goal of wide reading, isn't it? And again, the core argument you make in Against the Workshop: a better "contract" between writer and reader, publisher and writer, leads to a more informed, engaged public. A public that can ultimately turn around and challenge the system.
Shivani: I'm doubtful about the elements of your sharp restatement. There isn't any "goal" of wide reading—that it leads you to be a better human being, or that you become "engaged," or that you become more active as a participant in enforcing the reader-writer contract. Perhaps pleasure is as close as we can get to a purpose for art—pleasure for the giver and pleasure for the receiver.
I might also take issue with the idea that the core argument of Against the Workshop is that there should be a better contract between reader and writer, publisher and writer. There's no obligation on any side in the literary venture to abide by any sort of contract. Perhaps literature functions best when contracts are broken, willfully, spontaneously. I think that's how literature advances, not when there are stable contracts between different parties. At present, publishers are putting out huge numbers of books that are shallow, conformist, genre-oriented, and delusional in the sense that readers are persuaded of their own self-sufficiency, the worth of their own superficial ideas. Is that breaking the contract or fulfilling it? I suspect that readers could live with more of a challenge to their self-belief, but I don't know that for sure.
Ultimately, this comes down to our belief in democracy. Do we think that democracy is actually functioning in the publishing business, as in other realms of life? Or is it an elitist venture that actively prevents good writing from coming to the surface? I certainly don't think that writing can have as an explicit goal—not when the writer is writing, anyway—that readers will become engaged and "turn around and challenge the system." To challenge the system, most readers would first have to turn around their own miserable, distracted, all-too-engaged lives—engaged with their various addictions and multiple failures at love and regimented adherence to semi-fascist prescriptions for daily behavior. The readers are the system. What does it take to overturn a system?
Look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. Potentially, this is what power listens to, not bluster and rhetoric on the internet or other media—Wall Street and Washington don't give a damn about all that blather, it only reinforces their legitimacy. Yet do the protestors have any clear idea what they want? What do they want to replace the "system" with? At best, among the more articulate, there might be vague musings against globalization. The same as with the Seattle protests of a dozen years ago. A lot of this fades into protectionism, xenophobia (American jobs for American citizens), and outright anti-modernity when it comes to thinking about energy and climate and so on. Protests like this in Europe today overturn governments. Protests like this a century or a century and a half ago in Europe blossomed into full-blown revolutions. Protests like this today in America serve as safe outlets until the "movement" fizzles out into incoherence. Liberals are no longer even committed to the most basic principles of liberalism—let alone hard-core civil libertarianism—so how can we expect change in the "system?"
Again, maybe the political contract is being fulfilled in the kind of harmless venting being allowed by the real powers, who remain in full control. The analogy might be extended to writing. Perhaps the contract is being fulfilled after all. What are people reading, what is selling? Aside from the zombie and vampire books, the Harry Potter stuff, if they have tremendous literary aspirations, maybe they'll even buy Jonathan Franzen, and read a hundred pages of that. Now we're already talking about an extremely minute percentage of the population, who'll go that far. That's what we're dealing with. It's difficult to think in terms of challenging the system when this is the mass readership out there. This is why to orient oneself to any part of the existing audience is foolish and destructive. One cannot write with programmatic or practical or realistic aims such as effecting readers in any way. In a perfectly democratic/competitive publishing regime, what would readers choose to read? We don't know that.
Readers do need "leisure" to exercise fine discriminations, but not having leisure time is to a great extent the individual's choice. Oh I understand one has families and mouths to feed and so on, but that is a choice one makes. One is not born in the present century an automaton compelled to breed and live in suburban junk houses with thirty-year mortgages and save money for junk colleges for appropriate credentialing of children who'll go on to replicate the whole lifestyle with more breeding and more mindless working. Ultimately, that is a personal choice.
There is plenty of free time already in this society. Even in 2011 conditions of expensive food and high rents, there is an infinite amount of "free time" ready to be tapped into. Potentially, we are all already free. We just have to discover the right way for each of us to find our way into that freedom. Needless to say, you can't have your middle-class toys and distractions and still expect to find that freedom, but it seems senseless, given our present low state of awareness, to even talk about the potential for free time, which is in the end more or less the same as freedom. People are so desperately afraid of a vacuum—the lack of programmed activity, whether it's work or leisure—that they'll go to any extent to avoid it. People are enslaved to work, because otherwise they'd become desperate and depressed, and want to kill either themselves or others.
Thus free time is simultaneously the freest and also the rarest commodity. It's called free time because it's free—but no one wants to take it up, because it's the ultimate threat to social stability. Less organized—less "civilized"—societies find it less threatening to have people lounging around "doing nothing." We need to regress to a less civilized state, and while that might be beneficial to people's mental health, I'm still not sure that it's a sufficient condition for anything having to do with making and appreciating art.
Hastings: With the history of music we see counter-reactions to the music championed by popular culture, counter-reactions themselves that become catalysts for change. Think of grunge reacting to the hair metal of the 1980s, or the current resurgence of soul music in the face of American Idol. Do you see this happening with literature in the near future? Will there be a backlash against chick lit, vacuous novels empty of moral challenge, the seas of thin-soup poetry and the horrid cesspool of memoir?
Shivani: The majority of writers at any given time are simply not smart enough to think in terms of these counter-movements. They think themselves blessed and superior if they can churn out yet another memoir of dysfunction or illness or grief or victimhood, yet another confessional/narrative book of poetry in cheap imitation of Sylvia Plath, yet another fragmented urban collage on the order of Donald Barthelme or George Saunders. They think of themselves as highly original, real geniuses, as they blather on with their imitations. Most writers are happy to ape existing conventions and duplicate them for personal fame and financial reward. We can't expect more than that. There are always a few minority writers who take a bold stand. Some of them fizzle out before reaching recognition. A few others get to the top. Those are the ones who change the shape of literature in any age. Their numbers are always few, and they have to fight an uphill battle. They're the only ones who matter.
The way movements come into being is not by a mass of intelligent writers deciding, Let's write smart feminist novels because there's a flood of chick lit on the market, but by one or two writers breaking through the whole circuitry of platitudinous exchange and coming up with something truly iconoclastic. Then that writer becomes a leading authority and spawns a school of followers who dilute his originality until a new iconoclast overcomes that cheap school of imitation. Even Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones's Diary, did something quite original and fresh when she invented that genre.
Hastings: I've put you in front of a high school senior English class. Not special needs, not A.P. Let's say, College Preparatory level. You're to teach them a single poem for the day. What would you teach, why? How?
Shivani: All right, let me pick Robert Bly's "Those Being Eaten by America," from his collection The Light Around the Body (1967), for which I could make a reasonable case as being the most significant book of postwar American poetry, along with perhaps Berryman's Dream Songs. I could have chosen any number of other poems from this book; I don't think Bly ever wrote a better book, though he's always breaking the rules. Bly, I think, deserves the highest accolades for bringing in European and Latin American visionary influences to counter the complaisant stance of postwar American establishment poets like Wilbur, Hecht, etc.—even possibly Lowell, if you think about it. This particular book represented a fork in the road—American poetry, unfortunately, took the wrong turn afterward, as the vision of the 1960s petered out into acceptance and resignation, and finally pure fatalism by the 1980s. But in The Light Around the Body we're literally standing at the fork, the personal and the political at all kinds of stand-offs which could have gone in any direction. Here is the complete poem: "Those Being Eaten by America."
First of all, this kind of poem—what we call "political poetry"—is nearly impossible to pull off. I would ask the students, if something troubles (or pleases) you about your own life—some form of loss (or ecstasy)—how do you go about putting it into words? I would show the students how this poem avoids bathos, self-absorption, unconnectedness, narcissism, unjustified anger, self-righteousness (oh yes, this almost invariably mars all socially conscious poetry!), fatalism, arrogance, obviousness, any of the cardinal sins a beginning poet succumbs to. How it does so technically is what I would try to teach.
For Bly's generation, the Vietnam War represented a huge challenge to consciousness itself—how could the world's richest nation so ruthlessly slaughter innocent Asians for inscrutable purposes (the machinery of bureaucratic killing literally taking over sanity and empathy); at any given time, the machine imposes itself in this way, and the task for the poet is to rescue his own humanity from the soullessness. The first thing to say is that one has to be very big—one has to have gone very deep into oneself—to write a poem as good as this one. So poetry is about learning to get rid of all the prefabricated languages handed down to us—the clichés of thinking in which most of us spend nearly all our time. If you've never found an original way of expressing yourself, then you've gone to the grave without contributing much to the collective soul of humanity. Poetry is not easy—it has to be earned.
Let's see, is there a single shopworn assertion or emotion in the poem? "Ministers who dive headfirst into the earth / The pale flesh / Spreading guiltily into new literatures." This is profound dejection toward the false securities of knowledge (even art), yet the image is what saves the idea from banality. Each stage in the poem begs us to pause and ponder over the image, giving us no easy way out. Does Bly let us escape into convenient thought (the bane of all "social protest"?). No, he has gone deep into himself to find images that bring him against the bounds of knowledge, that leave us speechless.
The poem is about the virtue of silence above all. We were talking of Debord earlier—in a sense, his book is spectacular too—whereas the only reality that matters is right before our eyes, in the mirror: the fact that I age every day and will die, like everyone else, the fact that all around me everything is dying (but also being born). Abstract thought only gets in the way of apprehension of reality, yet there is no way around abstract thought. So what is one to do?
Now Bly's quarry is mass death, "those being eaten by America." We think in terms of countries and localities suffering one after the other—from man-made calamities or the assaults of nature. But Bly says, "Others pale and soft being stored for later eating." Here he has reduced specificities to a mass. It is not possible to talk about atrocity's targets except as "pale and soft." Before silence, speech has to be stripped down. It is an artificial simplicity, however, and I would spend time on why this particular line manages to do its job.
How to convey alienation (again, the subject not only of Debord's book, but the primary challenge of the writer functioning amidst various bureaucratic orders today) without becoming narcissistic? "The wild houses go on / With long hair growing from between their toes / The feet at night get up / And run down the long white roads by themselves." Houses, not horses. I would show that for someone trying to write poetry, self-limitation, not spreading the imagination far enough, is usually the prime obstacle (all right, is this beginning to sound like a graduate seminar?).
One can imagine anything into being, even a "beginner" can. And that opens up the typically blocked flow of consciousness. Thus the even more arresting image of "the dams revers[ing] themselves and want[ing] to go stand alone in the desert." Everything is in a state of rebellion, things are out of symmetry, going against their nature, and yet the poet has made the point without uttering any clichéd words about Americans gunning down peasants in Vietnam. The final line at once mocks our pretensions of security but has enough empathy, lack of bombast, in it to also be inviting—"The world will soon break up into small colonies of the saved."
I would then work back through the poem to show how choice of diction, tone (variability within consistency), and the inexplicable otherness of images add up to a unity (am I sounding like a New Critic already?). Good poetry is a series of infinitesimal, in-the-moment choices that arrive at the speed of light, that can only be calculated and measured in the aftermath, not in the moment of inspiration. Yet this poem also leaves the impression of leaving so much unsaid, because it is impossible to say. That shows a certain humility. It is the strongest virtue of the artist, as much in evidence in this book (supposedly a protest against the imperial policies of the time) as it is in Chekhov.
I would try to show with the help of this poem that poetry is a living, indeed desperately lively, art. Poetry is not dead languages or romantic feelings or purging oneself of unwanted emotions, a bulimia of consciousness, if you will. I would let this poem show how poetry is the mind at work on itself, ceaselessly recovering language and therefore full humanity.
And now you know I'll never have a career teaching high-school English or high-school anything.
Hastings: Your critiques of the MFA system are well documented in your new book. They are both necessary and important. For the sake of playing the devil's advocate, I offer you Richard Hugo's defense of creative writing classes in his book The Triggering Town. He wrote: "I've seen the world tell us with wars and real estate developments and bad politics and odd court decisions that our lives don't matter. That may be because we are too many. Architecture and application form, modern life says that with so many of us we can best survive by ignoring identity and acting as if individual differences do not exist. Maybe the narcissism academics condemn in creative writers is but a last reaching for a personal kind of survival.... When we are told in dozens of insidious ways that our lives don't matter, we may be forced to insist, often far too loudly, that they do. A creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters. Your life matters, all right. It is all you've got for sure, and without it, you are dead. These days, the joke is even less funny." What are your thoughts on that?
Shivani: Richard Hugo's thoughts are a defense of identity, not writing. For writing, one doesn't need to be in a group situation. One does it best alone. I would say, contrary to Hugo, that one can assert one's identity best in the solitary act of writing, not in the group act of writing. Of course writers are narcissists—or a better way to put it would be self-believers—and there's nothing wrong with that. Everything in our society militates against true individualism.
I submit, however, that the last place on earth one ought to go to discover individuality is the writing workshop, for heaven's sakes! That's a place where false camaraderie, cheap praise, easy humiliation, and a general air of artificiality and arrogance and jealousy and indifference reign, and these are necessary byproducts of the way the institution is structured. Each institution produces its own psychological aura, and the workshop's is not conducive to discovery of the self. It's conducive to a certain kind of shared false knowledge, as the budding writer's half-baked opinions are honored and valued, but it's not recognition of true merit. Most of the work beginning writers produce in workshop is utter crap, let's admit it. But what teacher would come out and say that? He has to find some merit in the deluded juvenile scribblings of people who haven't even read enough, let alone lived enough, to produce writing of any substance. That is mass delusion, a disservice to the student, a kind of institutionalized therapy.
You want to know your life matters? Cut yourself off from all sorts of institutional bullshit, including the writing workshop, and plunge deep into your feelings and thoughts, and continuously refine them in relation to the ideas conveyed by the great writers of the ages, not by equally juvenile and immature minds sitting next to you in workshop and telling you how wonderful and worthwhile your incest or illness experiences are, how they make you so human and endearing and precious. If you haven't made art out of your experience, if you've merely reproduced it at a minimum level of technical ability, you've only participated in your own further humiliation. And that's not something that ought to be honored, it ought to be rooted out, so you can become truly individual.
I find that Hugo has it exactly backward. Leave the workshop, leave the pretend camaraderie behind, leave helpful, motivating, benevolent teachers who breathe and talk the same emotions and language you do, and discover yourself in the strange and unknown and inconceivable. You will meet yourself in the places least likely to harbor those of your own kind.
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