America’s 15 Most Overrated Writers: A List I Can Get Behind

08/11/2010 12:47 PM |

Jonathan Safran Foer

If you haven’t already checked out Anis Shivani’s marvelously bitchy HuffPo list of contemporary American writers he hates (1,700 comments!), well, then you should. It’s mean and funny and largely true (I agree with almost all his selections, so maybe it’s not exactly daring). My take on his choices after the jump.

Of the writers on his list, I haven’t read the following (largely because they’ve always seemed like middle-brow hacks who sell books to Sunday readers), so I won’t address their inclusion on the list: Amy Tan, Mary Oliver, Helen Vendler, Atonya Nelson and Junot Diaz.

Also, where the hell is Paul Auster? Pussy.

William T. Vollman
Shivani says: Encapsulates ethical vacuity of American fiction after the collapse of 1970s postmodernism. Any moral meaning is buried in indigestible compendiums of graceless sentences.
I say: I kind of liked one of those books he wrote about autochthonous North Americans, but I’ve gotten bogged down in just about everything else…

John Ashbery
Shivani says: Displays sophomoric lust to encode postmodern alienation into form that embodies the supposed chaos of the mind.
I say: Poets writing for other poets to the Nth degree (and I used to write poetry!)

Sharon Olds
Shivani says: Infantilization packaged in pseudo-confession is her specialty.
I say: This one I disagree with. Even the sample sentence Shivani provides (as evidence of his victims failings) I quite like.

Jorie Graham
Shivani says: Would have spared the poetry world a lot of misery if she’d been able to get a job as a deconstructionist in the literature department—her actual skill.
I say: Poets writing for theorists to the Nth degree.

Jonathan Safran Foer
Shivani says: Debuted with harmless multiculturalism for the perennially bored in Everything Is Illuminated.
I say: I’ve actually come to truly disrespect the intelligence of former friends who recommended this book.

Jhumpa Lahiri
Shivani says: Never a good sign when the movie based on a writer’s only novel (The Namesake) is better than the book.
I say: Seriously, who wants to read a bloodless movie treatment over 300 pages long?

Louise Gluck
Shivani says: Utterly humorless—a characteristic common to the other mediocrities on this list.
I say: What he just wants to say is “boooring.”

Michael Cunningham
Shivani says: Proves the point that to be successful as a fiction writer today, all you have to do is create facile pastiche assemblages.
I say: Speaking of movie treatments, you could just see Meryl Streep going over her lines on each of these daintily wrought book of the month club pages.

Billy Collins
Shivani says: Imagines he is a container for childlike wonder, but actually exemplifies childish incomprehension.
I say: Though I did love his work in His Majesty, Mr. Brown.

Michiko Kakatani
Shivani says: Simply the worst book critic on the planet.
I say: Oh Mickey, you’re so mean.

3 Comment

  • This nonpoet finds Ashbery’s collage of sense-memory and cultural artifact to be among the most poignant, playful work currently being done by an American writer.

    Also? This list would have more accurately titled “Commonly Voiced Objections to Mostly Accessibly Middlebrow Literary Novelists, and Maybe a Couple of Hipper Younger Authors With Easily Parodied Styles.” Next you’ll be telling me that Annie Proulx’s prose is workmanlike and her themes telegraphed, or that Zadie Smith is a self-impressed zeitgeist jumper.

  • @Mark – right on.
    Johnny, did you read John Safran Foer’s piece in the 20 under 40 New Yorker? There’s no way you can convince me that that’s bad writing. And the fact that Thomas Pynchon was not #1 on this list discredits it immediately in my eyes.

  • Why don’t Juddery et al. write something worth spending time with instead of wasting their time (and everyone else’s) listing things they don’t happen to like? This is not literary or even social criticism; this is grown-ups acting like kids in a schoolyard. You like Ashbery; I don’t. You don’t like Pynchon; I do. So’s your old man. The irony is of course that their “anti-hype” is just more hype, only snarky and even uglier. Tell me what you love and why, and you’ll be worth listening to. Arthur Maisel, NYC