August 10, 2010


Over on The Huffington Post Anis Shivani presents an amusing and suitably vitriolic list of the 15 most overrated contemporary writers. The list includes six poets and a couple of critics, but seems to be chiefly directed at workshop-generated novels whose authors work with a checklist (family dysfunction, drug use, multiculturalism). He also proposes an interesting theory regarding the cause for the preeminence of these authors - the lack of major critics to champion the truly worthy:
since the onset of poststructuralist theory, humanist critics have been put to pasture. The academy is ruled by "theorists" who consider their work superior to the literature they deconstruct, and moreover they have no interest in contemporary literature. As for the reviewing establishment, it is no more than the blurbing arm for conglomerate publishing, offering unanalytical "reviews" announcing that the emperor is wearing clothes.
This assessment leads him to include The New York Times's critic Michiko Kakutani on the list as the "enabler-in-chief" for the rest, which I'm not sure I agree with. I think Kakutani, much like James Wood, tends to be excessively breathless when she encounters a book she really likes, but can also be insightful, and actually provides what reviews are supposed to, giving us a sense of what the book is about and whether it's worth reading (a surprisingly small amount of reviews actually do that). Plus, both Wood and Kakutani can be very amusing when they review a book they disliked (e.g. Kakutani's review of Beatrice and Virgil or Wood's review of Paul Auster's fiction).

So who else is on the list? the omnipresent Jonathan Safran Foer, of course. He's the only writer on both The New Yorker's "top 20 under 40" list and this one (though Wells Tower is parenthetically mentioned here as well), and Shivani offers an accurate summary of his career:
...gimmick after gimmick is what Foer excels at. Always quick to jump on to the bandwagon of the moment. Debuted with harmless multiculturalism for the perennially bored in Everything Is Illuminated, with cute lovable foreigners and the slacker generation digging lovableness; a more pretentious "magical realist" novel was never written. Rode the 9/11-novel gravy train with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, giving us a nine-year-old with the brain of a--twenty-eight-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer. Having cashed in on 9/11, and seeing no obvious fictional goldmine to plunder, moved on to nonfiction with Eating Animals, hanging on to J. M. Coetzee's coattails.
A few more irresistible quotes:
  • William T. Vollmann - "determined to churn out a full Pynchon a year."
  • Michael Cunningham - "Uses Mrs. Dalloway as a convenient modernist football to play with..."
  • Junot Diaz - "Might one day move beyond writing about pussy-hunting nerds and write in a language above that of his childish protagonists'..."

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