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What Accounts for the “Dismal State” of American Fiction?: A Review of Anis Shivani’s Against the Workshop

I don’t write fiction, at all. I can’t make stuff up. But I used to read more fiction than I do now. And occasionally I wonder why I’ve struggled to care about fiction in the last two decades.

After reading Anis Shivani’s intellectually exhilarating collection of critical essays, Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies, I’ve gained new insight on the matter. For complex and overlapping reasons that Shivani explores with rapier brilliance, fiction and the systems by which it is taught, written, reviewed, promoted, feted, and marketed has settled into a soporific domestication, characterized by the production of pretty miniatures and the abdication of political engagement. Here, I’m casting in deliberately polemical relief a main theme of these deliberately polemical essays.

How did fiction lose its guts and glory? There are many reasons, Shivani argues. Some of it has to do with the collapse of a liberal consensus, which makes engagement with the big political questions, or a defense of enlightenment values and humanism, less appealing, intuitive, or plausible. “The decline of American fiction is a sign of the decline of elite liberal consensus,” Shivani argues. “The vacuum in political ideology is being filled today by an anti-politics, of personality and charisma… Without a vibrant class politics…there is no vibrant fiction.”

Some of it has to do, Shivani says, with the Cuisinart of yeastily proliferating MFA programs, writing workshops, and writers’ colonies, which collude to produce predictable literary tropes and idioms, and to privilege stylistic refinement, formulaic prose and political apathy over quirky genius and engagement.

Part of it is the circuit of incestuous prizes, fellowships, and awards that recognize and reward a reiterated voice, echoed most lucratively and recognizably by the protégés of literary stars.

Part of it is the genius-sapping complacency that can beset writers supported by university sinecures in the “350 writing programs and counting,” for which the writer trades her genius for a steady paycheck, becoming more like a Writer-Bureaucrat than a Writer-Genius. Independent writers get “assimilated” into the “sclerotic” university, Shivani writes, as they can’t resist the lure of the “secure livelihood.” “That should tell us everything,” he concludes. “What type of writer prefers security over independence? What kind of writing then ensues?”

The complacency of these university sinecures can make a defanged lap dog out of the most ferocious genius.

“University writers teach simplistic rules,” Shivani tells us. “In fiction, it is all voguish impressionism, without the necessary essayistic component; they only show, don’t tell” (anyone who’s been through an MFA—as I have, albeit in creative nonfiction—has heard that Show Don’t Tell chestnut). “At some point,” Shivani continues with characteristic wit, “compartmentalization from the stupidity of freshman being taught basic English becomes impossible, and the mind rots.”

The upshot, Shivani asserts, is that we’re too often left today with fiction of stylistically dazzling vapidity. As Shivani hilariously comments of the stories in the Best New American Voices volume of 2007, “my continuing thought during this reading experience was, These stories are so very good, they’re intolerably bad.”  

Writing has always been a business, of course.  Samuel Johnson said, “nobody but a fool ever wrote for anything but money.”

But it wasn’t always an industry: a creative endeavor that occurs through quasi-mass means of production (think of MFA programs as your “factories”) to create homogeneous, listlessly perfect products.

Arguably, when writing was a “business,” genius or independence stood a better chance in the more free-range, freewheeling spaces of the commercial but more cluttered and less institutionalized literary marketplace. When writing is more like an industry, however, we’re inclined to conform to prevailing standards.

Essentially, Shivani is chronicling, and lamenting, the widget-ification of American fiction under its new modes of production.

I’m not a member of the fiction writers’ tribe, but I suspect that it’s not exactly a great career move for a fiction writer to pull the curtain away like this. I’d have respect for Shivani’s work on those terms alone.

Throughout these pieces, Shivani voices frustration that the hard work of developing style or of writing fiction that’s engagé with the political times has given way to lighter concepts of “voice” or the solipsistic confessional narrative that characterizes much of memoir today.

One problem that’s implied but not stated in all this are the frailties of sloth, intellectual vanity and professional self-preservation. For example, the nihilistic undertow of postmodernism, in vogue in the late 1980s and 1990s, spares us from having to decipher politics or organize. “The academy’s overall shunning of liberal optimism” (so aptly put), ennobles political disengagement. How convenient for us. It’s less work if we can collectively think that political activism is naïve or, what’s worse, hegemonically suspect, than to try.

Especially in what Shivani condemns as the “intellectually flabby 1980s,” too many creative and intellectual communities disavowed allegiance to the core humanist and enlightenment values and principles that, what do you know, we’re now in danger of losing.  They “shunned writing of a political nature” (politics is just what journalists do, he glosses and the awards aren’t as good), but also reimagined the writer as “fundamentally apolitical.”

“If all takes place at the level of text and language, then we can only fight language wars, which is a perfect way to escape the hurly-burly of politics and economics,” Shivani writes. The postmodern “elite” can’t be confronted “with any grand narrative…, since postmodernism has already destroyed any inherited political doctrine (certainly old labor politics) as patriarchal/colonial/logocentric constructs…. Postmodernism soon became antihumanist.”

True, the conceit of one universal set of values or, even worse, a universal subjectivity did need to be punctured and challenged, and post-modernism achieved that.

But maybe it went too far.

To what extent do we now have memoir as the default literary genre of the early 21st century—even when it’s called something else (Shivani notes that “essay” today is, basically, memoir by another name, as there are precious few venues anymore for idea-driven, longer essays) because, frankly, it’s easier to work off of the archive of your own life than to interview people, and it’s easier to complete an MFA by writing a memoir than doing archival work?

To what extent do we have discussions of voice because, as Shivani argues, it’s a gossamer invention (“What the hell does voice mean? I’m clueless. This is just another of those fakeries writing teachers…pull out of the hat when they have nothing else to talk about”) that more easily conforms to what conference goers think “writing” is—a epiphanal outpouring that bears little relation to the unglamorous Butt in Chair, Butt in Library hard work of developing and endlessly refining style, doing research, logging hours re-writing and reading the canons of literature that might help you perfect and understand style?

Indeed, although a small example, Shivani’s discussion of voice captures perfectly an underlying provocation in this collection: MFA programs et al churn out an almost corporate style, and they also re-conceptualize the Writer’s Life as a commodity in and of itself, as something that the MFA student is buying with their tuition—which is odd as well as consequential.

And the customer is always right. What the MFA student wants, among many other tender ambitions, fantasies, and ideas of self that haunt the average AWP conference-goer or workshop participant, is the concept of herself as a Writer, and the writerly mystique. Advice and wisdom are delivered and customized accordingly, to please the “customer-writer.” The student, curiously, occupies both positions simultaneously.

There isn’t any nefarious, malicious intent or conspiracy, here.

This is just an industry acting like an industry; a business doing what a business does. You pay to get a product; you get paid to deliver that product, and no one gets hurt. Except when the literary tradition is at stake, and then, as Shivani argues, this is no longer a victimless crime.

Actually, Shivani provocatively and more aptly chooses as his economic idiom of 21st century fiction the “medieval guild system that represses good writing.” In this system, “apprentices, journeymen, and masters join together in solidarity to impose control over quantity and quality of production, and enforce rigid rules to exclude outsiders.”

Whatever the case, anyone who has spent a morning in a workshop, imbibing the vague, pricey importunings of a writer talking about “voice,” will give a whoop and holler of pleasure at Shivani’s no-holds-barred subversion of this pleasingly slothful construct.  

You see how damaging this factory-like production can be to ambitious genius and to fiction’s cultural and political relevance, the two things that Shivani seems to miss most in the vocation that he loves.

It’s that love of fiction and poetry that redeems an otherwise critical collection from being a chore to read.  Quite the contrary. I read most of these essays in nearly one sitting, all the while laughing loudly. Despite Shivani’s relentlessly skeptical eye on the apparatuses of fiction and poetry production today, I experienced this collection as political and hopeful where it matters the most.

Against the Workshop is a hopeful collection because it ventures to expect something more. And what could be more optimistic than that? What could be more hopeful than to still believe that fiction and poetry have a mark to meet, a role to play in the biggest challenges of our age? What’s more hopeful than to think that the pretty little thing isn’t irrelevant after all?

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Shivani has great, wicked fun with the contributors’ notes in the Best American Insert Genre Here collections.  While these contributors’ notes spill over with the bubbly carbonation of “blasé optimism in the face of calamity,” they abnegate the burdens of meaning or relevance.  That’s because the gist in poetry, Shivani asserts, is “anti-humanist,” in the sense of skeptical estrangement from the world beyond the body and leitmotifs of personal experience. Poets “perform mental acrobatics without moral purpose,” he boldly argues.

So the expression of “blasé optimism” is a bit of cheat, isn’t it? It’s easy enough to be enthused about being a poet, if poetry is construed as an art that does little, and asks even less. Who could be grumpy about cotton candy, after all?

In contrast, Shivani’s essays might read tough, and jaded—even brutal—but his is a hopeful, tough love message.

Comes a moment, though, in reading these essays, when one of your favorites will get thrown under the bus.  It will happen.

Oh come on now, you’ll object to the suddenly too belligerent, too feisty, too tart Shivani. I like their work, you’ve got it wrong, my friend. This time you’ve gone too far.

But that’s the whole point of the near-lost art of the essay. You’re not supposed to agree with all of its arguments, but you’ll be goaded to marshal new defenses of your favorite authors and re-calibrate their work by a new-old critical standard (relevance? historical engagement? humanist spirit?) that Shivani has reminded you of.

In another example of the perspicacity and rhetorical grace that had me darn near dog-earing every page of this collection, Shivani describes “Homo Americus” this way: “it has a cute face and ready laugh…it is smart and businesslike and ruminative and professional, but it is empty of a soul….Vidal and Updike, and Pynchon and Gaddis and Mailer (I am not fond of the last three, but offer them as examples of vast ambitions), sought to reinscribe themselves in the continuing flow of history as active agents…[T]the current generation has been taught to read only for entertainment…. The collective idiocracy needs a hard slap in the face, a reminder of how stupid it has become.”

With this book, consider yourself slapped.

Read Anis Shivani’s “Five Principles for a 21st Century Liberalism” here


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