Are our literary giants really just overrated poseurs?

By Harriet Staff

Sharon Olds. Louise Glück. John Ashbery. Put these names together, and most would assume that the award-winners are being lauded as a trio of poets who exemplify gravitas and excellence.

Not by Anis Shivani, who includes them on his list of of the “Top 15 most overrated contemporary writers” in a biting post at the Huffington Post that has so far generated over a thousand commments. Are these poets overrated because they “hide behind a smokescreen of unreadable inimitability?” Or because they are “uneasy with mortality?” Here at the Harriet office, the cubicles often ring out with that same stinging critique–"Can't you tell the difference between a hyphen and an em-dash? You are SO uneasy with mortality!"–so it's nice to finally see that particular hammer drop on somebody else. Anyways, Shivani also blames the mediocrity of American writers on the rise in MFA programs and the descent of the quality critic:

The ascent of creative writing programs means that few with critical ability have any incentive to rock the boat--awards and jobs may be held back in retaliation.  The writing programs embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness; as long as writers play by the rules (no threatening history or politics), there's no incentive to call them out.  (A politically fecund multiculturalism—very desirable in this time of xenophobia—is the farthest thing from the minds of the official arbiters:  such writing would be deemed "dangerous," and never have a chance against the mediocrities.)

Here’s what he had to say about Glück:

Exemplary Lines:  "This, this is the meaning of / 'a fortunate life':  it means / to exist in the present."

She is perhaps our greatest example of mediocrity ascending to the very top (currently hands out the Yale Series of Younger Poets award--oh, how we have fallen from Auden!).  As with Sharon Olds, her poetry is an accurate reflection of the abysmal decline of American feminism from its radical incarnation in the seventies.  First book, Firstborn, was stillborn Plath, and it only got worse--though she took 17 years between books at one time to figure out her direction, going from Plath's angry confessionalism to pure domesticity.  Takes herself so seriously that her domestic travails are the subject of her own mythology (herself=Penelope).  Utterly humorless--a characteristic common to the other mediocrities on this list.  Adults are permanently grief-stricken (in the Creative Writing world, grief is the primary worthwhile emotion)--this obsession always comes with the paradox of trivialization of death (another characteristic common to those on this list).  Like Olds, master of the popping little bubble, the easily earned epiphany, attached to the end of poems.  Her flatness of tone (mistaken as equanimity by infatuated critics) suggests paralysis after emotional death.  In Meadowlands, in all seriousness, she makes her family fit the Odysseus myth.  Her latest book, The Village, is perhaps her worse yet, with a village only her dour humorlessness could create.  No one dispenses "words of wisdom" more easily than her--except possibly Oprah.

Originally Published: August 9th, 2010