Boy oh boy, there’s nothing I love more than incensed bibliophiles. The most recent offender? Anis Shivani at the Huffington Post, who wrote a petty, pithy little thing called The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers. His article might be startlingly inaccurate and small-minded and ill-conceived, but it’s generated a fair amount of buzz in the tiny world of literary fiction since it appeared over the weekend. That’s 1,639 comments on the article at last count, most not worth reading, and several outraged and reasoned responses across the web.
It’s caused some heated argument among my peers, so I thought I’d bring it before the most levelheaded bookseller I know, Kester, for an impartial perspective. His reaction? How can writers be overrated if I’ve never even heard of them? Valid point, Kester. Clearly, this article is directed at a very narrow sliver of the reading public. And, unsettlingly, its blows toward publishing minorities in the current establishment—do poets really need to be picked on any more than they already are?—seem especially harsh. And why should anyone in the allegedly dying-and gasping-for-its-last-breath book industry dare to take down one of his own?
Well, for one, it’s started a hell of a lot of conversation. And I think that’s pretty great. Everyone can probably list writers that other people gush over who don’t seem quite worthy of their far-reaching influence. And I bet most people could also make a list of underrated writers (like the one Shivani promises) who deserve more notice and praise than they’re getting. That said, a lot of folks in the book world would prefer that the policy for criticism be “If you don’t have anything nice to say…”
But me, I’m all for the incendiaries, the rilers-up. Sometimes, they can be downright hilarious. Take, for example Dan Wilbur’s Better Book Titles: (via The Millions) eg. Plato’s Symposium. Better book title? Horny, Drunk Guys Invent Philosophy. Or Jason Huff’s Auto Summarize the Classics project, in which digitized classics and bestsellers are brought down to their essence by the mighty and brilliant Microsoft Word 2008. Nothing is sacred once digitized, obviously.
I think difference of opinion about who’s writing the best fiction, and which critics and publishers are best at bringing that fiction into public consciousness, is necessary. Ideally, it helps get controversial works (like, oh gosh, I don’t know, Ulysses) published and read. At the very least, it brings everyone involved back down to earth for a while. And it reminds us why the books and writers we love really actually matter, permanently, untouchably, no matter what virtual mud anybody slings.
In the spirit of more constructive criticism, here are 7 Contemporary American Short Story Collections Off the Top of My Head You Shouldn’t Miss, Seriously. Underrated, overrated, I really couldn’t care less.
Kevin Brockmeier’s The View From The Seventh Layer (Pantheon, 2008)
Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories (FSG, 2009; or, if that’s too expensive, start with Samuel Johnson Is Indignant Picador, 2002)
Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall (Scribner, 2010)
Christie Hodgen’s Elegies For The Brokenhearted (Norton, 2010)
Peter LaSalle’s Tell Borges If You See Him (UGeorgia Press, 2007)
ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead, 2003)
Paul Yoon’s Once The Shore (Sarabande 2009)
And one non-American rediscovery Kester pointed out to me after work today:
Daniil Kharms, trans. Matvei Yankelevich, Today I Wrote Nothing (Overlook, 2009)
All hail the uncharted possibilities of microfiction! What’s your list?
— Jennifer Shapland