Book Review: Against the Workshop

Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies
by Anis Shivani

For thelife of it, America can't win the Nobel Prize of Literature. The last American was Toni Morrison and that was in 1993. Since then, mostly Europeans have won the award, and mostly British. Despite, being extremely Eurocentric, perhaps Horace Engdal of the Swedish Academy had a point when he said "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. The ignorance is restraining." (Of course, he also later said that Europe was the literary epicenter of the universe).

Fact is, no major US writer has made a splash on the worldwide literary circuit and to see why we must see what makes US lit so different. As many have argued before (because apparently US lit has been in decline for quite awhile, it's almost a rite of passage to complain about US lit), we have a weak culture, the MFA has killed it, capitalism has made us complacent whereas art needs to be angry and political. Yet Anis Shivani's Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies is perhaps one of the first to put all of these loose strands together, synthesizing a theory of American literary un-greatness.

Collected here are Shivani's essays over the last couple of years, which when taken together argues that American literature's decline is inevitable within the system in which it operates. Simply said, after WWII, there was no other way.

Pos-war America saw a rise in MFA programs, the institutionalization of art. Partially, this was due to the economy. With an increasing capitalist system, artists retreated for their own safety under the guise of no one wants art--they want Disney, Coca-Cola, and war against commies. They found that safety in universities. Shivani cites a rise in the "academic" writer--those who are in some way tied to writing programs (either been to a program, taught at a program; under this argument Toni Morrison was a workshop writer). Before the war, the writer was not expected to be part of the academy. Now, it's hard to find any who aren't. The wild, rebellious writer/artist, has been tamed, domesticated.

This, in turn, created a complacent literary culture, the type that never challenged the status quo. Gone are politically charged writing. Here to stay are domestic fictions and narcisstic, inward turning works that focused on craft. Small, miniature fiction, he calls them. Gone, he argues, is writing that attempts to connect (ironically, this despite so many works over the years that is all about connecting especially in the digital world).

American fiction is too competent. He blames this on the rules of fiction writing as instituted by MFA programs--write what you know, show don't tell, find your voice, all of which, he agrues are quite useless, empty terms. Furthermore, the careers the MFA industrial complex prescribe to young writers (be nice, humble, struggle through teaching instead actually struggling through low classdom), which is part of the culture of the MFA program--has made for--boring writers with nothing significant to say except that you should really consider an MFA.

As Shivani sees it, the MFA has turned into itself, making an insider's culture with rituals and rites of passages that the common reader can't hope understand. The American writer has become unrelatable. America is losing readers at the fault of the writer. This has political implications: "Just as our government has become sclerotic to the last degree, doesn't and can't crespond to real needs, so is writing completley immeresed in its own internal compulsion." Where are we to turn if writers are not writing anything worth while? Not calling people to question society?

Shivani misses the vagabond artist. The one who travelled and did readings of his unpublished poems (compared to writers today who read on book tours, which he argues is a wholly an American practice). One who incites passion in its audience, instead of today's writing who's sole responsibility is to illuminate common human emotion (he goes in depth about the fetishization of victimhood).

While he verges on generalizations of an entire field of literature (what about small presses? Small presses can be highly political as well as a venue for high quality, ground breaking literature--Blake Butler (until he got the Harper Collins book deal, but it's probably still very good], Matt Bell [who went off on Shivani on Facebook], Tara Hardy [amazing poet who mixes her personal experiences of incest with larger issues of social justice], Andrea Gibson [my lesbian crush]), occasionally contradicts himself (how is the MFA a guild system away from capitalism when it is using Fordist models of product, for example), never consider the point of view of those who might think literature as simply just art, and picks on Jhumpa Lahiri and multiculturalism as a gimmick of literature (this coming from a man of color though he does have a point about working class writing by people of color), Shivani's work here is important because it asks questions that must be answered of writing: what is the writer to society? What purpose does literature serve? Must a writer struggle for his/her art? Do white upper-class people have anything worthwhile to write? What is genius? Are we lacking genius? Is the taming of the artist bad for our culture?

Even for those who disagree, Shivani's book is exciting and undoubtedly an important contribution to how we think of literature, and how writers write. Shivani's book is provoking, it taunts, it attacks: but he does it because he cares deeply: "There is no replacement for the use of print to tell a convincing story," he writes, debunking the idea that writers must compete with new media. Writing is powerful, he argues, we're stunting it's power.

His advice to writers?:

"Steal, cheat, borrow, lie, move to rural Vermont and live in a shack and grow you own food, do anything but sell your soul to the academy."

That's plan B. 

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