Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Anis Shivani. Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies. Texas Review Press.

Reviewed by Matthew Shenoda
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 86, No. 2 (Summer 2012)

Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies, a book of critical essays by writer Anis Shivani, unabashedly tackles one of the central foundations of contemporary American literature: the creative writing program. Shivani critiques this literary mainstay that has so permeated the life of American writers that at times it seems absolutely unavoidable. Very little criticism exists in this vein, which perhaps illustrates the hegemonic power hidden in the dependency of so many contemporary writers on creative writing programs, which Shivani vigorously argues are deleterious to the life of literature.

Shivani takes to task the MFA workshop culture that personalizes ‘‘feedback’’ rather than engaging in true criticism, which he argues produces subpar writers who often mimic a few ‘‘master’’ writers. While at times his seemingly astringent style may jar some readers unaccustomed to literary criticism aimed at . . . well, being critical, to dismiss this critique would be to perpetuate the writing program systemic that an inordinate number of writers in this country are caught up in, and, in doing so, rob us of the agency to assess and evaluate the nature and direction of contemporary writing. Shivani insists on addressing it head on, and as a result any reader devoted to this issue will find great merit in Against the Workshop and can read it as a call to action—an inspiring set of arguments that will push anyone invested in literature to begin engaging in this conversation not as a peripheral witness but as a centrally implicated participant.

His arguments, surely infuriating to some, further challenge what seems to be an enduring idea that one cannot engage with something or someone with which or whom they do not fully agree. Taking his own advice, Shivani then begins to take the ‘‘politeness’’ out of the conversation and places at the center instead a sense of urgency, ethics, import, and passion. He brings back a spirited sense of debate nearly absent from most reviews and criticism of contemporary American literature. In his argument is a clear sense of writers’ responsibility to their readership and even more so to the larger public with whom Shivani argues the writer must be engaged. From my perspective, Shivani’s style of intellectual confrontation should be a model for the workshop, but it is nearly absent from the overly personalized and anti-intellectual workshop reality that most creative writing programs employ. There is much to learn here not only for writers and readers but also for educators.

What can’t be denied, whether or not you agree with his arguments, is that Shivani embodies a zeal for literature that is sorely lacking in our selfabsorbed, self-promoting, contemporary landscape. In fact, after reading the book, you may get the distinct sense that Shivani is not doing himself any favors. Instead, he has bravely and rightly taken on the incredible proliferation of mediocrity in American letters and opened the door for a sorely needed conversation.
 

While reading Shivani’s criticism is invigorating and thought-provoking, at times his analysis falls short because it does not recognize some of the nuances that do exist within these programs and their faculties. While his criticism of the mfa model is keen and at times plainly unarguable, he sometimes creates a binary that seems to overlook the reality that many within these programs agree with him, and as a result they resist and challenge these modes, some successfully. While these challenges may not always transform the larger systemic structures he is arguing against, they are certainly worth noting.

Shivani at times also romanticizes the notion of the independent writer, not fully addressing the manner in which contemporary artists can navigate the depth of the corporate capitalist structures that inform every element of our current society. The basic economic models we struggle with in twenty-first-century American culture make the institutionally independent lives of early modernists and other writers whom Shivani upholds—like Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, or Sylvia Plath—nearly impossible to attain in our present society. Furthermore, the literary standards to which he anchors his criticism never come into question in the book—nor should they necessarily; he has established them and has that right as a critic. However, many a reader, even those who are members of the nonacademic public, would find some of his models of exemplary writers staid and at times uninspiring.

Although the book centers on criticism of the incredibly important and overwhelming problems in contemporary literature, Against the Workshop does benefit a great deal from inclusion of a few reviews of recent exemplary works, such as his own of the troublingly underrated and enormously prescient poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

In the end, Shivani’s arguments are forthright and incisive in their sharp reading of the texts that he critiques, as he takes on works like Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, and the poetry of David Kirby, Jorie Graham, and Philip Levine. His critical eye is virtually unmatched in contemporary criticism. Impressively, Shivani is equally deft and at ease in his criticism of both poetry and fiction. In his essays on fiction, he clearly articulates the space of the unimaginary, the way in which stereotypically defined tropes are followed and framed in the contemporary novel with little aspiration toward the transformation or evolution of characters as they grapple with the messy and often rich human struggles within their respective worlds. He paints instead the very real sense that much of contemporary fiction is placid and insular, cold and calculated, highly crafted, and unbelievably unsoiled.

In the realm of poetry, he equally interrogates the contemporary trends, and perhaps most important in this criticism is Shivani’s ability to show the incompleteness, the half-thought, the often poorly articulated or partially conceptualized execution that is too common in contemporary poetry.

Overall, he argues that ‘‘taste, decency, proportion, humor, good will, transcendence, balance, respect, all are out the door, whether it applies to the writer relating his work, his forebears, or his readers.’’ Shivani becomes one of the few critics who openly interrogates the grossly ill-informed pseudo-intellectualism that permeates much of the contemporary American literary landscape. In short, he calls the bluff of many of our most well-known poetic con artists and delves into actual criticism (a rare venture nowadays) to illuminate the elementary scaffolding that is commonly used to stand in for aesthetics, concepts, and craft.

Finally, it seems that Shivani is speaking on behalf of many in the literary world who have articulated these feelings in private spaces and have been looking for a public voice to usher in a new era (or perhaps return) of criticism. Regardless of feelings toward or disagreements with Shivani’s arguments, his book is not only important but essential for forcing open conversations about what it means to be a writer and reader in the twenty-first-century United States. Troubling as the book may be to some, it ought to be required reading for every MFA student.