Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Writers, writers, and writers

We're in a bit of a panic, right readers?

Last week, I was sitting in lovely Provincetown, having quite a gay evening in every sense with ridiculous appetizers being served along with a special cocktail for the evening - see photo - and a novelist who was also joining us mentioned the Anis Shivani article from the Huffington Post about the 15 most overrated contemporary American writers. A friend of mine, it turns out, had already emailed me this post by Alison Flood at the Guardian about the piece. Clearly everyone was talking about this literary Molotov cocktail, clumsily pitched at middlebrow readers across the country. The novelist that first mentioned this article noted that Shivani is a poet, which explained it to her. He had an ax to grind. As Flood notes, "I also think it's a little unfair to describe any poet as overrated – poetry sells so very little that I feel we should rejoice in any rating it gets at all."

I will only make one point about Shivani's piece, and I'm pleased that many others have said it as well, though I'm not surprised since it's so friggin' obvious. The part on Junot Diaz is just so racist. Anyone that has read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - a heartbreaking novel that moves from pop culture to Haitian/Dominican history, from Spanish to English, from teen tragedy to proper literary melodrama.... Shivani boils it down to a voice that "describes everything with the same faux energy, the ear-shattering ghetto volume, as though there were no difference between murder and puking." We clearly need to call foul. Okay, that's all the time worth spending on this lame attempt to get attention, though we must give him credit (thanks to HuffPost) for getting it.

And so I was pleased to see Publishers Weekly writing up the most underrated writers, which is a much more exciting and less nasty list. I'll just list the cream of the crop here, though be sure to click through to see all sixty - sixty! - writers:

Here are the top 15 Underrated Writers According to PWxyz (in alphabetical order)

  1. Donald Antrim
  2. Jo Ann Beard
  3. Anthony Doerr
  4. Deborah Eisenberg
  5. Stephen Elliott
  6. Steve Erickson
  7. Brian Evenson
  8. Percival Everett
  9. Mary Gaitskill
  10. Tessa Hadley
  11. Kelly Link
  12. Sam Lipsyte
  13. Lydia Millet
  14. Christine Schutt
  15. Matthew Sharpe

We've got a lot of reading to do, folks.

This battle of the lists is obviously a result of the gluttony of reading material available. I mean, who can sort through it all? We're all excited that "publishing" is becoming more available to more people, in its many (print / electronic) forms. But what to do with it all? So literary folks start generating these lists and prizes, anything to separate the supposed wheat from the chaff. But I suspect larger things will need to change, and I'm still intrigued by the concept mentioned by some, that there is a role for some enterprising soul - and yes, I'd love love love to be that soul - to find a way to take on the role of sorter, in such a way that is effective. One must be trusted, and honest, and skilled at pairing readers with writers in a variety of creative ways, and technology must be involved in a way that doesn't make the reader feel a million miles away. It's a kind of horizontal editor role - one edits across a genre, not by one publisher but by one type.

In the short term, we also have the staff picks at your favorite independent bookstore. I know Harvard Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith here in the Boston metro area both have fantastic staff picks.

Any of these on the short list strike your fancy? I already love Millet and have liked Percival Everett. Who should I go to after those two? Maybe I should go get a book by one of those "overrated" poets.

In truth, I have finished one book and am, in fact, in a bit of a panic, with no cocktail (such as the photo, above) to be found. Help?


Christopher said...

1. Donald Antrim - read
2. Jo Ann Beard - meh
3. Anthony Doerr - not for me
4. Deborah Eisenberg - love
5. Stephen Elliott - who?
6. Steve Erickson - hate
7. Brian Evenson - curious
8. Percival Everett - best writer on here
9. Mary Gaitskill - ok
10. Tessa Hadley - tessa? seriously?
11. Kelly Link - i got nothin'
12. Sam Lipsyte - hilarious
13. Lydia Millet - curious
14. Christine Schutt - schutt it
15. Matthew Sharpe - the scottish army officer?

C'mon, Brian, you can find some other authors on your own. Mary Robison, perhaps?

Brian said...

I do not read enough contemporary fiction to rate each writer in this way, nor do I necessarily find one "word" (put in quotes as I do not believe "meh" is really a word) responses helpful. I wrote about Stephen Elliot's viral campaign with the galleys of his latest book, The Adderall Diaries (pub'd by great independent Graywolf Press) here: http://booksurvival.blogspot.com/2009/05/more-viral-than-swine-flu.html Very intriguing book with amazing packaging. I have a Matthew Sharpe novel - Jamestown, I believe - on my shelf at home as it came as part of $100 of Soft Skull books, but I haven't read.

From the longer list, I'm a big fan of Sarah Schulman, who is defiant in all her writing, fiction or non.

Writers not on the list... I really liked Yannick Murphy's Here They Come (McSweeneys) and I like Joe Meno's novels, The Boy Detective Fails (Akashic) and more recently but a bit less amazing, The Great Perhaps (Norton). He has a great sense of wonder and such control, maybe sometimes too much control.

I'm feeling like a bit of a failure when it comes to contemporary fiction. Sorry, folks.

Christopher said...

Seriously, you have to loosen up...