Admitting his aim is to provoke, and filled with acidic rectitude, Anis Shivani rants on in Against the Workshop about what demonstrably awful affects MFA programs have upon American writing. Under his analysis, the entire academic system of American letters appears corrupt: a viral sham in which all involved would feel ashamed if only they weren’t so mired within its murky workings. Shivani’s not exactly wrong—his points are, for the most part, well made, and there’s no doubting his sincerity. Yet despite the at-times attractive bluster Shivani coats his commentary in, he fails to finally offer up any central focus for complaint. This haphazard collection of book reviews and essay-length, bombastic taking-to-task of academic career fiction writers and poets is finally nothing but a roller-coaster jaunt through several publications of the last decade or so; Shivani’s arguments realize no greater whole to counter his provocative railings against the status quo.
This is not to say that there’s nothing of fortune to be gleaned from his heavy-handed tirade. Many disgruntled MFA-ers (along with those potentially destined to be so, and those too snide to hold the degree to heart), will no doubt find they are thankful to Shivani for dispelling any and all assumptions of the MFA as a life-altering experience, so monumental as to be beyond criticism. Shivani has not bothered himself with holding back, and he skewers the ranks of his prey widely and gleefully. No doubt some joy, too, will be sparked within the professional field. Toiling young professors will delight in a sense of comeuppance reading Shivani’s hard to resist attacks against those more established. This satisfaction is sure to grow when he goes after the traditional stalwart guardians of the entry gates to wider acknowledgment, such as The Best American Poetry anthology series.
Shivani’s greatest strength is that his assessment is both honest and open. His opinions are stated plainly, even if they have since undergone further development. He admits that now, “I would go easier on Dave Eggers and Bob Hicok, for example,” squaring up his position on more conventional writing. He also claims he has “a greater appreciation for the pure play of language poetry and similar experiments,” while remaining certain that his criticism of the “rather self-satisfied posture” such writing assumes is quite sound. This is somewhat contrary to the hearty approval he gives poets Elaine Equi and David Brinks. That Shivani would locate his appreciation in two poets whose work is very much situated in “language poetry and similar experiments,” and who are not critical darlings of anybody in particular, shows strong promise that his criticism has the potential of developing into among the healthiest of our generation.
Readers should be wary, however, of the hazards that remain in Shivani’s arguments. In an essay bemoaning the lack of 20th century writers rising up from working class backgrounds, he grudgingly acknowledges in passing that “only minor writers, like Henry Miller or Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Charles Bukowski” are to be found. Shivani exerts tremendous effort raking over the coals fêted writers of distinction, yet aligns himself in agreement with the very same fêted-ness as he lazily disregards these three as “minor” without a second thought. What astounds most about this action is that he does so while essaying in search of writers who emerge from a working-class background, claiming: “the working man is a curiosity, whose very makeup must be repeatedly elaborated, to free him from the panel sitting in judgment, whose opinion is very severe toward his likes.” Yet Shivani passes negative judgment on the work of writers who elaborate upon the living concerns of that part of the population who identify with the “working man.” He resists, unwilling or unable to grant a high status to creative works which serve as a rebuke of the supposed literary standards it would appear he is so critical of. Why?
The real entertainment is to come. Yet to be seen is in what direction Shivani's own writing heads from here. He has several forthcoming books of creative work set for publication: poems, stories, a novel; as well as another collection of criticism. Will he remain outside the comfortable zones of the academic swill he so ruefully chastises? Much of his criticism is leveled against writers with decades of writing behind them. He must now commence his own charting of the same treacherous territories of American publishing. Will he successfully evade the same comforts which he faults others for having crumbled in front of? Perhaps not: either way, it will make for passing amusement worth observation.