I decided to read and then write a critique of his first book of short stories, Anatolia and other stories. After reading it a few weeks ago, I've been stymied about how to write this critique. I'd hoped that I'd find in his stories an alternative aesthetic I could aspire to, something different from what dominates the journals and winning short story anthologies year after year. Turns out, I didn't really connect much with this group of stories. I liked them less than I like most modern fiction, not more.
Which led me to ask myself: have I become so inured to a certain hegemonic aesthetic that I'm incapable of responding positively to alternatives? This is a strong possibility. So, rather than write a straight critique of Shivani's work, I've decided instead to try to trace what it is that makes his writing different, what there is about it that makes it belong to another time, and then interrogate my own assumptions about fiction that make me prefer a modern approach, or at least an approach that's more ubiquitous in modern literary fiction.
Hopefully, this will also serve as something of an answer to a friend of mine, who has sent me his fiction before, and I've found myself saying "I like it personally, but I don't think I'd publish it if you sent it to me, because I don't think it succeeds at certain things." I hope this will explain what I mean better than I've done so far.
Distance between author and narrator
One characteristic of Shivani's collection that's different from most modern fiction is that there is very little daylight between the point-of-view of the narrator, in whose voice the stories are told, and the author, Anis Shivani, lurking behind that narrative voice. Modern fiction-writing theory teaches writers to practice a form of Shakespearean negative capability popularized by the Romantics, that we should withhold ourselves from interjecting too much of our own selves into the work. Shivani (and my friend) are nearly opposite this kind of approach: the author and narrator are often almost one and the same (or the main character is antagonistic to the author's philosophy, and there as a cautionary tale). It's fiction that's strongly tied to the philosophical novel.
I know where Shivani, the author behind the works, stands on each piece of fiction in this collection. Because one story is about a writer who goes to a sham of a writer's retreat called "Go Sell it on the Mountain," I don't even have to guess what Shivani's aesthetic is. He tells us. His first-person participant in the retreat says the following lines, both to reject the writing he sees others writing and to describe his own type of story-telling, which is rejected by other participants:
Her ((another writer at the workshop)) writing was curiously glassy on the surface: it gave you no entry point, no means to project your living, breathing mass of flesh onto the consciousness of the author. This kind of writing was in vogue now, while I wrote in the old-fashioned raconteur's spiraling manner, leisurely getting to the core of the story. My models were the forgotten writers of the thirties, forties, and fifties, like Roderick Lull and Morley Callaghan, who killed you with their explosive revelations of your own culpability in injustice.
Or, in another instance, the narrator shares these thoughts in a workshop with another writer, only to have his thoughts attacked by the workshop moderator:
"...what is the narrator's moral stand toward the lead character's afflictions? Does she have a moral opinion? Or is she neutral to her ups and downs? I don't see the author present behind the scenes.
The author in Anatolia and Other Stories is always visible, and often barely behind the scenes. In addition to the story of a writer finding his aesthetic out of place with hucksters selling false hope to the talentless, there is another story of Arthur, an old professor who feels out of place because he is being crowded out of the world by an academy and wife who espouse theoretical notions he thinks are ludicrous. Change "Arthur" to "author" on that one, too.
This voice where the thoughts of the author are often pushing into the narrative has a certain feel to it, like we can only proceed so far before we get a summary of what we've just gone over. There are frequent insertions of phrases like "Of course," usually preceding a sneering recounting of some fallacious habit of some character. (There are 43 instances of "of course" in the book.) In another place, it's "Oh, I'm sure he said something about the need to pace ourselves..."
I used to hate hearing the workshop stock phrase that a story "floats," meaning it doesn't have enough flesh and bones to tie its ideas to Earth. But these stories float a lot. There are powerful ideas in play here, so powerful, in fact, that there cannot be any shortcuts past incarnation. But in many stories, the word comes to dwell among us without first being made flesh.
In no story was this more evident than "Repatriation," a frustrating, semi-apocalyptic tale of people not sufficiently Anglo-Saxon enough being shipped out of the United States to...well, they never do make it anywhere. The story is nearly haunting, nearly palpable, but it keeps resorting to summarizing statements of how we got to where we are, brief quips from a fictional history. There is a tantalizing line in the story about how the refugees on the ship, not allowed to have books with them, "trade in poetry." I wish the whole story had been about that. Instead, it's part tirade, part oh-yeah-by-the-way-some-things-happened-on-the-ship, part details from the life of a hazy first-person narrator before the roundup.
Telling over showing
"Show don't tell" is one of those workshop mantras that rightly deserves some rebellion against it. It's not historical. It rejects the "instruct" in "instruct and delight." It overlooks that wanting moral instruction from stories is a core aspect of human nature.
Shivani tells a lot. Even when he shows, he often follows it up with telling. In "Independence," we get this summary of a character, rather than hints from action, dialogue, etc.:
Was it that he faced his mortality in the mirror the innocent boy held up to him? Was it that he saw in the boy's mindless questions and motiveless harmony some challenge to the ordinary man Saleem himself had become? Saleem had never been a rebel; he'd never gone through the wild phase his university classmates had, putting their fathers through the ropes, driving their poor mothers to distraction.
In one instance, right after we have a scene rendered, with Julie pinching the cheeks and ruffling the hair of her child, we immediately get an explanation of what those actions meant: "The good thing about Julie was that she didn't jump into defending her mothering skills when Saleem accused her of shortfalls in that area. She listened seriously, like a good pupil." Or later, "Their father pinched and rolled his chin, in an expression of concern." That's showing and telling in one sentence, the action and the explanation of the action all in one.
I'm not really criticizing this trait; this is more of a description of where Shivani lies on a spectrum of descriptive and prescriptive narrative. I'd like to see more fiction written near this end of the spectrum. I just didn't find this collection was a particularly effective representative of its spectrum.
Or am I just a tool of my environment?
Shivani the critic has convincingly--to my mind, anyway--attacked the modern academia-publishing complex in serious fiction for its dogmatic insistence on an unimaginative, bourgeois form of realism, what he would, after over a decade of developing his thoughts, come to call "plastic realism." I realize that in my critique of Anatolia, I've assumed a position well within the mainstream of this kind of realism. Perhaps, as much as I've railed against M.F.A. programs and suggested I don't find much on the scene that deeply inspires me (all of my top five authors are dead), I have, without meaning to, been commodified by this system. Maybe in the process of trying to get published by literary journals, I've ended up adopting the aesthetic I think is likely to get me published by them, and become, in the process, the sort of person who can't appreciate something like Anatolia that doesn't conform.
I don't think this is the case. I wanted to like these stories. I admire Shivani the critic so much, I was dying to love Shivani the story teller. He commented on my blog. I wanted to write about how I really got his fiction. I just didn't. Not that there was nothing to like in these stories, but nearly all the gold in it were thoughts similar to what Shivani has penned elsewhere in non-fiction form. As a story teller, I think he's a very good critic.
The stories I want to read and write
I don't mind being told how to feel about a story. I like it. I prefer it. But the moral grounding has to come organically from the story, or at least feel like it does. When Dori tells Marlin "It's time to let go!" it's pretty clear we've come to the climax of both the story and of Marlin's narrative arc. There's nothing thematically subtle about that line. But that line also works, because it is grounded in a real drama of a guy trying to find his kid.
I once tried to write these types of philosophical narratives, where I'd have some thought about the world, stick it into a character, and then try to make that be enough to bring a world to life. It never worked. Jonathan Franzen's intellectual characters work not because they have brilliant thoughts--although they sometimes do--but because their brilliant thoughts do not solve all the problems in their lives. Sometimes, they are the source of nothing but anxiety. Franzen's characters do not exist just to have thoughts Franzen wants them to have. They have thoughts because that's part of what they do as fully formed characters. They might be characters similar to Franzen, but that's not the same as saying they're puppets Franzen has giving us his prophetic vision of life through the guise of a nominal story.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm a Philistine, or just an unimaginative critic. Maybe I'm unable to transcend the bourgeois tastes of my time. That's completely possible. Maybe I've developed such a knee-jerk response against what I think won't get published, I've equated it with something that shouldn't get published.
I might be wrong about what I like, but I don't think I've confused what I like for what I ought to like. Not yet. And my requirements for what I like are definitely not modern. I've never improved much upon Horace's "instruct and delight."