Anis Shivani

The more I read from Anis Shivani, the more I like him. Not necessarily because I agree with what he says (although I do, quite often) but because a) he’s passionate and thoughtful, consistent and courageous and b) he has put in the years and hard work to build the publication and other credentials that give him credibility as a critic.

Much enjoyed this (long!) interview with Shivani at HTML giant and I could excerpt a dozen things, but this is what I am thinking most about at the moment:

The responsibility of the critic is to use his preferred set of criteria to judge and evaluate whether or not a work of art is good. If it’s not good, he should provide historical context to explain why. One can learn as much, if not more, from so-called negative criticism than from positive criticism. The critic’s responsibility is very moral in this sense. He should be fair to the work or author or national literature in question, not asking more of it than it can reasonably deliver, but he shouldn’t go easy either. The responsibility of the critic is to challenge the reader to not read passively, uncritically, unthinkingly, and to open up for him a whole set of issues that he might not have thought of otherwise. The critic, in my view, is a democrat, in wanting to see different styles of writing flourish, and seeing the good in as many genres as he can possibly keep up with; he shouldn’t be a narrow partisan for a narrow style of writing. It’s the responsibility of the critic to be trained well in his field, just as we expect fiction writers or poets to have mastered their field, so that instead of expressive or spontaneous or on-the-spur emotional reactions, when he critiques he’s as much in conversation with past and present critics as he’s in conversation with the given author’s matrix of influences and connections.

I am sure Shivani has articulated his ‘preferred set of criteria’ somewhere, and I wish I knew where. Reading comments on his posts and interviews around the web, I see lots of general outrage and objection (and ad hominem attacks) in response to his blunt judgments on work he considers flawed, but I have not yet found a commenter who engages him on the actual criteria he espouses as a critic. (Would appreciate any links if you have.)

This comment is challenging too:

It’s absolutely the central role of a critic to define the good and the bad. The idea that one should just leave the bad alone—because time will take care of it, or one should either praise or remain silent—is ludicrous! Understanding the bad helps us understand the good—and in a star-driven culture industry driven by hype and propaganda, this function is all the more important.

and of course, I couldn’t resist this one, given the recent discussion here about the ‘demotion’ of print:

I’ve extensively published my developing ideas in criticism—they didn’t just spring up overnight at the Huffington Post—for a decade. Do people in the online world still read the Georgia Review and Michigan Quarterly Review and Antioch Review and Cambridge Quarterly and London Magazine? I’ve published similar criticism as you now see online in the very best literary journals for a long time, but unfortunately reaching only a minimal audience; I’m grateful to have a much wider audience now with the online opportunity, for the same ideas I’ve been publishing in relative obscurity. The quality print journals can be quietly ignored; not these new venues.

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Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

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