The Huffington Post isn’t known for publishing the most well-considered commentary, at least in terms of literature. One Anis Shivani, for example, had quite a mouthful to say about the Best American Poetry Series, calling it “incestuous,” and suggesting that only a closed cadre of writers ever appear in BAP (my friend Caleb Barber, a phenomenal, blue-collar poet who works in a machine shop by day, would find it news that he is counted among “the quaint artifacts and robust machinations of the Old Masters” because he appeared in BAP).
Shivani seems very unaware of how the series is actually put together (he appears to believe that David Lehman personally edits every year’s collection–a quick check of the cover would show the guest editor changes yearly), and goes so far as to say that poets like WS Merwin have contributed “little unwanted turds” to the collection. When my mentor, David Wagoner, was the guest editor of the series, I was the beneficiary not only of many a literary magazine he’d culled through in search of his picks for the anthology, but also of his thoughts on the purpose and methodology of compiling such a group of work (in short, he told me he thought it ought to be called “some of the good poems published this year,” rather than “Best American Poetry.”) When he showed me some of the poems he’d selected–I think I may have known some of his picks before the poets did–on several occasions, he’d hand me a poem, then say with great pleasure, “I don’t know anything about this poet. But isn’t this a remarkable poem?” (Not my idea of an incestuous coterie.)
To me, Shivani has always seemed like an angry, bitter sort of guy who couldn’t be bothered to investigate his topic before writing about it–just a poorly vetted one-off of a columnist for whom I’d have to forgive HuffPo.
But The Huffington Post went even farther afield in their recent piece about this year’s Orange Prize winner, Tea Obreht, for her novel The Tiger’s Wife. Ruth Fowler, whose biographical information describes her as an “author, screenwriter, and journalist,” appears to have been on call for HuffPo when Obreht was named the winner.
Rather than bore you with a play-by-play of Fowler’s article, let me hit the highlights: she takes a jab at Obreht for being “plump” and blonde. Well, to be fair, Fowler’s sentence contains a misplaced modifier. So, in a strictly grammatical sense, the sentence states that Obreht’s novel itself is plump and blonde…nah. Who am I kidding? Let’s put it out there: she’s insulting Obreht’s appearance. (By way of a side-note, I’ve seen Ms. Obreht, in person, at AWP. She’s very lovely, and not the least bit plump.) Fowler also seems to have misunderstood some facts when she insults Zadie Smith in the same article. (Unless I’m missing something big, Smith’s collection of essays is entitled Changing My Mind, and On Beauty is her latest novel, not a group of essays “like being forcibly strapped into a Cambridge lecture theater and waterboarded by some bratty, egotistical over-read teen’s pompous thesis on art.”) Finally, in a truly bad show of sense, Fowler admits she read only the first 50 pages of The Tiger’s Wife before declaring it tripe.
Now, I’ve never called myself level-headed, especially when it comes to debates about literature. But calling another writer fat, saying you’ve read all they have to give after 50 pages, and declaring the MFA degree at large an inherent evil in modern society? That’s beyond being chalked up to passionate interest in books. That’s just strange.
But what I’m having a hard time figuring out, given the recklessness of this piece (a Facebook friend asked for “eyeball bleach” after reading it) is why Fowler’s editorial is drawing far less ire from the literary community than Jennifer Egan’s recent interview in The Wall Street Journal, in which she said women writers should “shoot high and not cower.”
In the interview, Egan referenced Kaavya Vishwanathan, the Harvard student who blatantly plagiarized authors such as Meg Cabot in her debut novel, and was later exposed and disgraced for having lifted a large part of her prose. Egan called the sources from which Vishwanathan stole “very derivative and banal.” And then an online firestorm was born.
In a piece at The Millions, Deena Drewis does a very thorough job of cataloguing the backlash against Egan’s comments, citing bloggers who’ve declared Egan’s statements a “girl-on-girl crime” and others who’ve stated that Egan should be kinder to writers like Meg Cabot, because of Cabot’s inherent niceness.
Why is it that women writers are rallying against Egan and not against Fowler? How is it that the most substantive rebukes I’ve found of Fowler’s work have been “yuck” and “bleck” comments on Facebook? Why are other women choosing to focus criticism on Egan, who simply called another work–not a writer–derivative and banal? She wasn’t the one who read 50 pages of a new novelist’s work and then proceed to insult her personally.
Readers, I’m looking to you for insight into this one. What’s going on here? Why is criticism such as calling something “derivative” so much worse than calling another writer fat and boring? Have we as women stooped so low that we find it commonplace to call one another fat and boring in a professional context, but we can’t criticize people if they are nice?
Furthermore, I have to wonder why I, as a woman writer, am more inflamed by Ms. Fowler than Mr. Shivani. What do I expect from fellow women writers that I’ve come not to expect from men? That’s one I’ll have to answer for myself.