My only previous experience with Anis Shivani’s work came from reading a few of the contrarian articles he writes for the Huffington Post. One of these, published about a year ago, proclaims MFA-style creative writing to be an offshoot of therapy, and the fiction produced by workshops to be no more than pale imitations of Carver or Hemingway, or whatever writer a particular teacher might set in front of the class.
That kind of proclamation generally comes from a stunt piece designed to stir up controversy (and hence pageviews), but Shivani hates MFA workshops so genuinely and so strongly that he wrote an entire book about why they’re so bad, 2011′s Against the Workshop. And he’s pretty convincing. While I don’t agree with all of Shivani’s anti-workshop opinions, he makes some good points about the similarity and craftsmanlike tastelessness of so much modern writing.
So I expected this man who hates safe, bland fiction to write stark, bold stories himself. I expected his style to be unique and adventurous, and his stories to surprise me, if not always pleasantly.
I did not expect him to turn out a collection like The Fifth Lash: safe, bland stories that could desperately use a good workshopping. After 300 pages of clunky prose, nearly nonexistent characters, and plots that are both didactic and boring, I would absolutely love to read some imitation Carver, I would pay a stranger good money for craftsmanlike tastelessness.
Shivani’s weak writing seems to stem from his contrarian attitude toward the rest of the publishing establishment. In a piece called, “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers” (in which he excoriates writers like Jonathan Safran-Foer for gimmickry even as he uses the Internet’s oldest gimmick, the numbered list of [overblown superlative]), Shivani sets forth this definition: “Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance.”
In The Fifth Lash, he writes with stark joylessness, with an often tiresome moral core, and with a glut of “substance” that, indeed, entirely ignores style. The effect is something like reading an endless sermon while speed-eating dry Saltine crackers.
For instance, the first story in the collection, “Love in the Time of Communication,” follows a Pakistani man named Javed as he tries to get a phone line. Here’s the very first paragraph of the book, which ably showcases Shivani’s relentlessly substance-over-style prose:
Javed has three hours to kill before his appointment with the divisional engineer for phones. At eight this morning he arrived at the local telephone exchange, and for the first time in several visits succeeded in paying the registration clerk fifty rupees, after which he paid the peon at the front gate another twenty, which got him entrée into main offices. Then he was able to pay the recording clerk fifty more rupees, and so on along the chain until at eleven he saw an assistant to the divisional engineer, who got him the coveted appointment with the divisional engineer himself.
The next twelve pages are mostly a list of the trials Javed must suffer and the bribes he must pay to try to get a phone line. He has to use his only vacation for the year, he has to spend his savings on bribes. He has to sit on uncomfortable chairs for long periods of time. Eventually, the engineer tells him he will get a phone, but then never shows up. Through it all, Shivani never deigns to give a convincing reason why Javed wants a phone so badly, and indeed, at the end of the story, Javed simply gives up.
There’s a subplot, too, about a woman whom Javed meets, and wants to meet again, but doesn’t. The phone and the woman might be a metaphor each for the other. Ultimately neither has any effect.
The problem here is not Shivani’s dull prose (although someone should tell him that the best writing features both substance and style), it’s the fact that the heart of the story lives outside of its characters. This is not a story about Javed, it’s Anis Shivani telling you, the reader, that it’s very difficult to get a phone line in Pakistan, and, I suppose, that people sometimes have to sacrifice to find love. It’s a 12-page story that’s twenty times too long, a cocktail-party anecdote stretched past its rightful bounds.
Similarly, another story, “Dowry,” follows a doctor making a house call to a young woman who was badly burned by her husband, a vicious custom called “bride burning” that’s essentially legal in South Asian culture. “Would That Be a Nonstop Flight?” features a woman who works at a travel agency; her boss moves to America and she’s sad because she’s past marrying age. In these stories and more—indeed, most of the collection—Shivani’s characters are merely stand-ins, his plots are non-existent, and his only purpose is to lecture you about Pakistani customs, or post-9/11 racism against Arabs and South Asians.
In the few good stories in this collection (two out of fourteen), characters actually get the spotlight. In “What It’s Like to Be a Stranger in Your Own Home,” Mohammed, an Egyptian man living in America, gets dumped by his wife and nurtures a strong crush on his neighbor. But when he starts dating that neighbor, he finds that the source of his sadness was more internal than he realized. It’s a simple premise, but the depth of interiority and specificity about its main character makes it a welcome relief in this sea of faceless fiction.
Even in those good stories, Shivani injects politics. In a few lucky ones like “Stranger,” it doesn’t overwhelm, but others, like the title story, are not so lucky.
The Fifth Lash” opens with a dynamite setup: a Pakistani political operative, watching a man get whipped for political crimes, ruminates on how he himself has willingly betrayed his party and informed to the government in order to save himself from such a beating.
This story contains one of the best lines of the collection, when the traitor thinks: “I’ve witnessed too many of these floggings in the last couple of years to be able to lose sight of my own sorrows for the sake of the condemned man.”
Unfortunately, Shivani lets this story devolve into a long, dry, complex parsing of 1970s Pakistani politics, and he loses sight of the personal emotion that gives this opening scene its punch. As Shivani rolls toward one of his characteristically disappointing endings, he tries to return to the narrator’s betrayal, but it’s too late to win back the heft of that opening drama.
So, if we’re ticking boxes off Shivani’s checklist of bad writing, I can safely say that these stories are free of showboating and style… but they’re chock full of narcissism. Shivani wants to lecture you on all aspects of Arab and South Asian life, he wants to write serious stories about only the most important issues, though he’s largely uninterested in the individual people these issues concern.
If you’re interested in reading prose about South Asian culture, pick up Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an outstanding book about life in a Mumbai slum—and one that encompasses both politics and people masterfully.
As for Shivani, his good stories showed some talent, but his aesthetic is so grindingly, unsympathetically dry that I don’t have any desire to read his fiction again. He certainly shouldn’t be telling anybody how to write it.