Novelist

Another Page: ‘A Reader’s Manifesto’

This book is what I’ve been reading for the past few days. It’s not a new book; just new to me. And it entered my view at a time when I’ve really been struggling with some of the things I read, things that have received near-universal acclaim but leave me cold, never allowing me to slip out of my own world and into the realm of the characters on the page because the prose is so stultifyingly self-conscious.¬†As I tend to come from a Potter Stewart-like sensibility about the merits of literature — I know what I like when I see it — I thought that B.R. Myers’ book might coagulate some of the thoughts I’ve been entertaining.

Did it succeed? Well, it sounds like a copout, and maybe it is, but yes and no.

Oh, where to begin:

First, the book is not at all falsely billed. If you use a word like manifesto in your title, you better come packing stridency and a take-no-prisoners approach to your topic. B.R. Myers certainly does. With a subtitle of “An Attack on the Growing ¬†Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose,” Myers’ words live up to his stated objective. It’s definitely an attack, and there’s definitely pretentiousness in some quarters of literary prose in this country.

Second, the very things that validate the title — the relentless takedown of some of America’s best known and most highly regarded literary writers, the gleeful pounding of preeningly precious prose — are the things that give a more moderate reader pause. At several junctures, Myers attempts to crawl a bit too deeply into these writers’ heads, ascribing to them an intentionally deceptive approach to writing that sends things a bit too deep into conspiracy-theory land for my taste.

A good example of this is Myers’ examination of this selection from the E. Annie Proulx novel¬†Accordion Crimes:

She stood there, amazed, rooted, seeing the grain of the wood of the barn clapboards, paint jawed away by sleet and driven sand, the unconcerned swallows darting and reappearing with insects clasped in their beaks looking like mustaches, the wind-ripped sky, the blank windows of the house, the old glass casting blue swirled reflections at her, the fountains of blood leaping from her stumped arms, even, in the first moment, hearing the wet thuds of her forearms against the barn and the bright sound of the metal striking.

Myers writes: “The last thing Proulx wants is for you to start wondering whether someone with blood spurting from severed arms is going to stand ‘rooted’ long enough to see more than one bird disappear, catch an insect, and reappear, or whether the whole scene is not in bad taste of the juvenile variety.”

That’s a step too far for me. I’m happy to talk about the merits of the sentence, and Myers’ criticisms strike me as sound and reasonable, but I’m simply not willing to say what Proulx does or does not want from me or that she was quite deliberately trying to draw my attention away from the questions Myers poses. And that’s the thing: Myers does this continually in the book, with each of the writers he goes after.

The book focuses its takedowns on five authors: Proulx (oh, how Myers delights in tearing into her, even holding up a book’s dedication to withering criticism), Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster and David Guterson, dropping them, respectively, into categories of “evocative,” “edgy,” “muscular,” “spare” and “generic literary.” The first four, you might well note, are some of the most common adjectives in reviews of literary work.

Where Myers succeeds most thoroughly is in the sheer number of pretentious passages he unearths, demonstrating convincingly that the perception of deep literary value is often nothing more than a trick of the light, a way of arranging the words to achieve a tonal effect that, when deconstructed, reveals little.

Here’s one from McCarthy, a snippet that employs the “andelope,” a word made up by Myers that denotes “a breathless string of simple declarative statements linked by the conjunction and“:

He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.

Myers writes: “… the unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the methodical meal that is being described. Not for nothing do thriller writers save this kind of breathless syntax for climactic scenes of violence. … And why does McCarthy repeat tortilla? When Hemingway writes, ‘small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers’ (‘In Another Country,’ 1927) he is, as David Lodge points out, using wind in two different senses, and creating two sharp images in the simplest way possible.”

That’s good stuff.

The book teems with examples like that, with level-headed, sensible explanations of why such affectations often are pointless. And Myers certainly is correct when he says that such pretentiousness is multiplying as newer writers, who genuflect at these altars, commit similarly errant prose in their own work. The evidence is out there, on bookstore shelves, for anyone who cares to look for it.

Here again, though, I end up feeling a bit hinky about endorsing Myers’ findings to the point of zealotry. I’m reminded of conversations with friends — some of which I’ve detailed previously — who like this kind of writing. I don’t think they like it because they’ve been brainwashed or they’re unable to see the merits in more workmanlike prose. They simply like what they like, and in the end, isn’t this true of all of us? (That brings to mind another conversation I had a couple of years ago with a high school friend, who was arguing vociferously for the objective standard of good art, while I was taking, as I’m wont to do, the more populist approach. He got a bit angry with me, and I responded with this: “You’re just pissed off because I refuse to tell Britney Spears fans that they’re wrong.” That seemed to lighten the mood, if not settle the dispute.)

In the latter part of the book, Myers deals directly with critics of the original Atlantic article that became the basis of the book. He defends himself well — and rather seems to enjoy it, so much so that I’m a little worried he’ll find this piece and tell me that I’m a two-bit hack clown. Luckily, I’ve been called worse.

Finally, he wraps up with “Ten Rules for ‘Serious’ Writers.” For me, this was the most disappointing part of the book, juvenile and predictable. Here’s a taste:

I. Be Writerly: Read aloud what you have written. If it sounds clear and natural, strike it out. This is the whole of the law; the rest is gloss.

Coming at the end of a long, fascinating piece as they do, these rules smack of taunting and repetition. I really wish Myers had left them out; if any reader comes across them ripe to be swayed, he will more likely be turned off.

In total, though, it’s a worthwhile, illuminating read. Myers brings out the long knives and carves up a lot of writing, and regardless of where you stand, his points are so learned and well-argued that it’s worth considering what he has to say. I came away from the book with a clearer mind about what I’ve been reading lately but also with the motivation to better acquaint myself with the work of those authors Myers attempts to slaughter. A good example: I’ve not read Paul Auster, and I found myself enjoying many of the selections of his that Myers was holding up to ridicule. I also remembered, even as I guffawed at some of the McCarthy criticism, that I found No Country For Old Men and The Road — the only two McCarthy titles I’ve read — artful and moving. Same with Proulx, who for whatever flaws Myers might have exposed has written some breathtaking stories.

In other words, I emerged from the pages of Myers’ book with respect for its message and with my own sensibility, however flawed, still intact.

One Response

  1. Jim Thomsen

    What’s really unfortunate about Myers’ overreaches in scoring some otherwise direct hits is that it gave his critics all the excuse they needed to ignore the salient points and frame their responses around equally puerile overkill. One example comes from the L.A. Times contributor Lee Siegal, whose impassioned defense of incomprehensible literary style employed a ridiculous no-gray-area reframing of the debate. In Myers’ eyes, Siegal posited thet the choice for readers was between fine literature and “Die Hard 2: The Novelization.”

    Then there’s Laura Miller of Slate, who thought the whole discussion wasn’t worth having, and Judith Shulevitz, who spent most of her rebuttal arguing that Myers was insufficiently American to understand American literature. It’s too bad that because of such silliness, the debate about Myers’ core points never took place. And it’s a debate that needed to happen when the essay come out in 2001, and it’s a debate that needs to happen just as urgently in 2011, now that a new generation of pretensoids is spellbinding the tastemaker critics.

    June 30, 2011 at 12:49 pm