Myers reports in this audacious broadside upon current American literary writing that, "at the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony, Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say she had to puzzle repeatedly over many of the latter's sentences. Morrison's reply was, `That, my dear, is called reading.' " But Myers proclaims that it is in fact called "bad writing." Myers, a philologist and teacher of North Korean studies, declares that "the problem with so much of today's literature"-and critically acclaimed literature at that-is "the clumsiness of its artifice... a prose so repetitive, so elementary in its syntax, and so numbing in its overuse of wordplay that it often demands less concentration than the average `genre' novel," and he backs up this claim by tearing with gusto and wit into the prose of five authors: Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster and David Guterson. If this sounds familiar, it's because the Atlantic published an abridgement of an earlier version of this book in 2001, drawing some applause but also fusillades from much of the lit-crit establishment. Included here are Myers's full arguments plus a meticulous rebuttal of his critics. Myers makes a serviceable, if debatable, case that DeLillo et al., and by extrapolation much of contemporary literary writing, have strayed from the clarity and artfulness of expression that earlier authors, from Woolf to Conrad to Bellow, achieved; and that the true heirs of yesterday's giants may be today's genre writers. What makes this entertaining book so important isn't the point-by-point relative correctness of Myers's argument, however, but that at last someone has dared to say, with energy and insight, what many have privately concluded: that at least some of our literary emperors are, if not without clothes, wearing some awfully gaudy attire, and that certain sectors of the lit-crit establishment have colluded in the sham, all at the expense of... readers.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Reading B.R. Myers' A Readers' Manifesto, noticing his bows to some of the great modern German-language writerBroch, Musil, CanettiI kept thinking of a permanently bowed German: Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. An eighteenth-century hunchback, mathematician, and aphorist, Lichtenberg once mused on the Myers of his day: "Whenever he composes a critical review, I have been told, he gets a tremendous erection." The Myers of today, in his book-length assault on the American literary establishment, likewise evinces a kind of priapic joy as he examines the flaws of five recent award-winning American novelists and their fawning reviewers. Myers charges the writers with "affectation and obscurity"; he damns the reviewers as followers of a "Sentence Cult" that precludes a careful look at the entirety of a writer's prose. Throughout his argument, Myers' tone seesaws between folksy and erudite. And his tone derives from his diction: cliché-besmirched, superlative-laden, sarcastic, patronizinga prose-style that does much to mar the lucidity of his criticism.
In five chapters, Myers moves from one feted novelist to another, holding a magnifying glass to sentences and passages quoted with approbation in "friendly reviews." Myers' chapter-titles prepare you for who's to come: Evocative Prose (Annie Proulx), Edgy Prose (Don DeLillo), Muscular Prose (Cormac McCarthy), Spare Prose (Paul Auster), and Generic Literary Prose (David Guterson).
First Proulx. Meyers criticizes her for trying to duplicate what he calls the Mandarin Prose (read ornate, experimental) of stylistic masters like Woolf and Joyce, masters who knew that verbal innovation only worked when contrasted with "normal stretches." Proulx's wordplay, notes Myers, "never lets up [and often] more than one metaphor is devoted to the same image: 'Furious dabs of tulips stuttering in the gardens'; 'An apron of sound lapped out of each dive.'" Myers is right; metaphors clash in both examples. He later denounces her "slide show" technique. Proulx "[runs] a dozen dull attributes together [to] ensure that each is seen only in the context of a flashy whole. This technique
is the key to most of her supposedly lyrical effects." And here's the passage that sets Myers off: "Partridge black, small, a restless traveller across the slope of life, an all-night talker; Mercalia, second wife of Partridge and the color of a brown feather on dark water, a hot intelligence; Quoyle large, white, stumbling along, going nowhere." Again, I agree with Myers here: there's a vague impressionism at work, a pile-on approach to description. So, he damns Proulx for excessive wordplay and slide-showing and, later in the chapter, stylistic incongruity and irrelevant detail. His examples and exegesis almost always convince me of his critical acumen.
DeLillo and McCarthy are the next writers horsewhipped by Myers: DeLillo partly for his "Consumerland" prose and tautologies; McCarthy partly for his andelopes. Myers mentions that DeLillo has stated his artistic wish to pass on a sense of the "magic and dread" in our consumer culture. Myers comments: "what a poor job he does of this!" Myers lifts a passage from White Noise: "In the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those crowded bags suggested, the weight and size and number, the familiar package designs and vivid lettering, the giant sizes, the Day-Glo sale stickers, in the sense of replenishment we felt, the sense of well-being
" Myers critiques: "Could the irony be any less subtle? And the tautology: 'mass,' 'plenitude,' 'number', 'well-being,' [and the] clumsy echoes: 'size,' 'sizes,'; 'familiar,' 'family,'; 'sense of,' sense of'
" The assessment is sound, and his enthusiasm for that soundness rings loud.
Now, on to McCarthy. Myers offers a sentence from The Crossing: "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' gloss follows: "This is a good example of what I call the andelope: a breathless string of simple declarative statements linked by the conjunction and. Like the "evocative" slide-show and the Consumerland shopping-list, the andelope encourages skim-reading while keeping up the appearance of "literary" length and complexity. But like the slide-show (and unlike the shopping-list), the andelope often clashes with the subject matter
the unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the methodical meal that is being described." Myers is right. He is often critically acute, a close reader able to hone in on prose-style flaws overlooked by reviewers. Why is Meyers seeing what other critics don't? To that question he has many answers.
There are, according to Myers, many problems inhering in the way reviewers do their jobs; in the way the cultural establishment works. Prose style, says Myers, is rarely discussed; instead, if the writers are trying to be "literary"meaning, if they're trying to be stylistically innovative, for example through repetition or the shopping-list or archaic languagethen, they are perforce "serious" writers, employing a praiseworthy, Mandarin style. And the reviewer herd-instinct takes over: a great writer is a great writer, beyond cavil. Myers cites Carolyn See of The Washington Post, who calls Annie Proulx "the best prose stylist working in English now, bar none"; Myers then quotes other laudatory reviewers of other writers. He opines: "Anyone who doubts the declining literacy of book reviewers need only consider how the gabbiest of all prose styles is invariably praised as 'lean,' 'spare,' even 'minimalist.' I am referring, of course, to the Paul Auster School of Writing." I recalled Myers insistence on the lack of thorough prose-style commentary when I picked up last Saturday's Globe and Mail. I read the review of Paul Auster's new novel, The Book of Illusions. The reviewer calls Auster's prose-style "confident, poised, restrained, never flashy, deceptively simple." That phrase is a cheer, a toast, a clinking-the-glass-of-other-reviewers; it is not critical.
Myers cites other problems with the cultural establishment. Some reviewers, novelists themselves, receive a book to review and are told in a publisher's note that the author is "a frequent reviewer." Meaning that the present reviewer may one day find his/her own book reviewed by the author he/she is about to review; meaning, go easy. Be gentle. Another source of such gentleness, such unwillingness to lock critical horns with a novel, is what Meyers identifies as "Pollyannaish" proclivities. Myers quotes critics who responded to the earlier version of A Reader's Manifestoit first appeared as an article in the July/August 2001 issue of "The Atlantic Monthly"and whose comments he appends to his book in an epilogue. One critic counters Myers: "Unlike [him], I suppose I am more tolerant of writers who at least try to dazzle with language, even if they don't always achieve the kind of grandeur for which they yearn." Myers scorns this kind of remark as evidence of America as a "kinder place"kinder than places where, as Picasso urges, "What one does is what counts and not what one had the intention of doing." And the culture establishment, Myers reminds us, "likes to reserve its accolades for those who take themselves seriously." As a Canadian reviewer, I'll say that much of what Myers writes vis-à-vis reviewers and the establishment sounds familiar: the cheering, the irreproachable status of our own literary stars. I'll add that here one often finds a writer thanked on the acknowledgements page of a new book; turning to the back cover, one finds the thanked writer has contributed a winning blurb. Myers, then, approaches his five American titans with nary a sycophantic coo, whisper, or blown kissbut what comes out of his critical maw instead? Often, bile.
Bile in the form of an off-putting, alienating rhetoric. Who does he think is going to read his book? Reviewers for one; more generally, people sensitive to the state of literaturepeople sensitive to diction and tone. Myers himself alludes to the "schoolbook essay style" he adopted in putting his argument's crux at the end of his introduction; the telling noun here is schoolbook. As in schoolboy. As in adolescent rhetoric: while proclaiming that "we readers should trust our own taste and perception instead of deferring to received opinion"a valid pointMyers occasionally reveals his real attitude toward the common-sense-imbued reader whose attitude, intelligence, and reading fate he champions. Most American adults who enjoy Harry Potter would, according to Myers, "be even happier with the Gormenghast trilogy (1946-1959) if they only knew about it." And Paul Auster especially suits us, possessors of "modern reading habits," because "whole pages can be skimmed with impunity." Sometimes an elitist sneer contorts the face of Myers, the self-appointed Everyman critic. Yes, the guardian against "fancy-pants language" strikes the anti-intellectual pose, then comes right back at you with Latin tags, corrective Japanese translations of English (he says Guterson sometimes gets it wrong), and a wide range of Continental and British references. Myers wants to sound like he's dawdling on the sidewalk, but he's sitting in the library. Perhaps on top of the stacks.
Myers' rhetorical excesses are unfortunate, but, ultimately, his book remains a useful contribution to literary criticism. Perhaps a Canadian revieweror bookish telemarketerwill do for our current Canadian literary scene what Myers has done for the American. Harold Hoefle
(Books in Canada) -- Books in Canada
"An entertaining and passionate lament. . . . In years to come, literary historians may look back on this manifesto and realise this was the moment at which, like the boy in the fairy tale, someone dared to say out loud that the emperor had no clothes." -- Observer (London)
"Brilliantly written." -- The Times of London
"Useful mischief.....he's got the big stuff right." -- the Washington Post