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the complete review - literary criticism
A Reader's Manifesto
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- An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose
- A shorter version of this book appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 2001
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B : an entertaining attack
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Mr. Myers is glib, mean-spirited, occasionally amusing and consistently irritating -- he’s a master of the cheap shot and the artful fudge, and his aesthetic judgments are sometimes shaky. His essay would be annoying even if he were more often wrong, and his tin ear easier to dismiss. (...) His method -- clever, efficient and unfair -- is applied, doggedly, to each victim in turn (.....) If it rattles our critics, if it makes them think twice about claiming that a novel is "beautifully written" without showing how, A Reader’s Manifesto will have done good work." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The publication of B.R. Myers' essay, A Reader's Manifesto, in the July/August 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly caused quite a stir.
(See our crQuarterly piece, Considering B.R.Myers' Reader's Manifesto.)
Now comes the expanded and revised edition in book form, including an Introduction, an Epilogue in which Myers responds to his critics, and an Appendix suggesting -- tongue deep in cheek -- "Ten Rules for Serious Writers".
The Introduction offers some background on the piece.
Myers originally did make his attack in book form, self-publishing what he then titled Gorgons in the Pool (a Cormac McCarthy allusion).
It was not a success -- the only three copies sold at Amazon.com were bought by Myers himself -- but it came to the attention of The Atlantic Monthly and, eventually, an edited and abridged version appeared in the magazine.
(Amazingly, shortly after he agreed to publish in The Atlantic Monthly Myers was contacted by the Times Literary Supplement who were planning to run a review of Gorgons in the Pool; he had to ask them not to.
Still: way to go, TLS !)
The frustrating experience of getting into print and the not always happy experiences with The Atlantic Monthly (not limited to pre-publication issues, as Myers later notes various actions and inactions on their part afterwards as well (re. letters to the editor, etc.)) show, in part, what a mess the literary business is in.
Still: it was a success.
Once the piece appeared in the magazine all (or at least some) hell broke loose.
It was a much-discussed piece -- and the discussion was as interesting and revealing as the piece itself.
Michael Dirda apparently wrote: "No one will remember this article in a year".
But it wasn't quite that easily forgotten, and is now available in book-form.
This version of A Reader's Manifesto is a revised Gorgons in the Pool, an attempt to restore "its original tone and length while retaining the improvements".
The bulk of the book is very similar to The Atlantic Monthly piece, with a few changes, more examples, and more detailed discussion of some of the points.
(See also Alex Good's review for a comparison of the essay and the book.)
Myers' argument remains the same: what passes for literary prose nowadays in the United States -- and especially what is exalted by prize committees and book reviewers -- is often badly written.
The five authors whose work he discusses, each representing a different literary fashion, are: Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, David Guterson, and Cormac McCarthy
Our discussion of the original essay covers most of the points to be made about this part of the book.
We still agree with much that he says -- but we have to admit a certain bias: we aren't big fans of anyone on his five-author hit list (we still don't have even a single work by any of these authors under review) and thus find them easy and appropriate targets.
The author-selection remains the most problematic part of the argument.
Not that these five aren't appropriate (they meet his criteria (get good reviews, have won prizes, sell well) and their work is representative of certain (usually quite bad) writing styles), but because Myers largely ignores other writers who meet the same criteria but arguably (well, we wish it had been argued) do not reflect the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose.
Roth, Updike, and Bellow are the obvious examples (yes, they're still alive and publishing) -- and there are relative newcomers like Jonathan Franzen that could be considered.
Myers condemns the current situation (how reviewers treat "literary" authors and what kinds of books get the literary prizes) without considering all the relevant authors and books.
Comparing, for example, the National Book Award winners 1950-1961 to those 1990-2001 (to emphasize that "things were indeed 'different in the past'") he even fails to note that Philip Roth appears on both lists (i.e. he fails to tells us on which side of his argument Roth figures).
Myers opts instead to point more towards the irrelevant high art-low art debate (to borrow terminology from the Franzen-Oprah clash), specifically by lauding authors he considers talented storytellers who don't get enough recognition for their writerly abilities, such as Stephen King and Louis L'Amour.
(Curiously, a number of the "literary" examples he uses of good writing are works by authors who didn't write in English (Balzac, Shiga Naoya); as everything else about the book is very American-centered these seem like odd choices.
Yes, good storytelling is universal -- but translation is a killer, and surely there are enough American examples he could have found.)
It is unclear why Myers focusses so on this literary versus popular divide -- except, perhaps, that he wants to be seen as being on the side of populist appeal.
Predictably instead it only got him labeled as a philistine.
(Unfortunately, too, he does not extend his bad-writing analysis to the books that truly are mass-consumed -- and we wonder why not.)
The high art-lowbrow distinction (or whatever you want to call it) is irrelevant because, as Myers notes, good writing knows no genre or other bounds and can appear in any sort of book; the manner in which he makes this point, however, seems to have led many readers astray.
As to Myers' sentence-by-sentence ripping apart of the five authors, you'll find little disagreement from us -- but, again: these aren't sentences we like to read in the first place.
We agree with most of his specific points, given these examples, though we note that there is something to be said for some of what he criticizes.
As we noted in our crQ piece on the essay, sentence-by-sentence is also not always the best way to appreciate a book.
(That said, he is spot on when he rails against the current cult of the sentence -- and when he notes that much contemporary American writing "demands to be read quickly, with just enough attention to note the bold use of words. Slow down and things fall apart.")
Certainly we agree with Myers' conclusion that: "Great prose isn't always easy but it's always lucid".
We still disagree with the subtitle claim of a "growing pretentiousness in American literary prose", a claim that Myers unfortunately does very little to back up.
We'll certainly grant that it is pretentious, we'd just have liked to have heard a bit more about the growing-aspect.
We're also not too sure about his beef with the "cultural elite" and the like.
Yes, there is a literary clique where certain "literary" authors blurbs each others books and there are review-fora that will always review (and generally praise) whatever the anointed authors put on the market -- but these are of limited influence.
Yes, the same authors (and types of books) get all the prizes and all the fellowships and that is a self-perpetuating shame.
But the book-buying public doesn't seem much swayed by all this (check out the bestseller list on this or absolutely any other week).
And, amazingly, there are authors who can write who do receive some attention as well.
So much for the Manifesto itself-- the fun part of the book is, of course, the Epilogue, in which Myers considers the responses to his Atlantic Monthly-essay, and answers his critics.
The response to the essay was fascinating: lots of popular support and lots of defensive talk from the critics (the book being, of course, as much an attack on the reviewing-establishment as on the authors themselves).
(See also our crQuarterly piece, Considering B.R.Myers' Reader's Manifesto.)
As Myers points out:
The most common way of rebutting the Manifesto was therefore not to rebut it at all, but to misrepresent it as a plea for lowbrow writing.
We agree that many of the critics got it dead wrong (and we especially love those who weighed in on the topic without reading the thing), but surely Myers understands that if so many people got it wrong then he too failed.
If he was unable to convey to readers (and a few of the critics do seem to have actually read the essay) what he considers to be 'good writing' (with most readers apparently believing he means he likes 'simple' writing) then he has obviously not expressed himself well.
(We suggest also that many of those who wrote to Myers (and to the newspapers) in support of his position similarly misinterpreted it.)
This is a problem that has not been rectified in the book-version of the Manifesto.
The defenses of the literary authors shredded by Myers are quite amusing, as are the other criticisms of his attack.
Myers has a fun time quoting and rebutting -- the book is worth it just for all that silliness.
Finally, there is also an Appendix: Ten Rules for "Serious" Writers.
These sum up all that Myers believes is wrong with contemporary American writing -- and thus are the secret to literary success.
"Sprawl", "equivocate", "mystify": that and more are what the prize committees and reviewers are looking for.
It serves as a convenient summary of the writerly flaws that Myers found in the five authors under discussion (and many others).
And it is amusing enough, proving again that Myers does have quite a few valid gripes about what passes for good writing nowadays.
A Reader's Manifesto is a short book and, despite the many examples of bad writing on offer, a breezy, entertaining read.
Myers tackles a huge issue in scattershot fashion, and one might wish for a more comprehensive survey, but he does get his point across.
Myers' book will have served its purpose if it helps readers feel more confident in their own judgements -- and teaches them that there are few people less reliable than critics of any sort (and book reviewers in particular -- yes, us too), except perhaps prize committees.
Impenetrability is not a sign of 'good' writing, and puzzling over sentences should not (despite Toni Morrison's claims to the contrary) be part of the reading experience.
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A Reader's Manifesto:
Other books by B.R.Myers under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Brian Reynolds Myers teaches North Korean studies.
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