A READER’S MANIFESTO: AN ATTACK ON THE GROWING PRETENTIOUSNESS OF AMERICAN LITERARY PROSE
By B. R. Myers
In the summer of 2001 The Atlantic published “A Reader’s Manifesto”, a long essay subtitled “An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American prose.” For the next several months it was the talk of literary circles everywhere.
From a Canadian vantage point it seemed a little odd. What the author, B. R. Myers, was doing – in particular his focused assault on an inflated literary style – has long been a staple of the Canadian literary anti-establishment. There is a great tradition of killing sacred literary cows in this country, running from John Metcalf’s Kicking Against the Pricks to Stephen Henighan’s recent collection When Words Deny the World (other titles, also published by the Porcupine’s Quill, where Metcalf is general editor, include Philip Marchand’s Ripostes and T. J. Rigelhof’s This Is Our Writing). Was Myers the only one doing this sort of thing south of the border? His critics suggested he was not, but failed to offer any evidence supporting their initial “been there, done that” response. (He was compared to Tom Wolfe, though I thought the closer analogy would have been to Wyndham Lewis). One suspects the real reason for all the fuss was the prominent soap-box Myers had been given. The powers-that-be can safely ignore the hacks who write reviews for Amazon. When such a nasty essay appears in the Atlantic it demands a rigorous intellectual response.
This new edition of the “Manifesto” is an attempt to restore the original essay “to its original tone and length, while retaining the improvements” of the magazine version. Further examples of what Myers takes to be good and bad prose are submitted for our consideration. Also included are a lengthy Epilogue where Myers responds to his critics and a checklist of “Ten Rules for ‘Serious’ Writers.”
The extras are well worth it for fans of the original, but the essay itself doesn’t seem to have gained anything by the changes. At the end of the Atlantic version, for example, Myers asked “How better to ensure that Faulkner and Melville remain unread by the young than to invoke their names in praise of some new bore every week?” In the new, or “original” version this reads: “How better to keep young people from reading than to invoke the names of great writers in praise of some windy new mediocrity every week?” The second version strikes me as fuzzier and less convincing. That Faulkner and Melville are the victims of today’s critical hyperbole is a good point; that the reading habits of the young are really affected by cheap praise is unclear.
As most readers of this site are already aware, there are few things I enjoy more than a nice rant. Having said that, Myers immediately raised my hackles with his assertion in the Preface that his essay was only a “light-hearted polemic” that should not be read as “literary scholarship” since this would only make it “vulnerable to criticism.” What was this? Postmodern equivocation? Was the polemic only meant as a joke, beyond the pale of criticism? That was never my impression. Though written in a comic style, I have to assume Myers is being serious.
I want to begin by saying that I think the Manifesto is a valuable and important work. For starters, Myers is to be commended for addressing the culpability of the American critical establishment in promoting all of this bad writing. Indeed, I take his main target to be not today’s pretentious literary prose so much as its reception. The bigger question this raises is whether it is the job of today’s book reviewers and columnists to be responsible (or even competent) critics. I don’t think it is – like Myers, I have my own ideas about what it takes to be a professional reviewers – but that’s another story.
Another important issue Myers draws attention to is the disappearing middlebrow:
The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow, which had always been invoked tongue in cheek anyhow. Novelists who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned on the basis of their verbal affectation to either the “literary” or “genre” camp.
It’s probably inaccurate to say that our culture is now fatally divided into high and low (and that is not Myers’s point anyway), but I think it is fair to say that what division does exist is currently being exploited to an unseemly degree (mainly by critics who should know better). Is there a connection here between the loss of the middlebrow as a critical category and the disappearing middle class? Stephen Henighan suggests there is:
A literature dominated by “poet’s novels” is an anomaly. A culture whose reading public requires this sort of fiction – self-consciously ‘artistic’ without posing the challenges of authentic art – is ill. It is not unexpected that such art should prevail in a country where a belief in a kind of democratic egalitarianism is shredding before an ever-greater gap between rich and poor. In such an environment the bourgeoisie’s applause for the ‘artistry’ of books such as The English Patient and Fugitive Pieces forms an indispensable part of its self-redefinition as a class of inherently superior people whose allegiances are to similar, even wealthier people in richer, more powerful countries rather than to the nation where they live, to their own history, institutions or art, or to the neighbours who used to be their near-equals. Reading such novels becomes a means of asserting one’s social distinction.
If this is the case, and I think there’s something to such arguments, then the Manifesto is political too.
But all of this is background. As the subtitle indicates, the focus of Myers’s polemic is bad prose. And since most reviewers don’t have the faintest idea what prose style is he has a field day with the hacks from the New York Times and other supposedly authoritative venues. He also effectively disposes of the most common complaint made against his essay when it first appeared, that he was only ripping material out of context. Even Homer nods, as the saying goes. But the quotations Myers pulls are fairly chosen, and, insofar as I can tell, representative.
Overall, his strategy leads to more hits than misses. Occasionally, however, I reserved judgment. When Annie Proulx thanks her children for putting up with her “strangled, work-driven ways” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Fowler may object to the twisted metaphor, but the image of one’s days being strangled by work is something I think most people can relate to (whether Proulx is really strangled by work is another question). But since I don’t know anything of Proulx’s writing outside of what is quoted in the Manifesto I can’t say whether enough of this would be too much.
Of the authors Myers discusses, the only two I can claim any familiarity with are Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. I’d like to turn now to look at what Myers has to say about them.
While DeLillo is capable of writing prose and dialogue as bad as anyone’s (see my review of The Body Artist), it seems to me that Myers is missing a lot in not getting the humour of White Noise. In an earlier essay I offered Mink’s death scene and the argument Jack has with his son over whether it is raining out as examples. Myers doesn’t mention these, but suggests that the “hacking jackets” line is what most people who find DeLillo funny are laughing at. Maybe because he thinks it’s just bad writing.
But is it? When Jack’s wife says “Are the men in hacking jackets? What’s a hacking jacket?” Myers complains that “No real person would utter those last two questions in sequence.” I would beg to differ. Jack’s wife is obviously someone whose mouth moves faster than her brain, a common enough occurrence I have found in daily life. We all say things without thinking, leading to countless absurdities in everyday speech. And while it may not lead to knee-slapping belly laughs, it is funny.
Myers’s critique of DeLillo’s dialogue is worth dwelling on. Here is another example of a passage where the author is trying to “bore us into laughing”:
“What do you want to do?” she said.
“Whatever you want to do?”
“I want to do whatever’s best for you?”
“What’s best for me is to please you,” he said.
“I want to make you happy, Jack.”
“I’m happy when I’m pleasing you.”
“I just want to do what you want to do.”
“I want to do whatever’s best for you.”
Now, for the record, I don’t like this very much either. But I like even less what Myers has to say about it:
To anyone who calls that excruciating, DeLillo would probably respond, “That’s my whole point! This is communication in Consumerland!” Note also how the exchange loses its logic halfway through; perhaps it was only written to be skimmed anyway. It’s always the very novelists who scorn realism as the slavish recording of reality who believe that an incoherent world dictates incoherent writing.
Note how this critique loses its logic halfway through. Why should the fact that this dialogue is illogical or incoherent make it unrealistic? In descriptive writing, as opposed to dialogue, this might follow, but these are supposed to be people talking. Most of what gets said in real life is just sound – it’s meant “to be skimmed anyway.” As Northrop Frye was fond of pointing out, none of us speak in prose. We speak in a childish, rhythmic and irrational prattle. In this regard, DeLillo reads more like the “slavish recording of reality” than “incoherent writing.” And, finally, why should any of this be interpreted as evidence of DeLillo’s belief in an “incoherent world”?
The dialogue in a book cannot be taken as expressing or representing the author’s vision of reality. Myers is on shaky ground here. He even cautions himself at one point, saying “it’s always risky to identify a novelist’s thoughts with his characters’.” But this doesn’t go far enough. It’s always wrong to identify a novelist’s thoughts with his characters, and that’s an end of it. Something about the nature of fiction itself is getting away from Myers here.
Next we come to Cormac McCarthy, Myers’s exemplar of “muscular prose.” Immediately the defender of McCarthy wants to enter an important caveat. Between Blood Meridian and the novels of the Border Trilogy McCarthy’s prose went through a revolution in style and language. The later McCarthy is typified by what Myers calls the “andelope” (“a breathless string of simple declarative statements linked by the conjunction ‘and’”). (I take it this is an example of Myers being light-hearted, as the coinage andelope refers to what Erich Auerbach referred to years ago as the “paratactic style.” That the master of the paratactic style in American literature was Hemingway goes without mention.) In my opinion, McCarthy’s shift toward this style was a change for the worse. While I find the Biblical chants that pass for storytelling in the Border Trilogy a little much, I enjoy the sometimes campy, overwritten early novels. I remember being thrilled in a way I hadn’t been thrilled since reading Faulkner (yes, Faulkner!) by stuff like this from Blood Meridian:
A rattling drove of arrows passed through the company and men tottered and dropped from their mounts. Horses were rearing and plunging and the mongol hordes swung up along their flanks and turned and rode full upon them with lances . . . some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the stranger white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and the sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.
I really like this passage. If I had to say why I like it I would say because it is so vivid and full of energy. It has a baroque, operatic quality to it that may come out of violent spaghetti westerns, but is still good writing for all that. The long run-on sentence leaves the reader breathless at its deliberately sexual climax (yes, I’ve tried reading it aloud, and this is the effect, and it works). There is also a rhetorical rhythm to its depiction of chaos, as with the men tottering and dropping before the rearing and plunging horses. The imagery is striking and concrete. The gutting of the white torsos (more than just a racial aside, since unlike the painted chests of the Comanche these torsos have been sheltered from the desert sun by uniforms), is just one example. The “peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion,” is another. This isn’t just verbiage. The Indians are walking funny because they are used to being in the saddle and are only “driven” to use their legs in the melee (their primary form of locomotion being the horse). The effect is weird, but it adds to the picture of a surreal orgy of violence involving figures not entirely human or of this world.
Myers does not like the passage at all. Here is his response (not to be found in the Atlantic essay):
I hasten to add that all this is dead serious. So where to start faulting such excess? With the overwrought effort to trick up the stalest scene in B-moviedom? With the chutzpah of comparing native Americans to the invaders of Europe? With those disgraceful last lines? None of this, mind you, can be defended as assuming the cowboys’ own perspective, for the narrator of Blood Meridian is as omniscient as they come. Before the battle above, one Comanche is described as wearing the armor of a “spanish conquistador.” (Unlike Saxon, “spanish” doesn’t merit a capital “s”.) This armor is “deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose bones were dust.” The terror-stricken cowboys don’t know that, nor do they need to, and since a dent is a dent, the information hardly helps us see things more clearly. So why explain who battered one man’s armor, and where, and how long ago? Again: for the majestic ring of it. Sure, the action would be more exciting if seen through the eyes of the participants themselves, but the last thing Serious Literature wants to be is exciting.
Where to begin faulting this excess, indeed. To take it point by point. How “serious” McCarthy is being is impossible to ascertain. And what would it mean if he were being “dead serious” anyway? That he wants to be taken literally? But this is a novel. Does the omniscience of the narrator (that is, not the author, watch the distinction!) make what is being said less defensible? How so? Doing my own bit of close reading, I note in passing that these are not “cowboys” being slaughtered, but a troop of renegade soldiers. Moving along, I would have thought there was nothing whatever wrong with “chutzpah” and “excess” in literary writing. Isn’t it better than being boring (the sin Myers finds most literary authors guilty of)? What, exactly, does he have against the comparison of native Americans with Mongols? Does this insult native Americans, or Mongols? I fail to see the point. What is “disgraceful” about the last lines? Do they offend Myers’s sense of historical plausibility? Canons of realism? Or are they politically incorrect? (A slur against native Americans or sodomites?) As far as describing how the armor was dented, does Myers want the omniscient narrator to turn into a fly on the wall? Doesn’t the invocation of battles long ago in foreign countries contribute to the sense being built throughout the passage (Saxons, Mongols) of a historical medley of violence? And how would putting the scene in first person perspective have made it more immediate or exciting? I don’t think this is a “sure” thing at all, and certainly doesn’t stand as any kind of universal principle. Describing the scene from the perspective of the soldiers would only have the effect of making it more chaotic and – is this what he really wants? – incoherent.
Still, Myers is alright. While I would quarrel over some matters of taste, he is a responsible critic. And his declaration that taste and sensibility are all that any of us need to distinguish good books from bad books has rarely seemed so necessary. Our literary culture is in bad need of an enema. The media establishment responsible for selling such poisonous trash as we regularly find winning National Book Awards and Booker Prizes needs to be held to account. Laughter is perhaps the best way to call citizens to the barricades.
Review first published online September 6, 2002.