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A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose Paperback – September 1, 2002

4.2 out of 5 stars 65 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.


"A welcome contrarian take on the state of contemporary American literary prose." -- The Wall Street Journal

"Brilliantly written." -- The Times of London

"Hits the mark." -- The Sunday Times of London

"Literary historians may . . . realise this was the moment . . . someone dared to say out loud that the emperor had no clothes." -- The (London) Observer

"Useful mischief." -- the Washington Post

"Useful mischief...he's got the big stuff right." -- Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Melville House; 1 edition (September 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0971865906
  • ISBN-13: 978-0971865907
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.5 x 6.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #493,865 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By audrey frances TOP 500 REVIEWER on September 16, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
One of the first reviews I ever wrote on Amazon.com was for "The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner" by Douglass Shand-Tucci. I'd read about it in the New York Review of Books and, encouraged by the author's having won literary awards (oh! if I only knew then what I know now!), was distressed to find it almost unreadable, replete with sentences like this:
'Though stimulated by her patronage - Gardner was one of the first to see Loeffler not only as a virtuoso but as the composer he wished to be and increasingly today is regarded as - Loeffler grew to feel at one point distinctly imposed upon by Gardner, who seemed to him possessive and only too willing to "show him off" in Ralph Locke's words, as "a kind of in-house virtuoso" in the Gardner music room, all of this, or (sic) course, quite classic behavior on the part of humble but artful, trustworthy but vain, kind but cruel and rampagingly dominant Isabella!'

Yikes, I thought, somebody messed up. Perhaps the editor forgot to edit and the reviewer forgot to read? Several weeks later I heard an interview with the author on NPR and listened intently, waiting for someone to ask the author about this horrid, florid style, and was shocked that neither correspondent nor callers ever mentioned it! Since that episode I've saved the reviews for books I intend to read so I can compare my reading experience with that of critical reviewers, and I have been shocked (shocked!) at the disrelation -- not just once but many times.

Enter B.R.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Readers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your New York Times Book Review!

I first heard of The Reader's Manifesto on BookTV (C-Span), when a guest named it as one of the best nonfiction books of the year, and said it criticizes modern "literary" writers and the reviewers who love them. David Guterson was one of the writers the author critiques, so I couldn't wait to get the book.

Let me tell you why. I'm typical of the readers that Myers discusses. After reading mostly computer books for a while, I'd taken up serious reading again. Unfortunately, most of the books I read and audiobooks I listened to were bad. After looking for something that had received good reviews and awards, I chose Snow Falling on Cedars by Guterson.

The book was a grindingly slow, repetitive piece of crap. It didn't turn me off to reading as Myers worries, but after a handful of well-reviewed klunkers like that, who knows? If you're interested, you can click to see my other reviews and read my 1-star review. I even wrote some faux-Guterson dialogue as a bit of sport.

So I wanted to see if B.R. Myers agreed with me, and hallelujah, he did. He mentions us Amazon reviewers in this book (Myers says we know what we're talking about, for the most part, because we trust our own taste and sensibilities, and we discuss the author's style instead of recounting the plots. Yay for us!). I felt validated; a lot of reviewers loooooved Snow Falling on Cedars, it won all kinds of awards, and there *is* this kind of attitude out there that you don't like something the critics love, it's because you don't get it, because you're a philistine.

Myers is no philistine.
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2 Comments 62 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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By A Customer on July 23, 2003
Format: Paperback
It seems that a good number of the reviewers here haven't actually read the writers that Myers criticizes. "You don't have to be familiar with the books?" Sheesh. Shouldn't one make his or her mind up about works of art instead of relying on critics?
Having read the essay only and being only truly familiar with Delillo and Auster (who both run hot and cold, IMO), I think Myers has a few good points and some bad points.
But I think some of the reviews here are mistaking "difficult" writing with "bad" writing, something I don't think Myers does. In fact, he praises Joyce, Woolf, and other writers who, at their most challenging, are far more difficult to read than Delillo, Auster, or (I'd wager) any of these others. Myers isn't celebrating anti-intellectualism as some here seem to think he is. His argument is with sloppy writers, not difficulty.
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By Dan Leo on March 5, 2003
Format: Paperback
Brilliant little book. I would have loved to see Myers rip into some other bloated cows of contemporary lit, but he obviously loves good books, so why should he have to submit himself to the pain of actually reading all that bovine excrement?
One thing I'm still puzzling over is why these sacred cows became so sacred in the first place. The log-rolling theory holds up to a certain point (pretentious novelist A gives a rave to precious novelist B, and B slaps a slobbery blurb on the back of A's next book), but why are all the non-novelist reviewers and critics praising the precious pretentious poop? Haven't they read the great writers? Is it that these poor ink-stained wretches are discouraged from writing scathing pans by editors who don't want to rock the literary boat? I've spent the last couple of years reading a lot of James Boswell, Thomas Wolfe, Henry Green, Henry de Montherlant, Proust, Kingsley (not Martin) Amis, Knut Hamsun, Patricia Highsmith (a "genre" writer). Try reading these people, and then pick up the new Franzen or Moody. Then try not to toss the new F or M across the room.
I'm too lazy to look it up, but Charles Bukowski once said something to this effect, "It wasn't that what I was writing was so good. It was just that what everyone else was writing was so bad."
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