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A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose Paperback – September 1, 2002
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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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The argument is simple: many putatively ‘serious’ and award-winning writers today write prose that is pretentious, lugubrious and, largely, unreadable. For this they are amply rewarded by reviewers who claim to like this stuff. The author offers a number of examples of turgid prose (often the sections of novels which have received particular praise); he also offers counter examples from accomplished writers of the past.
The writers singled out for this particular rogues’ gallery are Annie Proulx, Paul Auster, David Guterson, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo. (I would be interested to see Myers’ take on Thomas Pynchon, a truly serious contemporary writer.)
The implicit issues here are very interesting. For example, Myers notes that many crisp, clear and engaging writers are eliminated from ‘serious’ consideration and labeled ‘genre writers’, even though many of the pseudo-serious writers (Guterson, e.g.) are leveraging ‘genre’ elements. One thought here: almost all great stories are, to some degree, mystery stories, from Oedipus The King to The Great Gatsby. It is also true that the greatest inheritor of the Hemingway mantle in our times has been Elmore Leonard. There are also a number of stunning ‘literary mystery’ writers working today: James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, and William Kent Krueger, to name but a few. They all ‘transcend genre’.
A second issue is the puritanism of both American culture and American writing/criticism (which Myers discusses). We are still suspicious of humor and comedy, even though they serve important purposes and are very hard to do. The books shortlisted for awards are unfailingly ‘serious’ stories, which, in our time, often means ‘political’ and, usually, politically correct. They are also often anchored in identity politics, a notion which has trouble standing up to the analysis of geneticists and epistemologists but is a required element for many reviewers.
Finally, there is the fact that literary writing and literary criticism exist today within a league of the self-appointed cognoscenti. The more ponderous and opaque the writing, the more the field of ‘adept readers’ is narrowed and the greater the glow issuing from the halos of the anointed. This war has now largely been lost among the literary critics (mercifully) as the influence of the French Nietzscheans wanes and English teachers realize that much of the recondite prose which characterized high Theory concealed an ultimate obviousness (Wittgenstein had been there first) and an attempt to attract acclaim by other means than trenchant thought, hard facts and common sense.
Myers does not draw many connections between ‘serious’ fiction and ‘serious’ theoretical criticism, but the parallels and analogies are clear. ‘Serious’ reviewers often assert their claims to authority by exhibiting an ability to luxuriate in the unreadable and use that skill to differentiate themselves from the ‘common’ reader who seeks the lucidity of truly great writers like (a key Myers example) Joseph Conrad, whose first language was, of course, Polish.
While he picks out a variety of short passages to prove his very critical points, it's no different than any positive reviewer would do to try and show the good things about a book.
And really, some of these passages - gad! I won't quote them, but if you skim any number of pages from Annie Proulx or Cormac McCarthy or Don DeLillo, you'd see similar examples. They are overwrought, they try too hard for no clear purpose, and they think they're smart because they keep telling you they're smart. It's also worth noting that two of his examples - David Guterson and Paul Austen - are barely on the radar in 2012, just 10 years from this publication.
But - I think these books also have value. I liked Blood Meridian and I think it's a well-told story (I hated "The Road," though). If they're making you work hard, that's not a bad thing - Myers criticizes Toni Morrison a little, though not by example, but I think she's brilliant. Yeah, you might have to re-read a few sentences, but when you do get the meaning, or the visual, I think you'll feel that a-ha moment that comes from successful, earned effort.
He shows older examples from other classic works, and in comparison, the new stuff really doesn't look good. The works he quotes from the 1950s should hold up in anybody's library today (of course, that's the point - there were plenty of forgotten books alongside "Augie March." We remember them, because they were so good).
All that aside, this is just a very entertaining book, and it is a true manifesto - demanding a rethinking of current (as of 2002) culture. As a student and teacher of writing, I appreciate well-considered and presented opinions about different literary styles, and Myers did a great job. He dished it out, and in the section where he talks about the fairly intense feedback his original essay generated, shows he can take it. It presents a contrary view, but he gives you plenty of evidence to consider, and it never seems a rant without purpose.