Books July 2001

A Reader's Manifesto

An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose

Nothing gives me the feeling of having been born several decades too late quite like the modern "literary" best seller. Give me a time-tested masterpiece or what critics patronizingly call a fun read—Sister Carrie or just plain Carrie. Give me anything, in fact, as long as it doesn't have a recent prize jury's seal of approval on the front and a clutch of precious raves on the back. In the bookstore I'll sometimes sample what all the fuss is about, but one glance at the affected prose—"furious dabs of tulips stuttering," say, or "in the dark before the day yet was"—and I'm hightailing it to the friendly black spines of the Penguin Classics.

Also see:

Interviews: "A Reader's Revenge"
B. R. Myers, the author of A Reader's Manifesto, argues that the time has come for readers to stand up to the literary establishment.

I realize that such a declaration must sound perversely ungrateful to the literary establishment. For years now editors, critics, and prize jurors, not to mention novelists themselves, have been telling the rest of us how lucky we are to be alive and reading in these exciting times. The absence of a dominant school of criticism, we are told, has given rise to an extraordinary variety of styles, a smorgasbord with something for every palate. As the novelist and critic David Lodge has remarked, in summing up a lecture about the coexistence of fabulation, minimalism, and other movements, "Everything is in and nothing is out." Coming from insiders to whom a term like "fabulation" actually means something, this hyperbole is excusable, even endearing; it's as if a team of hotel chefs were getting excited about their assortment of cabbages. From a reader's standpoint, however, "variety" is the last word that comes to mind, and more appears to be "out" than ever before. More than half a century ago popular storytellers like Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham were ranked among the finest novelists of their time, and were considered no less literary, in their own way, than Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be "genre fiction"—at best an excellent "read" or a "page turner," but never literature with a capital L. An author with a track record of blockbusters may find the publication of a new work treated like a pop-culture event, but most "genre" novels are lucky to get an inch in the back pages of The New York Times Book Review.

Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be "literary fiction"—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance. It is these works that receive full-page critiques, often one in the Sunday book-review section and another in the same newspaper during the week. It is these works, and these works only, that make the annual short lists of award committees. The "literary" writer need not be an intellectual one. Jeering at status-conscious consumers, bandying about words like "ontological" and "nominalism," chanting Red River hokum as if it were from a lost book of the Old Testament: this is what passes for profundity in novels these days. Even the most obvious triteness is acceptable, provided it comes with a postmodern wink. What is not tolerated is a strong element of action—unless, of course, the idiom is obtrusive enough to keep suspense to a minimum. Conversely, a natural prose style can be pardoned if a novel's pace is slow enough, as was the case with Ha Jin's aptly titled Waiting, which won the National Book Award (1999) and the PEN/Faulkner Award (2000).

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones (1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.

Everything is "in," in other words, as long as it keeps the reader at a respectfully admiring distance. This may seem an odd trend when one considers that the reading skills of American college students, who go on to form the main audience for contemporary Serious Fiction, have declined markedly since the 1970s. Shouldn't a dumbed-down America be more willing to confer literary status on straightforward prose, instead of encouraging affectation and obscurity?

Not necessarily. In Aldous Huxley's Those Barren Leaves (1925) a character named Mr. Cardan makes a point that may explain today's state of affairs.

Really simple, primitive people like their poetry to be as ... artificial and remote from the language of everyday affairs as possible. We reproach the eighteenth century with its artificiality. But the fact is that Beowulf is couched in a diction fifty times more complicated and unnatural than that of [Pope's poem] Essay on Man.

Mr. Cardan comes off in the novel as a bit of a windbag, but there is at least anecdotal evidence to back up his observation. We know, for example, that European peasants were far from pleased when their clergy stopped mystifying them with Latin. Edward Pococke (1604-1691) was an English preacher and linguist whose sermons, according to the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, "were always composed in a plain style upon practical subjects, carefully avoiding all show and ostentation of learning."

But from this very exemplary caution not to amuse his hearers (contrary to the common method then in vogue) with what they could not understand, some of them took occasion to entertain very contemptible thoughts of his learning ... So that one of his Oxford friends, as he traveled through Childrey, inquiring for his diversion of some of the people, Who was their minister, and how they liked him? received this answer: "Our parson is one Mr. Pococke, a plain honest man. But Master," said they, "he is no Latiner."

Don't get me wrong—I'm not comparing anyone to a peasant. But neither am I prepared to believe that the decline of American literacy has affected everyone but fans of Serious Fiction. When reviewers and prize jurors tout a repetitive style as "the last word in gnomic control," or a jumble of unsustained metaphor as "lyrical" writing, it is obvious that they, too, are having difficulty understanding what they read. Would Mr. Cardan be puzzled to find them in the thrall of writers who are deliberately obscure, or who chant in strange cadences? I doubt it. And what could be more natural than that the same elite should scorn unaffected English as "workmanlike prose"—an idiom incompatible with real literature? Stephen King's a plain, honest man, just the author to read on the subway. But Master, he is no Latiner.

If the new dispensation were to revive good "Mandarin" writing—to use the term coined by the British critic Cyril Connolly for the prose of writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce—then I would be the last to complain. But what we are getting today is a remarkably crude form of affectation: 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. Even today's obscurity is easy—the sort of gibberish that stops all thought dead in its tracks. The best way to demonstrate this in the space at hand is to take a look at some of the most highly acclaimed styles of contemporary writing.

"Evocative" Prose

It has become fashionable, especially among female novelists, to exploit the license of poetry while claiming exemption from poetry's rigorous standards of precision and polish. Edna O'Brien is one of the writers who do this, but Annie Proulx is better known, thanks in large part to her best seller The Shipping News (1993). In 1999 Proulx wrapped up the acknowledgments in a short-story anthology titled Close Range by thanking her children, in characteristic prose, "for putting up with my strangled, work-driven ways."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Passion's Progress" (April 20, 2000)
Edna O'Brien talks about how her new book, Wild Decembers—in which heartache is prefigured by a tractor—fits in with her own "inner gnaw."

Interviews: "Imagination Is Everything" (November 12, 1997)
A Conversation with E. Annie Proulx.

That's right: "strangled, work-driven ways." Work-driven is fine, of course, except for its note of self-approval, but strangled ways makes no sense on any level. Besides, how can anything, no matter how abstract, be strangled and work-driven at the same time? Maybe the author was referring to something along the lines of a nightly smackdown with the Muse, but only she knows for sure. Luckily for Proulx, many readers today expect literary language to be so remote from normal speech as to be routinely incomprehensible. "Strangled ways," they murmur to themselves in baffled admiration. "Now who but a Writer would think of that!"

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