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A Reader's Manifesto

Concerning B. R. Myers's blast of sort of smart but definitely annoying literary philistinism in "A Reader's Manifesto" (July/August Atlantic), I suppose I should feel guilty for the part I've played in the putative decline of American literary prose: I've edited and published two of his culprits, Don DeLillo and Paul Auster, and I'd do the same in a New York minute (sic) with the rest of his rogue's gallery. It may look to Myers from the distance of New Mexico that some powerful literary elite is operating out of midtown and downtown offices—hard at work, for its own obscure purposes, at the task of infecting American writing with bloat and obscurity. But from where I and my kind sit, the task of clearing out a decent space in our culture for the profound and beautiful books by these writers feels like a guerrilla action conducted against overwhelming forces of commercial dumbness. (Ruining American fiction is a full-time job, believe me.) And I know for a fact that the early books of every writer he cites struggled to find audiences and even publishers, and that these novelists were punished for the integrity of their styles and visions. Personal difficulties do not, of course, excuse or justify purposefully obscure or pretentious writing. But the idea that a challenging prose style of a complexity greater than John O'Hara's or Somerset Maugham's is the ticket to literary fame and fortune makes me laugh so hard that I can barely manage to add useless subordinate clauses and superfluous and inaccurate adjectives to this novel I'm editing.

Gerald Howard
Editorial Director, Broadway Books
New York, N.Y.

For the first page or so I naively assumed that B. R. Myers's seemingly petty effort to deflate the reputations of some justly celebrated prose stylists (Proulx, McCarthy, DeLillo, and others) was actually serious. Once I caught on to the joke, however, that the author is satirizing a humorless, literal-minded critic with a tin ear, I chuckled my way to the end, delighted by the inspired raillery. Myers wickedly shows the pompous object of his satire to be utterly bewildered by imaginative readers who delight in the sight and sound of gorgeous sentences that, following Emily Dickinson's dictum, tell the truth but tell it slant. The satirist's hilarious fuddy-duddy emerges as the polar opposite of the sharp-eyed Carolyn See, who correctly recognizes that Annie Proulx is indeed, sentence by sentence, "the best prose stylist working in English now, bar none."

Joel Conarroe
J.S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation
New York, N.Y.

B R. Myers professes to detest modern American fiction alone, but his arguments make him seem uncomfortable with the idea of fiction altogether. Look no further than his dismissal of a trademark Don DeLillo verbal exchange ("Are the men in hacking jackets? What's a hacking jacket?") with the complaint "no real person would utter those last two questions in sequence." Imagine that! Fictional characters talking as if they're not real! It's almost as if DeLillo made the whole thing up!

Myers really gives himself away when he later complains that "we are never told" the identity of a mysterious "something large in scope and content" to which a character in White Noise refers. This is the classic complaint against modernism, so quaint it's almost funny. Many critics can't get over the fact that Kafka didn't tell us what Joseph K was accused of, that we don't really know what Molly Bloom was saying "yes" to in Gibraltar, that Jean Rhys never lets us see why her heroines are depressed or lonely and never suggests a silver-bullet remedy for their pain. This was an interesting line of inquiry in 1930, when mass war, mass media, and melting pots were new phenomena. But what is it doing in The Atlantic in 2001?

If Myers wants concise answers to the questions a book raises, why is he reading fiction? A philosophical tract or essay will explicitly answer questions, as will an advice column or a car owner's manual. The gift of fiction is that it casts philosophical and moral conundrums in occluded images, half-finished conversations, and muddy juxtapositions that can't be reduced to a neat one-sentence argument. The second DeLillo puts a name to the "something large in scope and content," it becomes just another catchphrase to be repeated and discarded. The second the obviousness of the answers a novel gives outweighs the quality of the questions it raises, you're better off reading Cliffs Notes.

Marc Doussard
Chicago, Ill.

After reading George Singleton's wonderful short story in the July/August issue, "Show-and-Tell" (a title resurrecting Chekhov's admonition to writers to show and not tell), a story not marked by brilliance or stylistic innovation, but a story that, nevertheless, had me laughing so hard I had to reread aloud parts of it to my husband, who also laughed, I want to tell B. R. Myers not to "despair of ever seeing a return" to unaffected prose.

Judy Loest
Knoxville, Tenn.

I find Annie Proulx's diction refreshing. Sentences like "furious dabs of tulips stuttering in gardens" are impressionistic word pictures. What would you have her say? "A bunch of tulips blowing in the wind?" Snore.

Julia Scheeres
San Francisco, Calif.

A paraphrase of the painter Barnett Neumann, might put B. R. Myers's essay in perspective: "Art criticism is to art what ornithology is to birds."

John Correll
Atlanta, Ga."all me Ishmael." You call that a sentence?!?

Edward Tarkington
Tallahassee, Fla.

B. R. Myers replies:

In "A Reader's Manifesto" I wrote that today's literary prose is "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." To prove this point I offered dozens of excerpts, none of which could be described as difficult by anyone over the age of twelve. Gerald Howard knows all this, but he also knows that it is easier to cry philistine than to explain just what is so profound about the work of Don DeLillo and Paul Auster. As for Mr. Howard's reference to "commercial dumbness," this must be what aims at selling affordable paperbacks in volume, as opposed to the commercial smartness of pricing artily slender hardbacks at $22.95 each.

Marc Doussard tries to equate obfuscation with ambiguity, the better to claim that my real gripe is with modernism in general. Nice try; but as Nabokov wrote, art is always specific. Literature need not answer every question it raises, but the questions themselves should be clear. Kafka's description of Joseph K's plight is precise, lucid, and terrifyingly believable. DeLillo, in contrast, has his characters make vague claims to momentous premonitions, in the hope that we will read more into this vagueness than he is capable of thinking. Mr. Doussard is obviously very impressed by DeLillo's intimation that there exists a greater reality behind the world of appearances, but the rest of us know that this idea is as old as civilization itself. We expect an allegedly intellectual novelist to come up with more than the pronouncement that "something large in scope and content" attaches to personal possessions. And for all its mannerisms, White Noise is a conventionally plotted novel that tries hard to generate suspense over its characters' fate. The fact that Jack and his family are impossible to take seriously is therefore a serious flaw even from a modernist standpoint.

The Good Fight

Benjamin Schwarz is correct in criticizing Stephen Ambrose for skewing his account by lauding the American fighting man at the expense of the Soviet soldier ("The Real War," June Atlantic). One cannot stand in the cemetery outside St. Petersburg, in which 50,000 to a million Russians are buried, having been starved or bombarded to death during the Siege of Leningrad, and not be moved by the terrible suffering endured by the Russian people during World War II.

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