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A Reader's Manifesto

The poet and teacher Dave Smith once told me that he tried, always, to approach his students' writing with generosity and humility. That impressed me then, and continues to impress me, as exactly the right way to approach all writing. Clearly, B. R. Myers ("A Reader's Manifesto," July/August Atlantic) would not agree, as is obvious from his cranky and embarrassingly meanspirited attack on contemporary American literary fiction. Though the piece is so essentially foolish that it's impossible to work up any genuine outrage over it, I did want to respond to one small bit of Myers's carping. Early in the essay he criticizes a phrase in which Annie Proulx thanks her children for putting up with her "strangled, work-driven ways." He finds the phrase incomprehensible. The use of the word "strangled," he writes, "makes no sense on any level." Actually, as anyone compulsively driven by the need to work will understand immediately, it makes obvious sense. It's an implied metaphor, and it's hardly difficult to understand. To be relentlessly driven to work cuts one off from the rest of life. It's as if the need to work had a strangling effect, making it impossible to breathe easily and live life fully. If that "work-driven" state is a regular condition of life, then certainly the victim's "ways" can appropriately be described as "strangled." That Proulx can toss off such a phrase makes her a good writer. That Myers can't comprehend it makes him a weak reader. That he feels free to lecture us for being naive enough to admire Proulx's writing—in a tone that sounds for all the world like the howling of a frustrated writer—is sad and, of course, pretentious.

Ed Falco
Blacksburg, Va.

Finally you have published something that reflects the thoughts and feelings of the intelligent but long-suffering reading public. B. R. Myers's "A Reader's Manifesto" caught the way many of us feel about the warped "literary" language of the modernist and postmodernist authors who have been foisted on the public by critics and Ivy League snobs.

My only regret is that Myers did not finish the job by also dealing with these "critically acclaimed" authors' lack of ideas and heart, as well as plot and clarity. As for me, I will stick to the canons of Romanticism, for there one can feel beauty, the sense of an ideal, and a reason for hope, rather than despair.

Betty Knight
Studio City, Calif.

I had read fifteen pages of B. R. Myers's sixteen-page diatribe against modern fiction before arriving at the perfect bit of figurative language to describe what he was doing: "continuously darning the air in one spot."

Bev Lehman
Jefferson, Iowa

Although B. R. Myers is provocative and has a number of valid criticisms about the mysterious ramblings of many contemporary writers, I must take issue with his criticism of the passage from Snow Falling on Cedars. I am a person with a handicap similar to that of the character described, and I found this to be an extremely accurate description of some of my thoughts and feelings relating to my situation. I had hoped that other readers might have experienced some empathy for this character based at least partly on David Guterson's sensitive portrayal. I am sorry that Myers chose to completely miss its message, and I hope that he is not this cruel in real life.

D. Horn
Ann Arbor, Mich.

W hat B. R. Myers ignores is that literary style is not a pose or mere ornamentation. It is the writer's means of looking at the world and making sense of it. Updike's metaphors transform Rabbit from the middle-class mundane into the mythical; DeLillo's fractured sentences mirror the distortions produced by the culture of consumerism and technophilia; Morrison's biblical cadences endow the humble with dignity. Hewing to the straightforward is good advice for undergraduates; writers of talent, however, know how to create and exploit whole universes of expression beyond this narrow range.

Dan Cryer
New York, N.Y.

After finishing B. R. Myers's scathing condemnation of so many books I mistakenly found enjoyable, I felt I might never read modern fiction again. But, ever hopeful, I marched off to my local library in search of a title by Myers. Alas, nothing.

All bashing aside, I would love to see Myers's list of the ten to fifteen all-time greatest works of fiction. I would promise to read them all.

Michael E. Zuller
Great Neck, N.Y.

"A Reader's Manifesto" reminds me of how Winnie-the-Pooh failed to trap a heffalump. The best critique of affected style at the expense of credible content is still Mark Twain's putdown "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." The faults Myers laments have been common in fiction at least since Homer, perhaps since the Gilgamesh Epic. We fail to observe them in past literature only because bad writing gradually disappears from the shelves of later readers, except a few literary antiquarians.

Victor Vyssotsky
Orleans, Mass.

In its weirdness, its insistence on fighting battles against no opponent, B. R. Myers's essay is troubling. His critique of some elements of the styles of several authors need not be a dismissal of the whole of literary fiction, no matter how prominent those authors may be, and even if their "pretentiousness" could be found in the work of a handful of other writers. If Annie Proulx goes a bit far in attempts to keep language vibrant and surprising, and even if Cormac McCarthy wants to tell us all that he doesn't understand Henry James, this doesn't represent a widespread disavowal of classic literature. If the idea that "contemporary fiction possesses greater relevance" than the work of, say, Joseph Conrad is really prevalent (which is debatable), that doesn't mean that anyone questions the overall value of reading classics, or that people are reading DeLillo more than Bellow.

Sure, the "reorientation toward tradition" that Myers calls for could do a lot for fiction, but it's been present all along in the works of many writers—or at least, it's fair to say, a lot of respected authors have straightforward styles and emphasize narrative over the "postmodern" trappings Myers is opposed to.

What Myers's evidence points to is an excess found in the work of some writers, some disturbing trends, and perhaps a lot of permissiveness in a handful of critics. But why does Myers think that winners of big awards are representative of an art form as a whole? And that the only voice commenting on contemporary fiction is that of The New York Times? If he is exasperated with what the heavyweights valorize, he should stop conferring power on them by implying that their voices, and the voices of a few big authors, speak for an entire genre. If he looks around, he can find contemporary works to supplement his "books that Cormac McCarthy doesn't understand."

Jeff Maehre
Owosso, Mich.

Thank you for the delightfully clear prose in "A Reader's Manifesto." B. R. Myers's raging against the current literary tide was entertaining, thoughtful, and necessary.

Ruth Perschbacher
Asheville, N.C.

B. R. Myers replies:

"Strangled, work-driven ways" is an unsustained metaphor uncannily similar to one example used in Fowler's Modern English Usage—namely, "stunted and sterilized" means of education. Some nouns simply do not work with metaphorical adjectives.

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