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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
D. Horn will remember that I criticized David Guterson's depiction of the handicapped character for its form and not its content. As for real-life cruelty, Guterson has gone on record in The Washington Post as saying, "I make recreation out of taking the life of small birds."
Dan Cryer misinterprets "A Reader's Manifesto" as a demand for straightforward prose. I can only refer him to the last paragraph of the introduction, in which I distinguish between the "good Mandarin" of Joyce and Woolf and the "crude affectation" of today's mediocrities. I should also point out that none of the excerpts in the essay evinces complex prose, and that I conclude with a declaration that I will sit out the current malaise by reading writers such as Proust and James. At first I was surprised that anyone could have read the essay so inattentively as to miss all this. Then I remembered: Mr. Cryer is a literary critic.
Three cheers for Brooke Allen, for deflating the myth of the evil chain bookstore ("Two—Make That Three—Cheers for the Chain Bookstores," July/August Atlantic). Most of the people bemoaning Barnes & Noble (with its sinister café) are urbanites who are used to great big-city bookstores. I am not: I grew up in a dreary suburb of Miami, with nothing but an ill-organized Waldenbooks and a few Christian bookstores nearby. When Barnes & Noble arrived, it was better than manna falling from heaven. The health section was suddenly more than a mishmash of bad cookbooks. The philosophy section was no longer a dumping ground for The Book of Mormon, but actually contained philosophy. Far from crushing individuality, chain bookstores rescue (and I speak from experience) suburbia from literary mediocrity: there's enough space to stock Danielle Steel and Günter Grass. Nor has the charm of the small bookstore been lost: it was never there to begin with. Have you ever been in a small bookstore? After you walk in, the manager will come from the back and watch you thumb through the two or three books worth reading, and give you a dirty look when you leave empty-handed. Some charm. The blessing of the big chains is the anonymity they confer: reading is a solitary hobby, and the chains rightly leave you alone with your Danielle Steel, your Günter Grass, and your overpriced café latte.
Brooke Allen makes a good case for the large chain bookstores. I frequently shop at both Borders and Barnes & Noble, and rarely have I been disappointed (although Borders does not have a biography section). I have even bought books online. In San Antonio the large chains concentrate their many stores on the north side of town, where the more affluent reside. This leaves the south, east, and west sides with no bookstores at all. The snobbery lies not with the independent stores' clientele but with the major chains, who think that the book-buying public lives on only one side of town. Red-lining is not limited to insurance companies. So two cheers may be called for, but until the large chains enrich the cultural life of all the residents of San Antonio, the third should be withheld.
Robert A. Shivers
San Antonio, Texas
I have availed myself of the vast selection of the local (Poughkeepsie) Barnes & Noble, and yes, it is a great convenience to walk into such a place and know that if a book is in print, it's probably there. But the advent of the Barnes & Noble meant the demise of Fiddler's Green, in Hyde Park, whose folkie owner carried a CD section devoted entirely to folk music and pushed back some of his shelves most Friday nights for folk-music concerts by both local and nationally known talent, thus much enriching the local cultural scene. In a perfect world both would prosper, but short of that, I would still prefer fewer chains and more independents. With the advent of the Internet—and vast numbers of used-book stores—it is no longer necessary for the local bookseller to stock everything.
After reading Brooke Allen's article about chain bookstores, I remembered a visit to one of the vast shopping malls in Minneapolis a few years ago. Our older son was at that time interested in the institution of slavery in the United States, so I wanted to give him a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin. I went to the counter in a chain bookstore and asked the young lady there if Harriet Beecher Stowe's book was in stock. Pointing to a distant corner, she said (this is true), "Yeah, you'll find it over there under 'Architecture.'"
C. F. Nielsen
Jeffrey Tayler, in "Russia Is Finished" (May Atlantic), offers a portrayal of Russia that uses a misunderstanding of current realities to reach extremely unlikely predictions about the country's future.
Since the beginning of Russia's transition to a market economy, journalists working here have repeated ad nauseam the idea that in order to do business in Russia it is necessary to have a "roof," or protection. I have been doing business in Moscow for five years now, and I still cannot explain why journalists and freelance writers cling to this conviction in the absence of confirming evidence.
The businesses I have operated or invested in include food processing; pharmaceutical distribution, both wholesale and retail; gasoline wholesaling; financing and marketing steel products; export of rubber and related chemicals; production of auto parts; and oil exploration and production. I have never made a payment to a "roof," nor have I ever been solicited for such a payment.
One of the pillars of Tayler's argument is that such payments are an integral part of the Russian economy. He writes, "It has been estimated that 80 percent of Russian businesses pay dan' ("tribute," or protection money), to a krysha ("roof," or racket), but the real number is probably higher; one may assume that any business operating openly has a krysha." If I am doing anything, I am operating openly. Our business headquarters are in central Moscow, ten minutes' walk from one of the city's busiest areas, Pushkin Square. Our security measures are as follows: all visitors are required to sign in at the front desk. According to Tayler, gangsters should be lined up around the block to shake me down. Where are they?
I am aware of the use of the word dan' by journalists, including some who have written for The Atlantic, but I have never encountered it in daily life. Since I am involved in more than five businesses, I must assume I should be paying someone dan'. Why am I not?
Perhaps businessmen operating in Moscow are a more reliable source of information on business conditions in Moscow than are freelance writers.
Another pillar of Tayler's argument is that Vladimir Putin's plans will wreck the Russian economy—if any economy is left here to wreck.
Putin became acting President of Russia at the beginning of 2000. Since then the top income-tax rate has been cut from 35 to 13 percent; revenue taxes have been cut from four to one percent; central-bank reserves have risen from $10 billion to $30 billion; the stock market has rallied; and the economy grew last year by 8.3 percent, faster than China's. The government budget ran a surplus for the first time since the Romanovs. Russian corporations are expected to pay more than $1 billion in dividends this year. Tayler's verdict? "Putin's plans ... amount to a national death sentence."
How can someone be so wrong and still be in print?
Jeffrey Tayler replies:
Businessmen operating in Moscow, as anywhere else, may be counted on to protect their own interests and to provide self-serving assessments of local conditions. This was certainly the case before the financial crisis of 1998 hit Russia, and John Haskell's letter shows that nothing has changed. I know nothing of Haskell's businesses in Moscow, and cannot comment on them. I based my description of the prevalence of such crime in Russia on my experience as co-manager of a security company in Moscow, and also on eight years of residence in and travel around Russia, from Magadan, in the east, to the border with the Baltics, in the west. In certain spheres foreigners (who account for an insignificant percentage of businessmen in Russia) have been targeted for extortion less often than Russians have, though they are especially vulnerable in businesses with heavy cash flows, such as nightclubs and restaurants, and suffer repeated, much-publicized violations of shareholder rights at the hands of unscrupulous Russian partners. That contracts in Russia are often unenforceable without the proper "roofs" and connections remains a significant impediment to foreign investment. This has all been thoroughly documented.
I cannot explain Haskell's never having encountered the word dan', but one possibility is ignorance of Russian—a distinguishing characteristic of many Western businessmen in Russia. There are other slang terms for such payments, but dan' has historical relevance; it means both the payments that mafiya "roofs" extort from their victims and the money paid by subjugated Slavs to Mongol overlords in the Middle Ages.
In citing my reference to the death sentence Putin is imposing on Russia, Haskell omits key words and misapplies the quotation. What I said in full was, "Putin's plans to strengthen the state (at least as he envisions it), if carried out, would amount to a national death sentence." As regards the economy, Haskell's contentions mix the sort of ignorance and gullibility for which Westerners doing business in Russia have become famous among Russians. The rich alone benefit from the flat tax, which amounts to a tax increase for the vast majority of Russians: poor Russians once paid 12 percent; now they pay 13 percent. The stock-market "rally" stems in great measure from high oil prices (and the concomitant increased share prices of Russian oil companies; Russia is the world's third largest producer of crude oil), as do the growth in the central bank's foreign-currency reserves and the rise in GDP. Haskell might like to know that the Russian government's own economic-development program conflicts with his optimism and forecasts a drop in annual growth of GDP from 8.3 percent to 2.6 percent by 2003, continued double-digit inflation and unemployment, falling exports, and minimal increases in foreign investment. Capital flight continues unabated.
Do the races exist? As a philosopher who counts vague adjectives' semantics as a research interest, I was intrigued by Jake Sibley's remark in the July/August Letters about Steve Olson's "The Genetic Archaeology of Race" (April Atlantic). Racial and biological groups "do not exist," Sibley argues, because "genetic and physical ... variations in the human population occur across a continuum."
In particular, I wonder whether his argument might not prove a tad too much. For consider: animals' life cycles unfold in continuum fashion—a fact that no doubt makes framing uncontroversial definitions of "living" and "dead" an elusive goal. Yet to conclude on this basis that death "does not exist," or that a parrot can't really be dead, has the sobriety of an all-too-familiar Monty Python skit.
In his article "Graham Greene's Vatican Dossier" (July/August Atlantic), Peter Godman does a great service by revealing two currents within the Roman Curia: a censorious and militantly vigilant one, represented by Cardinal Pizzardo and the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), and one represented by Cardinal Montini, which is more able to respond to the ambiguities of the human situation without compromising religious truth. In Graham Greene's case the outcome, if not entirely happy, was relatively harmless.
Montini's assistance is characterized as "wise counsel from an unexpected source." I must disagree with that characterization of Montini's intervention. No one closely familiar with the life and ministry of Giovanni Battista Montini, from the start of his career in the Curia through his work as pro-secretary of state, archbishop of Milan, and Pope, would find such counsel to be unexpected. In fact, such action was the norm for this gifted, intelligent, and wise man. His oft-stated conviction was that the truth was apparent to the human mind, needed no defense, and would win out in the end.
Would that we had individuals of Montini's ability, disposition, and vision in the Church today.
Steven C. Moore
To describe Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell as having had "sojourns" at McLean for "needed respites" is insulting to those who have lived in the fire of bipolar disorder ("The Mad Poets Society," by Alex Beam, July/ August Atlantic). Psychiatric hospitalizations are hardly "sojourns" or "needed respites." To describe Robert Lowell as a "repeat user" and Anne Sexton as "never [having] had her ticket punched at McLean" is to grossly trivialize the anguish of repeated miserable psychiatric hospitalizations and the anguish of never having had the treatment you think might have been effective. Beam's choice of word and phrase betray an open hostility to the mentally ill and the artistically gifted.
La Grande, Ore.
In his "As American as Women's Soccer?" (June Atlantic), Scott Stossel made the daft assertion that because women goalkeepers typically are smaller than their male counterparts, "there's more scoring in the women's game." This is not true. If height were the key factor in keepers' effectiveness, they would be the size of basketball centers. They are not, however; agility and anticipation are more important than height. Moreover, although a typical woman might not be able to reach as far as a man, this advantage to the offense is balanced by myriad other factors, such as the fact that women's shots on goal tend to travel more slowly. In fact, one problem plaguing the new Women's United Soccer Association in its first couple of months was a dearth of goals—by my count, in late June WUSA was averaging 2.69 goals per game, whereas the men's Major League Soccer was averaging 3.17 per game. Women's soccer may be admirable for many reasons, but more goals is not among them.
Paul Boudreaux Jr.
Takoma Park, Md.