Interviews October 2002

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
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A Reader's Manifesto
by B. R. Myers
Melville House
160 pages, $9.95

The glowing critical endorsements and prestigious award seals adorning the typical book jacket of the latest acclaimed "literary" novel suggest that the text within represents a superior example of contemporary prose. But is this necessarily true? One disgruntled reader, a man from New Mexico named B. R. Myers, emphatically believes that it is not. In "A Reader's Manifesto," published last year in The Atlantic, Myers launched a sharp attack on the pretentiousness of contemporary literary prose, raising the hackles of critics and authors alike. Myers's biting assessments of many admired works were fiercely debated both by readers and professional critics. This fall Myers has published the uncut version of his article in book form, along with a section in which he responds to some of the criticisms that the magazine article provoked.Myers argues that the typical "literary masterpiece" of today is usually in fact a mediocre work dolled up with trendy writerly gimmicks designed to lend an impression of artsy profundity and to obscure the author's lack of talent. An affected, deliberately unnatural prose style, banal pronouncements intoned magisterially as if they were great pearls of wisdom, relentless overuse of wordplay, and the gratuitous inclusion of foreign words are just a few of the affronts to good writing of which Myers finds several well-known authors guilty.Though readers don't tend to get much pleasure from the books that are selected for literary stardom, they usually wrongly attribute the problem to themselves, Myers explains, assuming that if a critically celebrated work fails to speak to them, it must point to their own lack of taste or limited understanding. Compounding the problem, he argues, is the fact that today's critics—most of whom are novelists themselves—try to foster the idea that good writing is recognizable to sophisticated literary connoisseurs but is beyond the ken of ordinary folk.

Critics seem to have a hard time discussing prose in a straightforward manner.... At best they will quote one or two sentences from the text, usually the most stilted ones they can find, along with some empty remark like "now that's great writing."Or rather [they use words like] "evocative" and "compelling," conveniently vague attributes that have become the literary catchwords of our time....The implication is always the same: "If you can't see why that's great writing, I won't waste my time trying to explain."

To support his contention that the critically acclaimed novels of today are not as good as the critics say, he performs irreverent close readings of a selection of excerpts from the works of five celebrated authors (Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, David Guterson, Cormac McCarthy, and Annie Proulx), and demonstrates how, if one really focuses on these texts, one finds that many of them are awkwardly phrased, unnecessarily repetitive, or simply don't make sense. (Lest readers assume that Myers has unfairly sought out the worst examples he could find, he points out that he has selected mostly excerpts already singled out for praise by literary establishment reviewers.) Myers's goal, he explains, is to convey to fellow readers that they shouldn't feel cowed into reading (and pretending to be engaged by) the latest dull and pretentious book just because the literary establishment has pronounced it "evocative" and "compelling." Rather, Myers emphasizes, readers should trust their own instincts, and decide for themselves what books speak to them in meaningful ways.

When Don DeLillo describes a man's walk as "a sort of explanatory shuffle, a comment on the literature of shuffles," I feel nothing; the wordplay is just too insincere, too patently meaningless. But when Nabokov talks of midges "continuously darning the air in one spot," or the "square echo" of a car door slamming, I feel what Philip Larkin hoped readers of his poetry would feel: "Yes, I've never thought of it that way, but that's how it is."[These days] it is the unassuming storyteller who is reviled, while mediocrities who puff themselves up to produce gabby "literary" fiction are guaranteed a certain respect, presumably for aiming high.... It is as easy to aim high as to aim low. Isn't it time we went back to judging writers on whether they hit the mark?

Myers, who refers to himself as "a U.S. Army brat," was raised in Bermuda, South Africa, and Germany. Though his permanent residence is in New Mexico, he is currently in Korea, teaching North Korean studies at Korea University outside Seoul.

We corresponded by e-mail.

—Sage Stossel


In the Manifesto's preface you express regret that you had just committed yourself to publishing a shortened version of the piece in The Atlantic Monthly when The Times Literary Supplement expressed interest in reviewing the original self-published book version. (But of course by then the magazine contract had compelled you to take the book off the market.) Do you feel that the piece might have had a different impact if it had come to people's attention in its original form?

It would have been nice and subversive to have a self-published book reviewed anywhere. But your colleagues at The Atlantic helped me improve things a lot, and as someone said to me the other day, "How do you know the TLS wasn't going to tear you apart?" I suppose everything worked out for the best.

It's clear from your follow-up section on the response to "A Reader's Manifesto" that the literary establishment didn't take to it kindly. Do you have any sense as to whether, in spite of that hostility, the piece has succeeded in inspiring any changes in how books get reviewed or what fiction writers set out to accomplish?

Nothing's changed so far. A friend sent me The New York Times's review of Paul Auster's latest effort. The novel sounds like watered-down Borges—no surprise there, of course—and the article itself, by D. T. Max, is a textbook example of the Welcome Addition to a Solid Body of Work review: a breezy admission that the plot doesn't work, diversionary references to the writer's other novels, extra points given for ambition, and a conclusion that neatly sidesteps the reader's question of "Yes, but is it really worth reading?" These things used to enrage me, but they don't anymore. This way people can see that I'm not making things up.

Melville House, the publisher of the newest version of A Reader's Manifesto, is a tiny, brand-new company run by just two people, and your book is one of the first two it's published. How did you decide on Melville House as the publisher for your book? Were you specifically looking for a publisher outside the literary establishment?

I didn't have that much of a choice, since no one in New York City wanted to go near the book. People wanted to get a look at me, but that was about it. One editor begged off by saying he was already publishing one of my "targets." Another said he didn't want anything the literary press would be out to destroy. Another said my essay had "infuriated" her. One guy started out friendly, then threw my agent and me out of his office. He literally told us to leave! We got in the elevator and burst out laughing. It was hopeless. A few weeks after I returned to Korea we ended up getting one lonely offer for $15,000—and that was contingent on a hardback edition, which I'd already made clear I wouldn't agree to. I think they just wanted a polite way to back out.

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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