Letters to the editor

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.

But I think Schwarz errs in seeming to endorse John Erickson's calling what was in fact a world conflagration "Stalin's War." In terms of total casualties, the Soviet Union undoubtedly suffered the most. But the war on the Eastern Front was an Orwellian battle between two monstrous tyrannies. (Stalin murdered or imprisoned millions of his own people in Russia's most desperate hour, even as the Germans advanced.) The people who died there, no matter how bravely they fought, were forced to be there, under penalty of death. (Stalin went so far as to have sharpshooters stationed behind the battle lines to shoot any who wavered.)

One of Ambrose's main themes is this: How do you mobilize the anti-authoritarian individualists of a slumbering and isolationist democracy with a tiny standing army to fight distant enemies on the other side of vast oceans without resorting to totalitarian means?

In that sense the Anglo-American triumph was disproportionately noble. Most of the British and U.S. soldiers did not want to fight but did. Few free men chose to be heroes, yet thousands fought and gave their lives with astonishing heroism. One cannot read about the mountain fighting in Italy, the frostbitten men holding back the "bulge" in the Ardennes, or the Marines butchered but prevailing in the volcanic black sands of Iwo Jima without finding one's admiration conquering one's cynicism. I have stood on the heights overlooking Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc, and I still cannot understand why free men, in a war so far from home, chose to scale those cliffs under the most withering fire, and kept coming and coming despite horrifying casualties.

R. C. Hughes
New York, N.Y.

Benjamin Schwarz wrote a masterly review of Stephen Ambrose's book The Good Fight, which was written to appeal to young adults. As a veteran of World War II who served in the U.S. Navy from December of 1941 to February of 1946, and as a student of world history, I'm amazed that Ambrose would have neglected to mention the role that Russia played in defeating the Nazis. Nowhere in The Good Fight is there any mention of Stalingrad, where the Nazis were stopped for the first time, or of the greatest tank battle of World War II, at Kursk, where the vaunted Nazi panzer divisions were decimated.

My sincere appreciation and thanks to Schwarz for his perceptive and evenhanded review, in which he pointed out, "If readers are old enough to study an event that involved the deaths of more than 60 million people, they are old enough to learn that one studies history not to simplify issues but to illuminate their complexities."

Frank Levin
Encino, Calif.

I think Benjamin Schwarz greatly understates the Western Allies' contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany by overemphasizing the tremendous casualty and deployment statistics of the Germans and the Soviets on the Eastern Front. To even begin to assess what credit is due to one Allied nation or another, one must also factor in the effects of the American Lend-Lease program and of the Western Allies' air war over Germany. For instance, the vast majority of the Soviet army's supply vehicles were American-supplied trucks and jeeps, totaling more than half a million vehicles. These vehicles allowed Soviet ground forces to become almost fully mechanized (unlike their foe), thus making possible the deep penetration and encirclement techniques used by the Soviet generals in the last two years of the war.

In addition, American food supplies were crucial to the Soviets, because German forces occupied large swaths of Ukraine, a vital agricultural region, during many planting and harvesting periods. And finally, the dramatic increase in the Soviet forces' combat effectiveness as the war went on was due in no small part to the heavy importation of American communications equipment, which allowed the Soviets to coordinate large joint-force operations over vast expanses of territory.

As for the Western Allies' air war over Europe, the relatively small numbers of casualties suffered or inflicted by both Allied and German forces tells only a fraction of the story. The bombing campaign exacted terrible damage on Germany's factories, its transportation network, its population, and its already very limited fuel-production capacity. In addition, from 1943 onward Germany was forced to drastically reduce the number of air units dedicated to the Russian front. To cite just one statistic: by September of 1944 roughly 80 percent of German air units were devoted to the air war over Germany. Consequently, Germany's highly effective blitzkrieg, used mercilessly in the first two years of the war, was all but abandoned as the war went on, because the tactic was dependent on Germany's near absolute air superiority.

John McKinzey
Los Angeles, Calif.

Nothing is good about war, but to denigrate the reason the soldiers fought is reprehensible. I'll take Tom Brokaw any day.

Jeanne Musselwhite
Ooltewah, Tenn.

Benjamin Schwarz replies:

R. C. Hughes is right that Stalin was a very bad man, but in my piece I characterized Stalin's government as "the second most hideous regime in history [after Nazi Germany]." Hughes is also unfair to the millions of Red Army officers and soldiers killed during the war. Most fought neither for the "cause" of anti-fascism nor because Stalin forced them to but because the German conflict on the Eastern Front was essentially a war of extermination, and they recognized that were they to lose, their homeland would be ravaged, their culture uprooted, and their families killed or enslaved.

John McKinzey is correct: Lend-Lease aid greatly helped the Soviet war effort (and he shouldn't neglect the many British sailors who lost their lives ferrying U.S. and British materiel to the Soviets). But his argument is overstated and a bit unseemly. Giving material aid is not the same as fighting and dying, and we rightly applaud a fighter in the ring more than we do his dietician. ("The allies bought the German defeat with Russian blood and paid in Spam," the historian Brian Moynahan has remarked.) Lend-Lease assistance didn't arrive in sufficient quantity to help the Soviets stave off defeat in the critical period 1941-1942. And though Chevrolet, Dodge, and Ford trucks enormously helped the Red Army to realize its planners' vision of deep operations, it was Soviet officers and soldiers who brilliantly performed the encirclements and deep penetrations of Operation Bagration, which nearly all military historians regard as constituting the most innovative and devastating display of the art of operations in the entire war. Although counterfactual history is always a thorny endeavor, the foremost English-language historian of the Eastern Front, Colonel David M. Glantz (U.S. Army, retired), and his co-author, Jonathan House, put Lend-Lease aid into proper perspective in When Titans Clashed, the definitive operational history of the Soviet-German war: "Left to their own devices, Stalin and his commanders might have taken 12 to 18 months longer to finish off the Wehrmacht." I've written elsewhere about the importance of the Allied air campaign against Germany, and I don't dispute Mr. McKinzey's points; but, as I'm sure he'd agree, World War II in Europe was not won by air power.

Air Travel

James Fallows ("Freedom of the Skies," June Atlantic) describes a promising new world of low-cost, reliable, and relatively safe small planes utilizing our many local airports for faster and more efficient travel. Yet we as a nation continue to ignore or minimally support the most logical and cost-effective way of moving people—high-speed rail. All those hub-and-spoke airline systems could be reduced to just hubs with high-speed rail providing services from city center to city center along an interconnected web of rail-service spokes. The most obvious way to implement this would be to adapt the interstate-highway system to accommodate a similarly advanced mode of elevated high-speed rail connecting every town and city on the interstate with one another and the major airline hubs.

In California the High Speed Rail Authority has made an intensive study that demonstrates the cost-effective and time/congestion saving advantages of rail travel over commuter-airline service. Its analysis even demonstrates high-speed rail operating at a profit! And high-speed rail is not subject to delays from fog, snow, or thunderstorm, nor does it need a parachute should the engineer have a sudden heart attack. Nor are you apt to lose your luggage, which you can simply carry aboard yourself. Finally, the cost of one nonpolluting, low-noise, far more comfortable high-speed train set is less than half the cost of a single small airliner. Are the Germans, Japanese, British, and French that much smarter than we are?

Mike Evans
Anderson, Calif.

The following is, in my opinion, a serious omission by James Fallows in his article regarding the future of air transportation.

The CarterCopter is a vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft projected to cruise at 400 mph at 50,000 feet (230 mph at sea level). It uses a rotor for vertical takeoff and landing and a small wing for high-speed cruise. The rotor is powered only prior to takeoff and is always in auto-rotation during flight, like an autogyro (also known as a gyrocopter). In high-speed flight the rotor is basically unloaded, so there is no retreating blade stall, and the rotor rpm is low, to reduce drag. The CarterCopter offers the speed and efficiency of a fixed-wing aircraft and the off-airport abilities of a helicopter—all with much less complexity than tiltrotor aircraft and other vectored-thrust aircraft such as the Harrier.

Ints Luters
Seattle, Wash.

Iwas disappointed by the scant attention James Fallows paid to the problems faced by small airports throughout the country. Even if smaller airplanes (say, with a capacity of four to ten passengers) can be made perfectly safe, they will not be able to relieve the overcrowding that exists on the major airports' runways if no other airports are available. As Fallows noted, more than 5,000 small airports, if effectively employed, could form the basis for an efficient network of intercity air transportation. But the Federal Aviation Administration has taken a laissez-faire attitude regarding the survival of almost all these airports, especially privately owned airports. In many cases local politics, often dominated by anti-airport groups focused on local issues and not on our national transportation system, have determined which airports survive and which fall victim to developers' surveying stakes. This is puzzling, because a regional-airport program, involving existing small airports and the enhanced use of commuter-sized aircraft at these airports, is a feasible goal, whereas adding new airports (especially here in the Northeast) is not.

Robert Checchio
Dunellen, N.J.

James Fallows replies:

I like trains about as much as I like airplanes, and I agree with Mike Evans that high-speed train service has been neglected. Trains work best when a large number of people live in a concentrated area and commute back and forth along densely traveled routes. The corridor between Boston and Washington is the obvious example in the United States. Better, faster trains would do more to improve travel along the mid-Atlantic corridor than would a fleet of small planes. The same is true for the San Francisco Bay Area and some other areas.

Trains do not make as much sense when people live in widely dispersed settlements or when small numbers of travelers want to go to any given destination. Laying and maintaining enough track, and running trains frequently enough, to allow a family in Cheyenne to travel conveniently to San Diego—and another family to go to Tulsa—is not as practical as better small-plane connections between those two points. The Germans, the Japanese, and others may or may not be smarter than we are: they live in countries with settlement patterns different from those of most of the United States.

I hope that the CarterCopter proves practical, effective, and profitable, and that the same is true of the Moller Skycar and other highly innovative air-travel devices. The projects I discussed were closely enough linked to existing, proven technology to pass regulatory and certification tests in the short run, while having a potentially broad impact on travel patterns.

Like Robert Checchio, I am sorry whenever a small airport closes, since this is a one-way process: virtually never are they re-opened, or new ones built. But I think most of the traveling public would be amazed at the number of airports that still exist—and would view them as something other than noisy nuisances if they became part of a transportation system that benefited ordinary travelers.

Chain Bookstores

I was interested in Brooke Allen's "Two—Make That Three—Cheers for the Chain Bookstores" (July/August Atlantic), even though Canadians have a very different perception of the chains. Here the direst predictions have come to pass. Chapters, our version of Barnes & Noble, aggressively saturated the book market with box stores, often building large outlets across the street from successful independents. Once Chapters had driven much of its competition out of business, its large capital costs caught up with it. The chain responded with some very underhanded practices. It delayed payments to suppliers, returned merchandise in unprecedented numbers, and tried to make publishers take back books that were dog-eared or coffee-stained. Since Chapters's sales represented such a large portion of the Canadian book market, publishers were forced to let the company do as it wished. As a result, many struggling writers are not being paid by the cash-starved small presses, which had to trim their lists in a desperate effort to survive.

Edward Zuk
Surrey, B.C.

I think Brooke Allen is missing the point. Independent bookstores can compete with chains on a level playing field. The point is that chains want it all. Barnes & Noble publishes a large number of titles under its own imprint which are not available to other bookstores. Eventually the chains will be dictating what is published and what is not, or they will be doing the publishing themselves.

Elaine Hines
Renaissance Books
Springfield, Mo.

Brooke Allen claims that one of the advantages of the big chain bookstores is their ability to order a book if they don't have it in stock—as if this were a power unique to the chains and thus a mark of their superiority over small stores. Not so! All bookstores can place orders for you, and have always been able to.

Jana Hollingsworth
Seattle, Wash.

Brooke Allen replies:

I am not at all familiar with the situation in Canada, but if it is as Edward Zuk describes, then it is indeed the sort of disaster that people in the United States feared the chains would set off. So far that has not been our experience here. As I wrote in the article, the future here for both independents and chains is very uncertain, considering the changes that e-books, books-on-demand, Amazon, and other Internet services are likely to wreak on the retail business.

To address Elaine Hines's points: In many searches through Barnes & Noble, I have found not "a large number of titles" published under its imprint but a rather limited list of classics old enough to be in the public domain, all sold on one table or stand. As far as I have been able to ascertain, Barnes & Noble has no plans to become a major force in publishing. Although no one knows what the future will bring, the chains show no signs as yet of determining or even influencing what is published in the United States.