A Reader's Manifesto
by B. R. Myers
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.
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.
A while after that I read a column by Dennis Loy Johnson in which he attacked The New York Times for arguing that I wasn't American enough to appreciate American fiction. I contacted him to say thanks. When I said I'd probably have to self-publish my book (again!), he said, "Don't do that, I've got my own publishing house now." He couldn't pay an advance, of course, but he understood the concept—like not having a hardback edition, for example. So that's how it started.
Why didn't you want to have a hardback edition?
It's just not long enough to warrant paying sixteen or seventeen dollars for it. I can't very well mock DeLillo and then put out some overpriced hardback like Pafko at the Wall!
Is it your feeling that the authors whose works you discuss set out in a calculated way out to put something over on readers? Your observations seem to suggest that these authors know they're getting away with something and are afraid of being found out.
People who can't draw often fake it by thickening or smudging their lines. Art teachers flunk students who do this, but the well-meaning viewer will look at the blur and unconsciously create in it the line that makes sense. What you get from writers today is the verbal equivalent of these little ruses, and the same aversion to simplicity and clarity. The way Auster repeats himself all the time, for example, is like a sketch-artist going over and over something with his charcoal—a badly drawn hand, say—until it has an impressively "worked-on" look. Or the way Proulx strings a dozen lame phrases into a long sentence that looks great when you read it with one eye on the TV. This isn't the sort of late-Faulknerian badness that comes from over-exuberance or pomposity. It strikes me as very calculated, very furtive.
You seem to be a very mysterious figure. Your biography in the back of the book is only two sentences long and is unaccompanied by a photo. Even your publisher, whom I spoke with in setting up this interview, says he's never met you in person and that you avoid having your picture taken. I was also told that you would prefer to do this interview by e-mail rather than over the phone. What are your reasons for keeping yourself so far from public view?
The book has only been out for about a month, but it's already sold three times what those New York publishers predicted it would sell in a year. This is how I explain it: A lot of people have waited so long for certain things to be said that they're willing to overlook the clumsiness with which I say them. That doesn't make me a real writer, though, or give me a claim to any other kind of celebrity status in my own right. Aren't there enough people in public view as it is? Besides, I live in Korea, so I couldn't do the publicity tour even if I wanted to. As for photographs, I think you should only put your face on a book if you look like Arundhati Roy. But I'm no man of mystery. I wish I were.
Can you talk a little bit about how you ended up in Korea and what you're working on there?
I'm a visiting professor in North Korean Studies at Korea University's regional campus, which is about an hour and a half south of Seoul. They asked me to come here last year on the basis of a book I wrote ten years ago—my German doctoral thesis, actually, which was about the failure of socialist realism under Kim Il Sung. This is my last semester here, and I'm teaching classes on North Korean cinema, media, and North Korean refugees. I have well over a hundred students, so in a way I guess I'm in public view after all. This is why I wanted an e-mail interview, by the way. I have to speak and lecture in Korean all day, so I have a hard time suddenly picking up the phone and switching to English. But I'm sure The New York Times will pounce on that as more proof that I'm not American enough.
Throughout A Reader's Manifesto you contend that literary criticism has changed for the worse in recent years, with critics becoming much more prescriptive about what people should read, and judging authors more on the basis of individual sentences than on how their works hold up overall. When did those changes begin, and what do you think caused them?
I've read reviews from the forties and fifties, and they're all much more honest and thoughtful than what we get today. The best critics now are film reviewers, people like Anthony Lane and David Denby. They write about movies the way people used to write about books. I can't pinpoint when the Sentence Cult began. I'd guess it's connected to the overall decline in reading skills since, what, the seventies? I'm not really that interested in the history. The important thing is that today's "verbal pyrotechnics" are just that: empty bangs and flashes for people who are too dull to appreciate natural language. Is it just me, or is something similar going on in music and movies too? You're not a singer unless you give us a dozen of those chin-bobbing melismas in every song. You're not an actor until you take on a spectacular "stretch." We look down on all artists who make their craft look easy. Another sign of barbarism, I suppose.
You seem to suggest that the pretentiousness you observe in contemporary literary fiction is being imposed on hapless readers from above by an excessively powerful literary establishment. You write, for example, that the quality of literary fiction is unlikely to improve any time soon because "the cultural elite is doing such a quietly efficient job of maintaining the status quo." But what about the possibility that the new pretentiousness may be something that Americans have in part brought on themselves? Mightn't the evolution of the bookstore, for example, from a straightforward purveyor of books to a kind of community center with jazz, coffee, armchairs, author readings, and so on, suggest that Americans are in the mood for a kind of self-conscious, affected literariness—and that the literature that's now so popular has found a wide audience precisely because it's so well suited to readers' current tastes?
The establishment makes sure that only a certain kind of literature is promoted in the media. This in turn discourages a lot of people from reading anything at all. But that isn't to say that readers of Guterson and DeLillo are unhappy. And if they want The Body Artist, then give them The Body Artist. That's my motto. Which is why I wince when I see that line on the back cover of my book about how I'm supposedly fighting on behalf of readers. I'm not doing anything of the sort. What I really want is to get the non-readers reading again.
Do you know for a fact that fewer people are reading now than in the past, and if so, that it's the quality of the writing that's driving them away?
I just know from my own experience how much harder it is to meet a novel-reader now than it was twenty or even ten years ago. So many intelligent people seem to have given up on novels because they trusted the media to pick out the best ones for them. And of course it's the quality of contemporary fiction that's driving them away. The stuff is just dull. How often are we told to interpret our boredom or irritation with a new novel as a surefire indication that it's challenging, and therefore good? DeLillo "has earned a right to bore us for our own good," as Salon puts it. You've got to hand it to postmodernism; no other literary movement in history ever spread so much boredom in the name of playfulness! But it's precisely the intelligent people who wander off to art forms they can enjoy, like the movies. What you have left are the puritans, the grinds, the cachet-hunters, because it's never occurred to them that the arts can be fun.
To get people reading again, are there any books you would recommend?
Well, in the book I recommend Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, William Godwin's Caleb Williams, Japanese novels like Shiga Naoya's A Dark Night's Passing. And I still think they're great novels. But I feel a little uncomfortable recommending things, because my whole message is that readers are better off disregarding all received opinion. The reason there are so many long excerpts in my book is so that people can judge for themselves whether I have a point. And I urge everyone in doubt to go to the full texts of White Noise, etc., and form their own opinions. Let me just pass on my method of finding novels: I go through big reference books like the Oxford Guide to English Literature, make a note of books or writers that seem interesting, and then go to the library and see how many of them I can find. That's how I discovered Caleb Williams.
The Manifesto's subtitle indicates that it is an attack on the state of "American" writing specifically. Is this a distinctly American phenomenon? Or have you noticed an increase in literary pretentiousness elsewhere as well?
We Americans think of ourselves as the world's straight-talkers, but it's not the case. Our writers have always been more affected than the British. Even Hemingway and Carver seem so self-conscious when you compare them to Waugh, Isherwood, Forster, Orwell, Maugham—the list is endless. Kingsley Amis said he wanted American writers to "be natural for a change." But now the British write a lot like our own crew, Amis's own son being a case in point. It's an international trend. Everyone would rather show off than communicate, because showing off is easier. Here in Korea, for example, many writers use foreign words no one can understand, instead of the beautiful Korean words that they're too inarticulate to think of.
Many of the works of the five authors you discuss are bestsellers, but you argue that they aren't good reads. In your view, are people being inspired to buy these books because of the critical hype and then only pretending to enjoy them because they're afraid of being regarded as philistines?
Here's my theory. Many people want to set themselves off from the Grisham-reading herd, but they don't want to read a classic because they're afraid someone will say "Bleak House? God, I did that back in college." And they know they'll get even less cachet from reading an old novel like Caleb Williams that no one's heard of. So they buy the latest prize-winner, which is easily recognized in the office and subway as the "better" kind of book, and then they read it, secure in the knowledge that thousands of the "better" people across the country are reading it at about the same time. I'm sure they genuinely enjoy this sense of intellectual community, even if they don't enjoy the actual book. But remember: they don't have to enjoy it. They're allowed to say that it isn't their cup of tea, or that they found it heavy going. What they mustn't do is differ with the "better" consensus and dismiss the book as bad. Only philistines like me do that.
You suggest that the works of Proulx, DeLillo, et. al. will be justifiably forgotten before long. Are there any old books that are generally considered important fixtures in the literary canon that in your view were overrated in their own day, and continue to be so now?
We don't have a canon of books so much as a pantheon of writers. To be considered well-read we're expected to be familiar with most of Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc., instead of with the few good books they wrote. And if we're still expected to read The Grapes of Wrath it's not because anyone still thinks it's great, but because Steinbeck is just too important a figure to overlook entirely. At the same time, a much better novel like Appointment in Samarra isn't read as often as it should be, because John O'Hara wrote too much trash to get into the pantheon. (When I recommended the book—and only the book—The L.A. Times sneered at me for holding up O'Hara as a great writer!) This is the main problem, I think: the belief that the writer is more important than the text.
In 1996 Jonathan Franzen wrote an article in Harper's lamenting that serious fiction has moved out of the mainstream. He then went on to write The Corrections, which has been hailed as just the sort of serious, yet accessible book that he said we lack. Have you read either the Harper's essay or The Corrections? What's your take on them?
People often ask me about Franzen, and when I answer with a question of my own, namely, "Have you read anything by Montherlant?," they look at me funny. But why is the one question more relevant than the other? Because the media tell us to read Franzen? Well, last year they told us to read Rick Moody. The day I let the media set my reading list is the day I want someone to creep up on me with a big blunt instrument.
Toward the end of A Reader's Manifesto you ask, "How better to keep young people from reading than to invoke the names of some windy new mediocrity every week?" How would you respond to a high school student who wants to know why such reader-unfriendly works as those by James Joyce, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Gertrude Stein, or Virginia Woolf (which they're told to force themselves to read), are objectively better than the works of such authors as Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy, or David Guterson?
"Objectively better": I realize what a loaded phrase that is. Well, as [the British playwright] Joe Orton said, you can always tell when some things are rubbish and some things aren't. And I don't consider difficulty to be reader-unfriendly! Here's the thing. We have books in America like The Catcher in the Rye that spark young people's interest in literature. But then they get The Old Man and the Sea and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Before they know it they're in college, and someone in a bow-tie is shoving White Noise down their throats. Is it any wonder they stop reading? I just hate the idea of these people thinking they're too dumb to enjoy contemporary fiction, when chances are they're too smart for it—they need real, challenging literature. Maybe they won't go from Salinger to Joyce in one week, but there are so many interesting novels that they can read on the way there.
In 1917 T. S. Eliot published a now-famous essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," which criticized the recently fashionable tendency for poets to indulge in self-absorbed musings on their own emotional states. He made a very well-argued case against the kind of gushing personal outpouring characteristic of Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets. Romanticism did end up giving way to Modernism, but the works of the Romantic period have hardly fallen into obscurity since then or been universally dismissed as second-rate. What do you make of the possibility that, like T. S. Eliot, perhaps you're objecting to a passing literary fashion which, like many fashions, is characterized by a certain amount of affectation, but which will probably leave behind works of lasting value?
As you know, more great books have been written through the ages than any of us can read in our lifetime. I'm sure there are good contemporary novels out there that will stand the test of time, too. I never said there weren't. But I don't trust critics to identify them for me, particularly since no one wants to discuss prose, which is the only thing I can judge for myself when reading a review. And I'm not about to slog through a hundred hyped-up novels in the hope of finding one that deserves the hype. Life is too short. I know that must sound callous to writers who are struggling to be noticed, but if they want to get readers like me back in the fold, they need to start reforming the whole review process. Remember that most reviewers are novelists themselves.
How could the reviewing process be reformed?
Well, imagine what would happen if the Big Three were allowed to review each other's cars in Consumer Reports. You might think they'd just try to run each other down. But they wouldn't; they'd realize that it's in the industry's interests to screw the consumers, to lower their expectations. They'd say, "The brakes don't work, but that's what real driving is all about," and so on. They'd save the bad reviews for outsiders like the Japanese. The same principle is behind the insincerity with which novelist-critics review each other's books. And even the full-time reviewers like Michiko Kakutani don't seem to represent the consumer's interests to the extent that a movie critic like Roger Ebert does. The best way to reform things is to force reviewers to concentrate on prose. As it is now, they say things about the plot and the characters that we have to take on trust. But if they were to say the prose is good or bad, and explain why on the basis of lengthy excerpts, then we could judge for ourselves.