Friday, January 04, 2008

A Reader's Manifesto: an attack on the growing pretentiousness in American literary prose by B.R. Myers

Not too long ago I read a hostile and slightly bizarre review of Denis Johnson's new novel Tree of Smoke in the Atlantic Monthly and then coincidentally a colleague asked if I had read A Reader's Manifesto, which when I looked it up turned out to be by the reviewer--so I felt curious enough to read the book, which is what its subtitle suggests.

The author B.R. Myers has a couple of complaints: 1) that readers are not judging for themselves but rather blindly following what critics say is good, 2) that what critics say is good is not actually good, 3) that critics do not pay enough attention to style in their reviews, 4) that good style is easy to understand even if the sentence is long, 5) that a book should be judged for its text only (not its historical/sociological/authorial context) and 6) that contemporary writers, especially those winning awards, are not as good as classic writers (I'm not sure anyone would much disagree on the last point--but does that mean we should stop supporting contemporary writers who might go on to write the next classic?).

Now while I admire a lot of contemporary fiction, I'm also generally open to a good manifesto, so I gave Myers a chance. But I found the book hard to read precisely because it is an attack (an attitude I know many people enjoy, but that I don't particularly) and while Myers claims that he supports having readers think for themselves, he seems instead to want to replace the current critical thought with his own. In other words, he doesn't leave room for readers to think for themselves, he implicity suggests if they do not think like him, they are wrong. The book is written in entirely declarative prose that Myers describes as light-hearted and I assume comes across as such to some, but to me seemed entirely serious and fairly obnoxious. This obnoxiousness is obviously something the publisher takes as a selling point since the review quotes on the back cover alternate between positive and pissed off.

While I agree that certain writers are emperor's new clothes over-rated and I puzzle over certain award designations, I don't really agree with Myers' criteria (as I understood them) for great fiction. He seems to believe that all fiction should create a visual picture that flows constantly and clearly (though not necessarily simply) in front of the readers' eyes as they go. But I don't read like that. When I read I experience language not pictures. So while I understand Myers' complaint that Annie Proulx lists metaphor after metaphor which don't make sense when taken literally--I don't automatically see that as a negative. Because while the word choices he cites (e.g. "strangled work habits") don't make literal sense, to me they make emotional sense. And I like that. He also seems to treat all texts as realist--though to be fair he denies that he is doing that (but I don't see evidence other than his say so)--for example, faulting a line of DeLillo dialogue in White Noise by saying "real people don't talk like that." Well, of course not, nor do real scholars of Hitler studies debate real scholars of Elvis studies in a classroom showdown. One of my frustrations with Myers' criticism is that he takes the texts on in sections that allow him to fault DeLillo's satire in one excerpt and then fault him for his lack of realism in another. It seems you can have one but not both. If you understand White Noise to be a satire (even if you think it is a poor one), you shouldn't fault its lack of realism.

But my biggest conflict with Myers has not to do with his attacks on critically acclaimed authors (his very very negative review of Johnson actually made me anxious to read the novel in order to judge for myself), but with his seemingly narrow position on what a review should do. I'm interested in the possibility of reviews addressing style more (though I don't agree with Myers' position that style should offer constant visual clarity and be entirely grammatical) but I'm not sure non-writers are quite as interested in reading a point by point take down of authors' word choices (which is what the Johnson review is). I don't read reviews merely to decide whether or not to read a book (and even that decision I do not make purely on style). I read reviews because often they are well-written essays that interest me whether or not I will ever read the book. I prefer reviews that offer up both an idea of whether or not this is a book worthy of my time and something more...a comparison to other books on the subject, information on the author, on the time period covered by the text... just something more. I agree with Myers' point that the quotes picked out in reviews as good writing often don't seem much like it, but almost always that is because any sentence taken out of context (other than the first one) isn't as good as when it is in context. And because taste in writing is, dare I say it, subjective. A point Myers seems unwilling to accept.

I would have been more interested in a book that analyzes work that Myers thinks to be exemplary--contemporary or classic (there is some of this). The positive example always offers more to me than the negative. But then that wouldn't have been an attack.


the judge said...

I haven't read Tree of Smoke nor anything by Myers, and I agree with you that he's got some narrow ideas about literature regarding style and whatnot. But as someone who studied literature at the graduate level, some of his points (as you report them) resonate with me, namely the first two. I say the first two points resonate, but that's not to say I think they're right on.

Here's what I think about the current state of literature. Some time ago, maybe fifty years, maybe more, a bifurcation developed in the literary world between what was popular and what was art. Historically, writing that was art was always meant for the masses. Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Hemingway (among many other masters) were all popular writers in their day. This split has had two effects. Popular writing is now vacuous entertainment, while literature is fundamentally an elitist enterprise.

Regarding the latter effect, I could write a great deal. But I'll limit it to a theory I have about art: once any aesthetic medium undergoes the split I just described, between the popular and the aesthetic, that medium loses its cultural relevance. Opera would be a ready example of such an example. (Cinema would be an example of a medium at the peak of its relevance.) Don't consider this an attack, but as a fellow student of literature, I'm afraid I wonder about literature's cultural relevance.

Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

I certainly know the split of which you speak but I don't really see that historically popularity in the time of a work's creation has had much of a correlation to its ultimate cultural relevance (certainly not in the visual arts). It depends how you are defining cultural relevance, I suppose.

the judge said...

You're correct that there's lots of significant works that weren't popular in their day. When I speak of cultural relevance, I'm not talking about any given work; I'm talking about aesthetic mediums.

I don't have a ready definition of cultural relevance, but here's how I see that issue as it pertains to literature. In general (and only in general), literary fiction simply isn't read by people who weren't humanities majors, especially English majors. I mean, literary fiction isn't even read by the majority of college graduates. It's the non-humanities graduates who are buying the popular fiction. In my view, if literature were culturally relevant, it would be read by the population at large and not require the reinforcement of academic institutions to "create" an audience.

As far as the visual arts are concerned (and I never studied art history), a few points. First, owning a painting by a trained artist has always been a matter of affluence. It's not something reproduced on a massive scale like books. But I think over the past two centuries there has been a similar shift in painting. That is, most aspiring painters work out of a concern for the opinions of peers in academic departments and other elite institutions. I mean, Jackson Pollock's paintings are interesting, but it's almost impossible for me to be affected by one of them in a meaningful way.