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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"A Reader's Manifesto"

     In his controversial analysis of what passes for modern literary fiction, B. R. Myers, in "A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose," uses the works of prize-winning novelists Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, David Gusteson, and Annie Proulix as good examples of bad writing. Since I find these "great writers" virtually unreadable, I'm a big fan of Myers' 2002 book. In his Preface, Myers lays out his basic intent and theme: "In late 1989 I wrote a short book called 'Gorgons in the Pool.' Quoting lengthy passages from prize winning novels, I argued that some of the most accclaimed contemporary prose is the product of mediocre writers availing themselves of trendy stylistic gimmicks. The greater point was that we readers should treat our own taste and perception instead of deferring to received opinion." Wow, what a refreshing and helpful idea! Finally, someone was saying that the problem isn't you, the reader--but them--the pretentious literary critics who have been for years pushing this rubbish on serious readers of fiction. Here are some passages from this honest and courageous book: way that contemporary writers like to lower our expectations for their work is to claim that something as inadequate as language can never do justice to the complexity of what they're trying to say.

You don't have to read anything published after 1960 to know at once what you're in for: a tale of Life in Consumerland, full of heavy irony, trite musing about advertising and materialism, and long, long lists of consumer artifacts, all dedicated to the proposition that America is a wasteland of stupefied shoppers. (I have to plead guilty to that myself. But I'm just a nonfiction hack, not a great novelist.) Critics like to call this kind of thing "edgy" writing, though how an edge can be decerned on either style or theme after fifty years of blunting is anyone's guess. This will always be foolproof subject matter for a novelist of limited gifts.

Anyone who doubts the declining literacy of book reviews need only consider how the gabbiest of all prose style is invariably praised as "lean," "spare," even "minimalist."

A thriller [genre novel] must thrill or it is worthless; this is as true now as it ever was. Today's "literary" novel, on the other hand, need only evince a few quotable passages to be guaranteed at least a lukewarm review. It is no surprise, therefore, that the "literary" camp now attracts a type of writer who, under different circumstances, would never have strayed from the safest crime-novel formulae, and that so many critically acclaimed novels today are really mediocre "genre" stories told in an analgam of trendy stylistic tics.

At the 1999 National Book Awards Ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say she had to puzzle repeatedly over many of the latter's sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison's reply was: "That, my dear, is called reading." Sorry, my dear Toni, but it's actually called bad writing. Great prose isn't always easy but it's always lucid; no one of Oprah's intelligence ever had to puzzle over what Joseph Conrad was trying to say in a particular sentence.

The American literary press is faced with a clear choice. It can continue plugging unreadable new books until the last advertiser jumps ship, and the last of the stand-alone book-review sections is discontinued--as "The Boston Globe" was in 2001--or it can start promoting the kind of novels that will get more Americans reading again. (I'm afraid it's too late for that.)


  1. I am SO glad to read this. I feel vindicated! There are several books like this in my home library! I always thought it was ME- that I was just too dumb and lowbrow to get the point of the book. About once a year I try once again to read one of these so-called literary gems, and it still feels like I'm ever so slowly settling to the bottom of the ocean! Maybe it isn't just me?!

    I still wish you would bring out some or all of your good books like Crimson Stain and your "Mammoth" series in Kindle format...


  2. You're opinion of so-called "literary fiction" reveals that you have literary taste and intelligence. good for you.

  3. Aw, thanks! It's nice to feel vindicated. I'm stuck here at home with a broken ankle- in 2 places, no less- so I am reallllly jonesing for good stuff to read!

    Suggestions would be welcome!