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Pretentiousness in American Literature

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One of my favourite books of criticism is [I]A Reader's Manifesto[/I], a short attack on the shit that passes for literature in America these days. This was first published as an essay in the Atlantic Monthly, and caused so much controversy that it's just too good not to bring it up here. The thing about this essay is that it's so opinionated and scathing that almost everyone is bound to be outraged at some point while reading it. Still, the author, BR Myers, manages to find such golden examples of shitty prose that you can't help but admire the guy.

This isn't the essay itself, but a fair review that borrows heavily from the essay to make its point. I encourage some of you to read it.

[B]B. R. Myers Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose. Melville House, 149 pages, $9.95 [/B]

Why is unmerited praise so annoying? The opposite sin, unmerited censure, we consider unjust and meet with indignation. But the misplaced compliment, the excess approval, the outsized reward given to what we know doesn't deserve it--that we find distasteful. Even in matters of culture, where the stakes are less immediate, undue favor gives offense. A bad novel is just a bad novel. We read twenty pages and toss it aside. But a good review of the novel sticks in our head, as if a trust has been violated. While the novelist speaks for himself, the critic speaks for a standard, and since the survival of culture depends upon a wary discrimination of virtue and vulgarity, his overly generous review plots a course of diminishing expectations. If others follow and we discern no ulterior motive, we can't even make a moral rejoinder. Something errant and unreasoning, it seems, is happening.

This is the animus behind B. R. Myers's Reader's Manifesto, an idiosyncratic tirade on the "Serious Writers" of our time and the reviewers and award-givers who sustain them. The project began when Myers came across one of the more critically admired sentences in recent years.

In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool
suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this
spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the strange place where
he began, a so-called ranch on strange grounds at the south hinge of the
Big Horn.

Myers's first reaction: "My God, that's a horrible sentence." He might have passed on, but the honors the author Annie Proulx has enjoyed (Pulitzer, National Book Award; The Washington Post: "the best prose stylist working in English now, bar none") demanded an explanation. He started collecting similar specimens of bad prose and critical puffs, parsing the writers' verbal errors and the reviewers' poor judgment. The result he self-published in March 2000 in a print run of 100 copies available only on After four months of silence, a fan letter arrived from Bill Whitworth, a former editor of The Atlantic Monthly. This was followed by a request from the current editor, Michael Kelly, that a shortened version appear in the magazine. When the July 2001 issue cast it as an indictment of "the GODAWFULNESS of today's literary writing" a minor storm erupted. The Wall Street Journal editorialized on its behalf, and papers from Sydney to Cairo to London to Arkansas hailed it as an "emperor-has-no-clothes" expose But the New Yorker editor Meghan O'Rourke wrote in that Myers's "screed" was "crudely off target" and Laura Miller in dismissed it as a "sort of bomb-throwing" that "appears every decade or so." An editor at Harper's, Lee Siegel, complained in the Los Angeles Times that Myers's "method of ripping imaginative prose out of its context is foolishly flawed." Michael Dirda of The Washington Post's "Book World" answered online queries about the essay with, "Didn't read it, probably won't. I don't agree with the premise at all." When the paper of record joined the debate, Judith Shulevitz wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Myers was an "outsider" who "doesn't have a sure grasp of the world he's attacking." In one letter to The Atlantic, the Editorial Director of Broadway Books called the polemic "annoying literary philistinism," while another dubbed Myers "embarrassingly mean-spirited." One fellow sighed, "I hope he is not this cruel in real life."

Now we have another version, issued by a tiny publisher in Hoboken. From the opening paragraphs, we see the respondents are right about the attitude. Myers is, he himself admits, "perversely ungrateful," truculent, and brash, and he manages to insult the preeminent writers, editors, critics, prize panels, and newspapers in the land. He applies the terms "scam" and "ruse" to sacred cows such as Toni Morrison, and mocks Pulitzer Prize-winning reviewers such as Michiko Kakutani. He drops epithets like "cultural elite" making it easy for literati to rate Manifesto the resentful bombast of an envious outsider. To do so, however, is to forget their own insider role in the current situation, for it is the elevation of mediocre writers by undiscerning critics at powerful institutions that turns Myers venomous.

More importantly, to focus on Myers--the "unknown" the "previously unpublished critic" the jerk--is to skirt the central thesis. That is: abetted by well-placed reviewers, an idiom has taken hold of contemporary fiction, one of repetitious phrases, slack descriptions, strained metaphors, and pretentious, vapid thoughts. To prove it, Myers selects five celebrities of Serious Literature--Proulx, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, and David Guterson--and meticulously analyzes their language. Here is his comment on the Proulx sentence above:

A conceit must have been intended here, but "unfurling" or spreading-out,
as of a flag or umbrella, clashes disastrously with the images of thread
which follow.... A life is "unfurled" a man is "wound tight" a year is
"spooled out" and still the barrage of metaphors continues with "kicked
down" which might work in less crowded surroundings, though I doubt it, and
"hinge" which is cute if you've never seen a hinge or a map of the Big

Elsewhere, the metaphors keep coming, labored, gratuitous, and mixed. In one story, a woman whose arms have been severed by sheet metal pauses to note the details around her. In an eighty-nine-word sentence, the just-mutilated woman stands "amazed, rooted" spying the grain in the floorboards, "jawed" paint on the wall, swallows darting and returning with bugs in their beaks "looking like moustaches" the house, the "wind-ripped sky" the windows, then finally the blood spurting from her elbows, her forearms thumping on the ground. The absurdity of a dismembered .woman pausing to ruminate fancifully upon birds and floorboards didn't stop Walter Kendrick in The New York Times from judging this moment "brilliant prose."

Don DeLillo is the darling of hip critics and postmodern English professors. They adore his edgy send-up of consumer culture, the wavering comforts and ironies of our hyperreal existence. But to DeLillo's oft-quoted opening of White Noise, a commodity-heavy description of move-in day at a small college, Myers answers with a yawn. You "know what you're in for: a tale of Life in Consumerland, full of heavy irony, trite musings about advertising and materialism, and long, long lists of consumer artifacts." Laura Miller likes such litanies, claiming that DeLillo "has written glorious, unforgettable literary riffs" (she supplies no examples). Christopher Lehmann-Haupt admits DeLillo's books have flaws, but salutes their "brilliant writing" nonetheless. Myers chooses an example they would savor:

In the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those
crowded bags suggested, the weight and size and number, the familiar
package designs and vivid lettering, the giant sizes, the family bargain
packs ...

The sentence goes on for fifty-nine words of supermarket fullness. Myers comments:

Could the irony be any less subtle? And the tautology: "mass," "plenitude"
"number"; "well-being," "contentment"! The clumsy echoes: "size," "sizes";
"familiar," "family"; "sense of," "sense of"; "well-being," "being"!

This tiresome reiteration, Myers says, baffles readers, but critics take it as a sign of superiority. Salon's Maria Russo proclaims, "If anyone has earned the right to bore us for our own good, it's Don DeLillo." John Leonard in The New York Review of Books counsels, "Since he is smarter than we are, trust him." So much for the canny irreverence DeLillo imparts!

Other writers commit similar blunders. Cormac McCarthy has a fatal penchant for what Myers calls the andelope, that is, simple declarative phrases linked by "and"

He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate
the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and
looked up and thanked her.

They caught up and set out each day in the dark before the day yet was and
ate cold meat and biscuit and made no fire.

This rambling, undifferentiated syntax strives for the sonorous breadth of Old Testament expression. Robert Hass in The New York Times thinks it a "witching repetition of words," and in 1992 the National Book Award judges said of All the Pretty Horses, "Not until now has the unhuman world been given its holy canon" "And yet," Myers counters, "it is ridiculous." McCarthy invokes it so relentlessly and matches it with such incongruous actions (eating a tortilla?) that a slight step of aesthetic distance turns it into bathos. "To record with the same majesty every aspect of a cowboy's life" Myers concludes, "from a knife fight to his lunchtime burrito, is to create what can only be described as kitsch."

The next writer on parade, Paul Auster, has a reputation for spare style, "a writerly obsession with compression and concision" (Kakutani). But in the passages Myers quotes, we find needless clarifications and cute intensifiers.

Blue can only surmise what the case is not. To say what it is, however, is
completely beyond him.

My father was tight; my mother was extravagant. She spent; he didn't.

Still and all, Mr. Bones was a dog.... [H]e was first and foremost the
thing he appeared to be. Mr. Bow Wow. Monsieur Woof Woof. Sir Cur.

Generous readers might interpret these as Auster's hard awareness of the banality of life and the impotence of intellect. But when Lee Siegel reckons them "poetic variations that amplify meaning," when reviewers treat such habits as "the last word in gnomic control" (The Washington Post), one suspects that an inside joke is being played, or that gullibility has been added to the critic's toolkit.

Finally we have David Guterson, the author of the best-selling PEN/Faulknerwinner Snow Falling on Cedars. Myers is incredulous: "You could study ... the whole novel for that matter, and find no trace of a flair for words" The prose is awkward, sluggish, redundant. Tautology serves as description: "Anything I said was a blunder, a faux pas"; "a clash of sound, discordant"; "She could see that he was angry, that he was holding it in, not exposing his rage"; "Wyman was gay, a homosexual" Straightforward facts are converted into stilted observations: "he had this view of things--that ..." instead of "he believed that" and "It was not a thing you could explain to anybody, why it was that everything was folly ..." for "you couldn't explain why everything was folly."

For each writer, Myers makes his case on verbal grounds, adding the laughable effusions of New York/Los Angeles/Washington D.C. critics. It is hardly surprising, then, that they reacted to his polemic by changing the subject. O'Rourke trivialized the argument into a preference for "story" over "style" and Siegel called him a "proponent of phony populism" who favors "action movies in book form." In the Epilogue, Myers replies that these categories obscure the real distinction: not story vs. style or populist realism vs. imaginative difficulty, but good style vs. bad style, inventive difficulty vs. cheap difficulty. Others scolded him for being out of touch. "In reaches of the literary establishment Myers seems unfamiliar with," Shulevitz noted, Proulx and Guterson "have already been discounted" Miller echoed, "David Guterson's writing does seem murky and solemn, but isn't he a bit of a has-been, anyway?" If that's the case, Myers asks, how do we explain the acclaim both received just before he penned his attack?

As far as I know, the only critic who has defended the writers on verbal grounds is Adam Begley in a recent essay in The New York Observer. Begley finds Myers "consistently irritating" a "master of the cheap shot and the artful fudge." He analyzes a passage from DeLillo's Underworld describing a gang of boys gate-crashing a ball-game to show that it achieves the very lucidity and power that Myers denies. But here is DeLillo's final sentence:

The shout of the motley boys comes banging off the deep concrete.

The first problem is a semantic one: a crowd of boys may be motley, but the boys themselves cannot. A second problem: the verb "comes banging" is clunky. Finally: why call the concrete "deep"? To differentiate it from "shallow"? From the narrator's perspective, watching the boys rush past, no such distinction could be perceived. If Begley thinks this is great writing, well, he proves Myers's point. The arbitration of literary culture is in the hands of persons adept at puffery and doubtful in taste. They are also jealous of their tuff, and when a rival critique comes along, they shoot the messenger. But why should we expect them to read the critique any more carefully than they read contemporary literature?

[I]From[/I]: New Criterion
[I]Date[/I]: December 1, 2002
[I]Author[/I]: Bauerlein, Mark