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Book Review: A Reader’s Manifesto by B.R. Myers

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Somebody had to say it. Somebody had to attack the pretentious, unreadable prose that passes for literature these days. The writer of A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose actually did. We seem to have lost our way, as far as producing good writing goes. Most of the books that garner good reviews today could use a lot of editing, being edgy substitutes for talent and clear thinking. A few cultural references and a cute cover photo and your unreadable mess is good to go. (Hello, Elizabeth Wurtzel.) Awards go to writers everyone else is afraid of, or who have vomited up the biggest, most tangled mass of verbiage.

When I first read A Reader’s Manifesto by B.R. Myers, I was thrilled. Someone had said what I was thinking. I have a high IQ, but could not get through the work of Don DeLillo. I knew E. Annie Proulx had talent, but I felt abused by the bizarre images she seems so fond of. We have to suffer as readers, I thought, or read novels with raised gold lettering. B.R. Myers says, maybe not. He makes a good case against the pretensions of these writers, among others.

Although I don’t agree with all of his choices, I agree with the underlying sentiment. This is a brave book by an outsider. He takes down a lot of naked emperors.

This book came out a few years ago, but no one has had the guts to say anything like it since. It still stands as a remarkable document.
Edited: PC

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About Cerulean

  • Valroy Stevens

    A reviewer of a reader’s Manifesto that can’t get through the thoroughly unpretentious Don Delillo? Don Delillo? Two words: White Noise
    Two more: Mao II

  • I could not get through White Noise.

  • Jewels

    Decifering/reading/literature; seem to mean the same thing these days…

  • That’s true.

  • My I.Q. is so low you could feed the dog from it, but I got through my share of DeLillo. Libra and Mao II are powerful novels that make a case for the writer as an artist of the contemporary, as someone who can frame national obsessions into perspective. Underworld sinks of its own weight. I haven’t read White Noise, unfortunately. Myers had some good points to make in the Atlantic article that started the fuss, but I didn’t think he finally had all that strong of a case. I’m reminded in particular of his attack on Proulx, whom I’ve never read; his example of her writing proved stronger than his attacks on it. Even more weirdly, the writers he claims to love so much, like Faulkner and Bellow, are as guilty as the sins of overindulgence as any modern writer.

  • I don’t know. Give me Annie Proulx over Nora Roberts any day.

  • what were myers’ complaints about Proulx. i kinda liked “The Shipping News”.

  • I managed to dig up my original beef from several years back — posted on another forum — regarding Myers’s Atlantic article, which includes his objection to Proulx. Here it is, slightly edited, hopefully improved:

    I have just finished B.R. Myers article “A Reader’s Manifesto” and my general impression is not good. I found it, on the whole, reactionary and disingenuous; it isn’t a manifesto at all — it’s a philippic, or, to use a less literary term, a bitch session. It ought to be called “In Praise of Straightforwardness;” he yearns for an imaginary past where literature was more plot-oriented, less “wordy”, but I daresay there isn’t a sentence in the article that couldn’t have been written anytime in the last 75 years, with a plenitude of examples. It would not be at all difficult to dig through the works of any of Myers’ own heroes — Proust, Conrad, Melville, James, Faulkner, Bellow (whom he cites for “verbal restraint”!)– and come up with perfect examples of the purplish or the “tautological.” What, for example, does Myers mean when he says that Annie Proulx’s writing amounts to “fake Dos Passos, easy detail flung in for the illusion of panoramic sweep.” If that isn’t a perfect description of genuine Dos Passos, I don’t know what is.

    All Myers did was pore through a lot of books he couldn’t stand, yanked out a few wriggling examples of wretched writerspeak, and decided today’s literature is somehow typical of an anti-literary age. Yet Myers never really, convincingly makes a case for where today’s fiction went wrong, let alone why.

    I will grant, in fairness, that he made some worthy points along the way, and that he roasted a few writers to a nice turn — especially Cormac McCarthy. But on the whole, I didn’t trust Myers as a dependable guide; just a bitter one who had tired of the scenery.

    For starters, I found his distinctions a little too easy.

    “Today,” he writes, “any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be `genre fiction’ — at best an excellent `read’ or a `page turner,’ but never literature with a capital L.”

    Ever heard of James Ellroy? Myers apparently hasn’t. I’m not that crazy about Ellroy’s staccato style of writing, but critics everywhere are more than willing to confer on him the title of artist, only in his case they speak of someone breaking the boundaries of his genre (lit noir.)

    The only Annie Proulx I’ve ever read is what Myers quotes, and so far as I can tell he exaggerates her offensiveness. On a particularly petty note, he waxes wroth that Proulx thanks her children in the acknowledgements to Close Range for “putting up with my strangled, work-driven ways.”

    “How can anything,” Myers writes, “no matter how abstract, be strangled and work-driven at the same time?”

    To which I easily reply that if your ways — as in, day to day writing habits — are “work-driven,” they will invariably stifle, choke you off or strangle you in other ways — in Proulx’s case, perhaps, spending time with the kids. Myers also cites a scene in Accordion Crimes where a woman’s arms are sliced off by a piece of sheet metal and yet she manages to notice a good deal of the scenery at the same time. Again, I didn’t find this all that odd; traumatizing events do have a way of slowing things down, and the most horrendous events in life can seem to happen in slow motion.

    Myers point throughout is that writers today make up for their deficiencies as writers with obscure, “fancy-pants” language. He cites Oprah Winfrey’s story of how she complained to Toni Morrison that she sometimes had to re-read Morrison’s sentences. “That, my dear, is called reading,” Morrison replied.

    “Sorry, my dear Toni,” Myers replies, “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 wonder what Joseph Conrad was trying to say in a particular sentence.”

    First of all, this sentence is itself bad writing, as lucid means “easily understood,” so that Myers, translated, is actually saying that great writing isn’t always easy but it’s always easily understood. The second part of the sentence is just plain false; it might be better said that few people who read a writer of such logy, constipated sentences as Joseph Conrad have ever done so easily.

    And if great literature is supposed to be so easy, what does Myers make of the Quentin section of The Sound and the Fury or the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter of Ulysses or the second part of Goethe’s Faust.

    Great prose is NOT always perfectly lucid — at least, not in parts. It can take work.

  • I’m not saying Proulx doesn’t have talent and I don’t think Myers was either. I think his objections to her are pretty well portrayed above. Like I said, I don’t agree with all of his particular choices of writers, especially of the writers he does like, but I agree with his overall concepts.

  • Sgt. Welch

    I’m reading White Noise for an American Literature class and I hate it. I gave page 9 the finger, something I’ve never done to a book before. The descriptions and the dialogue especially are pseudo-intellectual beyond repair. If that’s part of the satire (something I have difficulty believing) then the author should have realized how it would get in the way of the story. Each plot progression, comment or gesture is a blatant vehicle for the author’s theme. I might be speaking out of turn, since I’m only halfway through the book, but I can’t foresee being left with anything to add up. No silent weight of reflection. The reflection was done for me, sentence by sentence.

  • aer

    Do you mean the Benji section of “The Sound and the Fury”? In that example, the story as told in the first section is later reframed by other more lucid, linear, and differently biased narrators. So, there is a point to Faulkner’s intentional obfuscation of time amd reality through Benji’s narrative. If you really meant “Quentin”, then I fail to see your point.

  • I have always suspected that the “award-winning” literary novels out there were awful, but have always felt that those who praise these books seem to say that we’re not intelligent enough to “get it”.

    Myers doesn’t just pick out random authors and call them bad; he ably demonstrated WHY in his essay. And you’d be hard pressed not to agree with him!

    However, since reading preferences vary – a person’s trash could be another person’s treasure. For example, I simply detest the genre I call “Asian angst”, simply because as an Asian, I’ve had it with novelists trying to portray a mystical, “floaty-woaty” view of what it’s like to be an Asian. (Books like these are often set in the past, with the protaganist angsting about the Asian customs that restrict him from freedom.) But others may love these books.

    What is inexcusable, as Myers points out, is the bad writing we’re subjected to. It’s like the story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, with the Emperor as Literary Fiction, and the book reviewers and critics as his sycophantic courtiers. Myers is the little boy who dared to say the truth: That the Emperor is butt naked, y’all.

    Love his essay. Sure, it has flaws, but I love his message: Reader, trust yourself. If you hate reading it, it probably sucks.

  • George

    Indeed the reader manifesto is great and it’s one of my favorite. Btw, it seems like your RSS feed doesn’t work in my browser (I’m using google chrome), can you fix it?

  • Note that Myers didn’t pick out those sentences, the reviewers did — and their editors put them in boxes. ARM is far more an attack on the reviewing establishment than it is on particular authors, as the epilogue makes clear.