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Saturday, December 14th, 2002


A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose

by B. R. Myers

A review by Chris Bolton

At the conclusion of A Reader's Manifesto, B. R. Myers writes:

At the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say she had 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.

It's no coincidence that many of the positive reviews of Manifesto make a reference to "The Emperor's New Clothes" (quoth Publishers Weekly: "...at last someone has dared to say...that at least some of our literary emperors are, if not without clothes, wearing some awfully gaudy attire..."). Myers's stated goal is to lead the charge against the literary citadel of privilege and posturing. The very notion that an educated and intelligent woman like Oprah Winfrey would relate Morrison's reproachment to an audience is insulting. Morrison has thrust a flag of "Literary Greatness" into her work and demanded obedience; and the faithful, including Oprah, bow their heads and follow without question.

Myers's Manifesto was excerpted in the July/August 2001 Atlantic Monthly, and created a furor. Myers himself notes, "This is what I set out to do: to upset the process." He got his wish. The literary elite called Myers an outsider — a foreigner, even. Judith Shulevitz wrote in the New York Times: "Myers...is not just a man without a stake in the literary establishment. He is foreign to it in every way." As though one without suitable credentials is not entitled to air an opinion on a book or writer. Or a critic.

As it happens, I agree mightily with Myers's thesis, but that's not why I'm recommending this book. Myers made his point well enough with the Atlantic piece, although his expansion is interesting and entertaining, especially in the Epilogue, "The Response to A Reader's Manifesto," and the amusingly tongue-in-cheek Appendix, "Ten Rules for 'Serious' Writers." ("I. Be Writerly. Read aloud what you have written. If it sounds clear and natural, strike it out.")

What makes the Manifesto required reading is the brash disdain Myers shows for the "establishment." Especially in the post-9/11 climate, where a comedian can be nationally chastised by our government for expressing a critical opinion, it is refreshing to see someone throw caution and respect to the wind and launch a full-frontal assault. In taking literary critics to task for the lavish praise they heap on bad writers, Myers lobs grenades at such exalted prize-winners as E. Annie Proulx (The Shipping News), Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses), Paul Auster (City of Glass), and Don DeLillo (White Noise), among others. I found it impossible not to shake my head at one example of bad writing after another, all quoted not only from the authors' books but from reviews that had singled out these very quotes for praise. If ever there were a kingdom where all the subjects agree to imagine a beautiful robe on a naked emperor, it is the so-called literary establishment.

Those who view the Manifesto as an attack on the authors are missing the point. Whether one agrees with Myers about the quality of Proulx, McCarthy, et al, what matters most is the expression of dissenting opinion. The attack on Myers by mainstream critics and authors as detailed in the Epilogue is a perfect example of the righteousness of Myers's crusade. In her Times rebuttal, Shulevitz wrote of Proulx and Guterson, "In reaches of the literary establishment Myers seems unfamiliar with, they have already been discounted..." It is this very establishment that Myers rails against: the fortress of elitism and exclusivity in which authors and critics share privileged secrets the rest of us "lay-folk" aren't privy to. Glad-handing and back-patting escalate into awards and grants, and unreadable books are elevated to the status of "modern classic" because no one will dare to dissent and risk ridicule. Meanwhile, a great many readers pick up the books that win these awards and scratch their heads in wonderment and close the covers in boredom. Graduate creative writing programs gather new recruits with no stories to tell and teach them the tricks of the establishment, and the cycle repeats itself. It's a sad, gruesome prospect.

Still, I have to admit that I have never liked any of the authors Myers cites. DeLillo's pathetic lurches toward satire are as painful as open-mic night at a comedy club. I'll take a great storyteller like Russo or Gaiman or Palahniuk over a precious stylist like McCarthy or Proulx anyday. I certainly didn't need Myers to point this out to me. And I wonder how many people actually read any of those writers. Sure, DeLillo and McCarthy's books adorn many a fine library, but there often seems to be a thick layer of dust along the top edge and, usually, a bookmark sitting untouched (the exposed half faded by sunlight) about a fourth of the way through.

Maybe Myers isn't saying anything we don't already know. There are certainly those who enjoy DeLillo and the gang, and there's nothing wrong with that. Myers may, in fact, be giving more credit to the literary establishment's hold over mainstream readers than it deserves. While even a mediocre Stephen King novel like Dreamcatcher owns the bestseller charts for at least a few weeks, Proulx's Accordion Crimes has long haunted remainder tables at many a bookstore. You can dazzle readers with enough awards and ecstatic blurbs ("evocative" remains my favorite) to buy one book, but you can't force them into a dedicated following.

Nonetheless, A Reader's Manifesto has achieved that true rarity in modern literary circles: it has gotten people talking. I've debated the merits of Myers's points with friends, only to realize I can't recall the last time a piece of literary criticism provoked such a passionate response. All great debates require a work of dissent, and Myers has done readers a favor by providing them with one so bold and entertaining.

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