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A Reader's Manifesto

A Reader's Manifesto is a 2002 book written by Brian Reynolds Myers (B.R. Myers) that was originally published in heavily edited form in the July/August 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Description

Myers described the original article, which saw no end of responses from admirers and critics, as "a light-hearted polemic" about modern literature. Myers was particularly concerned with what he saw as the growing pretentiousness of American literary fiction. He was skeptical about the value of elaborate, allusive prose and argued that what was praised as good writing was in fact the epitome of bad writing. His critique concentrated on E. Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, David Guterson, and Don DeLillo, all of whom enjoyed substantial acclaim from the literary establishment. Myers directed many of his harshest charges at literary critics for prestigious publications such as the New York Times Book Review, whom he accused of lavishing praise upon bad writing either for political reasons, or because they did not understand it and therefore assumed it to have great artistic merit. Myers also focuses on what he calls "the cult of the sentence", criticizing critics for pulling single sentences out of novels in order to praise their brilliance, while ignoring shortcomings in the novel as a whole.

Myers' article attracted heated criticism from aficionados of American literary fiction, especially of the authors Myers mentioned by name. Some critics charged Myers with being selective in his choice of targets, and of cherry picking particularly unreadable passages from the authors' works to make his point. However, Myers used only previously quoted and critically praised passages in an attempt to avoid that criticism.

Myers suggests there are only three possible responses when a critic is asked to review a work of literature:

1. “Praise the novel and novelist.”

2. “Lament that novel is unworthy of novelist’s huge talent,” (But still praise it).

3. “Review someone else’s novel instead.”

For Myers, critics have created a system of self-serving criticism which protects, embraces, and/or aids certain authors.

For many critics, Myers was continuing the popular comments on postmodernism, of which John Gardner (On Moral Fiction) was the most recent proponent.

Categories of criticism

Myers explains and critiques the following five prose styles.

Evocative Prose: E. Annie Proulx

Myers' central complaint regarding Proulx is her use of nonsensical images, mixed metaphors, and poor word choice, to create a disjointed "slideshow" effect. Myers says Proulx writes to "startle or impress the reader." Myers asserts that this sort of writing must be read quickly, because if read slowly the meaning of the sentences falls apart. "With good Mandarin prose the opposite is true," Myers says, comparing Proulx's writing to the (more favorably viewed) writing of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Myers criticizes Proulx for being "too egocentric" to put herself in the place of her characters when deciding what is important and what is unnecessary. He also mentions that maybe Proulx writes one thing but means something else, therefore emphasizing the importance of polishing. Myers writes, "Someone needs to tell her that half of good writing is knowing what to leave out."

Edgy Prose: Don DeLillo

Myers asks how DeLillo's theme of "Life in Consumerland" can still be considered edgy after fifty years of exploration in literature. He points out that much of DeLillo's writing consists of long "shopping lists" of brand name consumer items. Myers also criticizes DeLillo's development of characters who "routinely talk and act like visitors from another planet." Myers asserts that DeLillo's characters serve primarily as vessels for DeLillo's thoughts, rather than as discrete characters. DeLillo, according to Myers, attempts to persuade his readers that if something does not make sense it is "over their heads," or that "something as inadequate as language can never do justice to the complexity of what they're trying to say." But Myers also points out that DeLillo uses a slippery sense of irony in his writing: "As so often with DeLillo's musings, the 'conclusion' is phrased as a rhetorical question. 'If this works for you, take it,' he is saying, 'but if you think it's silly, hey -- maybe I do too.'"

Muscular Prose: Cormac McCarthy

Myers criticizes McCarthy for filling his sentences with bulky words that contain no real detail or meaning. He uses the following as an example from The Crossing: "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." Myers follows: "This is a good example of what I call the andelope: a breathless string of simple declarative statements linked by the conjunction and. Like the "evocative" slide-show and the Consumerland shopping-list, the andelope encourages skim-reading while keeping up the appearance of 'literary' length and complexity. But like the slide-show (and unlike the shopping-list), the andelope often clashes with the subject matter, and the unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the methodical meal that is being described."

McCarthy's prose, Myers quips, "is unspeakable in every sense of the word," implying that it is both awful and frequently difficult to imagine a person saying. McCarthy's use of archaisms is also brought under scrutiny.

Spare Prose: Paul Auster

Myers's critique of Auster suggests he is wordy (rather than "spare") and over-describes situations, especially mentioning numerous details that are particularly mundane and obvious. By making a description too long like Auster does, Myers says that a reader "might feel emboldened to ask why it needed to be said at all." Myers accuses Auster of "simply wasting our time" with his wordiness. Myers states that dragging on a point for too long might cause it to go stale, like it did in Auster's passage from Timbuktu. In an example from Auster's Moon Palace, Myers describes how too many big and fancy words can discredit the speaker's intelligence when they are used incorrectly. Myers also criticizes Auster for saying the same thing over again way too many times, he states: "Swing the hammer often enough, and you're bound to hit the nail on the head sometime- or so Auster seems to think."

Generic Literary Prose: David Guterson

Myers critiques Guterson's novel Snow Falling on Cedars mainly for his "sluggishness" of words and "echoic" thought process. Myers concludes that Snow Falling on Cedars is no more than "flat, stereotypical descriptions" of characters in a given context, and, were its pace not slow, it would be considered a genre novel. Myers criticizes Guterson's average descriptions of predictable characters that have often been explored in literature, and complains that Guterson brings nothing new to the characters or story.

Critics' rebuttals

Myers devotes a section of the book-length text to describing the response the shorter version published in the Atlantic Monthly received upon its publication. This portion of the book is an analysis of the criticisms of his original critique, and while it is written with Myers' characteristic humor, it is the place in the book where he most aggressively defends his views. Here are the general areas of criticism Myers describes, and his own responses to them; the titles are Myers' titles.

"Defending Difficulty"

Myers' critics call him a philistine and an advocate for low-brow literature, and suggest that his criteria for good literature implicitly define it as writing which is simple enough to require little effort to read.

Myers responds that books may also be difficult to read because of poor writing style, and he recommends other authors as examples of a complex style executed with skill.

"A Lesson in Methodology"

Some critics feel that it was Myers' presentation of the short passages (particularly in the case of Annie Proulx) that caused the writing to seem "overwrought." Bob Pohl of The Buffalo News said, "[Myers'] pulls a number of short passages out of context and attempts to parse them for sense."

Myers responds that he limited his examples to passages already used as positive examples by literary critics. He also says that the passages are actually worse in context than they are out of context. He says: "I wasn't the one who took these things out of context. Nor am I the one who insists on regarding prose in terms of individual sentences instead of as a whole."

"Annie Who?"

Several of Myers' critics claim the authors Myers featured were already discounted by the literary establishment.

Myers was unable to find any evidence backing this claim, and responds to this argument with the absence of criticism for the authors and several examples of praise.

"Consoling Riddles"

Critics suggest that the very illogic and ambiguity Myers criticizes contains the value of the works: "consoling riddles," as one critic calls them.

Myers states “Literature need not answer every question it raises, but questions themselves should be clear.” “Difficult lucidity” in Myer’s opinion is what is missing from Contemporary Prose – the kind of writing that, as he says, "rewards the use of a dictionary instead of punishing it."

"The Horses' Perspective"

Myers responds to criticism that his complaints "evinced faulty judgment". Myers points out that the critics made no attempt to argue that the defamed excerpts deserved the praise originally lavished on them. Instead the critics based their arguments on a matter of perspective.

"If You Can't Say Anything Nice"

Myers responds to the critics who say that he is too harsh and negative in his reviews, and he looks at the sub-standard rather than the good sections of a literary work. Myers refutes these criticisms by stating that he uses the same excerpts that were previously praised by other critics.

He also explains that some good parts do not qualify a work of literary prose as being worth the money and time it costs to purchase and read. Myers claims that the writer has become more important than the writing and any failings "only makes them more lovable" in the eyes of the modern critic.

"Decrying the Backward Glance"

Critics charge Myers with living in an "imagined past," in which all the authors were more talented.

Myers agrees to a point, but gives the example of the National Book Award winners between 1990 and 2001 compared to those of 1950 thru 1961 winners.

1950 Nelson Algren.........1990 Charles R. Johnson

1951 William Faulkner......1991 Norman Rush

1952 James Jones...........1992 Cormac McCarthy

1953 Ralph Ellison.........1993 E. Annie Proulx

1954 Saul Bellow...........1994 William Gaddis

1955 William Faulkner......1995 Phillip Roth

1956 John O'Hara...........1996 Andrea Barrett

1957 Wright Morris.........1997 Charles Frazier

1958 John Cheever..........1998 Alice McDermott

1959 Bernard Malamud.......1999 Ha Jin

1960 Philip Roth...........2000 Susan Sontag

1961 Conrad Richter........2001 Jonathan Franzen

Myers says, "Prize committees have always been unreliable judges of quality...still, it's worth noting that there was too much good writing around in the 1950s for even the prize committees to miss."

"Clinging To Reality"

Myers' critics accuse him of putting too much emphasis on reality.

Myers responds that "I love it when Bulgakov makes a cat talk, and when Gogol dresses a nose in a civil servant's uniform, and -- if I may jerk the chain again -- when Stephen King gives a car a mind of its own." He says that he instead, "points out how absurd it is for the narrator of DeLillo's The Names, the usual "elliptical" windbag, to claim that lying about one's destination creates a grave disparity in the listener's brain between the real and the false destination. In making this point I was merely judging The Names -- as I judge every novel -- by its own standards, in this case as a novel of serious ideas. (DeLillo himself has said that it represents 'a deeper level of seriousness.')"

"Rootless Cosmopolitanism"

Myers received many attacks on his history and character for his essay. For example, Judith Shulevitz criticized Myers for being a foreigner (he was an Army brat; see B.R. Myers), unacquainted with the literary establishment he is criticizing.

Myers responds claiming that in these literary circles, social identity is more important than writing. Myers believes instead that a reader should trust his/her reason and intelligence to judge the writing, without necessarily being swayed by the "reputation" of the author.

Appendix: Ten Rules for "Serious" Writers

The Appendix: Ten Rules for "Serious" Writers at the end of the book is an ironic set of guidelines for writing, each of which refers to a previous violation of successful prose that he has criticized. Myers implies following these rules will lead to literary success.

The rules are as follows:

1. Be Writerly: If your writing is too natural, then there is no way it is scholarly.

2. Sprawl: Content doesn't matter, it's all about size. Critics are impressed by big books, so brevity should be dismissed.

3. Equivocate: If it doesn't make sense, there can always be a good excuse. Truth can always be distorted as long as it makes the writer sound good. For example, the plot isn't important because the lack of plot is what's important.

4. Mystify: If people think that your writing is smarter than their writing, then they will respect your writing. If you sound smart (and definitely if you are published) then you must possess a brilliant mind.

5. Keep Sentences Long: If the sentence is not long and boring, then it is definitely not literature.

6. Repeat yourself: Repetition of words is important. If you don't mention your subject enough times, then the reader may not know what you are talking about. You may also use synonyms to show that you know how to use a thesaurus, and thus, must be an intelligent writer.

7. Pile on the Imagery: Your writerly credentials will bloom to greatness if your ability to tie together multiple similes and metaphors like the wooden pieces of a Lincoln log set, never disintegrate from the fiery visage of the sun. The more literary devices that you can throw together, the better the writing .

8. Archaize: If thine style of writing reflects an age long gone, and a world unfamiliar to the modern reader, than thou art indeed a master of the quill and the ink. This is very similar to rule number four, except you must write as if you are stuck in the past, rather than stuck in a dictionary.

9. Bore: The word boring may as well be a synonym to the word scholarly. Along the lines of rule number one, you cannot write naturally, or make your words interesting. It is simply not scholarly. People are not supposed to be able to understand your writing, they are only supposed to realize that your writing is brilliant, because it just might be the cure for insomnia.

10. Play the part: Remember to be as you write, scholarly, literate, practically a god. You must understand that when you seem smart, when you seem to believe in yourself, others will do the same, because, how could someone that is so smart and so pompous be wrong?

Other Authors Unflatteringly Referred to in A Reader's Manifesto

The main authors criticized in A Readers Manifesto are Proulx, DeLillo, McCarthy, Auster, and Guterson. However, B.R. Myers also criticizes the following authors. He states pretentiousness can also be found in their prose.

Editors, Critics, and Newspapers Quoted Unflatteringly in A Reader's Manifesto

Editors and Critics Positively Referenced in A Reader's Manifesto

B.R. Myers provides favorable editors and critics as means to confirm his arguments. The following are present within the 2002 edition of A Reader's Manifesto:

Books Recommended by B.R. Myers

In A Reader's Manifesto, Myers presents these novels as examples of clear, concise literary style:

References

External links

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