Book Review: A Reader’s Manifesto

This is a fantastic contrarian look at contemporary “literary” fiction. Myers merrily dissects the “greats” of literary fiction: Don DeLillo, Cormac MaCarthy, Paul Auster, David Guterson and Annie Proulx. He takes them to task for being boring, pretentious and poor writers. His chief complaint is with the prose itself; he takes a close reading of some of the most famous and most highly praised passages from these authors and reveals how truly clunky their metaphors, images, impressions, and prose really are. He shows how lilted and poor the writing is, and contrasts it with the high praise of the critical reviewers. Endlessly repetitive passages are praised for their “lyrical” form, making them like prose “haiku” (somehow).

What, for instance, are we supposed to do with a sentence like this? “Furious dabs of tulips stuttering in gardens.” The sentence means nothing. We can “get” Proulx’ point that there were tulips scattered throughout the surrounding gardens. But then, that’s not what the sentence actually says. The metaphors drop off the page with horrible clunks. What about scattered tulips is “furious”? How to these tulips “stutter.” The language is sloppy and misses quite wide of the mark. The only reason we can get the sense of the sentence is because our mind has to ascribe some sort of meaning to poor images.

The book occasionally overreaches in its criticism, but on the other hand, this is actually a benefit. Myers does such a close reading of his texts that he overextends sometimes. This isn’t just some flaming screed; he takes the time to interact with the prose of these literary novelists. I suffered through the novels of these titans of contemporary fiction in college, where you were obviously a knuckle-dragging neandertal if you didn’t like it. You were obviously incapable of “getting it.” Perhaps not.

The book is far from negative, however. Myers happily cites positive examples of novelists describing similar scenes in ways that work. The book obviously sparked a large controversy, and those who dearly love DeLillo-and-company shrieked about in a panic. Ultimately, many of them were forced to admit that Myers was right about the prose. The really terrifying thing for them was the assault on their system. Myers was arrogant enough to suggest we didn’t need the critics. How dare he suggest that a book stand upon it’s own merits!

A must read for anyone seeking to understand the literary establishment.

Rating: **** out of *****

A few startling (and delightful) quotes:

“Our ‘literary’ writers aren’t expected to evince much in the way of brain power. Musing about consumerism, bandying about words like ‘ontological,’ chanting Red River hokum as if it were a lost book of the Old Testament: this is what passes for intellectual content today. Nor do writers need a poet’s sensibility or sharp eye. It is the departure from natural speech that counts, not what, if anything, is being arrived at. A sufficiently obtrusive idiom can even induce critics to overlook the sin of a strong plot. Conversely, though more rarely, a concise prose style can be pardoned if a novel’s pace is slow enough . . .” (3)

“The problem with so much of today’s literature is the clumsiness of its artifice – the conspicuous disparity between what writers are aiming for and what they actually achieve. Theirs is a remarkably crude form of affectation: a prose so repetitive, so elementary in its syntax, and so numbing in its overuse of wordplay that it often demands less concentration than the average ‘genre’ novel. Even today’s obscurity is easy, the sort of gibberish that stops all thought dead in its tracks.” (5-6).

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