I’ve finished reading A Reader’s Manifesto by B.R. Myers, which was originally an article in The Atlantic Monthly. It is an indictment of co-conspirators: the modern fiction writers and the critics that review them. Myers sets out to demonstrate the pretension of modern fiction by highlighting its tedious prose, self-aggrandizement, and pseudo-intellectuality. In this, he succeeds admirably. By citing passages from the books that the critics themselves used to praise the work, he shows the utter bankruptcy of both establishments.
I must confess to not having read any of the works he lambastes, having focused almost exclusively on historical non-fiction in the last couple of years. However, I’ve seen enough of such tripe in that field (and literary criticism, which has conflated with history all too often) to know that what he cites is pervasive.
Reading over the lengthy passages, you are struck by the tedium and banality of the writing. I’m not well-read in the classics of literature—mostly because the plots and themes don’t resonate with me—but these represent crap of the lowest order. It’s almost like I’m reading passages straight out of Atlas Shrugged or even examples of Vogon poetry. I’m struck by the sheer inanity of it all and I wonder how anyone could seriously believe that this is profound or enjoyable. Maybe that’s the whole point, the secret everyone keeps.
Overall, he makes his case well and I agree with him as far as he goes. What is troubling is the pass he gives to the authors of the classics, like James Joyce or William Faulkner—two authors that I’ve actually read (err, tried to read). He heralds their obtuse use of language while damning the more prosaic authors of today. From my reading, I see as many classics as modern novels suffering from the charges he levels. For a long time, I thought that it was just me, that there was something I wasn’t getting and that I just didn’t have a literary mind. I realized that the problem wasn’t with me, but with their writing. I wasn’t getting it because it wasn’t written to be gotten—either it was the product of an irrational mind or a concrete-bound mentality. The consciousnesses from which these streams come are not well-ordered, writerly ones; far from it, they seem addled and absent-minded. Yet still Myers praises them for the complexity of their thoughts.
Reaction to his essay and later book has, predictably, been fierce. If there’s one thing pretentious people don’t like being called, it’s “pretentious.” They would prefer to showcase their superiority and have it silently acknowledged then to be confronted with the reality of their self-deception. Myers, in this case, fired two such salvos and did so at two of the most vociferous, strident groups in the literary world: prolix writers and smug critics. Myers, to his credit, offers a nice summary and bibliography of these criticisms in an epilogue. A list of the web-accessible ones is below:
<li>The Complete Review: Article</li>
<li>The Complete Review: Book</li>
<li>Cold Bacon Review</li>
<li>“On American Poetry Criticism”</li>
<li>The Onion A/V Club</li>
<li>New York Observer</li>
<li>Seattle Times Review of Annie Proulx</li>
<li>Montgomery Advertiser “Best reads of 2002”</li>