Saturday, April 04, 2009


A few years back B.R. Myers made a splash with an attack on what passed for greatness in literature and on the literary elite that sets the standard for taste. In a Reader's Manifesto, he includes his original essay along with criticisms of the essay and his response. In occasionally waspish but just as often exasperated tones, Myers attacks the prose style of Proulx, DeLillo, McCarthy, Auster, Moody and others. This means you might, as I did, laugh at some of these sections and feel sheepish in others. I nodded vigorously at his attacks on DeLillo (he uses White Noise which I thought was flat out terrible,) but then got into a huff about his review of McCarthy whose prose I do like.

His attacks on the weakness of the prose (over-wrought, meaningless, retreads of better recent works, humorless and so on) are entertaining, but they do not provide the heart of the book. The main target of the book is the world of the literary review, which praises this prose and heaps scorn on those that don't disagree, essentially using the "they don't get it" argument.

Like the foreign policy and finance establishments, the elites are careful not to be too critical of their review subjects, as they often are hoping for good treatment themselves. The critics publish novels and hope for nice notices and the novelist becomes critics themselves and further praise their friends.

Myers would have readers read the books they like and feel free to call crap crap. He paints the modern literary world as a throwback to the medieval church, where the mysteries of the texts could only be deciphered by the literary priesthood and the readers should just read as they are told. Myers notes an infuriating exchange between Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison where Winfrey says she had to re-read and puzzle out certain paragraphs, Morrison replies that she is describing "reading." Myers counters that what she is describing is "bad writing." If you have been flummoxed by seemingly opaque prose, then you will likely enjoy this book.

No comments: