Booked Up Dept.


Almost by accident, I got back-linked to B.R. Myers's merciless and precise essay "A Reader's Manifesto", published in the Atlantic back in July/August of 2001.

Here was a guy who was preaching nothing short of heresy. Modern literature, or what is marketed as same, amounts to a crime against the spirit by dint of being overblown junk — the literary version of what Emerson, Lake and Palmer sounded like to the weary ears of the Brothers Ramone in 1974.

Myers's catechism of said literature's sins is nothing less than the very things the critics fall all over themselves praising: "evocative" prose that actually evokes little or nothing (Annie Proulx); "muscular" writing that's all meat and no sinew (Cormac McCarthy); "edgy" fiction that's about as funny as your own funeral (Don DeLillo); "spare" language that's simply a proxy for work so lax and unfocused you aren't supposed to read every word anyway; and so on. The language, though, is the most obvious Single Point of Failure:

... today's Serious Writers fail even on their own postmodern terms. They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead — and then they subject us to the least-expressive form, the least-expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel. Time wasted on these books is time that could be spent reading something fun.

The big problem is not just that these books are bad, both on a basic reading level and on a story level. It's that we turn a lot of people off to reading in general by insisting they start with this crap, when they would be better served elsewhere — ironically enough, by writing that has by and large fallen into the public domain and is available for the cost of an Internet connection.

This is stuff I've fumed over in private myself, and a big part of why I took all the work I'd written consciously in the same vein(s) and thrown it off the end of the dock. There is no crime in being interesting and funny and even sympathetic and human; if anything, it's the sort of crime (of passion) we don't commit often enough on paper. But for some reason all that has become passé and boring — to other writers, anyway, who now spend more time trying to one-up each other in archness and contempt for anything like Story and Plot than they do in building a connection with an audience and creating something worth investing some vicarious emotion in.

What Myers also points out, and I think is worth emphasizing, is the way critics and book reviewers (not always the same group) are a party to this as much as anyone else.

I've read reviews from the forties and fifties, and they're all much more honest and thoughtful than what we get today. The best critics now are film reviewers, people like Anthony Lane and David Denby. They write about movies the way people used to write about books.

... So many intelligent people seem to have given up on novels because they trusted the media to pick out the best ones for them. And of course it's the quality of contemporary fiction that's driving them away. The stuff is just dull.

... even the full-time reviewers like Michiko Kakutani don't seem to represent the consumer's interests to the extent that a movie critic like Roger Ebert does.[*]

This is something I've had to school myself out of: the idea that the guy on the other side of the screen/page reading my review is some rube who needs to be led out of the wilderness by the likes of me. It's the same thing Dale Peck (of Hatchet Jobs infamy) saw in Sven Birkets — a critical stance that assumed the reader was always ignorant until proven enlightened (by the all-knowing critic, of course). It's not something you notice until it's fairly rubbing its chest hair into your face, which makes it all the harder to root out of your own work.

Myers has a few other topical zingers, like the way writers today are still beating glue out of the dead horse of American Consumerism — that grossly tired "prison / insane asylum / shopping mall algebra", as John Swenson described what Frank Zappa was skewering in his first few records. And that was 1967, when the bourgeois had already been épated for several generations over; seeing it in rock music albeit with a relatively intellectual context at least still had novelty value back then. Today, it's about as provocative as a backwards baseball cap.

I've not been able to fathom the thought processes behind how a writer today can call himself "serious" and yet take paper-thin cheap shots at the very people buying and reading his books. I can only assume there is no thinking involved — that it's a pose — because it's far more frightening to think they may be completely sincere.

Maybe they just have swelled heads. At one point Myers blames "the belief that the writer is more important than the text" — meaning we've swapped the pleasure of reading for what amounts to worshipping Genius with a cap G. The concept has become more important than the execution, and now the conceiver is even more important than the concept. Maybe he is, if only in the sense that an author is irreplaceable because only he can write his books — and the books themselves are just artifacts, not substitutes for life or the living. But that's not what they had in mind. The cult of the Great Author has replaced the cult of the Great Book — which would be fine, if they were great for something other than writing books that are more praised than actually read.

And what do people want to read? By and large, something fun, and everyone's definition of "fun" is a little different. I like Japan, so I read a lot of stuff about the place and from it. For me that's fun — doubly so when I can communicate to someone else what form the fun takes. Some people like Janet Evanovitch; that's fine, too. She's like AC/DC — a band that didn't "spend so much effort on Not Being Pretentious" (as Chuck Eddy once put it) that they became just as bad as the things they rebelled against.

That's the other part of what's wrong with the current crop of writers: they're writing with one eye turned towards history, instead of both eyes on the page. They live, and work, in such utter fear of Not Being Important that they have sacrificed the very best things in their own work — accessibility, intelligibility, human connection — to stave off that disaster. The end result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The books stink now, and they'll stink fifty years from now, too. Maybe even worse: by that time, the pool of bad comparative examples will have multiplied by an order of magnitude.

The whole point is not to make educated guesses about what we'll be reading fifty years from now. We have no idea what anything will be like fifty years from now, so hedging your bets is pointless. The best writers are the ones who are working and sustaining themselves completely in the moment, for the audience they have right in front of them.

And if I myself stray from that goal, then you have my blessing to show up at my doorstep and clap my head between turtleback editions of White Noise and Underworld — which I'm not ashamed to say were two of the most godawful insufferable pieces of self-important crap I've ever read in my life. Next to Infinite Jest, that is.


Tags: criticism dharma links publishing writing




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