There is nothing quite so bracing of a winter morning as a carefully reasoned, hilariously written diatribe. I'm not talking about writers getting off on their anger: crotchety old geezers unable to keep up with changing technology, or dinosaurs grasping at one last glimmer of fame by decrying some obvious inequity with their brazenly middlebrow sensibility. I'm talking about the kind of essay that actually changes the way you view the world. I'm talking about Frederick Crews on Freud, Renata Adler on Pauline Kael, Stanton Coblentz on modern poetry, Nabokov on Wilson, Wilson on the MLA, Dwight Macdonald on Webster's Third, Gore Vidal on John Updike, David Hockney on 15th Century painters. Now, one of the best of all recent literary diatribes finds itself in book form.
In fact, "diatribe" may be a pejorative word for such a carefully reasoned, clearly argued case. But when the July-August issue of the Atlantic Monthly came out in mid-2001 featuring B. R. Myers's article "A Reader's Manifesto," book reviewers across the land snorted in contempt, while many others – people in reading groups, those who buy many books but who have no "voice" in the national literary dialogue – joined in the acclaim. An ordinary fellow, someone just like them, intelligent and skeptical and interested, had said what was on their mind about the state of contemporary American fiction, but he had done the hard work – thoroughly reading the books –they couldn't stomach.
Now Melville House, the independent firm co-founded by MobyLives.com's Dennis Loy Johnson, has gathered together a new, improved version of the essay as A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose (Melville House, 149 pages, $9.95, ISBN 0 9718659 0 6), adding to it Myers's reply to his critics and a final "Ten Rules for 'Serious' Writers."
Myers's thesis is simple. So simple, numerous credentialed literary critics across the land couldn't grasp it, if the book's epilogue is an accurate barometer. Myers's point is that contemporary literary fiction is dominated by a group of poor writers who hide their poverty of ideas and perception behind ungrammatical, repetitious, list-making prose ("Furious dabs of tulips stuttering in gardens"), while their "esteem" is validated by said critics (Lee Abbott, Walter Kendrick, Richard Eder, et. al.) and award-giving bodies. The contemporary literature most touted by these critics and reviewers is bunkum, and it's the critics' fault that these thin literary talents have such high esteem. You can't blame the reviewers for recoiling from Myers's point, if those prissy Charons bothered to read it at all (some claimed they didn't), since in many ways they are the true targets of Myers's ire.
Reviewers used to talk about stories, prose style, and a book's ideas. Now they talk about sentences. Myers quotes with delicious scorn Oprah Winfrey's account of telephoning Toni Morrison (she can do that) about her difficulty in navigating some of the sentences in Morrison's books, and receiving the imperious reply, "That, my dear, is called 'reading.'" Myers's view seems to be: well, we ordinary readers do know how to read, but it benefits mediocre authors of prestigious reputation if we function at a deficit. We are expected to buy the books but not complain.
And who are the authors Myers singles out for scrutiny? E. Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, David Gutterson, and Paul Auster. Myers, then a teacher living in New Mexico who now works in South Korea, writes about them with such wit, vitriol, and insight that the temptation is to quote the entire article, defeating the purpose of a 500 word review. One example will have to suffice. In his discussion of the supposed "spare" prose of Auster, Myers quotes an annoying word list on page 35 of Timbukto: "Still and all Mr. Bones was a dog. From the tip of his tail to the end of his snout, he was a pure example of Canis familiaris, and whatever divine presence he might have harbored within his skin, he was first and foremost the thing he appeared to be. Mr. Bow Wow, Monsieur Woof Woof, Sir Cur." Myers notes that the "the relative shortness of [Auster's] sentences has always fooled critics into believing that he never wastes a word." In defending himself against an L.A. Times attack by Lee Siegel, who said that the passage is not an instance of "repetition" because the lists "are poetic variations that amplify meaning," Myers annotates, "I realize that there are no two words that mean exactly the same thing, but how does … 'Monsieur Woof Woof' amplify 'Mr. Bow Wow'? It seems cruel to takes this seriously."
Myers is himself a fine writer, a paragon of the very clarity that he seeks to re-establish (this reviewer found only two minor solecisms, a redundancy on page 65 and a word order mix up on page 106). Braced by his razor sharp rage the reader feels emboldened. Bring on the rest of winter – I've got something to keep me warm.
This essay originally appeared in Black Lamb, in 2003.