I read and loved B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, an essay decrying the literary and critical tendency toward, respectively, writing and praising mushy “self-conscious, writerly prose,” that lacks artistry, coherence, and story. The same Myers wrote an article about Elmore Leonard I derided in The Prisoner of Convention, but as much as that was misguided A Reader’s Manifesto is dead on target. Both first appeared in The Atlantic, though chopped to a smaller, shriller form. A short version of A Reader’s Manifesto is ungated, but the whole, unexpurgated book form shows more examples of what Myers perceives to be good prose, providing more balance. The printed version also rebuts many of the retorts, which often misstate Myers’ argument, to A Reader’s Manifesto. It’s easily to parodied: many critics write that Myers argues against experimentation, or demands conformity, or lacks the acuity to understand modern literature. He preemptively deals with such points, and my single sentence pop summary doesn’t contain the essay’s nuances, which are subtle and important enough to merit reading everything.
Despite my praise, you see can see precursors to A Reader’s Manifesto in Tom Wolfe’s, Stalking the Billion-footed Beast: a Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel and in others who echo Wolfe, like Dan Simmons in this Salon interview.
None of the three directly address one of the harder problems for the average reader: deciding what to read, especially if one should not trust many critics. I doubt most readers follow the debate among mandarin book reviews and the like. As Robert Towers writes in The Flap over Tom Wolfe: How Real is the Retreat from Realism?, “The overwhelming impression one gets is that Mr. Wolfe has read very little of the fiction of the last 30 years – the period during which, he laments, realism became hopelessly old-hat, practiced chiefly by such antiquated figures as Saul Bellow, Robert Stone (born six years after Mr. Wolfe) and John Updike (one year younger than Mr. Wolfe), who ”found it hard to give up realism” (as if they ever tried!).” Wolfe and Myers infight, and are in danger of ignoring the vast corpus of modern fiction, the operative word being vast: I, for one, hesitate to make too many generalizations given the sheer number of titles published. You can find good fiction of the kind Wolfe says is no longer written, and of the kind Myers says is too-often ignored by prize committees.
To be fair, Myers never says that strong, important writing has utterly disappeared—he only laments that so many mediocre or bad writers receive so much adulation. I agree and try to defend the writers worth defending, deflate those not, and remind others of the great but forgotten, or underloved, or poorly publicized authors who deserve notice–most notably Robertson Davies. In doing so, I try to avoid the hype machines manufacture hype and reputations. A Reader’s Manifesto is a useful corrective to the hyperbolic claims of much bad modern literature, especially after trying Don DeLillo’s bizarre soporifics White Noise and Underworld. The person I love to hate most is critical sensation Jonathan Safran Foer, whose two best-known novels are so awful that it takes restraint not to write off the entire taste in books of any devotee. Skip Foer and DeLillo, and take up Myers: he is willing to say that the emperor has no clothes.
EDIT: This post also covers A Reader’s Manifesto.