A Reader’s Manifesto — B.R. Myers

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.

Hollywood, The Golden Compass, and artistic corruption

About a month ago I picked up The Golden Compass to read the first chapter for something I was working on. It’s the first novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which I wrote about a year ago. Rather than stopping at chapter two, as I’d intended to, I accidentally finished the novel in the course of the day. I’m not the who loves His Dark Materials: this month’s Atlantic has an article called “How Hollywood Saved God” (warning: it’s in a walled garden, so if you’re not a subscriber you should buy the magazine) that says Pullman’s books have sold 15 million copies worldwide. Each book of the trilogy probably counts as a sale, and his other books are probably included too, but it’s safe to assume many people have read him. The number will no doubt increase with the release of the first movie.

“How Hollywood Saved God” describes the movie based on The Golden Compass. I’ll probably watch it in December, somewhat reluctantly, just as I saw The Return of the King despite knowing the high probability of disappointment. I was right about The Return of the King, a movie that provides an excellent of example of how more special effects can lead to an inferior result. With The Golden Compass, five years and a lot of wrangling have apparently succeeded in watering down the sharp content of the book. Hollywood as portrayed by this Atlantic story is the McDonald’s of art, seeking to dull strong flavors to make a more standardized product that will appeal to the widest audience, but also destroying what made the original good. Hollywood isn’t the only place with this tendency.

Some of this comes from technological fetishization, and some from the perceived effect of strong statements on financial aspects, leading to the end result:

To an industry intoxicated with sophisticated visual effects, Pullman’s creations were irresistible. In 2003, when describing what sold him on the movie, Toby Emmerich, New Line’s president of production, explained, “It was two words: Iorek Byrnison.” Iorek is an “insanely awesome character,” he added. “He can’t tell a lie,” Emmerich told me recently, “and [Lyra] is an expert liar.”


You can probably guess how things turned out. Given enough time and effort, Hollywood can tweak and polish and recast even the darkest message until it would seem at home in a Fourth of July parade. In the end, the religious meaning of the book was obscured so thoroughly as to be essentially indecipherable. The studio settled on villains that, as Emmerich put it, “feel vaguely kind of like a fascistic, totalitarian dictatorship, Russian/KGB/SS” stew. The movie’s main theme became, in one producer’s summary, “One small child can save the world.” With $180 million at stake, the studio opted to kidnap the book’s body and leave behind its soul.

Read the article to see how it happens and this for more on The Atlantic regarding movies, art, and commerce.


I work for a few hours this morning and then read a few blogs. About Last Night has new material, and on The Elegant Variation I read about Joshua Henkin’s Matrimony. Sounds good, and despite the eight or ten books waiting to be read, I could squeeze another in. Maybe Henkin is coming to town, and I find his events page.

Nuts: Thursday November 1, 2007 at Conor Byrne’s Pub. 5140 Ballard Avenue NW, Seattle.

Conversations with Robertson Davies

I’m tempted to summarize Conversations with Robertson Davies, a collection of interviews with the great author, but I can’t, and even if I could I’d probably do better to give a few thoughts stemming from a comment Davies made about reading. As you can probably surmise, I like Davies’s work, so I find his comments without a fictional scrim interesting too. One exchange particularly resonates:

Robert Fulford: Books are things to be studied, judged rather than experienced. I think you once said that the heresy of the critic is that he is a judge rather than experiencer of literature.
Davies: Yes. […] As for my own books, I hope that the readers will have to use their heads and be collaborators, which is a thing I stressed in that earlier book. They should be collaborators in creating the work of art which is the book.

I tend toward judgement, and my chief criterion for greatness is met when a book causes me to spontaneously stop judging and start experiencing. To be fair, I can’t fully stop judging, but to the extent that my reading becomes more experience and less judgment I am inclined to like and love the book that induces this sensation. The best of Davies’s books—The Deptford Trilogy, The Cornish Trilogy, The Cunning Man—all accomplish this goal. Cryptonomicon and Straight Man and Lord of the Rings achieve the same effect. I wish I could fully explain how and why they do, but part of writing about books is writing about the inexplicable. Criticism is an effort to reveal more of the mystery that can’t ever be fully revealed.

To intersperse Elmore Leonard:

[Q:] There’s this presumption that a book is somehow a higher form of art, of a higher form of expression, than a movie. Do you agree?
[Leonard:] I don’t think the book is a higher form at all. Because most books are not very good. They’re a chore to read.

Occasionally a worthwhile book is also a chore, but only very seldom, and usually because I don’t understand it at first, as I didn’t Romeo and Juliet when reading it as a high school freshman. Recently I described The Bad Girl with language that brings to mind duty. I think Davies felt similar to Leonard regarding bad books, or even books that aren’t essential (essential meaning different things to different people, of course, which might make the debate more a semantic than one getting at underlying truth). Elsewhere in Conversations, Davies recommends reading fewer books but reading them with more depth and feeling.

I hope to read with more depth and feeling, and part of the reason I write is to find both. Paul Graham explains the process well:

Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.

Wow! I started the post writing about Robertson Davies, but along the way became more interested in the diversions than the original topic. And that is a good thing: one idea bumps into another, reminding me of something else, and off I go. I hope that is reading with feeling and intellect. The Elegant Variation, in discussing the maladies affecting book reporting, says “Too many reviews are dull, workmanlike book reports.” I agree, and think that many books are dull and workmanlike, so perhaps the reviews reflect them. That’s why I felt a sense of wonder at Davies’ books, as well as Conversations: they are not dull and workmanlike, and I hope my writing isn’t. After reading Mark Sarvas’s comments, I’ve tried harder not to write dull, workmanlike book reports. Is it working?

I hope so. Davies wrote many reviews of varying quality, but he was also a man who knew good work when he saw it. Conversations is filled with criticism (in the bad sense) of academic criticism (in the sense of commentary). I’ve heard James Wood (a TEV favorite) and others I know I’ve read but can’t think to cite at the moment say or write the same. So here’s to them, and to Davies, and to reading, and to experience.

The Bad Girl

The Bad Girl was likable enough to finish but not enough to rouse passion—as Orwell wrote, book reviewing demands “[…] constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.” I think of Orwell when reading pieces like this in the New York Times, calling Mario Vargas Llosa’s “[…] most recent book […] a splendid, suspenseful and irresistible novel […]”.

Maybe The Bad Girl is—or maybe the reviewer is unfamiliar with Milan Kundera, who walks similar ground in The Unbearable Lightness of Being with prose that sounds similar in translation, or maybe she found the self-declared investigation of the manifold forms of the bad girl interesting instead of tedious. Llosa’s protagonist-narrator Ricardo lays out the issue early and often: “Everything in the life of Madam Arnoux remain extremely mysterious, as it had been in the lives of Lily the Chilean girl and Arlette the guerilla fighter.” These are all identities assumed by the bad girl, as she is known to Ricardo once he sees through her masks.

Later, we are reminded again by a psychologist who says that “‘Living in the fiction gave [the bad girl] reasons to feel more secure, less threatened than living in the truth.'” Metafictional commentary runs through the novel, as does Ricardo’s hope for requited love from the bad girl who morphs repeatedly, like an alien creature from a pulp science fiction novel that has made Ricardo into her host. As my absurd comments probably show, the novel does not live up to the lavish review—on the Sunday Book Review cover no less. No wonder I heard Orwell in the background, as The Bad Girl looks literary, sounds literary, and seems deserving of praise even if upon finishing it I only thought, “hmmmmm, that was okay.”

Some of the parts that showed panache didn’t lead to a good whole—an old woman is “[…] interested in the world: she read The Times carefully, beginning with the obituaries […]”, telling us where her mind dwells. The author or translator just misses cliche and sums up a side character’s relationship and much of the novel when Ricardo wishes “[…] not to have learned that my friend was going to be brutally awakened from the dream he was in and returned to harsh reality.” Yes: so will Ricardo, we cannot help but think, especially if we already know The Bad Girl draws from Madame Bovary. But we are also treated to a cheap pop psychology scene more disruptive than the last five minutes of the film Psycho, in which a good man of science tells us what happened to the bad girl, solving a small part of Ricardo’s mystery. But so what? It’s an easily skipped scene—I did go back and read it to be sure—and, while the novel packs meaty ideas about illusion, identity, and relationships in, they, like the characters, never come alive. I’d like those ideas to be part of the characters, rather than another form of the alien creature that alters a character’s personality, leaving them a shell instead of a person.

You’ll like it well enough—but why read something that’s good enough instead of what’s excellent? Unless you’re a book reviewer, as Orwell was, you don’t have to.

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