Charles Taylor on A Reader's Manifesto

Charles Taylor not only likes A Reader’s Manifesto—he thinks it is an essential part of a critic’s library:

A Reader’s Manifesto by B.R. Myers — It says something about the blood drawn by Myers’ argument for lucidity in literary prose that the writers who attacked it found it necessary to falsify it to make their (rigged) points. Not one of them has explained why, if Myers is arguing for dumbed-down prose, he extols Conrad, Woolf, Faulkner, and Joyce. Though their insularity does make a pretty good argument for how easily literature could go the way of the spinnet in the parlor.

Charles Taylor on A Reader’s Manifesto

Charles Taylor not only likes A Reader’s Manifesto—he thinks it is an essential part of a critic’s library:

A Reader’s Manifesto by B.R. Myers — It says something about the blood drawn by Myers’ argument for lucidity in literary prose that the writers who attacked it found it necessary to falsify it to make their (rigged) points. Not one of them has explained why, if Myers is arguing for dumbed-down prose, he extols Conrad, Woolf, Faulkner, and Joyce. Though their insularity does make a pretty good argument for how easily literature could go the way of the spinnet in the parlor.

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.

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.

Catch-22 and overrated novels

Lester Hunt thinks Catch-22 is the most overrated novel of the Twentieth Century, a stance I strongly disagree with (link originally via Marginal Revolution, which also asks what readers think the most overrated novel is).

The most pernicious aspect of Hunt’s post is that it misrepresents Catch-22: he writes, “But it consists of basically the same joke over and over again: military people are evil and stupid. They are also stupid and evil.” The joke is that military life—like much of life, especially in bureaucracies—is absurd, and made all the more so by its officiousness and self-importance and lack of awareness of its officiousness and self-importance. With this starting point, Hunt goes on to say that, “It’s a bad argument,” for Catch-22 to argue that military people are evil and stupid. But literature, even satire, is not necessarily written to make an argument: its point, if it has one, is to create art which exists for its own sake. Even so, and even if his initial point is correct, he’s dangerously close to making an argument like the one I attacked in The Prisoner of Convention, a post about Elmore Leonard: that you have to have the “good guys” in a traditional sense—white knight, armor, etc.—be more sympathetic than the “bad guys.” Novels should have the option of making one perceive a situation from other points of view, and one major point of a great deal of art, especially in writing, is that it is often difficult to tell who the bad guys are. (Saddam Hussein was a bad guy and always has been and always will be, right? So why did the former Secretary of Defense shake his hand? We’ve always been at war with Eurasia, right?) If art lacks this option it becomes propaganda.

Although I’d need to reread Catch-22 to cite textual elements for my criticism, I’d suggest Hunt start with some reading with regard to his fourth point, “[t]here is less than meets the eye[:]””Spindrift and the Sea: Structural Patterns and Unifying Elements in Catch 22” by Clinton Burhans, Jr., “It Was All Yossarian’s Fault” Power and Responsibility in Catch-22″ by Stephen Sniderman, both in the journal Twentieth Century Literature, and “War and the Comic Muse: The Good Soldier Schweik and Catch-22” by J. P. Stern in The English Journal. As far as books go, Critical essays on Joseph Heller by James Nagel is probably worth reading, and even big boy on the block Harold Bloom wrote in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

My own choice for most overrated novel depends on whether one is dealing with the question of whether a novel is overrated by critics of the general public. As The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list shows, the two have substantially different ideas about what constitutes greatness. I’m more concerned with what “The Board” thinks, because its choices are more likely to stand up over time, but my choice overlaps: Catcher in the Rye, a novel that manages to combine spectacularly boring writing with a whiny, indulgent brat. Its only redeeming quality is that high schools assign it—or least mine did—despite the swearing and such, thus potentially moving out of the curriculum books like Ethan Frome—though mine made us read it. Read might be too strong a word—mind assigned it.

To Kill a Mockingbird is also a decent choice, but I doubt most scholars and critics take it seriously anymore, so it does no harm on high school reading lists, and probably a fair bit of good: it’s simple in language but still has enough to sink one’s ill-developed intellectual teeth into, and the symbolism is readily understandable even by 13-year-olds. Catcher in the Rye, on the other hand, still seems to have institutional support. I suspect that when the literature professors and teachers who came of age in the 60s retire, Catcher in the Rye will fade into a curio of its time. D.H. Lawrence I don’t love and can’t see aging well, but he is extremely important in terms of the novel’s history. On the Road is another vastly overrated novel, but I hesitate to call it the most overrated.

The Prisoner of Convention

The Atlantic just posted a non-gated review of Elmore Leonard (the review nominally covers The Hot Kid, but B.R. Myers is more interested in Leonard than this particular book). Myers makes an intriguing but wrong point about Leonard’s shift from Westerns to caper novels in that the latter abdicate morality in pursuit of cool and hence lose their… what? Heft? Authority? I can’t exactly tell, but I argue the opposite: Leonard’s move from simple stories of good and evil to stories with a shifting moral landscape make them better and more interesting novels that avoid easy conclusions about the characters inhabiting them and hence reach a depth that some of his earlier stories don’t.

I also dislike the implicit critical assumption about cultural commentary in Myers’ piece: that books, or at least Leonard’s books, need cleanly delineated good/evil opposites to function. He writes, “Back then [Leonard] was still immune to the silly idea that it’s unrealistic to pit a very good person against a very bad one.” It may or may not be unrealistic, but Myers seems to imply that he prefers stories about very good people against very bad ones—which is fine, but if so, he shouldn’t criticize Leonard for writing the kind of books he does not prefer. I find nothing wrong with the style of novel in which good/evil characters are made evident—Lord of the Rings is among my favorite novels, and no one is worse than Sauron or better than Aragorn—but to imply that stories involving ambiguity are inherently bad means that Myers won’t let novels explore what makes good good and bad bad; Leonard, in a subtle way, usually does in his caper novels, and also manages to show how good guys and bad guys often aren’t so different, when one even can identify the good guys and bad guys. Carl Webster in The Hot Kid is the supposed good guy mostly because he has a bade in The Hot Kid, and he’s mostly comic in Up in Honey’s Room, though to his credit he is chasing Nazis. Sometimes one can’t easily tell the good guys from the bad guys. Leonard might want to write about cool, so let him, without encumbering him with moralistic baggage.

Read “The Prisoner of Cool” for its useful and interesting observations about Leonard’s style and progression, even if you too think the conclusions are wrong. There is a reason I title this, “The Prisoner of Convention.”


UPDATE: I posted again on Myers here.

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