Ian Heidin-Seek's Reviews > A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose

A Reader's Manifesto by B.R. Myers
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Nov 15, 11

bookshelves: to-read, cul-poli-phil-art, reviews, lit-krit

My rant about this book and its approach is based on the Atlantic article.

The Attack on Pretentiousness

The article was presented as "an attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose".

Many of us would agree with the need for such an attack.

But every attack must come from a position of its own, and sometimes you have to work out whether you agree with the origin of the attack, before you agree with the attack itself.

So, from what point of view is BRM attacking his victims?

The Victims and Their Crimes

Here is the list of victim authors, together with their crimes:

* Annie Proulx ("Evocative" Prose)

* Cormac McCarthy ("Muscular" Prose)

* Don DeLillo ("Edgy" Prose)

* Paul Auster ("Spare" Prose)

* David Guterson (Generic "Literary" Prose)

Myers Attacks

There might be 20,000 reasons to attack their prose, but what were BRM's reasons?

What style of prose does he posit as an alternative?

What positive emerges out of his rant?

What I Like About What I Like

Here are some of the characteristics and qualities that BRM rates highly:

* popular storytellers

* accessible, fast-moving stories written in unaffected prose

* an excellent "read" or a "page turner"

* a strong element of action

* a natural prose style

* unaffected English

* a plain, honest man, just the author to read on the subway

* the reader is addressed as the writer's equal

* a natural cadence and vocabulary

* the figurative language (like something seen through bad glass) is fresh and vivid without seeming to strain for originality

* movie westerns

* epic language only in moderation

* A good novelist, of course, would have written the scene more persuasively in the first place. Far stranger things happen in Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls(1842), but we don't need an academic intermediary to argue their plausibility or to explain what Gogol was getting at

* A thriller must thrill or it is worthless; this is as true now as it ever was

* genre-ish suspense

* make sense

* more of a storytelling instinct than many novelists today

* Time wasted on these books is time that could be spent reading something fun. When DeLillo describes a man's walk as a "sort of explanatory shuffle ... a comment on the literature of shuffles" (Underworld), I feel nothing; the wordplay is just too insincere, too patently meaningless. But when Vladimir Nabokov talks of midges "continuously darning the air in one spot," or the "square echo" of a car door slamming, I feel what Philip Larkin wanted readers of his poetry to feel: "Yes, I've never thought of it that way, but that's how it is." The pleasure that accompanies this sensation is almost addictive; for many, myself included, it's the most important reason to read both poetry and prose

* convincing

* As Christopher Isherwood once said to Cyril Connolly, real talent manifests itself not in a writer's affectation but "in the exactness of his observation [and] the justice of his situations."

* British psychological thrillers written in careful, unaffectedly poetic prose

* Suspense

* the old American scorn for pretension

Food for Thought

Hopefully, there is some food for future thought in this list.

However, ultimately, this attack reminds me of the year I watched 37 Alfred Hitchcock films in a row and thought that everything else in film, literature, work, life and girlfriends was absolute crap.

Luckily, I kept my thoughts to myself.

If I hadn't, hopefully I would have tried to praise Hitchcock, instead of just slamming everybody else in my life.

In other words, if BRM had had the guts of his vision, he would have stated the positive of his alternative, instead of heaping negative shit on his victims.

And if he had been genuine, he would have admitted that he loved B movies and pulp fiction more than he loved any definition of literary fiction whatsoever.

Good luck to the man, but just because he loves black jelly beans doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with purple ones.

Except he needed to attack, perhaps discriminately, perhaps indiscriminately, in order to sell copies of the Atlantic and his book.
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Comments (showing 1-23 of 23) (23 new)

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message 1: by Sue (new)

Sue heavy


message 2: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Heidin-Seek I'm not afraid to be heavy ;)


message 3: by Sue (new)

Sue with some wedgies inbetween ?


message 4: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Heidin-Seek Ha ha. It's actually the name of a Dave Graney song, but I can't find it on YouTube for you.

It's gonna be a long time before I have a wedgie, but I am having a nice glass of white wine.


message 5: by Sue (new)

Sue He's not heavy he's my brother............ there!

are you still away?


message 6: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Heidin-Seek Back home, though still reading slowly.


message 7: by Whitaker (last edited Nov 15, 2011 03:04AM) (new)

Whitaker It's an odd thing, but why is it that we call Van Gogh a genius when his contemporaries didn't "get" his work but call, I dunno, DeLillo (or any other similar writer, the name doesn't really matter) pretentious when we don't "get" his. BRM might be sniggered at in 100 years the way we snigger at those critics who derided the Impressionists or JS Bach or...any number of others whose feet we worship at now. Or maybe the reverse. Maybe he'll be seen as the one true prophet. I've never read DeLillo. I just think people should be less sure of their own judgements of what posperity will think.

Ultimately, I think writers like this make money from being controversial. Bottom feeders and muck rakers, really.


message 8: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Heidin-Seek Posterity, but I know what you meant. (One of Rod Stewart's songs mentioned that he was writing it all down for prosperity, which might have been true.)

Ultimately, critics are in the "I like" business.

It's up to us to work out whether their likes are ours.

Which is what I love about Good Reads.


message 9: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Heidin-Seek Authors have no right to get oversensitive, but ultimately style is a highly personal sensitivity.

Authors write the way they do, because they choose to, and accusing them of bad faith and incompetence is bound to be taken as personally offensive, if not by the author, then at least by their loyal fans.

In my opinion, Myers did not write in order to say, "I do not like this writer or their writing".

He wrote in order to pull them off a pedestal that some of his rivals had placed them on.

It was an act of strategic insolence, at the risk of being personal and sarcastic on my part, designed to advance his own notoriety and career.

Well, he achieved that. Again, I don't begrudge him that.

He isn't in the minority in the larger context.

He sides with the whole of the rest of society who don't get modernism and or, having got it, don't like it.

He also sides with the majority against a self-proclaimed "elite".

It's the same dynamic as "the History Wars".

Rupert Murdoch fills his papers with this style of commentary, while at the same time constructing an approved elite of his own.

Myers is part of the new elite that knows and goes where the money is.

I'm re-reading "The Names" at the moment to see if I can verbalise why someone like DeLillo appeals to me.


message 10: by Tuck (new)

Tuck it seems kinda pretentious to accuse a writer of pretentiousness. why not just read manual rivas or something, do the whole boycott delillo or walmart or whathaveyou? Books Burn Badly
i guess you just have to ask, WWHBD? (what would harold bloom do?)
Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?


message 11: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Heidin-Seek He should just stick to books about Korea.


message 12: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis * Annie Proulx ("Evocative" Prose)
* Cormac McCarthy ("Muscular" Prose)
* Don DeLillo ("Edgy" Prose)
* Paul Auster ("Spare" Prose)
* David Guterson (Generic "Literary" Prose)


Oddly, I'm not interested in any of these folks excepting DeLillo. I read some Proulx once, she is entirely competent, and deeming anything about her "pretentious" is a sin. But maybe I'm just not interested in "literary" fiction. Sounds, to my ear, like a genre which makes the lives of book hawkers easier. I read novels.

But I disagree about critics imitating us Likers on goodreads. A critic--who has a task so much in contrast to the case of the novelist who has absolutely no task except for the one which the work itself sets for her--a critic's task is to expand our collective understanding of a work, to trace its outlines, to identify how it goes together, how it relates to itself and the other, etc, etc. A critic, when the task is undertaken, is responsible for bringing the work closer to the reader. Unlike holding novelists responsible for accomplishing x, y, and z, we readers are in a position to hold critics accountable for shedding light upon the work.


message 13: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Heidin-Seek I still think that, at heart, critics "like" and then they find reasons for their like, that do all the things you mention. So do we.


message 14: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Ian wrote: "I still think that, at heart, critics "like" and then they find reasons for their like, that do all the things you mention. So do we."

Sure. But liking a thing is oddly, too, a moral (human) activity. One has a responsibility, in my humble opinion, to inform one's liking, to become more educated about the thing one likes and also one's own subjective activity of liking. Liking can be accompanied with more or with less knowledge. And then sometimes (often), that liking judgement runs the risk of being wrong. Such is the life of making judgements.


message 15: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Heidin-Seek I agree. It's a moral activity aided by rationality coming up with the reasons.

BRM dislikes different things to me/us, but in my opinion lacks honesty about the critical framework he was applying.

Plus he luxuriates in negativity. Has he come up with a book on what he likes? No, nobody would care and it wouldn't sell. He has to make money by pulling down other people's gods.

So his only achievement is to be sticky paper for a coalition of moths who dislike post-modernism and/or literary fiction.

He is in the anti-intellectualism business. He wants a job with News Corporation.


message 16: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Ian wrote: "Plus he luxuriates in negativity. Has he come up with a book on what he likes? No, nobody would care and it wouldn't sell. He has to make money by pulling down other people's gods."

Which must be, now that you point it out, why I love Moore's book. It's a love letter to fiction. [and it didn't sell well]

He is in the anti-intellectualism business. He wants a job with News Corporation.

; )


message 17: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Heidin-Seek Exactly. I've also written a lot of love letters, since I joined GR. hence my high average star rating. There's plenty of time to do the one star reviews later.


message 18: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Ian wrote: "There's plenty of time to do the one star reviews later."

I have a toxic tendency toward Schadenfreude. It needs to be pressed back. Constantly.


message 19: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Heidin-Seek I suppose a critic sometimes has to read things they don't like. I would only do it knowingly, so I could have some fun with a one star review.


message 20: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Heidin-Seek Nathan "N.R." wrote: "Ian wrote: "There's plenty of time to do the one star reviews later."

I have a toxic tendency toward Schadenfreude. It needs to be pressed back. Constantly."


Is that like finding a positive in the negative? Or finding a position in the negation?


message 21: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Ian wrote: "I have a toxic tendency toward Schadenfreude. It needs to be pressed back. Constantly."

Is that like finding a positive in the negative? Or finding a position in the negation? "


Freude is always a pleasure.


message 22: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Heidin-Seek One Freud would be a joy, but Freude is an even greater pleasure.


message 23: by Simon (new)

Simon That's a lot of speculation about hidden business agendas. I do agree that Auster, MacCarthy and company aren't objectively bad authors as much as their respective writing styles just aren't for everyone.

By the way I wonder what Myers would make of James Ellroy, a "genre" author who happens to be strongly influenced by Don DeLillo. In any case Myers' "Reader's Manifesto" would make interesting compare-and-contrast material with Tom Wolfe's "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast".


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