Every 10 years or so, someone speaking from the subtly slick pages of a high-brow magazine declares that the American novel is dead. Or dying. Or getting drunk and making out with strangers at all the wrong parties.
In 1981, it was Bryan F. Griffin, an obscure essayist and short-story writer whose two-part epic "Panic Among the Philistines" ran in Harper's Magazine. In 32 pages of highfalutin sarcasm and purplish rabble-rousing, Griffith took down John Cheever, E.L. Doctorow, John Irving, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Truman Capote and the rest of that so-called literary elite who thought fancy language somehow redeemed their smutty and "onanistic" books.
Eight years later, it was novelist Tom Wolfe strutting across the pages of, again, Harper's in a shameless advertisement for his then-new work "The Bonfire of the Vanities," thinly disguised as a piece titled "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A literary manifesto for the new social novel." Like an erudite Auntie Mame, Wolfe declared that life in modern America is a banquet and that all these mewling minimalist, fabulist and absurdist writers were starving to death.
This time around, the role of Boy in the Crowd, the one who tugs at his mother's hem, points at the passing emperor and announces, "But Mommy, he's naked," is played by B.R. Myers, making his literary and critical debut in the July issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Like Wolfe, Myers has also written a manifesto, "A Reader's Manifesto," subtitled "An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose." Like Griffith, he is an unknown, and he appears determined to remain so--with the exception of a very short radio interview, he has done no follow-up press and, indeed, was unreachable for this story. Unlike his two predecessors, he is the consummate outsider: According to his editors at the Atlantic, his only published work is an obscure book on North Korean literature.
According to Myers, any novel with a fast-moving narrative related in unaffected prose is doomed these days to the categorization of "genre fiction." To gain the stamp of Literary, to win the big awards, a writer must dispense with the middlebrow millstones of clarity and syntax and concentrate on creating a writerly presence. The reader must ever be continually reminded that this is Lit'rature, dense and important, and not to be confused with something one might find for sale at the supermarket.
This aloof presence is achieved through a variety of means, Myers argues, including tortured wordplay (E. Annie Proulx); sudden nonsensical barrages of image (Cormac McCarthy); or non sequitor and inexplicable observation (Paul Auster). When all else fails, one can simply produce mindless lists in an attempt to capture the bottomless void of consumerism (Don DeLillo) or take a mediocre plot and tart it up with a bunch of Japanese words (David Guterson).
In 16 pages, Myers takes these, and a few other, writers to task, deconstructing excerpt after excerpt, pointing out what suddenly seem to be obvious mistakes in metaphor, syntax, even noun/pronoun agreement. Calling Proulx's wordplay "relentless," he offers a list of doubled-up metaphors and similes: "Furious dabs of tulips stuttering in gardens" seems to be his least favorite, and one must admit that there is a lot going on with those tulips.
Myers also questions whether a woman whose arms have just been sliced off (Proulx's "Accordion Crimes") would really be all that entranced by watching swallows nab bugs in the rafters as her arms wetly hit the floor, or whether "the whole scene is not in bad taste of the juvenile variety." The same question could apply to a passage that Myers selects from McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses," in which, Myers writes, the author cannot bear to use simple moderate language even when dealing with a cowboy's hangover.
[They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddle-legged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up.... In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool.
"I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retching for the call of wild animals," Myers writes. "But wild animals isn't epic enough: McCarthy must blow smoke about some 'rude provisional species'.... Then he switches from the horses' perspective to the narrator's, though just what 'something imperfect and malformed' refers to is unclear. The last half of the sentence only deepens the confusion. Is the 'thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace' the same thing that is 'lodged in the heart of being'? And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why an autumn pool? I doubt if McCarthy can explain any of this; he probably just likes the way it sounds."
Lots of Words, Little Said
One of Myers' basic arguments is that Proulx, McCarthy and other contemporary award-winning novelists seem to think that "the sheer accumulation of words" is good writing, that if they whiz enough striking images, enough oddly transposed phrases across the page, the reader will be too breathless, too completely overwhelmed to ponder such mundane things as "but what color is it really? and who said that? to whom? what is he talking about?"
When interviewed on NPR's "Morning Edition" recently, Myers was asked by a rather testy Rene Montaigne whether this was really fair--holding a magnifying glass to a Jackson Pollack, she argued, and then comparing it to a similar inch of a Vermeer would do Pollack's talent and significance an injustice. One could almost hear Myers' blank look as he answered. "Literary scholars always say you can't use excerpts when criticizing, not praising," he said, adding that he did not seek out the most offensive passages. Indeed, he used those sentences and paragraphs that had already been highly praised by reviewers.
Described in the editor's note of the magazine as an unsolicited manuscript, "A Reader's Manifesto" was actually more of an office project. Myers first submitted a much briefer version of the piece more than two years ago. According to fiction editor Mike Curtis, he read it and passed it along to then-editor-in-chief William Whitworth, who spoke at length with Myers about revising the piece.
A year or so later, Myers sent in a much longer version just as Whitworth was leaving his post. It was bequeathed to incoming editor-in-chief Mike Kelly. When Kelly decided that the July issue would be devoted to the subject of fiction, he decided Myers' point of view would be a valuable addition, so he passed it to senior editor Benjamin Schwarz, who helped Myers shape the piece last summer.
"Brian is a great writer," Schwartz says of Myers, "and there was no problem with the prose style or the core of the argument, but there were some drawbacks to his not being a literary insider. Like I had to explain that being an Oprah pick did not help a book critically."
The reaction to the piece, Curtis and Schwarz say, has been strong--a week after publication, the magazine had received 30 or 40 letters, most agreeing with Myers' position. The magazine's Web site had more than 150 spirited responses, ranging from the if-he's-so-smart-why-don't-he-just-write-a-novel variety to swoons of personal gratitude for Myers' insight and courage.
"We've heard from many people who have tried to read some of these books and found them impenetrable. They are so relieved they are not alone," Schwarz says.
Nothing has been heard thus far from the authors skewered in the piece, many of whom the Atlantic has published in the past. "We counted on them understanding that they are fair game," Curtis says.
In literary circles, the response, however, has been underwhelming. Some find the piece querulous and filled with faulty logic--the failings of a sentence or two, or even a book or two, do not constitute a general decline, they argue.
"H.L. Mencken used the term 'boobeoisie,' and I think this guy must be one of them," says New York Times book critic Richard Eder. "It's ridiculous what he does--you can find bad writing in any book. Most contemporary writing is bad, but that has been the case for centuries."
Eder's biggest complaint, besides Myers lumping "extraordinary writers" like Proulx and DeLillo with McCarthy and Auster, is that Myers gives few examples of what he considers good writing. He mentions Stephen King as a good, straightforward writer, and in the end advises those who long, as he does, for the days of Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham to content themselves with rereading Henry James.
"Henry James," snorts Eder. "These guys always have to have one highbrow writer they like and it's always Henry James. This guy [also] seems to think if it's easy to read, it's good. Which is ridiculous. There are different types of good writing, including the kind that's difficult, that you bump your head against, and then a few days later, it dawns on you. And that can change your life."
Other editors, agents and critics haven't read the essay, or simply "skimmed it," finding nothing new or remarkable in the tract.
"Every five years or so someone writes an article about the death of intellectual thought," says Don Lee, editor of Ploughshares, a magazine of contemporary fiction, who had not yet read Myers' piece. "Ten years ago, the complaints were about minimalism. So now it's pretension. Not surprising."
According to Lee, American literature is far from being in the precarious state Myers describes. "We're in very healthy shape," he says. "There's a lot of different stuff being published." He admits that agents have been grumbling about the demand for pyrotechnic prose--"of the David Foster Wallace variety"--but that he's also heard similar mutterings from editors who claim that's all the y're seeing.
Even if every literati read Myers' piece, it's doubtful any response could top the 1989 cat fight that followed Wolfe's screed. Mary Gordon, John Irving, Philip Roth, Walker Percy, Alison Lurie, Scott Spencer and T.C. Boyle are probably not going to take issue with Myers the way they did with Wolfe. Wolfe's posturing was so staggeringly self-promotional that it was almost absurd, and his personal condemnation of his peers could not go uncommented upon.
Essay Author an Enigma
Although Myers follows the grand tradition of pedestal toppling, his tone is, by comparison, subdued and more overtly proletariat.
He also recognizes that there are female novelists, a fact that eluded both Wolfe and Griffin--the inclusion of Proulx in Myers' ire could be construed as a triumph of feminism. Sort of.
And he himself seems an intentional enigma. Although Schwarz and Curtis provided an e-mail address for him, and themselves put in calls to Myers, he remained unavailable for this story. His editor's description of his background was unnervingly vague. According to Curtis, he is not an academic but is academically trained; according to Schwartz, his only other published work is the book he wrote for Cornell's East Asia Series.
"That's why we were attracted to the piece," Schwarz says, "because we thought he really represented our readers. People who spend a lot of time reading serious books, not writing them."
During his interview on NPR, which Schwarz said he did at the magazine's urging, Myers said he was spurred on by the image of college students forced to read one of these celebrated novelists and "thinking they're too stupid to understand a novel of 'great ideas."'
"I never thought I would change anything," he said.