Why Great Literature Contains Everything But a Clear Answer: A Defense of Serious Fiction

Lee Siegel is a contributing writer to Book Review and a contributing editor to Harper's and The New Republic

Democracy beckons to a beautiful condition, but it also offers a wicked pretext. We should beware of those--including this writer--who claim to speak on our behalf. In an article in the current Atlantic magazine, titled "A Reader's Manifesto," one B.R. Myers claims to be speaking on behalf of the common reader. He rails against abstraction and pretentiousness, against inflated, self-consciously literary prose, against "pseudo-intellectual writing" and "fancy-pants language." Choosing as evidence several critically acclaimed and commercially successful writers, he places excerpts from their work under the light of common sense and actual experience. Myers' screed has received considerable attention in newspapers from Los Angeles to London.

Myers has a particular criterion, which grows out of a special gripe. As he told an interviewer on National Public Radio, right after his article appeared:

"In 1982, Don DeLillo published a novel called 'The Names.' And the narrator of this novel is an American based in Greece who routinely lies to his concierge about where he's traveling. He says he's going to England, but then he really goes to Japan and so on. Now the narrator tries to tell us, in all seriousness, that these little deceptions raise grave philosophical questions. And I quote, 'What was I tampering with: the human faith in naming, the lifelong system of images in Nico's brain?' End of quote. Now let's talk about this for a second. Tell your listeners right now that I'm flying to Canada tonight but, in fact, I fly to Mexico, then I'm not tampering with a system of names and images in everyone's brain. Even if they know where I'm really going, they'll just conclude that I'm a liar."

In his essay, Myers contrasts this kind of mendacity with a passage from Saul Bellow's "The Victim," which Myers praises for the way it accurately represents reality: "Scenes that show why a character falls in love are rarely convincing in novels. This one works beautifully...." Jonathan Yardley, chief book critic of The Washington Post, thanked Myers for a long-overdue blow to writing that transports us so far from ordinary life that we can barely recognize, as we read, our everyday world of appearances.

Myers argues that such language, with its bewildering verbiage, intimidates readers into thinking that they are in the presence of an artistic mystery, when they are merely being duped by a lot of nonartistic smoke and mirrors, as in the following four examples:

* "Such are the visions which ceaselessly float up, pace beside, put their faces in front of, the actual thing; often overpowering the solitary traveler and taking away from him the sense of the earth, the wish to return, and giving him for substitute a general peace, as if (so he thinks as he advances down the forest ride) all this fever of living were simplicity itself...."

* "All of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do but what he just had to do, had to do it whether he wanted to or not, because if he did not do it he knew that he could never live with himself for the rest of his life, never live with what all the men and women that had died to make him had left inside of him for him to pass on, with all the dead ones waiting and watching to see if he was going to do it right...."

* "I felt this was no mere formula of desperate speech, but a real alternative in the view of a strong soul."

* "She trusts me, her hand gentle, the long-lashed eyes. Now where the blue hell am I bringing her beyond the veil? Into the ineluctable modality of the ineluctable visuality."

Myers chooses his quotations from five writers--Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, DeLillo, Paul Auster, David Guterson--and then invokes such counter-examples as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, Joseph Conrad--"no one ... ever had to wonder what Joseph Conrad was trying to say in a particular sentence"--and William Faulkner. Myers writes: "If the new dispensation [for complicated prose] were to revive good 'Mandarin' writing--to use the term coined by the British critic Cyril Connolly for the prose of writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce--then I would be the last to complain." But, he asserts, that's just not what's happening.

Rather, we are getting the absurdity of "their face in front of" ... whatever, or the pretentiousness of repeating the verb "to do" or the total opacity of "a real alternative in the view of a strong soul" or the nonsense of "the ineluctable modality of the ineluctable visuality." Well, not exactly. The excerpts I've quoted are, in the order I quoted them, from Woolf, Faulkner, Conrad--he of the transparent sentence--and Joyce. Myers' principle is a good one--self-conscious "creative" writing has been marring American fiction for years, and critics have been lampooning it for years--but his method of ripping imaginative prose out of its context is foolishly flawed, and his premises are dangerously wrong.

For the kind of writing Myers prefers seems drawn not from books merely, but from books that woo the silver screen. He celebrates writing with "a strong element of action" and holds up Stephen King as an example of literary excellence. Today's writers and critics are, Myers says, "contemptuous of the urge to tell an exciting story." Myers relates how Oprah Winfrey once told Toni Morrison that "she had to puzzle over many of the latter's sentences." Morrison's reply was "That, my dear, is called reading," according to Myers, who comments, "Sorry, my dear Toni, but it's actually called bad writing."

Actually, Myers is the loudest proponent of phony populism who has appeared in some time. Measuring intellectual or imaginative expression against experience is fine, but the dignity of the argument depends on its definition of experience. Myers, who presents himself as the spokesman for the common man and woman, not only seems to think, rightly, that the common man or woman wants something other than abstract, pretentious language. He assumes, wrongly, that ordinary people don't want anything more than lots of action and lots of excitement. Thus he also associates any kind of complex writing about unquantifiable inner experience--for example, Woolf, Faulkner, Conrad, Joyce--with abstraction and pretentiousness.

Astonishingly, the kind of empty, intellectual writing Myers sees everywhere is, he tells us, "an odd trend when one considers that the reading skills of American college students, who go on to form the main audience for contemporary Serious Fiction, have declined markedly since the 1970s. Shouldn't a dumbed-down America be more willing to confer literary status on straightforward prose, instead of encouraging affectation and obscurity?"

One may read this passage three times and still not detect the slightest trace of irony. Myers isn't emitting this extraordinary statement only to make a sudden reversal, to go on to prove that the popularity of serious fiction means that Americans are smarter than all the hand-wringing pundits and statisticians think. He really believes that Americans are too stupid to read complicated prose and that what Americans really want and deserve are action movies in book form.

What puzzles Myers is the popularity of Serious Fiction. It would be one thing if his literary btes noires were critically acclaimed yet commercial failures. Then he could really lash out in the name of the ordinary reader at the promulgators of serious fiction for their remoteness from actual life. But DeLillo et al. are critically and commercially successful. And so Myers has to lay the blame for their popularity on the "declining literacy of book reviewers," who trick their readers into buying hollow schlock. Only Myers, standing alone in a nation of gullible morons, sees that the emperor has no clothes. Like everyone who speaks for "the people," like the legions of clueless marketing and public relations shamans, Myers actually has contempt for the intelligence of ordinary people.

Myers' brief for the inviolable stupidity of the average person appears in a magazine that once published Emerson's arguments for the inherent nobility of the average person; but that's not too surprising. Such literary and journalistic demagoguery is widespread in America now. For there is a great power in exercising the hidden conceit that you are smarter than everyone else. By constructing, and then identifying and empathizing with everyone else's stupidity, you simultaneously demonstrate your humility and caress the secret of your superiority.

Nowhere has this pretense of populism put down such deep roots as in the pages of our supposedly most liberal newspapers and magazines. The conceit that some editors have of the public's low standards is breathtaking. Of course, it fills up necessary space. You can worry about declining standards and cater to them at the same time. There is a lot more of the latter, however, than the former.

Not long after taking the helm of The New York Times Book Review, Charles McGrath, its current editor, wrote an article proclaiming the superiority of television drama, with its "affecting stories," to fiction. Like Myers, McGrath has strictly pragmatic, not to say social realist expectations of fiction: "More than many novels, TV tells us how we live now." By that criterion, there is no reason to read anyone from Homer on up, since memorable writers don't write about how people live in their "now," but about how human beings ineffably exist no matter where and when they happen to live. That's why we still read literary works written centuries ago. Call it timeless particularity. As for TV, what it actually does is entertain us, not explain us, but cultural custodians who feel guilty about the simple pleasure of watching television like to patronizingly describe it as a solemn hermeneutic activity.

Now, McGrath is a graduate of Yale who helped shape the texture and direction of The New Yorker for many years, serving as, among other things, one of the finest fiction editors in the country. He is a smart and sophisticated man. Wherefore, then, this mandarin's assumption that his readers have lower standards than he, that they prefer television drama to serious novels that fulfill our interiority instead of telling us "how we live now," which is the job of journalists and sociologists? McGrath even began his recent review of a biography of Henry Green with the words "Henry who?" as if possibly knowing something readers didn't would send everybody racing to the medicine cabinet.

The strange thing is that McGrath, and other overseers of the culture, are adopting their condescending outlooks at a time when people are flocking to art museums, when there are more book clubs and reading groups than ever before, when more people are returning to college to enrich their lives, when more literary magazines are being published, more art galleries are opening than at any time in recent memory. But, then, maybe that's why the custodians of the culture are worrying over and spreading the illusion of the public's limited predilections. If everybody loves Shakespeare, how special can he be? The condescension of officially refined taste is matched only by its insecurity.

It's the high echelons of official culture that are showing signs of decline, not the many people who hunger for complex and meaningful works of art. Myers might declaim, from the lofty altitude of The Atlantic, on the "declining standards of American prose since the 1950s"; on the "declining" reading skills of the American people; on "the declining literacy of book reviewers"; even on "the decline of the long sentence," but he himself does not seem able to read, write, or interpret complex American prose. Some of his examples may indeed be pretentious, but his readings are uncomprehending.

To begin with, Myers has a fatally weak grasp of logic. Savaging Annie Proulx, he writes that "Luckily for Proulx, many readers today expect literary language to be so remote from normal speech as to be routinely incomprehensible." Several paragraphs later, he reverses himself, declaring that Proulx "seems unaware that all innovative language derives its impact from the contrast to straightforward English." Trying to avoid the appearance of being a philistine, he displays his reverence for Henry James, truly one of the most unhurried writers in the history of literature, yet he mocks Ha Jin's novel "Waiting" for its "slow pace."

Myers complains that what he calls "genre" novels--novels with a "strong element of action"--don't get reviewed in the major newspapers, while what he characterizes as "self-conscious, writerly" fiction (no action) hogs all the review space. But then he again reverses himself and informs us that "many critically acclaimed novels today are no more than mediocre 'genre' stories told in a conformist amalgam of approved 'literary' style." So if so-called serious fiction is really "genre" fiction in disguise, what happens to Myers' lament that action and exciting storytelling have been marginalized? It seems instead that serious fiction writers are submitting to Myers' principles and gradually embracing the elements of "genre" fiction.

It is not even certain that action and excitement are Myers' true standards. His main objection to serious fiction is, as he argues in the NPR interview, that it does not reflect real life, but real life doesn't usually have an abundance of action and excitement. Still, Myers' argument consists almost entirely of the appeal to "reality." He holds his writers up against this elusive criterion and judges each one a failure.

Never mind that his models from the Golden Age of Prose, Joyce, Woolf et al., would miss the mark along the same aesthetic lines, much as Vladimir Mayakovsky ran afoul of Stalin's commissars by writing about "a cloud in pants." And never mind that Myers misreads the passage from Bellow's "The Victim"--it is not about a man falling in love; it is about a man having a nervous breakdown--or that "The Victim" portrays the very unreal experience of a man being followed around Manhattan by his doppelgnger. Myers will not let reality as the ultimate criterion of aesthetic judgment go.

He quotes this passage from Cormac McCarthy's "The Crossing": "He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her."

"The unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the slow, methodical nature of what is being described," complains Myers, who apparently has never read Faulkner's or Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's unpunctuated epic sentences. There are several ways to criticize McCarthy, but this isn't one of them. Myers is thinking of the act of eating, but in fact, McCarthy is imagining the painful and comic repetition of life's meaningless necessities, which we accomplish in an unthinking blur. "And why repeat tortilla?" asks Myers, who contrasts this venal repetition with the academic David Lodge's appreciation of Hemingway's supposedly more effective repetitions. Good question. Well, McCarthy couldn't write "it" because that could refer to the tortilla or the plate. The only alternative would have been to refer the second time to tortilla by describing it in a different way, like this: He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the round thin cake of unleavened cornmeal usually eaten hot with a topping or filling that may include ground meat, cheese and any of various sauces and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.

So why does McCarthy repeat tortilla? Because, like Hemingway, he wants to capture the hard, gemlike surface of things without resorting to fancy-pants nuances of language. He wants to capture the plain simplicity in life in an artfully simple way.

Richer language doesn't fare much better in Myers' hands. He has a hard time grasping complicated syntax, which he has to do before he can convince anyone of its essential emptiness. He quotes another excerpt from McCarthy: "[They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they'd ever heard before. 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." ("All the Pretty Horses")

"It is a rare passage," Myers sneers, "that can make you look up, wherever you may be, and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank." McCarthy, Myers continues, "switches from the horses' perspective to the narrator's, though just what something imperfect and malformed refers to is unclear. The last half 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?"

Now this passage may have its flaws, but they are not the flaws of incompetent grammar, or of a willfully obscure style. McCarthy may or may not lack poetic sense, but he does not lack syntactical sense. He is not switching from the horses' perspective to the narrator's; the entire passage is the narrator's description of the horses' "perspective." And all you need to do is to follow how the subject of one sentence--"those retchings"--becomes the antecedent for the next to see how "something imperfect and malformed" refers back to the "rude provisional species," which obviously represents the vomiting men. The poor guy is just trying not to repeat tortilla, as it were. And the answer to Myers' question is, of course, yes. It's called putting something in apposition to something else.

Myers is just as resistant to the devices of the imagination as he is to the mechanics of language. On DeLillo, one of the greatest living American writers, who has carved out a new psychic space in which to take refuge from all the "affecting stories" that politicians, advertisers and highly-calculated television dramas pitch to our consciences and our pocketbooks, Myers is especially exasperated. He accuses DeLillo of fabricating his sentences to sound "profoundly original to most of his readers" because DeLillo knows that his sentences are actually empty and banal. DeLillo, Myers complains, writes vaguely, portentously instead of using "metaphor[s] drawn from recognizable human experience."

But the purpose of a metaphor is to push beyond recognizable human experience in order to illumine human experience that is not easy to recognize. DeLillo's gift is precisely to expose the buried connections between pieces of an increasingly fragmented and manipulated world.

Fancy-pants language? Myers is making a case against the function of the imagination itself. (It is peculiar that as more and more cultural mandarins seem to consider art's illusions merely a lie, more and more people are actually lying. Perhaps the temptation to tell lies instills a fear of the artist's power of pretense.)

A world run by an amoral imagination rather than a compassionate divine will: That happens to be one of the themes of Paul Auster's novels, and so it's natural that Myers should reserve some of his harshest reprimands for Auster. But he is still plagued by his problem with apposition. "Another hallmark of Auster's style, and of contemporary American prose in general, is tautology." Here are three of Myers' examples:

* "Blue can only surmise what the case is not. To say what is is, however, is completely behind him."

* " ... and came out as real things, palpable objects you could hold in your hand."

* "Still and all, Mr. Bones was a dog ... he was first and foremost the thing he appeared to be. Mr. Bow Wow, Monsieur Woof Woof. Sir Cur."

Tautology is a meaningless or unnecessary repetition. But these are not instances of repetition. They are poetic variations that amplify meaning, that draw meaning out into another dimension. Again, Myers criticizes McCarthy for repeating a word when a pretty variation would be out of sync with the rough texture of the story; and then he criticizes McCarthy and Auster for expanding meaning when brevity would be a brake on the little fugues of sense. Our author takes serious fiction too seriously.

Myers' vulgar attempt to prove a general deterioration in writing and thinking is, alas, the most convincing symptom of what it decries. But the most troubling thing about Myers' article is his obdurate clinging to reality as the criterion for judging art. When art is successful, it is always realistic. Kafka's "The Trial" is as realistic as Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." The potboiler "realism" of Danielle Steel, however, can't hold a mimetic candle to the non-realism of Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse." You just don't feel it with Steel the way you feel it with Woolf.

Ever since the Romantics shattered aristocratic birthright with their exaltation of democratic feeling and intuition, asserting the innate genius of every man and woman, mimesis in art has had everything to do with more and more challenging agglomerations of language and meaning and sentiment. The more complex the appeal to the imagination, the higher the imagination leaps over the brute perplexities of everyday life. The appeal to "reality," to the immobility of the world of appearances, is always code for the command to know your place and behave.

Myers is wrong: All the unmeaning and irrationality exist off the page; they draw their power from deceptive simplicities that cow the mind into passivity. Black and white; right and wrong; rich and poor; beautiful and ugly, et cetera. This is the nonsense of superficial clarity. Difficult writing shatters these prisons of meaning into prisms of light. Of course you have to puzzle over rare and beautiful sentences! They are the consoling riddles that expose the cruel solutions the world will throw in your way.

Difficult writing gives us a private vocabulary with which to resist all the noisy forms of commercially driven media that impose on us a vision of "how we live now." Demanding art addresses that part of us that lives outside the collective "we," that follows its own music and destiny, that lives and dies amidst its own unspeakable experience, in its own indescribable solitude.

Difficulty flatters our complex singularity. It is the way literature's secrets arm you against the hidden injuries of life's transparencies. By means of arresting syntax and figures of speech, fiction will tell you who you are, and keep you stable amidst the tumult of people who lie about where they--and you--are really going. Myers wants action and excitement? They're right here, baby. Right between the covers of a serious book. *

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Sunday July 29, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 16 inches; 548 words Type of Material: Correction Editor's note: Some type is partially obscured in the following excerpt from Lee Siegel's essay published today beginning on page 6 of Book Review. The article is also posted in its entirety at http://http://www.latimes.com/siegal. The strange thing is that McGrath, and other overseers of the culture, are adopting their condescending outlooks at a time when people are flocking to the art museums, when there are more book clubs and reading groups than ever before, when more people are returning to college to enrich their lives, when more literary magazines are being published, more art galleries are opening than at any time in recent memory. But then, maybe that's why the custodians of the culture are worrying over and spreading the illusion of the public's limited predilections. If everybody loves Shakespeare, how special can he be? The condescension of officially refined taste is matched only by its insecurity. It's the high echelons of official culture that are showing signs of decline, not the many people who hunger for complex and meaningful works of art. Myers might declaim, from the lofty altitude of The Atlantic, on the "declining standards of American prose since the 1950s," on the "declining" reading skills of the American people, on "the declining literacy of book reviewers," even on "the decline of the long sentence," but he himself does not seem able to read, write, or interpret complex American prose. Some of his examples may indeed be pretentious, but his readings are uncomprehending. To begin with, Myers has a fatally weak grasp of logic. Savaging Annie Proulx, he writes that "Luckily for Proulx, many readers today expect literary language to be so remote from normal speech as to be routinely incomprehensible." Several paragraphs later, he reverses himself, declaring that Proulx "seems unaware that all innovative language derives its impact from the contrast to straightforward English." Trying to avoid the appearance of being a philistine, he displays his reverence for Henry James, truly one of the most unhurried writers in the history of literature, yet he mocks Ha Jin's novel "Waiting" for its "slow pace." Myers complains that what he calls "genre" novels--novels with a "strong element of action"--don't get reviewed in the major newspapers, while what he characterizes as "self-conscious, writerly" fiction (no action) hogs all the review space. But then he again reverses himself and informs us that "many critically acclaimed novels today are no more than mediocre 'genre' stories told in a conformist amalgam of approved 'literary' style." So if so-called serious fiction is really "genre" fiction in disguise, what happens to Myers' lament that action and exciting storytelling have been marginalized? It seems instead that serious fiction writers are submitting
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