Monday, October 20, 2008

A Reader's Manifesto

The most serious charge that can be leveled against this book is that it tends to foster a poisonous kind of anti-intellectualism: sure, the authors on whom he focuses are guilty of very bad writing, but the enjoinment to trust your own senses and not believe what the ever-ominous They want you to believe about literary quality (this embodied perfectly in the Philip Larking quote at the beginning) is going to be equally effective in screening out legitimately challenging literature. Myers may be a big Joyce fan, but if everyone took him absolutely at his word, how many people would ever read Ulysses? Few to none, that's how many. In the book's conclusion, in which he responds to his critics, he becomes very upset that anyone would think to criticize this fact, noting that throughout he does in fact champion Joyce, as well as writers like Balzac, Beckett, Nabokov, Bellow, and Conrad. And this is true--but the fact remains: the idea that one should take a balanced view of literary complexity simply does not come through. Myers may think his writing is more nuanced than it actually is, but in this case I am going to have to take Larkin's advice and trust my eyes, ears, and understanding. Whether he intends it or not, Myers is giving people permission to avoid reading anything that would force them to do any real work. That's not a good thing.

Furthermore, there's a certain undefined quality to Myers' criticisms. "Pretentiousness" is pretty vague, and he tosses around "postmodern" without, I think, being particularly clear on what the term actually means (to be fair, a lot of people do this--but they aren't the ones writing books about it). If his thinking were a little less muddled, I think his book would be a lot more effective.

With these caveats, however, don't let me dissuade anyone from reading it. Myers has isolated a real problem in contemporary literature, and he addresses it with passion and wit. Furthermore, it's a fun, breezy read, and his somewhat catty judgments are an only partially guilty pleasure. At the very least, he encourages readers to think critically about what they read, which is valuable all by itself.

And it really is pretty difficult to argue with his conclusions. The weakest chapter is that on Paul Auster; the selections he from City of Glass that he chooses to highlight seem trivially clumsy at worst, and I persist in believing that the New York Trilogy is pretty fab. Some of the examples he provides from Auster's later work, which I haven't read, are more persuasive, however, and I'm willing to accept the possibility that the man's writing went downhill fast.

The chapters on Annie Proulx and David Guterson seem somewhat random--maybe I just move in the wrong circles but, although I know in some vague way that Proulx is well-regarded by a certain kind of person, she doesn't strike me as someone with all that much literary cachet. And as for Guterson, my immediate reaction was "who?" He may have won awards of some kind, but he's hardly a major literary force. These chapters are still fun to read--Proulx's prose in particular is revealed to be deeply horrid--but one wonders if Myers couldn't have aimed a little more carefully when choosing targets.

The chapter on DeLillo is well-chosen indeed, however, as DeLillo is our second-most-overrated living writer. Unfortunately, this is also where Myers suffers the most from his unfamiliarity with postmodern concepts. It's not that DeLillo engages with these concepts well (which is kind of the point), and I can't argue with any of Myers' judgments, but there are places where he doesn't seem to understand exactly what DeLillo is trying (and usually failing) to do, and his critique would be harder for critics to attack if he did.

On the other hand, the chapter on Cormac McCarthy--our MOST overrated living writer--is truly a thing of beauty. McCarthy's insistence on elevating everything, even a hangover, to Biblical levels of import--his ridiculous use of simplistic and...and...and... constructions to create fake unaffected profundity--his absurd fetishising of horses (favorite line: "no one ever sees a cow's soul")--all of these things are neatly taken apart. It's very difficult for me to see how anyone can persist in taking McCarthy seriously after reading Myers. As far as I'm concerned, this section alone is worth the price.

It bears repeating: if you use this book as a rationale to avoid serious literature altogether, then, as the LOLcats say, UR DOIN IT WRONG. If I catch any of you people not reading Gravity's Rainbow because of Myers, I will be forced to give you a very stern talking-to. Purely as a clarion call for good writing, however, A Reader's Manifesto is hard to beat.


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