A READERíS MANIFESTO: AN ATTACK ON THE
GROWING PRETENTIOUSNESS OF AMERICAN LITERARY PROSE
By B. R. Myers
In the summer of 2001 the Atlantic published "A Readerís
Manifesto", a long essay subtitled "An attack on the growing
pretentiousness of American prose." For the next several months it was the
talk of literary circles everywhere.
From a Canadian vantage point it seemed a little odd. What the author, B. R.
Myers, was doing - in particular his focused assault on an inflated literary
style - has long been a staple of the Canadian literary anti-establishment.
There is a great tradition of killing sacred literary cows in this country,
running from John Metcalfís Kicking Against the Pricks to Stephen
Henighanís recent collection When Words Deny the World (other titles,
also published by the Porcupineís Quill, where Metcalf is general editor,
include Philip Marchandís Ripostes and T. J. Rigelhofís This Is
Our Writing). Was Myers the only one doing this sort of thing south of the
border? His critics suggested he was not, but failed to offer any evidence
supporting their initial "been there, done that" response. (He was
compared to Tom Wolfe, though I thought the closer analogy would have been to
Wyndham Lewis). One suspects the real reason for all the fuss was the prominent
soap-box Myers had been given. The powers-that-be can safely ignore the hacks
who write reviews for Amazon. When such a nasty essay appears in the Atlantic
it demands a rigorous intellectual response.
This new edition of the "Manifesto" is an attempt to restore the
original essay "to its original tone and length, while retaining the
improvements" of the magazine version. Further examples of what Myers takes
to be good and bad prose are submitted for our consideration. Also included are
a lengthy Epilogue where Myers responds to his critics and a checklist of
"Ten Rules for ĎSeriousí Writers."
The extras are well worth it for fans of the original, but the essay itself
doesnít seem to have gained anything by the changes. At the end of the Atlantic
version, for example, Myers asked "How better to ensure that Faulkner and
Melville remain unread by the young than to invoke their names in praise of some
new bore every week?" In the new, or "original" version this
reads: "How better to keep young people from reading than to invoke the
names of great writers in praise of some windy new mediocrity every week?"
The second version strikes me as fuzzier and less convincing. That Faulkner and
Melville are the victims of todayís critical hyperbole is a good point; that
the reading habits of the young are really affected by cheap praise is unclear.
As most readers of this site are already aware, there are few things I
enjoy more than a nice rant. Having said that, Myers immediately raised my
hackles with his assertion in the Preface that his essay was only a
"light-hearted polemic" that should not be read as "literary
scholarship" since this would only make it "vulnerable to
criticism." What was this? Postmodern equivocation? Was the polemic only
meant as a joke, beyond the pale of criticism? That was never my impression.
Though written in a comic style, I have to assume Myers is being serious.
I want to begin by saying that I think the Manifesto is a valuable and
important work. For starters, Myers is to be commended for addressing the
culpability of the American critical establishment in promoting all of this bad
writing. Indeed, I take his main target to be not todayís pretentious literary
prose so much as its reception. The bigger question this raises is whether it is
the job of todayís book reviewers and columnists to be responsible (or even
competent) critics. I donít think it is - like Myers, I have my own ideas
about what it takes to be a professional reviewers - but thatís another story.
Another important issue Myers draws attention to is the disappearing
The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of
highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow, which had always been invoked tongue in cheek
anyhow. Novelists who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned on
the basis of their verbal affectation to either the "literary" or
Itís probably inaccurate to say that our culture is now fatally divided
into high and low (and that is not Myersís point anyway), but I think it is
fair to say that what division does exist is currently being exploited to an
unseemly degree (mainly by critics who should know better). Is there a
connection here between the loss of the middlebrow as a critical category and
the disappearing middle class? Stephen Henighan suggests there is:
A literature dominated by "poetís novels" is an anomaly. A
culture whose reading public requires this sort of fiction Ė self-consciously
Ďartisticí without posing the challenges of authentic art Ė is ill. It is
not unexpected that such art should prevail in a country where a belief in a
kind of democratic egalitarianism is shredding before an ever-greater gap
between rich and poor. In such an environment the bourgeoisieís applause for
the Ďartistryí of books such as The English Patient and Fugitive
Pieces forms an indispensable part of its self-redefinition as a class of
inherently superior people whose allegiances are to similar, even wealthier
people in richer, more powerful countries rather than to the nation where they
live, to their own history, institutions or art, or to the neighbours who used
to be their near-equals. Reading such novels becomes a means of asserting oneís
If this is the case, and I think thereís something to such arguments, then
the Manifesto is political too.
But all of this is background. As the subtitle indicates, the focus of Myersís
polemic is bad prose. And since most reviewers donít have the faintest idea
what prose style is he has a field day with the hacks from the New York Times
and other supposedly authoritative venues. He also effectively disposes of the
most common complaint made against his essay when it first appeared, that he was
only ripping material out of context. Even Homer nods, as the saying goes. But
the quotations Myers pulls are fairly chosen, and, insofar as I can tell,
Overall, his strategy leads to more hits than misses. Occasionally, however,
I reserved judgment. When Annie Proulx thanks her children for putting up with
her "strangled, work-driven ways" I donít think thereís anything
wrong with it. Fowler may object to the twisted metaphor, but the image of oneís
days being strangled by work is something I think most people can relate to
(whether Proulx is really strangled by work is another question). But since I
donít know anything of Proulxís writing outside of what is quoted in the Manifesto
I canít say whether enough of this would be too much.
Of the authors Myers discusses, the only two I can claim any familiarity with
are Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. Iíd like to turn now to look at what
Myers has to say about them.
While DeLillo is capable of writing prose and dialogue as bad as anyone's (see
my review of The Body Artist), it seems to me that Myers is missing a lot
in not getting the humour of White Noise. In an earlier essay I offered
Minkís death scene and the argument Jack has with his son over whether it is
raining out as examples. Myers doesnít mention these, but suggests that the
"hacking jackets" line is what most people who find DeLillo funny are
laughing at. Maybe because he thinks itís just bad writing.
But is it? When Jackís wife says "Are the men in hacking jackets? Whatís
a hacking jacket?" Myers complains that "No real person would utter
those last two questions in sequence." I would beg to differ. Jackís wife
is obviously someone whose mouth moves faster than her brain, a common enough
occurrence I have found in daily life. We all say things without thinking,
leading to countless absurdities in everyday speech. And while it may not lead
to knee-slapping belly laughs, it is funny.
Myersís critique of DeLilloís dialogue is worth dwelling on. Here is
another example of a passage where the author is trying to "bore us into
"What do you want to do?" she said.
"Whatever you want to do?"
"I want to do whateverís best for you?"
"Whatís best for me is to please you," he said.
"I want to make you happy, Jack."
"Iím happy when Iím pleasing you."
"I just want to do what you want to do."
"I want to do whateverís best for you."
Now, for the record, I donít like this very much either. But I like even
less what Myers has to say about it:
To anyone who calls that excruciating, DeLillo would probably respond,
"Thatís my whole point! This is communication in Consumerland!" Note
also how the exchange loses its logic halfway through; perhaps it was only
written to be skimmed anyway. Itís always the very novelists who scorn realism
as the slavish recording of reality who believe that an incoherent world
dictates incoherent writing.
Note how this critique loses its logic halfway through. Why should the fact
that this dialogue is illogical or incoherent make it unrealistic? In
descriptive writing, as opposed to dialogue, this might follow, but these
are supposed to be people talking. Most of what gets said in real life is just sound - itís
meant "to be skimmed anyway." As Northrop Frye was fond of pointing
out, none of us speak in prose. We speak in a childish, rhythmic and irrational
prattle. In this regard, DeLillo reads more like the "slavish recording of
reality" than "incoherent writing." And, finally, why should any
of this be interpreted as evidence of DeLilloís belief in an "incoherent
The dialogue in a book cannot be taken as expressing or representing the
authorís vision of reality. Myers is on shaky ground here. He even cautions himself at
one point, saying "itís always risky to identify a novelistís thoughts
with his charactersí." But this doesnít go far enough. Itís always wrong
to identify a novelistís thoughts with his characters, and thatís an end of
it. Something about the nature of fiction itself is getting away from Myers
Next we come to Cormac McCarthy, Myersís exemplar of "muscular
prose." Immediately the defender of McCarthy wants to enter an important
caveat. Between Blood Meridian and the novels of the Border Trilogy
McCarthyís prose went through a revolution in style and language. The later
McCarthy is typified by what Myers calls the "andelope" ("a
breathless string of simple declarative statements linked by the conjunction Ďandí").
(I take it this is an example of Myers being light-hearted, as the coinage
andelope refers to what Erich Auerbach referred to years ago as the
"paratactic style." That the master of the paratactic style in
American literature was Hemingway goes without mention.) In my opinion, McCarthyís
shift toward this style was a change for the worse. While I find the Biblical
chants that pass for storytelling in the Border Trilogy a little much, I enjoy
the sometimes campy, overwritten early novels. I remember being thrilled in a
way I hadnít been thrilled since reading Faulkner (yes, Faulkner!) by stuff
like this from Blood Meridian:
A rattling drove of arrows passed through the company and men tottered and
dropped from their mounts. Horses were rearing and plunging and the mongol
hordes swung up along their flanks and turned and rode full upon them with
lances . . . some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down the
unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts
with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot
like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes
from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the
skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and
hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the
stranger white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some
of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs
and some who fell upon the dying and the sodomized them with loud cries to their
I really like this passage. If I had to say why I like it I would say because
it is so vivid and full of energy. It has a baroque, operatic quality to it that
may come out of violent spaghetti westerns, but is still good writing for all
that. The long run-on sentence leaves the reader breathless at its deliberately
sexual climax (yes, Iíve tried reading it aloud, and this is the
effect, and it works). There is also a rhetorical rhythm to its depiction of
chaos, as with the men tottering and dropping before the rearing and plunging
horses. The imagery is striking and concrete. The gutting of the white torsos
(more than just a racial aside, since unlike the painted chests of the Comanche
these torsos have been sheltered from the desert sun by uniforms), is just one
example. The "peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien
forms of locomotion," is another. This isnít just verbiage. The Indians
are walking funny because they are used to being in the saddle and are only
"driven" to use their legs in the melee (their primary form of
locomotion being the horse). The effect is weird, but it adds to the picture of
a surreal orgy of violence involving figures not entirely human or of this
Myers does not like the passage at all. Here is his response (not to be found
in the Atlantic essay):
I hasten to add that all this is dead serious. So where to start faulting
such excess? With the overwrought effort to trick up the stalest scene in B-moviedom?
With the chutzpah of comparing native Americans to the invaders of Europe? With
those disgraceful last lines? None of this, mind you, can be defended as
assuming the cowboysí own perspective, for the narrator of Blood Meridian
is as omniscient as they come. Before the battle above, one Comanche is
described as wearing the armor of a "spanish conquistador." (Unlike
Saxon, "spanish" doesnít merit a capital "s".) This armor
is "deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country
by men whose bones were dust." The terror-stricken cowboys donít know
that, nor do they need to, and since a dent is a dent, the information hardly
helps us see things more clearly. So why explain who battered one manís armor,
and where, and how long ago? Again: for the majestic ring of it. Sure, the
action would be more exciting if seen through the eyes of the participants
themselves, but the last thing Serious Literature wants to be is exciting.
Where to begin faulting this excess, indeed. To take it point by point. How
"serious" McCarthy is being is impossible to ascertain. And what would
it mean if he were being "dead serious" anyway? That he wants to be
taken literally? But this is a novel. Does the omniscience of the narrator (that
is, not the author, watch the distinction!) make what is being said less
defensible? How so? Doing my own bit of close reading, I note in passing that
these are not "cowboys" being slaughtered, but a troop of renegade
soldiers. Moving along, I would have thought there was nothing whatever wrong
with "chutzpah" and "excess" in literary writing. Isnít it
better than being boring (the sin Myers finds most literary authors guilty of)?
What, exactly, does he have against the comparison of native Americans with
Mongols? Does this insult native Americans, or Mongols? I fail to see the point.
What is "disgraceful" about the last lines? Do they offend Myersís
sense of historical plausibility? Canons of realism? Or are they politically
incorrect? (A slur against native Americans or sodomites?) As far as describing
how the armor was dented, does Myers want the omniscient narrator to turn into a
fly on the wall? Doesnít the invocation of battles long ago in foreign
countries contribute to the sense being built throughout the passage (Saxons,
Mongols) of a historical medley of violence? And how would putting the scene in
first person perspective have made it more immediate or exciting? I donít
think this is a "sure" thing at all, and certainly doesnít stand as
any kind of universal principle. Describing the scene from the perspective of
the soldiers would only have the effect of making it more chaotic and - is this
what he really wants? - incoherent.
Still, Myers is alright. While I would quarrel over some matters of taste, he
is a responsible critic. And his declaration that taste and sensibility
are all that any of us need to distinguish good books from bad books has rarely
seemed so necessary. Our literary culture is in bad need of an enema. The media
establishment responsible for selling such poisonous trash as we regularly find
winning National Book Awards and Booker Prizes needs to be held to account.
Laughter is perhaps the best way to call citizens to the barricades.
Review first published online September 6, 2002. My initial response to the
debate over Myers's "Manifesto" was the essay "Speaking