A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American
Literary Prose , by B. R. Myers. Melville House, 149 pages, $9.95.
Who dares attack Don DeLillo, the colossus who gave us Underworld , Mao II , Libra , White Noise ? Mr. DeLillo, winner of many prizes, is backed by the love of the literary establishment; he sells well (250,000 copies of the 832-page Underworld in hardcover, for instance); he exerts a powerful influence over talented younger writers (David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen both worship at his altar); and The New York Review of Books once hailed him as “the chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction”-surely cooler than being called, say, a high priest of postmodernism. Who dares take on this august figure? Anybody who wants attention, and anybody who wants to lodge a protest against the current state of our literature. If you want to say “NO! in thunder,” to borrow Melville’s phrase, take a whack at Don DeLillo.
Novelist Dale Peck did it just last month in The New Republic . He mentioned, in passing, how “stupid-just plain stupid” Mr. DeLillo’s novels are. Mr. Peck was hacking away at the remains of Rick Moody’s already massacred memoir, The Black Veil , when he let slip this opinion. Stupid isn’t a critical term you can really argue with-“is not!” seems the only appropriate response, followed by a schoolyard scuffle. Mr. Peck didn’t linger over the stupidity of the DeLillo oeuvre -he went back to defiling the Moody corpse-so it’s hard to say how he would have developed his attack. (Don’t let that New Republic subscription lapse: The sequel-something like He’s not just stupid, he’s ugly, too! -is bound to follow.)
In the meantime, we have A Reader’s Manifesto , B.R. Myers’ relentless broadside against Mr. DeLillo, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster and David Guterson-an “attack,” as his bristling subtitle declares, on “pretentiousness” in contemporary American fiction. First published last summer in The Atlantic Monthly , Mr. Myers’ essay has now been reprinted in book form, slightly revised and with some additions. The new material is mostly parry and thrust: For 33 pages, he defends his Manifesto against various critics, including Judith Shulevitz, Richard Eder, Lee Siegel and Laura Miller, who have voiced objections to his method, questioned his judgment or rejected his premise. Perhaps in order to prove that his polemic is, as he says, “light-hearted,” Mr. Myers has appended a few pages of sarcastic advice, “Ten Rules for Serious Writers” (in which, coincidentally, poor Mr. Moody gets slapped around again).
Mr. Myers is glib, mean-spirited, occasionally amusing and consistently irritating-he’s a master of the cheap shot and the artful fudge, and his aesthetic judgments are sometimes shaky. His essay would be annoying even if he were more often wrong, and his tin ear easier to dismiss. Boiled down to its essence, his message is this: Contemporary fiction is overrated; you’re better off reading Balzac. The last half of that claim has been true for more than 150 years, but never mind-let’s grant Mr. Myers the main point: The novels published today are almost never the marvels critics regularly make them out to be. The vast majority of contemporary writers are indeed overrated. Creeping grade inflation has made it too easy for accessible, intelligent and moving-but hardly perfect or transcendent-novels like, say, Mr. Franzen’s The Corrections to receive the critical equivalent of straight A’s.
Mr. Myers flunks Annie Proulx in his first chapter. His method-clever, efficient and unfair-is applied, doggedly, to each victim in turn: He quotes short passages that are prominent or have been praised by critics, and then he picks them apart. When he can, he ridicules them. That’s unkind, but why is it unfair? Short passages taken out of context, even if they are representative of the writing, won’t give you an idea of the novel as a whole, and certainly won’t give you an idea of the author’s oeuvre . But though Mr. Myers concentrates his attack on the prose style, his brutal assessments call into question every aspect of the author’s talent. I myself don’t care for Ms. Proulx’s cramped prose; Mr. McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy is a sad sell-out; Mr. Auster has written some unbearably silly books; and Mr. Guterson’s sentences are mush-all that I knew before I’d ever heard Mr. Myers’ name. But as soon as I’d read his Manifesto , I found myself wondering, for example, whether Mr. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is still the same magnificent monstrosity that bowled me over 12 years ago. (I took a look and was reassured: It’s as terrifying and ruthless as ever.)
And how about Mr. DeLillo? Should he be lumped with the “mediocre writers availing themselves of trendy stylistic gimmicks”? Are his books pretentious, boring and unfunny, as Mr. Myers suggests? The last of these aspersions- boring, unfunny -are nearly as hard to argue with as Mr. Peck’s stupid . I once heard Mr. DeLillo read from Underworld in front of an audience of about 500; the crowd laughed uproariously and applauded with cheerful abandon-and this was in London, far from the sway of American critics. I remember laughing at a passage from White Noise that Mr. Myers quotes and disparages, a riff on the pornographic use of the phrase “He entered me.” Of Mr. DeLillo’s dozen novels, only one, Ratner’s Star , ever bored me. But that proves very little, as I’m sure Mr. Myers would agree.
It’s somewhat easier to dispute the claim that Mr. DeLillo is one of the “mediocrities who puff themselves up to produce gabby ‘literary’ fiction.” Mr. Myers would have us believe that Mr. DeLillo is insincere, that he’s trying to pull one over on the unsuspecting reader, disguising his lack of talent with cheap, gaudy tricks, his lack of intellectual rigor with phony philosophizing. Well-let’s do what Mr. Myers does, choose a passage and pick it apart. But which passage? A reader’s “first experience with literature,” Mr. Myers writes, “shouldn’t have to end, for lack of better advice, on the third page of something like Underworld .” I don’t know about “first experience”-is he thinking of 11-year-olds?-but I’d gladly encourage anyone interested in contemporary fiction to pick up Underworld . Here’s what a reader would encounter on that novel’s third page:
“Cotter sees the first jumpers go over the bars. Two of them jostle in the air and come down twisted and asprawl. A ticket-taker puts a head-lock on one of them and his cap comes loose and skims down his back and he reaches for it with a blind swipe and at the same time-everything’s at the same time-he eyes the other hurdlers to keep from getting stepped on. They are running and hurdling. It’s a witless form of flight with bodies packed close and the gate-crashing becoming real. They are jumping too soon or too late and hitting the posts and radial bars, doing cartoon climbs up each other’s back, and what kind of stupes must they look like to people at the hot dog stand on the other side of the turnstiles, what kind of awful screwups-a line of mostly men beginning to glance this way, jaws working at the sweaty meat and grease bubbles flurrying on their tongues, the gent at the far end going dead-still except for a hand that produces automatic movement, swabbing on mustard with a brush.
“The shout of the motley boys comes banging off the deep concrete.”
Out of context, this is indeed a bit confusing. It’s not clear until the penultimate sentence that the “jumpers” are jumping turnstiles, and that they’re gate-crashing the kind of event where you’d find a hot-dog stand. But any reader who started on the first page understands that Cotter is one of a pack of 15 boys, and that they’ve been lingering outside a stadium where a ball game is soon to begin, and that now, in this paragraph, Cotter is rushing the gate, just about to jump the turnstiles himself, knowing that “maybe four will get through for every one that’s caught.” He’s both watching the action and participating.
Except for the first and fourth sentences (“Cotter sees the first jumpers go over the bars”; “They are running and hurdling”), all the sentences are worked , as Henry James would say-some of them too obviously so. Mr. Myers would probably object to the repeated use of “and” in the third sentence (he has a cute term for this, ” andelope : a breathless string of simple declarative statements linked by the conjunction and “), but here the device seems to me justified: This is a breathless moment, a rush, and that’s what the sentence conveys.
The hardest of these sentences is the longest, and it’s hard because Mr. DeLillo, having described the boys “doing cartoon climbs up each other’s backs,” suddenly widens the perspective to take in the men at the hot dog stand. And then he stops time with his closeup of the men chewing-“grease bubbles flurrying on their tongues”-a risky move that succeeds, I think, in evoking the super-clarity of sensation one sometimes experiences when the thrill of fast action is mixed with danger. The hand that continues to swab mustard on the frankfurter is a comic gem-a bonus, maybe, for anyone who struggled with the sudden swerve.
Mr. DeLillo isn’t pretentious, he’s ambitious: He pushes as hard as he can, reaching for a sound and a rhythm to match the scene he’s describing. Mr. Myers quotes Conrad’s famous statement of purpose: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel-it is, before all, to make you see .” That’s Mr. DeLillo’s task, too; and in this random passage, it seems to me he achieves exactly what Mr. Myers insists is missing from contemporary prose: a “difficult lucidity.”
Mr. Myers is particularly effective when he’s dissing the “cultural establishment”-the prize juries and book reviewers who puff up authors’ reputations and pass off perfectly ordinary novels as miracles of writerly inspiration. If it rattles our critics, if it makes them think twice about claiming that a novel is “beautifully written” without showing how, A Reader’s Manifesto will have done good work. Mr. Myers will probably be assailed all over again for skewering the likes of Ms. Proulx. My advice to her many fans-and to McCarthy and Auster fans-is not to argue with Mr. Myers but to mimic him, though in a more generous mode: Pick apart the prose, make sure it merits every word of praise you offer.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.