Book Review: “A Reader’s Manifesto”

The subtitle to B.R. Myers’s A Reader’s Manifesto is An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose. This slim (89 pages) volume is indeed an attack, and it apparently struck its intended targets. After one lukewarm attempt at self-publishing the original manuscript under the title of Gorgons in the Pool, it was picked up and published as a severely-edited article in the July/August 2001 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, where it generated a strong enough response to prompt Myers to publish the book in its “original tone and length.”

A Reader’s Manifesto is the literary critic’s version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The author makes an impassioned case that a lot of what passes for Serious Writing nowadays is overwrought, hard to read and impossible to comprehend, and, well, pretentious. He not only names names, holding up specific passages from highly acclaimed and award-winning authors, but takes on those professional book reviewers who, he says, have fallen victim to the siren song of literary hokum.

By turns, Myers examines passages from novels by the following authors:

  • Annie Proulx – Winner of the 1993 National Book Award and 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (The Shipping News) and most recently revered for writing Brokeback Mountain.
  • Don DeLillo – Winner of the National Book Award for White Noise (1985), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II (1991) and the first American winner of The Jerusalem Prize.
  • Cormac McCarthy – Winner of the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for All the Pretty Horses
  • Paul Auster – Recipient of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • David Guterson – Winner of the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award (Snow Falling on Cedars)

Myers contrasts passages from the writing of these authors with excerpts from acknowledged past masters such as James Joyce, Saul Bellow, HonorĂ© de Balzac, Samuel Beckett and even Louis L’Amour. These comparisons are often amusing, generally biting, and bound to be encouraging to anyone who’s ever picked up a “modern novel,” read it, and then wondered silently and perhaps a little ashamedly, “just what the heck was that all about?”

At the risk of making him sound a little paranoid, here’s one of his conclusions.

This is what the cultural elite wants us to believe: if our writers make no sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren’t worthy of them. … But today’s Serious Writers fail even on their own postmodern terms. They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead — and then they subject us to the least expressive form, the least expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel.

Whether you agree with the strategy Myers employs in skewering specific authors – and I must admit that he’s very good at it – it’s hard to argue with his main premise, that “great prose isn’t always easy, but it’s always lucid,” and that the reader has a sacrosanct right to dismiss works that don’t meet that criterion.

If Jackie Collins, Tom Clancy and Stephen King (all authors which Myers refuses to condemn for their popularity) write books that prick your imagination, then there’s no shame in reading them. And if the Literary Elite have a problem with that, well, it’s their problem, not yours.

This book was intended to be controversial, and I recommend it to every aspiring writer as well as anyone who feels the call to be a book reviewer. It’s both a lens and a mirror, useful for clarifying one’s personal tastes and aspirations in literature.