Sentenced to death

Is a snooty "sentence cult" sending the Great American Novel to hell in a pretentious purple handbasket?

Published August 16, 2001 7:49PM (EDT)

Literary critics get sluggish in the summer, when usually the most we're expected to do is come up with a list of "beach reads" and scan the fall catalogs. Slowly but surely, though, a response has materialized to B.J. Myers' long essay in the July/August 2001 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, "A Reader's Manifesto," subtitled "An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose."

In brief, Myers asserts that the kind of fiction that wins radiant reviews and literary prizes usually consists of writing that is "repetitive ... elementary in its syntax, and ... numbing in its overuse of wordplay." Furthermore, the people who write it are "contemptuous of the urge to tell an exciting story." Myers selects five authors -- E. Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and David Guterson -- who exemplify various reprehensible trends, and he picks apart passages from their books, finding grotesquely "purple" prose here, "flat, laborious wordiness" there, and affectation and self-regard everywhere.

Everybody seems to relish this sort of bomb-throwing, which is probably why an essay similar to "A Reader's Manifesto" appears every decade or so, usually in Harper's magazine, though the Atlantic Monthly, in its recent campaign to raise its literary profile (the same issue includes Brooke Allen's defense of chain bookstores, which has also provoked an outcry), now makes a bold step into its rival's territory. As with the most (in)famous example of the form -- Tom Wolfe's self-serving but nevertheless defensible 1989 call for more social reporting in fiction, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" -- Myers' "manifesto" (it's really more of a cranky lament) is a gauntlet thrown at the feet of literary critics everywhere: Defend your darlings if you can!

The essay has been cheered by the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley for calling out the "self-absorbed, mannered fiction" that plagues today's readers. And Myers has been reviled in the Los Angeles Times Book Review by Lee Siegel, something of a literary sacred cow-slayer himself, for his "phony populism" and arrogance in declaring (according to Siegel) that because "ordinary people" are "too stupid to read complicated prose" therefore "great literature" should not be "difficult."

Myers has issued the kind of challenge that invites the literati to indulge in two of their favorite sports. The first is a hunched-shouldered grousing about the worthless dilettantes passing themselves off as writers these days; the second is a sort of apotheosis of indignation, in which critics -- like those small animals who, by puffing themselves up with air or arranging their strangely marked wings, can make themselves appear to be much more imposing creatures -- fend off the outrageous assault on their heroes and expound on the sublime, monumental, exultant and yet also intimate and consoling nature of the supreme pinnacles of the literary art! (Siegel, to be fair, manages to score a point or two, despite the fact that you can't really bring the phrase "great literature" into play without sounding like a bit of an ass.)

To anyone who hasn't read the original essay, these and other responses probably present a confusing impression of Myers' argument. Some commentators, like Siegel, insist that the essay is a demand that literary prose be "easy" to read; others describe it as a complaint about the decline of plot. Actually, it's about both (although Myers objects to the "easy" characterization), and as a result it skitters back and forth between a genuine grievance and the kind of pointless squabbling into which all "who is a Great Writer" conversations ultimately devolve. Myers will pick up a scrap of offending prose and wrinkle his nose at it, pointing out what he decrees to be nonsensical metaphors, adjectival excess and vapid repetitions masquerading as high literary style. Everyone who wound up hating these novels after being ordered by a teacher, cajoled by a book club or convinced by an adulatory friend to read them will predictably chortle with glee.

Because McCarthy and particularly DeLillo are holy totems for many critics, they've enjoyed the most heated defense from Myers' detractors, but what all this nitpicking really reveals is how slippery the notion of excellent prose is. Though I've never read her books, I don't, for example, consider Proulx's phrase "strangled, work-driven ways" to be as outrageously "incomprehensible" as Myers does. I have occasionally found McCarthy to be kitschy, it's true, but when it comes to style, I couldn't disagree more about DeLillo -- who has written glorious, unforgettable literary riffs, even if his weakness at story and character usually makes his books disappointing. On the basis of the excerpts included, David Guterson's writing does seem murky and solemn, but isn't he a bit of a has-been, anyway?

And, finally, who really cares about this stuff? While elegant prose is a delight and I fervently wish that all authors were capable of it, I don't think that flabby style is the real source of the dismay many readers feel with regard to literary fiction. If I had to nail down the complaint lodged in the heart of Myers' essay and in the hearts of those who have welcomed it, it's this question: Why is so much literary fiction so dull? One answer can be found in the section of "A Reader's Manifesto" that I most savored: Myers' scornful dismissal of what he calls "the sentence cult" -- that is, critics who base their admiration for an author on the surpassing beauty of his or her sentences. Myers goes to great lengths to prove that such praises -- when sung to his chosen five stooges, at least -- are incorrect. Regardless or whether or not he's right, to my mind the whole question is simply irrelevant.

Much of "A Reader's Manifesto" is wasted on meticulous analysis of prose style -- a choice that does seem at odds with Myers' withering disdain for the sentence cult -- when the truth is that you don't need an excellent style to write a great novel. Any critic who begins an essay with the example of Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" ought to know that. Dreiser wrote clunky, awkward, tone-deaf prose. His novels are notoriously hard to "get into," but I still remember where I was and how I felt as I came to the conclusion of "An American Tragedy," transfixed by the claustrophobic horror of Clyde Griffith's impending execution. On the level of sentences (or paragraphs, for that matter), DeLillo can write circles around Dreiser, but when it comes to writing novels, Dreiser wipes the floor with the author of "Underworld." (Likewise, people who read Russian say that Dostoyevsky is an equally inept stylist -- and he certainly in translation doesn't come across as a Nabokovian word magician -- but that doesn't keep "Crime and Punishment" from being a brilliant book.)

When readers complain about contemporary serious fiction, what they often say, yearningly, is, "All I want is a good story." ("Is that too much to ask?" a graphic designer once said to me at a dinner party when explaining why she'd abandoned new novels for narrative nonfiction.) A "good story" amounts to more than just a crackerjack plot. It's an alchemical blend of tale-spinning and character building -- in short a good novel, not just good writing. And I suspect that this is the lack Myers refers to when he duns literary fiction for being short on "action." This unwise choice of words, though, gives Siegel the opening to accuse Myers of touting "action movies in book form" and of demanding that fiction writers abandon any account of "unquantifiable inner experience" -- as if there's no middle ground between "To the Lighthouse" and a novelization of "Die Hard 2."

However, before the quarrel descends into unfathomable depths of silliness, it's worth noting that literary fiction isn't selling very well these days, and that Myers' essay, for all its detours, does occasionally touch on some reasons for its decline in popularity. (In fact, even commercial fiction is suffering; recently reported that, remarkably, this summer's nonfiction bestsellers are outselling the fiction offerings.) Most authors of literary novels don't seem to do a very good job of pleasing readers, despite Siegel's protests that DeLillo and company are "commercially successful." (The few literary authors who do please readers -- Alice Hoffman, Barbara Kingsolver, John Irving -- routinely sell so many more books than DeLillo and Auster that you can't help but wonder why Myers never even mentions them.)

One reason why most literary novels don't appeal to readers like my sister -- a nurse who likes Hoffman and Irving and also bemoans the dearth of "good stories" -- is that they aren't intended to; what literary authors are after is the esteem of their colleagues. Just as nuclear physicists strive to impress other nuclear physicists and dog breeders value the admiration of fellow dog breeders over that of the uninitiated masses, so people who write serious fiction seek the high opinion of other literary novelists, of creative writing teachers and of reviewers and critics. They want very badly to be "literary," and for many of them this means avoiding techniques associated with commercial and genre fiction -- specifically too much emphasis on plot. Who, after all, wants to be accused of writing "action movies in book form"? Their motivation in doing so isn't, as Myers bizarrely suggests, a desire to con the gullible book-buying public, but simply a desire to succeed in the eyes of their peers. And if, to those on the outside, this little world seems a bit snooty, well, it wouldn't be the first small community to comfort itself with the notion that it is exclusive rather than marginalized.

Myers, though, has his biggest beef with critics, who, he reasons, ought to be on the side of readers, not the literary elite. How can they lavish so much praise on such slack, turgid books? Many of the reviewers he scolds for doing so are themselves literary novelists, but not all. Why then do we critics champion mediocre "literary" books when we, perhaps above all others, suffer the most from their proliferation?

As Meghan O'Rourke points out in her thoughtful critique in Slate of Myers' essay, the chief problem with literary critics is that, as writers themselves, they practice the craft they review. They move in literary circles, or at least aspire to. This can lead to an unfortunate myopia, and furthers the cause of the sentence cult. Of course good sentences are important -- they're the very material that fiction is made from, after all -- but who ever hungrily picked up a novel because someone told them it had terrific sentences? Nobody, surely, but another novelist or would-be novelist, and even those, I suspect, still harbor at least a small hope of finding something more than just pretty writing when they open a book.

Imagine what film reviews would be like if they were all written by cinematographers. To make "sentences" the primary criteria and focus of literary criticism is a lot like evaluating a movie in terms of its lighting and editing. Light, after all, is essential and central to the art of film, the stuff that movies are made of, and editing profoundly shapes the experience a film delivers. Without light, without editing, there is no movie, but when a film critic is addressing an audience wider than the community of filmmakers, lighting and editing seem like secondary, technical issues.

Likewise, it's mostly other writers who are keenly interested in matters of prose style and form. Nothing wrong with zeroing in on these, of course, as long as you don't mind boring and ultimately alienating that shrinking population of nonwriting readers who actually fork over their hard-earned cash to keep this whole rickety profession afloat. Literary fiction as a whole seems to be sliding into the kind of ghetto that poetry now occupies, a cultural economy in which writers vastly outnumber readers and nobody buys the books. Newspapers and magazines almost never review poetry, and they've recently begun to cut back on other book reviews as well: bad news for fiction, which can almost never wangle coverage off the review pages. One reason publishers give for the cuts is a lack of interest in reviews -- perhaps because their readers are tired of reading about "luminous" prose (always a dead giveaway that the book is a snooze). A few more years of this and it's welcome to the world of the incredible shrinking NEH grant.

Of course, it's entirely possible to combine good writing and strong storytelling -- Jane Austen did it, and as a result people still read her today, but then again, she probably wasn't worrying about being "literary" enough. Still, fulminating indictments of empty writerly affectation and grandiloquent defenses of "difficulty" seem like unpromising ways to close the growing gulf between literary novelists and the readers who would like to become their audience. Writers, critics and other supporters of serious fiction would be better off peeking over some of the arbitrary walls they've erected and recognizing that pleasure needn't be an anathema to art.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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