Tuesday, March 18, 2003

More old content I dug up that I thought I'd post:

I have just finished B.R. Myers article A Reader's Manifesto and my general impression is not good. I found it, on the whole, reactionary and disingenuous; it isn't a manifesto at all -- it's a philippic, or, to use a less literary term, a bitch session. It ought to be called "In Praise of Straightforwardness;" he yearns for an imaginary past where literature was more plot-oriented, less "wordy", but I daresay there isn't a sentence in the article that couldn't have been written anytime in the last 75 years, with a plenitude of examples. It would not be at all difficult to dig through the works of any of Myers' own heroes -- Proust, Conrad, Melville, James, Faulkner, Bellow (whom he cites for "verbal restraint"!)-- and come up with perfect examples of the purplish or the "tautological." What, for example, does Myers mean when he says that Annie Proulx's writing amounts to "fake Dos Passos, easy detail flung in for the illusion of panoramic sweep." If that isn't a perfect description of genuine Dos Passos, I don't know what is.

All Myers did was pore through a lot of books he couldn't stand, yanked out a few wriggling examples of wretched writerspeak, and decided today's literature is somehow typical of an anti-literary age. Yet Myers never really, convincingly makes a case for where today's fiction went wrong, let alone why.

I will grant, in fairness, that he made some worthy points along the way, and that he roasted a few writers to a nice turn -- especially Cormac McCarthy. But on the whole, I didn't trust Myers as a dependable guide; just a bitter one who had tired of the scenery.

For starters, I found his distinctions a little too easy.

Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be "genre fiction" -- at best an excellent "read" or a "page turner," but never literature with a capital L.

Ever heard of James Ellroy? Myers apparently hasn't. I'm not that crazy about Ellroy's staccato style of writing, but critics everywhere are more than willing to confer on him the title of artist, only in his case they speak of someone breaking the boundaries of his genre (in his case, lit noir.)

The only Annie Proulx I've ever read is what Myers quotes, and so far as I can tell he exaggerates her offensiveness. On a particularly petty note, he waxes wroth that Proulx thanks her children in the acknowledgements to Close Range for "putting up with my strangled, work-driven ways." "How can anything," Myers writes, "no matter how abstract, be strangled and work-driven at the same time?" To which I easily reply that if your ways -- as in, day to day writing habits -- are "work-driven," they will invariably stifle, choke you off or strangle you in other ways -- in Proulx's case, perhaps, spending time with the kids. Myers also cites a scene in Accordion Crimes where a woman's arms are sliced off by a piece of sheet metal and yet she manages to notice a good deal of the scenery at the same time. Again, I didn't find this all that odd; traumatizing events do have a way of slowing things down, and the most horrendous events in life can seem to happen in slow motion.

(Perhaps it is also worth mentioning -- just to show how easy this game is to play -- that Shakespeare himself penned a perfectly ridiculous similar scene in Titus Andronicus, in which Lavinia -- having been raped, had her tongue cut out and her arms hacked off -- appears before Marcus. While the audience screams "Call 911!" Marcus jabbers on endlessly: "Why dost not speak to me?/Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,/ Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,/Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,/Coming and going with thy honey breath./But, sure, some Tereus hath deflowered thee,/And, lest thou shouldst detect him, cut thy tongue./Ah, now thou turn'st away thy face for shame!" No, Marcus -- she's going into hypovolemic shock.)

Myers point throughout is that writers today make up for their deficiencies as writers with obscure, "fancy-pants" language. He cites Oprah Winfrey's story of how she complained to Toni Morrison that she sometimes had to re-read Morrison's sentences. "That, my dear, is called reading," Morrison replied.

Sorry, my dear Toni, but it's actually called bad writing. Great prose isn't always easy, but it's always lucid; no one of Oprah's intelligence ever had to wonder what Joseph Conrad was trying to say in a particular sentence.

This is just the kind of bad writing that Myers accuses his select writers of applying to their fiction. Great prose isn't always easy -- meaning it is sometimes hard to read -- but it's always lucid -- which means "easily understood." I'm not sure what Myers is talking about here -- but it certainly does make one wonder what he thinks of the Quentin section of The Sound and the Fury or the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter of Ulysses or the second part of Goethe's Faust. Great prose is not always perfectly lucid -- at least, not in parts.

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