Oct 7 2010

A Reader’s Manifesto?

Exactly a year ago the Atlantic Monthly ran an article by an anonymously-styled writer B.R. Myers, called “A Reader’s Manifesto: An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American Literary Prose.” In its rather lengthy 8 pages, he- or she- complained that much of the so-called literary fiction sweeping the awards and monopolizing the reviews are convoluted, obtuse, and well-nigh unreadable to everyone except a few rarefied literary critics. Even worse, writers who deserved to be called literary are scorned as genre writers merely because they have written a page-turner of a book with an actual plot. Myers then went on to discuss why such prize-laden books as The Shipping News, All the Pretty Horses, and Snow Falling on Cedars were tedious, repetitive and poorly written, and to lament the fact that a fine writer like Stephen King will never win a Pulitzer prize.

As was intended, the article provoked a storm of response. A few people hotly defending the books and authors (and critics) in question, and many more saying “Amen!” Now, a year later, A Reader’s Manifesto has been released as a book, and the controversy is starting to kick back in. B.R. Myers, who turns out to be a man, has expanded his list of pretentious writers to include Jonathan Franzen, and Don Delillo. He also gives a tongue-in-cheek list of “10 Rules for ‘Serious Writers’” which includes the ever-useful “how to write a sex scene badly.”

It is all very amusing, but in the end one wonders if what was worth an eight page article can justify a 160 page book.

Besides, he’s wrong.

I will acknowledge that Stephen King, John Grisham and Jackie Collins are unlikely to ever win a Pulitzer. I will even agree that they are all very fine writers (or were, anyway). Stephen King has written some of the most horrifically frightening stories ever conceived by a demented imagination and I give him full credit it for it. But the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Award, the Pen Faulkner Award- none of these are popularity contests. They are awards of literary merit.

The Pulitzer, for example, is given “For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” What exactly constitutes “distinguished” is left up to the jury, but by and large the award is given to a book that represents both excellence in its literary style, and helps the genre as a whole progress. (See- even fiction is a genre). In fact, it is ironic that Myers chose Stephen King as a writer wronged by the literary establishment. King is a master at manipulating his standing in the ratings. When his novel The Green Mile was released it was done chapter by chapter, so that he could honestly say that he had seven books on the bestseller list at the same time. And at $3.99 per chapter, readers spent $21 for what should have been a $6.99 paperback.

Myers takes each of his pretentious authors in turn and cites examples of what he considers bad writing. In most cases I found it hard to agree with his choices, and in the case of Don Delillo- a writer I don’t like at all, I found that Myers was not only unfair, but he didn’t even prove his point.

The truth is, all the writers Myers cited have evoked strong reactions from their readers- not always positive, but always memorable. Which is more than you can say for the last Jackie Collins novel. If Jonathan Franzen’s book The Corrections made you want to throw it across the room in frustration, if Annie Proulx’s Shipping News made you want to close the book rather than face more of the characters’ torment, then those writers are doing their job- and doing it far better than your average book-a-year contract bestselling author.

The fact that these authors prompted Myers to write first and eight page article, and then a 160 page book in response to their books only proves how good those writers really are.