Unfair Sentence

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July 27 2001 8:30 PM

Unfair Sentence

The case for difficult books.

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Everybody loves a fight, especially literary critics. Conveniently, there's nothing easier to fight over than books, because taste is subjective. The latest poker in the fire is a piece in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly—bombastically titled "A Reader's Manifesto" (sadly, it's not online). The author, a previously unpublished critic named B. R. Myers, attacks contemporary fiction for being pretentious and self-consciously difficult, and book reviewers for praising such willfully obscure nonsense. Novelists Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, David Guterson, and Paul Auster are all guilty, Myers argues, of writing "affected prose" and contributing to what Myers calls the "cult of the sentence." Instead, we ought to return to a time when fast-moving, accessible stories were considered "literary." Readers are cheering: The London Times said that the piece was "brilliantly written." "Hallelujah and praise God!" wrote a reader on the Atlantic Monthly online discussion thread. "We have nothing to lose but our stupefaction."

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At the heart of Myers' screed is an implied conflict between "story" and "style": a notion that story trumps style, or that it ought to right now, since we've come to overvalue arty writing. In the first camp, you've got, say, Trollope and Theodore Dreiser. In the other, you've got Flaubert and Joyce. We could divide many of today's fiction writers into these camps: On the side of story, there'd be John Irving, Amy Tan, Norman Mailer, and Stephen King, among others. On the side of sentence, or style, there'd be Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Jayne Anne Phillips, Bret Easton Ellis, and so on. But these categories are crude and reductive: Where would you put writers such as Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Jane Smiley, Michael Chabon, and John Updike?

Even if we did feel that the five writers in question were egregiously overrated, complaining about them now seems a little like pointing out that the emperor's not wearing clothes after everyone else has noticed. At this point, French critics are more excited than their American counterparts by Paul Auster. David Guterson's reputation is based on one hit novel; his second was mostly regarded as a disappointment. White Noise was published 16 years ago. All of this makes Myers' essay seem crudely off target.

Myers' real frustration isn't with the writers but with the reviewers who laud them. At the heart of his complaints is a buried anxiety about cultural elitism, a peculiarly American distrust of showiness and artiness. Myers' dislike of writing that is self-consciously about ideas or language reflects an essential distrust of difficulty—i.e., it's snooty and only there to make the cognoscenti feel good about themselves—or the idea that fiction might ask questions that it has no answer for. At the 1999 National Book Awards, Oprah Winfrey said that she sometimes had to stop and puzzle over Toni Morrison's sentences; Morrison responded, "That, my dear, is called reading." This enrages Myers: "Great prose isn't always easy, but it's always lucid; no one of Oprah's intelligence ever had to puzzle over a Joseph Conrad sentence," he writes in return. This seems patently wrong, but Myers' jeremiad has met with an overwhelming response from readers who are relieved to find that they're not philistines, even though they failed to finish Underworld or Infinite Jest. (The irony, of course, is that they feel they're not philistines only because a critic in a glossy literary magazine has reassured them they're not.) Of course they're not. But the danger of Myers' irritation is self-evident: It implies we needn't ever challenge ourselves as readers. It wants a literature of lucidity and leaves little room for mystery.

Although his reading of contemporary fiction seems painfully narrow, Myers nonetheless raises (if indirectly) a genuine point about reviewing: Many critics foreground the importance of "craft," vaguely praising a novel for its "evocative" or "compelling" prose. Their faces are so closely pressed against the window that they see more of the glass than what lies beyond it. There are some obvious reasons for this. First, both novels and their reviews are often written by people who have taught (or been taught) creative writing, much of which centers on a discussion of craft. After all, you can teach an aspiring writer how to construct a sentence, but it's harder to teach imagination, or how to invest fiction with intrinsic intelligence or useful social observation, or something as elusive as emotional truth. Reviewers tend to judge a book on its own terms, and sensibly so. It's unfair (and fairly useless) to fault Raymond Carver for not being Donald Barthelme, or vice versa. Still, reviewers sometimes don't tell readers what to expect or explain that a book's primary pleasure is linguistic rather than narrative, for example.

Critics might do more to alleviate the frustration Myers and so many other readers feel. Perhaps we need a criticism of mo r e frank respons e s, of more ris k taking and ardent c o n testation—reviews that could celebrate a so-called "fun read" without patronizing it and ones that would help readers access difficult works instead of just opaquely praising their merits. Critics are less elitist than Myers thinks. No one wants to slam a first novelist or even a mediocre book. Especially when it's not immediately apparent how a reviewer ought to handle the question of taste: Unlike nonfiction reviewers, fiction critics have few objective criteria (such as quality of research, scope of argument) upon which to base their assessments. All this contributes to what Dwight Garner aptly called "literary grade inflation."

At any given point in history, there's going to be more bad writing than there is great—or even good—writing. Let's take a look at an earlier time, one that Myers is nostalgic for. In 1900, both Sister Carrie and Lord Jim were published. Both received critical attention, and neither was a best seller (although, to be fair, there's a Byzantine story behind the initial publication of Sister Carrie). What were the best-selling novels that year? Unleavened Bread and Red Pottage and When Knighthood Was in Flower. Myers' idea of a happier cultural moment, when best sellers received serious critical attention, is a sentimental lament for an imagined past—a time when all writers were great, all readers ideal, all books beautifully bound, and the girls were smart and pretty.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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