Monday, February 21, 2011

Saturday, February 19, 2011

B.R. Myers: The Bottom of the Pecking Order

B.R. Myers is the poor man’s Dale Peck, and by “poor,” I mean “intellectually impoverished.” As frequent readers of this blog will recall, I was no fan of Peck’s Hatchet Jobs when I read it last spring, but now, in comparing it with Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, I feel I may have shortchanged the ax man. While Hatchet Jobs courted controversy with all the subtlety the title implies, relying on theses better suited to hostile tweets (“Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation”) than to substantive essays, and frequently resorting to aggressive non-sequiturs (“with friends like this, literature needs an enema”) in the absence of any subtler wit, Peck was remarkably successful in one area where many writers fail: creating an unforgettable character – in his case, the character of Dale Peck, book critic. As bizarre as it may sound, Hatchet Jobs was at least partly written in a spirit of generosity. Peck was willing to overstate his points, to play the fool – to be “clownish,” in his words – in order to get a passionate conversation about current books started. B.R. Myers, on the other hand, thinks the literary conversation should have ended for all time sometime in the middle of the 20th century, and spends almost 150 pages saying so.

A Reader’s Manifesto is a worthless piece of garbage. But I’m willing to dignify it with a response because of the one value Mr. Myers and I do share: our desire to attack and publically humiliate the writers who piss us off.

A Reader’s Manifesto is divided into five major sections: “Evocative Prose,” “Edgy Prose,” “Muscular Prose,” “Spare Prose,” and “Generic Literary Prose.” (The beginning and end are heavily padded with a preface, introduction, conclusion, epilogue, and appendix, I guess to fill the book out to manuscript length.) These headings suggest that each section or essay will explore a specific problem Myers finds endemic to contemporary writing, defining his terms, citing examples by a range of authors, and, ideally, reaching toward some larger points about what this trend might mean.  But each essay might as well be named for the author it discusses, since each confines itself almost entirely to one: Annie Proulx ("Evocative"), Don DeLillo ("Edgy"), Cormac McCarthy ("Muscular"), Paul Auster ("Spare"), and David Guterson ("Generic") respectively.

It is the first of several tricky rhetorical moves that Myers makes. By confining each essay to a particular author’s body of work, Myers can generate a wealth of like examples for whatever “problem” he’s discussing.  Generally, unless a certain type of metaphor or elevated language really is a mistake (in the sense of being an anomalous authorial oversight) it will occur again and again in that author's short story, novel, or even career. To paraphrase an old saw, if you do it once, it’s an accident; but doing it over and over quickly becomes a style. A critic may judge a style to be aesthetically successful or unsuccessful and can advance an argument either way, of course.  But to be thorough, any such argument must offer more than an uncoordinated series of apparent grammatical corrections: it must address what patterns emerge, and what results from those patterns.

Myers, however, does no such thing. By claiming that each of his essays is about a “type” of prose, rather than the style of a particular author, Myers abdicates the critic's responsibility to establish any larger context other than isolated sentences.  He abdicates, in fact, the critic's obligation to address an author’s larger project, or even the form and structure of an entire book.

In other words, Myers is making the argument that sentences are inherently good or bad. He's saying that the way literary language communicates can be evaluated separately from what it's communicating. He’s saying that there are rules about the way sentences should work that apply regardless of the larger form or aesthetic of the fiction in question. I think this is the kind of idea with which one can easily disagree, because I consider it batshit crazy. Sentences, even sentences that don't make literal syntactical sense, are inherently neutral; their worth comes from the contribution they make to what Poe would call the work’s single overall effect.

I don’t mind that Myers disagrees with me about this: he's not alone. I do, however, object to the way he rules out any possibility of disagreement in his Introduction, writing, “We can all argue about whether a story is interesting or a character believable, but few literate people would deny that ‘a clash of sound, discordant,’ is repetitive, or that ‘from whence there could be no way back’ is absurdly archaic for a story set in the Truman years.” Myers here is trying to establish common ground by disguising evaluative assessments as objective ones. “A clash of sound, discordant” is (kinda sorta) repetitive, sure, but repetition can be used to great effect, as even Myers (kinda sorta) admits when he references Hemingway.  “From whence there could be no way back” is archaic, but to add “absurdly” is to make a value judgment in no way justified by the excerpted text. (And even describing something as “absurd” is not necessarily a criticism.)

What’s even batshittier is the fact that, when Myers observes a particular writer’s style displays impressive internal consistency, or when a work's style appears connected to its themes, or both, he takes this as a sign that the book is even sloppier than he realized at first. About Proulx, he writes, “[Her] wordplay virtually never lets up; it is hard to find three consecutive sentences in which she isn’t trying to startle or impress the reader.” He describes Don DeLillo’s writing in White Noise – a book largely set in grocery stores and concerned with the disposable products of consumer culture – as a “lazy shopping list” and points out its pop cultural references have “dated like an open box of cereal.” (Bet DeLillo cried himself to sleep after reading that.) Of Cormac McCarthy, he writes, “The novel is a fundamentally irreverent form: it tolerates epic language only when used with a selective touch.  To record with the same majesty every aspect of a cowboy's life, from a knife-fight to his lunchtime burrito, is to create what can only be described as kitsch.” And so on. Although Myers turns his critical eye on individual sentences only, what actually bothers him the most is their purposefully achieved cumulative effect – an effect that overwhelms him, disturbs him, lingers in his mind, even though he doesn’t like it. To me, that’s the surest sign that these authors are doing something right.