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your favorite literary writer sucks
November 26, 2009 10:33 AM   Subscribe

This is what the cultural elite wants us to believe: if our writers don't make sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren't worthy of them.

Annie Proulx relies on “ ... sentences, which often call to mind a bad photographer hurrying through a slide show.”

Cormac McCarthy’s prose “ ... can make you look up, wherever you may be, and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank.”

Don DeLillo’s "... characters talk and act like the aliens in 3rd Rock From the Sun, which would be fine if we weren't supposed to accept them as dead-on satires of the way we live now.”

Paul Auster “ ... is commercially successful precisely because he offers so much cachet in return for so little concentration.”

David Guterson “ ... sinks below mediocrity as rarely as he rises above it.”

B.R. MyersA READER'S MANIFESTO was published in 2001 and has been touched on previously at Metafilter.
posted by philip-random (143 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
BRAVO!
I thought maybe my wife and I were the only 2 people who found Cormac McCarthy to be whollly unworthy of the praise he's been given... Now I know there is at least 1 more person who dislikes his style!
posted by newfers at 10:44 AM on November 26, 2009 [7 favorites]


Wow - so true. Unfortunately, story has fallen by the wayside to make way for the brittle weak literary depth of nuance, and a complete absence of any real narrative.
posted by lexpattison at 11:06 AM on November 26, 2009


Oh weird, I was just thinking about this today. I put "Blood Meridian" on my To Read list but I must've been one of the few people left completely unmoved by The Road. I hate the way McCarthy writes. Also, this passage from Myers always stuck with me:

As a fan of movie westerns, I refuse to quibble with the myth that a wild landscape can bestow epic significance on the lives of its inhabitants. But novels tolerate epic language only in moderation. To record with the same somber 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. Here we learn that out west even a hangover is something special.

"[They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they'd ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool. (All the Pretty Horses) "

It is a rare passage that can make you look up, wherever you may be, and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank. I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retching for the call of wild animals. But "wild animals" isn't epic enough: McCarthy must blow smoke about some rude provisional species, as if your average quadruped had impeccable table manners and a pension plan. Then he switches from the horses' perspective to the narrator's, though just what something imperfect and malformed refers to is unclear. The last half sentence only deepens the confusion. Is the thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace the same thing that is lodged in the heart of being? And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why an autumn pool? I doubt if McCarthy can explain any of this; he probably just likes the way it sounds.
posted by jcruelty at 11:09 AM on November 26, 2009 [24 favorites]


You SHUT UP about City of Glass.
posted by juv3nal at 11:09 AM on November 26, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also, "Then go read something else. kthxbye" is probably the stupidest thing I've heard today. Granted, it's not yet noon. God forbid anyone take a critical stance towards any writing, anywhere, for any reason.
posted by jcruelty at 11:10 AM on November 26, 2009 [16 favorites]


I read the whole thing... which is more than I can say for any of the excerpts. If this is modern writing, it's a good thing I mostly read non-fiction and "genre" fiction.
posted by vorfeed at 11:11 AM on November 26, 2009


p.s. just in the spirit of noting something i do like: The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks. that's a beautiful book, beautiful writing.
posted by jcruelty at 11:12 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I will go to my grave not knowing why for some people, knowing that someone somewhere is enjoying something they don't, is an intolerable affront.
posted by Kattullus at 11:13 AM on November 26, 2009 [62 favorites]


I don't want to like this article, but I don't want to like Cormac McCarthy, either. Or Annie Proulx. I should be able to admit this without coming off as a Tom-Clancy-reading anti-intellectual. Generally speaking, if a book's prose is described as "luminous," I am a. not going to like it and b. going to feel guilty for not liking it.

I like that he has a good word for Stephen King, who is underrated by intellectuals but, unfortunately, overrated by himself. I think it strange, though, that he praises Theodore Dreiser, who even in his time was not considered a good writer, only an Important one.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:16 AM on November 26, 2009


Wow, this article is a self-congratulatory mess. Then again, I don't know what else there is to expect from someone who writes long screeds against the pretentiousness of the "cultural elite."

I think there's a large flaw in just taking out excerpts of novels to prove why their author is a 'bad writer.' A novel is more than the sum of its sentences. I could just as easily pull a paragraph from King to show why he's awful, except he's not and neither are these people.

There's this idea that genre novels do have something important to offer, and are worth studying seriously, even though an individual might be unimpressed by their prose. I don't see why that idea shouldn't apply equally to prose an individual considers too purple.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:17 AM on November 26, 2009 [6 favorites]


God forbid anyone take a critical stance towards any writing

Oh by all means I agree! There's plenty of capital-L Literature that I hate. But I don't go around making ridiculous statements about the "cultural elite" and how elitey elitist they are.
posted by kiltedtaco at 11:22 AM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


metafilter: as if your average quadruped had impeccable table manners and a pension plan.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:22 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would have taken the article more seriously if he hadn't insisted on comparing all of the other writers to Stephen King. Stephen King? Really? If that's his metric I really can't relate to his argument. (definitely Kingist)
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:24 AM on November 26, 2009


I will go to my grave not knowing why for some people, knowing that someone somewhere is enjoying something they don't, is an intolerable affront.

One point that Myers touches is on is how many copies of these "literary" best sellers actually go unread. That is, they're received as gifts, bought after reading any number of glowing reviews ... and then ... ? I think "meh" applies.

For the record, I thought Proulx's Shipping News was an excellent read and "enjoyed" McCarthy's Blood Meridian for its sheer, hot-blooded obsession ... but the other's ... ? "Meh" again ...

Except for DeLillo's Underground. I gave way too much of my life to those 10,000 pages (or whatever) for a mere espousal of indifference. I want my $25 bucks back plus say $5 grand for all the unpaid labor (less than minimum wage, I'm sure).

And yeah, I'll read pretty anything by Russell Banks. Now there's a storyteller.
posted by philip-random at 11:24 AM on November 26, 2009


I will go to my grave not knowing why for some people, knowing that someone somewhere is enjoying something they don't, is an intolerable affront.

I will go to my grave not knowing why some people don't seem to understand the concept of literary criticism. He(?)'s not saying these writers should be banned by the state. I disagree with him about Paul Auster, for example, but still really enjoyed this essay.

Close attention to Cormac McCarthy's writing reveals it to be almost uniformly appalling crap — he is a pure triumph of branding and marketing. (And the author of this piece is not entirely wrong in his critique of Auster, either, actually, which made that part edifyingly discomfiting for me.)
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 11:31 AM on November 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


I've often thought, during frustrating attempts to get to grip with their work, that many of the currently fêted writers lack an understanding that writing is first and foremost a craft. Artistry alone go over well with the critics, but I don't think it can ever produce anything satisfying or enduring.

But perhaps the problem is that the writers who have really grasped the craft of writing are all churning out million-selling airport novels. Except for Dan Brown, of course; there's no logic to Dan Brown's success.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:33 AM on November 26, 2009


I disagree entirely about Cormac McCarthy's writing. The man makes me want to read more, not less.

I do agree about the ridiculousness of Literature bores. But you see this type of behaviour everywhere. Look at pretty much any post on Metafilter that you have absolutely adored, and you will find a half-dozen comments that tell you that it is terrible because it didn't meet the required level of somethingness that today's arbiters of Great Posts measure so rigorously against. Look at any link, to almost any non-scientific article and you will see people criticizing the writing. Basically this amounts to: Your favorite anything sucks.

It's tempting to think of some elitist conspiracy against you ever being allowed to enjoy reading something, run by a corrupt cadre of super villain literary professors. It's just that people think that they gain importance by saying how much they hate things. Other people are so intimidated by perceived weighty opinions that they result to saying things like the above one liners about critically successful authors.

No reader is more qualified than you to say how much you enjoy something, but this is not something critics want you to believe when they are trying to build a brand.
posted by dobie at 11:33 AM on November 26, 2009 [7 favorites]


I loved City of Glass and didn't find it unduly pretentious at all.
posted by empath at 11:34 AM on November 26, 2009


I've read almost everything McCarthy has written and the close attention I've paid reveals it to be anything but uniformly appalling crap. I can see how people wouldn't like his style, but I feel sorry for those who dismiss what he writes because of his extravagant, florid prose and lack of quotation marks, of all things. As stated earlier, his novels are more than the sum of its sentences.
posted by m0nm0n at 11:38 AM on November 26, 2009 [4 favorites]


Check out contemporary american fiction writer and totally underrated talent William Gay for some good, dark, pulse-pounding writing.
posted by freshundz at 11:39 AM on November 26, 2009


Close attention to Cormac McCarthy's writing reveals it to be almost uniformly appalling crap — he is a pure triumph of branding and marketing.

McCarthy has his overboard, pretentious moments, to be sure, but I'm pretty sure you're about 100% wrong here. A book like Blood Meridian is almost impossible to get into the first time around -- and a lot of that comes down to deliberately obtuse language that, while sometimes beautiful, is probably McCarthy's most frustrating and frankly needless characteristic (evidently he believes the same thing, judging from the Hemingway turn his writing later takes) -- but I defy anyone to read to the end of it and walk away with your take.

Now, Don DeLillo, on the other hand....
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:40 AM on November 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


I agree about the value of literary criticism. Thanks to it, I don't have to read any books at all. I just read the criticism and can then spin of snide remarks about every writer - from King to Cormac - with my fellow literary elite friends and sound like I know what I'm talking about.

Because the real snobbish, literary elite types, like myself, can't be bothered to read anything other than The Atlantic and The New Yorker. And sometimes Readers Digest, if its in the dentist's office and nobody we know is around.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:42 AM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Kattallus wrote: for some people, knowing that someone somewhere is enjoying something they don't, is an intolerable affront.

...And vice-versa, natch.
posted by chavenet at 11:44 AM on November 26, 2009


OK, I was being too provocative for the sake of it. I will confess right here that I have not read every work of McCarthy's, so I cannot justify the use of the word "uniformly".

To be (I hope) more substantive: I think the problem that often arises in this kind of discussion is that people assume that because a) there can be no ultimate, indisputable objective standard of 'good writing', therefore b) people like B R Myers aren't qualified to tell you, or to try to persude you, that certain writers really are terribly bad. A really good critic will take a writer you've filed away as liking (such as McCarthy) and show you that his writing doesn't meet criteria of excellence that you yourself hold (such as metaphors making sense, or needless words being omitted). The good critic exposes an internal contradiction in your own views, rather than trying to persuade you that there's a right and a wrong and he's right.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 11:47 AM on November 26, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'm speechless. Because I largely agree that the writers called out here aren't very good.

But the idea that these writers aren't any good because they're too intellectual and highbrow... wow. I and the people I know who read books must be like some kind of Super-Mega-Cultural-Elite-9000(tm). I mean, I guess Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx are upper-middlebrow, but is someone seriously out there at a party trying to prove how intellectual he is by quoting "The Road" or "Brokeback Mountain??"
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:47 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, uhhh, if I can ask, why exactly is this post here now? I read this book back when it was new, which was a pretty long time ago, and unless The Atlantic just posted this for the first time yesterday or something, I don't see what makes it particularly relevant at the moment.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:47 AM on November 26, 2009


and unless The Atlantic just posted this for the first time yesterday or something, I don't see what makes it particularly relevant at the moment.

The Atlantic published this in 2001, but things move slower in the literary world because they have to communicate via words written on paper. Basically, most literature fans are just learning now that Charles Dickens passed away. We have to actually go out and seek that information out.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:51 AM on November 26, 2009 [7 favorites]


or needless words being omitted

That "rule" has always annoyed me. The needless words are often the most beautiful ones.
posted by dng at 11:53 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love McCarthy, and DeLillo (and also King, and hell, Christopher Moore). I would rather be punched in the face by a tortoise than read Proulx again.

But this idea that books (and these books, which I can buy in the goddamn airport) are somehow foisted on a blinking, cud-chewing public by the e-e-eeevil "cultural elite" seems like the work of anti-intellectual nimrod that would be (were this written now) better off chasing Sarah Palin around in the hopes that she'll sign her biography for him instead of foisting his idiot opinions on other people.

There is no "cultural elite." Smart people like smart books, and frequently some stupid books. Stupid people don't like smart books, and generally don't read anyway.

Smart people also like to write intelligently about the books they like, and sometimes publish things that are geared towards their peer group: smart people.

It's perfectly okay to hate McCarthy for a reason and explain it (see above), but this "waaaah waaaah waaaah cultural elite" stuff is dumb as fuck. If you want to bust out in hives because you don't agree with people that review things for the New York Times Review of Books or whatever, don't buy the fucking thing. Start your own damn magazine. The "cultural elite" line of argument is anti-intellectual garbage.
posted by Shepherd at 11:54 AM on November 26, 2009 [18 favorites]


but is someone seriously out there at a party trying to prove how intellectual he is by quoting "The Road" or "Brokeback Mountain??"

FROM THE INTRO:

B.R. Myers’ A READER'S MANIFESTO was published in 2001 and has been touched on previously at Metafilter.
posted by philip-random at 11:55 AM on November 26, 2009


The needless words are often the most beautiful ones.

Some French guy said it (probably while smoking a Gitanne): "That which is evil is that which is unnecessary."
posted by philip-random at 11:57 AM on November 26, 2009


RIP Dickens. Love him or hate him, he definitely left his imprint on today's literature.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:59 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Eh. It's like Lester Bangs. I disagree with him half the time, and when I do I shrug it off. I'm not going to stop listening to Yes just because he told me to. But I also really love some of the bands he stood up for, so I'm glad he stood up for them even if it meant trashing some of my beloved prog rockers in the process.

I thought Snow Falling On Cedars was a damn good book, and I'm secure enough in my taste that reading Myers badmouth it isn't going to hurt me any. But I also love the old, straightforward, plot-driven stuff he's going to bat for here, so I'm glad he's doing it.

In fact, with this article it's a little more personal. Some of my best friends were just starting out as writers when this article came out. And it really was a big hairy deal for them — which made it a second-hand big hairy deal for me — that someone in THE FUCKING ATLANTIC of all places was standing up for solid unaffected storytelling. Because that's the sort of thing they wanted to write, and they were feeling all sorts of pressure to give it up and Raymond Carverize themselves in order to get published. That would have been a dumb thing to do, and their own fault if they'd chosen to, but they were young and vulnerable and it was kind of a struggle sometimes. So things like this article (...and the very existence of Michael Chabon...) were really huge encouragement for them at a point when they really needed it. One of those friends just got her first book published, and so in her case at least I'm really glad for anything that pushed her to keep writing the shit she liked.

I guess I can see that the snide remarks do sting a little. But Annie Proulx seems to have taken it in stride, you know? If he'd aimed this at younger writers who were struggling to make a name for themselves, that would have been below the belt. But when it's aimed at artists who's career's already off the ground, I think partisan criticism like this does a lot of good for the people it encourages and not much real harm to the people it skewers, and given all that that, a couple ad hominems and a little ranting don't bother me as much as maybe they should.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:00 PM on November 26, 2009 [12 favorites]


Nobuddy makes good music fiction enny more, not like the goodolddays of Bing Crosby/The Platters/Elvis Presley/Jim Morrison/The Bee Gees/The Cars/Franz Ferdinand/whatever Dickens/King/Ayn Rand/The Bobbsey Twins.

I have lived long enough to know that when people lament the crassness/elitism of modern days, it's just that they are now old enough to have grown up with something else.

There's some pretty readable fiction out there, according to my taste--I regret to inform you that I like LIFE OF PI and THE CITY AND THE CITY, for example--but I know all too well that other people don't like what I like.
posted by Peach at 12:07 PM on November 26, 2009


It's perfectly okay to hate McCarthy for a reason and explain it (see above), but this "waaaah waaaah waaaah cultural elite" stuff is dumb as fuck. If you want to bust out in hives because you don't agree with people that review things for the New York Times Review of Books or whatever, don't buy the fucking thing. Start your own damn magazine. The "cultural elite" line of argument is anti-intellectual garbage.

Yes, I agree with this. What really bothers me about this article is that it's doing the same idiotic thing "cultural snobs" do to genre pieces: uniformly writing off a giant subset of books because of some arbitrary personal ideas about what's "good" rather than judging these books on their individual merits. "People I don't like enjoy this book, ergo it's bad."

I mean, the part where he just decides that Toni Morrison's work is "bad writing" was so obnoxious. You can argue that her reply to Oprah was annoying, or twee, or whatever. But at least try to address the point she made that figuring out why an author wrote what seems to be a difficult or confusing sentence is an important part of reading, rather than just dismissing every confusing sentence or concept by going "lol that's stupid." That's so lazy.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:08 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and Stephen King. This article is as terrible now as it was eight years ago. It's not worthy of discussion on Metafilter. It's not literary criticism, it's a mindless Phillipic.
posted by mpbx at 12:08 PM on November 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Also - thinking about it, it makes sense this was written in 2001. I'm sure it read differently back then. It also makes the weird out-datedness of the article make sense. I was reading it thinking, "Okay... defending genre? I mean, maybe I go to a super radical university, but all of my professors have made this same point. It's like defending the artistic value of those crazy impressionists."
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:13 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


The needless words are often the most beautiful ones.

There may be an unexamined disagreement here about the definition of "needless", but anyway. One of Samuel Johnson's more famous quotes: Read over your compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

An important self-evaluation skill for a writer is to be able to distinguish between the enjoyment you get from writing when you're giving the story exactly what it needs and the enjoyment you get from wanking on the page.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:22 PM on November 26, 2009


Eh. It's like Lester Bangs. I disagree with him half the time, and when I do I shrug it off. I'm not going to stop listening to Yes just because he told me to.

Thanks for the Yes reference (and the Bangs). I was a huge fan of Yes back in the day and it always bugged me when critics tore into them for being pretentious show-offs more concerned with dazzling us with their musicianly chops than ACTUALLY WRITING AND PLAYING A DECENT COHERENT SONG.

Problem was, some of what these critics were saying was right. It took me time to accept ... but I did eventually, and I grew because of it. But some of what the critics were saying was also dead wrong. Sometimes all of Yes's dazzling technical proficiency was entirely in service of the song and as such that song had a strength and power that blew away all comers.

Close To The Edge for instance.

This, for me, is the only argument for technique in any craft: to make the THING itself better, not to draw attention to itself, not to cover up dubious logic, sloppy structure etc -- to serve the piece in question, not to satisfy the creator's ego, or even just give him/her the pleasure of "doing".
posted by philip-random at 12:23 PM on November 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


tl;dr
posted by Skygazer at 12:26 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Solon, yeah that's kinda the cool thing about reading it now.

I remember this piece fondly as the last time a cultural conservative made sense to me, even if I disagreed with the extent of his excoriation. Another interesting data-point: he hasn't published a book since...conspiracy or proof of a lack of original ideas? Or both.

My favorite response of the time was Johnathan Yardley's at the WP.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:29 PM on November 26, 2009


Holy crap, Charles Dickens is dead?

.
posted by box at 12:31 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


What really bothers me about this article is that it's doing the same idiotic thing "cultural snobs" do to genre pieces: uniformly writing off a giant subset of books because of some arbitrary personal ideas about what's "good" rather than judging these books on their individual merits. "People I don't like enjoy this book, ergo it's bad."

Correct me if I'm wrong but with McCarthy, Proulx, Guterson, Auster and DeLillo, Myers selects specific prose passages and critiques them as they play out on the page, much as a good editor would. This is hardly an arbitrary writing off of " ... a giant subset of books because of some arbitrary personal ideas about what's good." He's calling them to task for bad writing.
posted by philip-random at 12:32 PM on November 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


He's calling them to task for bad writing.

That is, a sloppy application of craft.
posted by philip-random at 12:33 PM on November 26, 2009


YAH! At last! Someone to stand up for the little guy! America is tired of having all these... ...books shoved down their throat. Because the little guy in America is constantly ....reading... ...books.


Wait what?
posted by lumpenprole at 12:36 PM on November 26, 2009 [8 favorites]


Solon: What I mean is: nowadays it's commonplace to attribute high-art literary merit to genre fiction and great genre writers like L'amour, Chandler, Disch and Gene Wolfe. 9 years ago it was rare. Maybe it's partly because within that time period those of us who read at all have had to give up old animosity and join forces, as the dark and cold of ignorance crack the facades of both ivory tower and castle keep, and we huddle together for warmth.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:36 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love this guy, this essay, the the expanded book version of the essay. He's still at it from time to time in The Atlantic as well.
posted by turgid dahlia at 12:40 PM on November 26, 2009


Myers may have had a loose assemblage of points scattered about the discursive plain, but one of his cherished examples is Gormenghast—which (rather delightfully) fulfills nine of the ten sarcastic commandments he lays out for the "literary" success he decries. That he (bizarrely) sets Peake in opposition to Harry Potter without noticing the damage this does to a central thesis pitting "accessible, fast-moving stor[ies] written in unaffected prose" against "literature with a capital L" tells us this isn't even an argument, much less a manifesto.

The mandarins are a social circle, not a critical enterprise; ninety percent of everything is crap, even the so-called good stuff; the paraliterary does not get its due. And? —It was ever thus. Tell us what you like, and why; tell us what you dislike, and why; don't pull a Grossman by pretending King isn't relentlessly studied by literary critics; and don't ever ever ever pretend to have distilled it all down to a simple dogme you don't even follow yourself. You can't. That's the point.
posted by kipmanley at 12:48 PM on November 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


I find it crazy that this guy goes after Auster's style, when Auster's style is rather influenced by detective novels, so much so that his first novel is a detective novel, and pretty much just an homage/pastiche of (imo) Robert Parker, a great genre writer with a wonderfully evoctaive prose style. That's crazy, as well as his feelings that writers are trying to set traps, like, as mentioned up thread, there was some conspiracy to foist of crappy writers. There are plenty of reasons to critique lit. fic., but his piece reads a little too much like a undergrad English major trying to distinguish himself.
posted by Snyder at 12:48 PM on November 26, 2009


This Myers guy is just a terrible reader. Everything is confrontation with the author for him. His anxiety about what to think of a given passage makes it seem as though reading, for him, is an extraordinarily tense endeavor, fraught with the necessity of grave hermeneutic decisions and poisoned by the paranoia that someone is trying to pull a fast one on him.
posted by clockzero at 1:02 PM on November 26, 2009 [6 favorites]


If I play a video game, I mossy about uselessly and expect to win. I'm pretty sure many people enjoy losing when they behave similarly. Similarly many people enjoy actually working when they read.

I see one relevant difference, video game makers hem & haw about designing "the one true game" that keeps everyone happy, while authors just write whatever book they feel like, but video games are young, they'll learn.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:02 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I remember reading this when it first appeared. Both Harper's and Atlantic walk out on the literary lawn and chase the kids away about every 10 years or so. Crappy writing is as American as apple pie and violence, as a look at any best-selling list will readily confirm. No matter how ignorant Cormac McCarthy may be about literature (and anybody who doesn't get Proust can hardly be described any other way), Blood Meridian is a masterpiece. (If you want to see him out-Faulkner Faulkner, read Child of God.)
posted by Pistol at 1:03 PM on November 26, 2009


Hmm. Maybe this is the real reason graphic novels have taken off lately. Everyone's so sick of pretentious prose, they want to look at some pictures...not that Alan Moore at times shouldn't be on this list.

And City of Glass? Never read it, but the comic book version is awesome.
posted by Tesseractive at 1:03 PM on November 26, 2009


I find it crazy that this guy goes after Auster's style ...

My issue with Auster, and it only came from an attempted read of one book (Moon Palace) was his utter lack of substance. I just didn't buy anything about the story being told; just a guy with a facility for words slinging together a tale that had about as much "real world" resonance for me as if it had been written by a fifteen year old who'd never been out of the suburbs.
posted by philip-random at 1:04 PM on November 26, 2009


I disagree with many of this gentleman's observations.

Suttree was a very funny McCarthy novel.
"Tits up in a ditch" is a really alright short story by Proulx (in the New Yorker last year).
"Libra" was the first time I began to understand the hoo-doo voo-doo effect JFK's assassination had on the American cultural psyche.
The New York Trilogy is good, well constructed, interesting, well built.

I could as easily pull out stinkers by each of these writers. More, I disagree with his assessment that these writers have/had some kind of 'hold' on the culture of that particular moment that defined how culture expressed itself and etc... Far more influential have been the Simpson's, Nightmare on Elm Street, Total Recall, The Sopranos, On Kawara. OK, maybe not that last one Bobby McFarrin. I'm not so excited I read that whole article.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:28 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


philip-random, Myers' essay has been more than touched on, it's been posted to the front page before.
posted by cgc373 at 1:38 PM on November 26, 2009


Correct me if I'm wrong but with McCarthy, Proulx, Guterson, Auster and DeLillo, Myers selects specific prose passages and critiques them as they play out on the page, much as a good editor would. This is hardly an arbitrary writing off of " ... a giant subset of books because of some arbitrary personal ideas about what's good." He's calling them to task for bad writing.

Yes, he individually evaluates a few novels. But then he applies his criticism of them to their entire genre. Basically: "This paragraph from McCarthy is no good." makes the jump to "modern literary best-sellers are worthless."

He's not just calling them to task, he's calling their entire genre to task. Yes, he's using individual examples, but that makes it more egregious. It's the same exact thing people who put down the genre work he defends do: "These romance novels are trash. Romance novels are worthless."
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:43 PM on November 26, 2009


...one glance at the affected prose—"furious dabs of tulips stuttering," say, or "in the dark before the day yet was"—and I'm hightailing it to the friendly black spines of the Penguin Classics.

Not I. I'm hightailing it to the friendly story written to entertain, not teach, moralize, or proselytize (a story that maybe will become a black spine Penguin classic in fifty or so years).
posted by francesca too at 1:47 PM on November 26, 2009


I don't really understand the point of this. So some guy happens not to enjoy these particular writers... and so... ? He doesn't like certain prose styles. So what?

I read all kinds of books, including classics, SciFi, fantasy, mystery - and all the writers he's disparaged, as well as a lot of others I'm sure he must hate. I'm quite certainly not culturally elite; I just read books I like. The fact that he doesn't like some of them means nothing to me, and I don't even understand his manifesto. Writers should write the sort of thing I like? Critics should not like the sort of thing I don't like? Readers should read these other books I like instead of the ones they are reading? It's silly.
posted by taz at 1:51 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, because I was less than clear, what I mean by "arbitrary":

It's one thing to argue about whether or not a work is good. But in this piece Myers goes on to seemingly judge whether or not a genre have value, based on whether or not he considers some works within it "good." That's what I consider arbitrary: is the value of a work really determined by a personal idea of what is good prose? Is the value of a genre determined by the "goodness" of several books within the genre?

Saying "yes" seems rather arbitrary (and makes no sense, I see no compelling argument to say so) to me.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:55 PM on November 26, 2009


OH MY GOD

literary art has been sacrificed to make publishing books more profitable????

NOT IN AMERICA!!!!
posted by pick_the_flowers at 2:06 PM on November 26, 2009


while authors just write whatever book they feel like,

You don't know any authors, do you?
posted by lumpenprole at 2:07 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well my elitist ass is going to go sit in the tub and read the novelization of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3.
posted by broken wheelchair at 2:39 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


DOKKEN! "Dream Warrior"! Ain't gonna dream no more! (Don't do it, broken wheelchair. Please!)
posted by cgc373 at 2:40 PM on November 26, 2009


Funny, I quoted mr. Bryers' essay in 2002 already, on my weblog. Also linking to this useful interview taken a year later, about the aftermath.

Now, James Wood, currently writing for the New Yorker, has attacked any writer Bryers quotes, and often even more viciously. Like in this piece he did on Paul Auster.

Wood is British. These people often do write better reviews.
posted by ijsbrand at 2:51 PM on November 26, 2009


Whether you love or hate the writers that Myers dissects, it's absolutely fair to sample them and observe whether or not the prose withstands a bit of close reading. This is technical criticism and his arguments about his samples stand or fall on their merits, not on some blanket rejection of cultural elite.

The underlying point of the essay is that Literature is a much a genre today as any other, with the same reliance on overused tropes and 'accepted' style. In art, this is described as "mannerism", and it's not generally a complimentary term, but it's not a strict condemnation either.
posted by fatbird at 2:57 PM on November 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


My issue with Auster, and it only came from an attempted read of one book (Moon Palace) was his utter lack of substance. I just didn't buy anything about the story being told; just a guy with a facility for words slinging together a tale that had about as much "real world" resonance for me as if it had been written by a fifteen year old who'd never been out of the suburbs.

That's a fair criticism. I can kind of see where that's coming from. I started reading the script for "Lulu on the Bridge" and thought it was a hack imitation of Auster. Maybe it plays better on film, but I haven't bothered to find out. My point is is that you don't think that Auster is writing in order to trick the reader.
posted by Snyder at 3:03 PM on November 26, 2009


I don't think he's calling the genre worthless, Solon and Thanks, just saying it's got its priorities skewed. It is weird to say that a book with unusual language is automatically more valuable or serious than one with conventional language.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:22 PM on November 26, 2009



Netcraft confirms it...
Charles Dickens, dead at 54. I just heard some sad news on talk radio - Famours/Victorian writer Charles Dickens was found dead in his London home this morning. There weren't any more details. I'm sure everyone in the Metafilter community will miss him - even if you didn't enjoy his work, there's no denying his contributions to popular culture. Truly an English icon.


I've never done that before, and god willing, I'll never do it again
I'm not actually sorry
oh yes I am

posted by hap_hazard at 3:26 PM on November 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Damn. That Victorian son of a bitch owed me money.
posted by cardboard at 3:36 PM on November 26, 2009


I strongly disagree with his Toni Morrison beef about "good reading." Toni Morrison is a bad writer as much as I'm the king of France. Her prose is lavish and dense, but Joyce and Nabokov were fucking tough to read, too.
posted by zoomorphic at 3:39 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


I remember reading this when it came out, and rolling my eyes then. I like reading both semi-highbrow and well-written genre literature. I very much enjoy Auster and McCarthy, and I've always thought of them as being extremely reliant on, and using the mechanics of, genre literature. He is seeing clearer categories than I am, I think.

It is weird to say that a book with unusual language is automatically more valuable or serious than one with conventional language.

I don't think it's that simple. Dan Brown writes steaming piles of crap -- but it's not the accessibility or lack thereof in his language that makes his books crap. And there are plenty of high lit books that have quite controlled and "normal" use of language. Yes, there are writers who dump on the fancy language in painful and excessive ways -- David Foster Wallace comes to mind, for example (and has many, many fans here on MeFi, for that matter) -- but their literary merit (or lack thereof) goes beyond the ornateness.
posted by Forktine at 3:40 PM on November 26, 2009


Morrison griping aside, I still love Myers' assassination of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. Everyone fell over themselves to praise that train wreck, slapped the National Book Award on the cover, and never bothered to consider how absolutely mediocre it was.

I used to work for a book reviewer at a magazine, and the editorial board would go into a frenzy when a galley arrived from some hot shot like Pynchon, Johnson, Lethem, Coetzee, etc. Part of the appeal of writing reviews that doubled as handjobs is to get a blurb on the back of the book and thus boost your magazine/newspaper's profile. Granted, you don't want a handjob review on the back of the wrong book, but if editors suspected that this was going to be the new Barnes & Noble staple of the summer, there was much more pressure for reviewers to write golden praise.
posted by zoomorphic at 3:49 PM on November 26, 2009 [6 favorites]


"He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her."

Okay, speaking as someone who's never done English beyond A-Level and sure as hell doesn't fit into the cultural elite? I feel compelled to defend this as a sentence. I think the repetition of "and" suggests that this is a thoughtless going through the motions kind of action, like the protagonist isn't even considering the actions enough to equate a more nuanced timeline of events than just that the next thing happened.

I'm not even sure that's the correct explanation for why the sentence evokes that response from me, but it does, and that kind of warms me to it as a piece of writing.
posted by emperor.seamus at 3:54 PM on November 26, 2009 [7 favorites]


This is bullshit. But so is this. Basically, all these motherfuckers need to shut the fuck up.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:01 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Forktine — it sounds to me like we agree. Ornateness isn't good or bad in and of itself. It's just a stylistic choice, that can be carried well or badly like any other. DFW carries it well as far as I'm concerned. But Proulx carries it badly, and so it's weird for critics to praise her for it over better, plainer writers.

And on the other hand, yes, Dan Brown is a shitty plain writer — but it's still weird to give good plain writers second-class status along with him.

I'm talking my opinions here, but I suspect that Myer would agree. He sez: "If the new dispensation were to revive good "Mandarin" writing—to use the term coined by the British critic Cyril Connolly for the prose of writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce—then I would be the last to complain." In other words, he's fine with good literary writing. He just wants to see more emphasis on the "good" and less emphasis on the "literary" for its own sake.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:07 PM on November 26, 2009


From the Denis Johnson review zoomorphic linked to:

He is often called “a writer’s writer,” with the customary implication that this is far better than being a reader’s writer.

Laughing already and I'm barely into the second paragraph. Johnson deserves this by the way. Jesus' Son was a fine collection of interconnected stories that made for an even better movie ... but Already Dead?!?! Talk about a book that could've stood a serious edit (roughly 75%) without anything of real substance being lost ...

And yet the 25% that remained would've made for a genuinely creepy bit of stoned, west coast gothic. Pity.
posted by philip-random at 4:08 PM on November 26, 2009


"Sturgeon's Law" was my first impression after reading some of the comments. Of course high-brow literature is full of lame stuff, which just I call "high-brow shlock", just like any other genre, and which publishers print, package and ship just like any other genre.

But I do love this genre, like other genres, when it is done well. Some of the things distinguishing it from other genres is more time spent on editing, and more critical review from academics.

My second impression, after reviewing the article in question, is that the critic here really hates word-play, fanciful-musing and prose-poetry. I would not want to be his student in a creative writing class.

You like story-telling? Narrative is important, but please take the stick out. Not every story-teller is Hemingway. (Who was talented, but not my favourite).
posted by ovvl at 4:29 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Notes:

I am not a fan of Don DeLillo, but I liked Moon Palace.
I am not a fan of Cormac McCarthy, but I liked Blood Meridian.
I am not a fan of Toni Morrison, but Beloved deserved a Nobel Prize.
I am fan of Annie Proulx. Read those Wyoming Stories series. Excellent story-telling.
posted by ovvl at 4:43 PM on November 26, 2009


Oh heck I got Auster and DeLillio confuzed. Well... I liked White Noise.
posted by ovvl at 4:56 PM on November 26, 2009


I have a bridge for sale in Madison County.
posted by pianomover at 5:02 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think Cormac McCarthy is an overrated hack whose "serious" work is basically just violence porn. I think Stephen King is a terrible writer as well.

Do I get a cookie?
posted by bardic at 6:21 PM on November 26, 2009


(And while it certainly wasn't his fault, the fact that a film as laughably terrible as No Country for Old Men managed to fool so many people into thinking it was "art" makes he dislike Mr. McCarthy even more. But I'm going to check out The Road because I read it and thought hey, this is an above-average genre thriller/zombie story masquerading as a "serious" reflection on societal collapse. And I love me some zombies.)
posted by bardic at 6:26 PM on November 26, 2009


I tried reading Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy and Don De Lillo and gave up in each case as soon as I could, realizing my limited life span made choices about enjoyable reading of quite literally mortal importance.

I found all three irritatingly, annoyingly, boringly, wilfully pretentious. I don't think they're bad people, and there's no accounting for taste, but I do feel strongly they speak with the big fat buttery voice of privilege.

I hates that voice! It's not a voice I can relate to, it's so far away from the voice of the common man and it taps into some hidden vein of anti-intellectualism in my bad self.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 6:37 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Actually, I've realized it's about something quite simple: "literature" is a wank.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 6:38 PM on November 26, 2009


I don't know what's worse, overly-hyped writers, or criticism of such that relies on concepts like "cultural elites."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:30 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


At least he left Richard Price alone.
posted by jonmc at 7:32 PM on November 26, 2009


It's just that people think that they gain importance by saying how much they hate things.

The Internet, explained.

but is someone seriously out there at a party trying to prove how intellectual he is by quoting "The Road" or "Brokeback Mountain??"

Yes.
posted by kersplunk at 8:00 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't like reading stuff that requires at least three rereadings to understand what the heck is going on. I am all for brainless fluff. This is why I enjoy teen fiction and watch only movies that do not try to make me think.

This is why I dislike Nathaniel Hawthorne and most technical writing written in English by Japanese people. Luckily I don't have to read one of those categories.
posted by that girl at 8:19 PM on November 26, 2009


BR Myers is a complete moron who's response to books that are too hard for him is to hate them.

I'm just glad I'm not him.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:35 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't know what's worse, overly-hyped writers, or criticism of such that relies on concepts like "cultural elites."

The latter is far worse. It's possible to receive innocent pleasure from reading an "over-hyped" writer. But the only kind of pleasure you can get from criticism that demonizes bogeymen like "cultural elites" is a mean pleasure that diminishes your soul.
posted by straight at 8:39 PM on November 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Am I going to point out the irony in Joseph Gurl's comment, or will you?
posted by jrochest at 8:55 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


You can.
posted by pelham at 9:02 PM on November 26, 2009


Open question to all those who take such offense to the demonizing of an alleged "Cultural Elite":

What is it that you HATE so much? The demonizing or the allegation that such a thing as a Cultural Elite exists?

If the former, fair enough. If the latter, a more focused question:

Are you denying that there are "instruments of control/influence" in our culture that have seen it in their interest to sway the overall cultural discussion in a certain desired direction via influence of certain powerful organs of communication (ie: the New York Times Book Review, and others)?

Or do you really think that Dan Brown is the most genuinely loved writer in the English language today (or is it still Ms. Rowling)?
posted by philip-random at 9:05 PM on November 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


I don't normally grammar-pick. But if you're going to accuse a critic of being too stupid to understand complex prose, you should try to avoid grammatical errors in your comment.

Whose is the possessive. Who's is a contraction for who is.

close pedant mode:
posted by jrochest at 9:13 PM on November 26, 2009


I wish somebody had closed pedant mode earlier in this thread.
posted by mpbx at 9:20 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Are you denying that there are "instruments of control/influence" in our culture that have seen it in their interest to sway the overall cultural discussion in a certain desired direction via influence of certain powerful organs of communication (ie: the New York Times Book Review, and others)?

Personally, I object to the term because I find it laughable that a multitude of cultural influences are grouped into one giant, nefarious bogeyman.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:44 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


philip-random: My issue with Auster, and it only came from an attempted read of one book (Moon Palace) was his utter lack of substance. I just didn't buy anything about the story being told; just a guy with a facility for words slinging together a tale that had about as much "real world" resonance for me as if it had been written by a fifteen year old who'd never been out of the suburbs.

That's funny. I read Moon Palace at 16 or 17 and it made me want to be a writer. I remember thinking that it wasn't a novel I had the chops to write but it was the kind of thing I could see myself write if I worked hard at learning the craft. The way events occurred in it seemed to reflect reality better than other fiction I had read up until that time. It seemed like the type of story I could see myself writing. That said, I doubt that anybody who reads what I write thinks of Paul Auster.

ijsbrand: Wood is British. These people often do write better reviews.

I've never understood what people see in James Wood. I don't mind harsh reviews, even of writers that I like. For example, I thought Dale Peck was a very perceptive critic, both when negative and when he was positive (his piece on Kurt Vonnegut was very good, for instance). But I never get anything out of reading James Wood. He's a pretty good writer himself but I have a hard time understanding what points he's trying to make. A couple of years ago I read a whole bunch of his reviews because I'd seen his name mentioned a lot as a superlative literary critic but all I got of them is that he seems to hold some sort of ideal in his head of what a novel should be and anything that deviates from it is bad. I don't know if that's true, but that was my impression at the time. I suspect that he and I have very different ideas of what novels are.
posted by Kattullus at 10:05 PM on November 26, 2009


Hah! I loved this. I'm a literary curmudgeon myself. I think the main thrust was not that there's some "cultural elite" maintaining these people, although there is somewhat, but rather what is praised as good writing these days often simply isn't. It's just dressed up like good writing. I hear that. So I'm sticking with my old books, thanks. In 50 years I'll look back on the writing of the turn of the 21st century and hopefully a lot of the garbage will have been sifted out.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:08 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Are you denying that there are "instruments of control/influence" in our culture that have seen it in their interest to sway the overall cultural discussion in a certain desired direction via influence of certain powerful organs of communication (ie: the New York Times Book Review, and others)?

Or do you really think that Dan Brown is the most genuinely loved writer in the English language today (or is it still Ms. Rowling)?


If you think the popularity of Brown and Rowling is due to the influence of the New York Times Book Review, I don't even know what to say.
posted by empath at 10:08 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


phillip-random, about 80% of the time you hear the phrase "cultural elites" it's coming from some reactionary asshole who is complaining that society doesn't tolerate his racism or sexism anymore. (If anything, this was more true in 2001.) So that's at least 2 strikes against it right there. I don't think Myers is such a reactionary, but it's remarkably tone deaf to use such a phrase.

But more to the point, this kind of argument where you act all aggrieved and oppresed and imagine that these "elites" at the NY Times Book Review are looking down their noses at you because they like books that you don't like, or even worse, where you imagine they are pretending to like something just to be pretentious, that shit is bad for your soul, as well as just ridiculous. Just enjoy what you enjoy, find other people who also like it, and stop looking over your shoulder all the time. Stop spending all that energy worrying that other people like different stuff than you or might not approve of what you like.
posted by straight at 10:09 PM on November 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


A review at Amazon has an excellent defense of his criticism (sorry for the long quote):

"...these are fitting comparisons, but are they *fair*? After all, not every writer can write like Balzac, right? Times change, writing styles evolve. And weren't many iconoclastic writers criticized, in their day, for being different from the past? Will future readers laugh at our naive criticisms of what will one day be considered great writing?

Doubtful. For reasons better articulated by Myers, these books *are* plain old bad. The writing is unclear, overwrought, repetitive. Even if a writer can't be Balzac, he or she can surely do better than this. And reviewers *aren't* criticizing, naively or otherwise -- they're raving.

And they're raving about the very same passages that Myers ridicules. This is one of Myers's most cunning strategies; he's not pulling the one bad passage out of an otherwise great book and pillorying it, out of context. He's taking the very same passage that other reviewers have showcased as an example of great prose, and word by word, sentence by sentence, analyzing its language, its meaning, its style. If Myers's use is out of context, then so was theirs."

posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:12 PM on November 26, 2009


Oh hey... I should've done my due diligence before talking out my ass about James Wood, specifically this sentence here: "I suspect that he and I have very different ideas of what novels are."

I looked at his Wikipedia page and saw that he was a judge on the Booker panel that awarded the prize to James Kelman's wonderful How Late It Was, How Late. I love that novel. Anybody who loves How Late It Was, How Late is okay by me. I may need to give his criticism another shot.
posted by Kattullus at 10:15 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


As someone whose favorite literary writer is Edith Wharton and whose favorite contemporary authors write either humor or horror (but are not Stephen King, by the way), I feel so vindicated by this article.

It's easy to despair of ever seeing a return to that kind of prose, especially with the cultural elite doing such a quietly efficient job of maintaining the status quo. (Rick Moody received an O. Henry Award for "Demonology" in 1997, whereupon he was made an O. Henry juror himself. And so it goes.)

This doesn't surprise me. The literary world always seems so incestous to me. I'm almost positive the only people who read literary magazines like Granta are people who have been or are hoping to be published there themselves. No one does it for fun. And the Annie Proulx style of "let's make a bunch of gratuitous off-the-wall metaphors and pretend we're brilliant" school of writing is something I've seen encouraged firsthand at more than one writers' workshop.

Also, this is totally off-topic, but while I'm ragging on insufferable literary types: I hate when people who read at poetry readings read like they're in a trance where they have to read really fast but with emphasis. It drives me fucking crazy.

Anyway, this B.R. Meyers person should really check out Persephone Books. I know they pretty much put the joy back into Literature for me.
posted by Jess the Mess at 10:51 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


I like a lot of Yes' music. I don't think words that are not strictly necessary should necessarily be excised. Often I like technique for the sake of technique in many forms of art. With words sometimes I think unnecessary ones add to the awesomeness of the experience and aren't just foibolical of the writer. I don't think B.R. Meyers' critique relies solely on this concept of the fancy people although I see that that's an easy way to dismiss the essay entirely. I also like the experience of reading it while not agreeing with a lot of it. I have tried to grow up and think a lot of things like this aren't true but it hasn't worked. Things like art that make me happy or otherwise affect me will do so and so will the freakouts they create.

What do you recommend from Persephone, Jess the Mess?
posted by pelham at 11:24 PM on November 26, 2009




Are you denying that there are "instruments of control/influence" in our culture that have seen it in their interest to sway the overall cultural discussion in a certain desired direction via influence of certain powerful organs of communication (ie: the New York Times Book Review, and others)?

Who are those "instruments of control/influence" who are controlling "certain powerful organs of communication"? My crazy uncle thinks it's the Jews, and he uses almost exactly the same language as you just did, but that's not what you meant, right?

Having just reread that old Meyers article, I really wish he'd had the courage to name a set of contemporary writers whom he thinks are better than the writers he hates. Instead, he ends with a list of writers from the '30s to the '50s, which seems to me like a total weasel move. There are tons of books being published every year; no matter who is getting the big prizes, there's going to be a few that meet his criteria, right?

Also, I'd never heard of the band Yes until this thread, and watching that video someone linked above? Now I know how Meyers feels when he reads McCarthy -- I want to stand up there and tell the world how much your favorite band sucks. It's funny not only how subjective taste in these things is, but how defensive we all get when it is our favorite band/author/etc being hammered.

Because it is really subjective -- in his article, I'd be willing to defend almost all of the passages he quotes (except for maybe the Delillo and Moody pieces -- I've never been a fan). A lot of the specific things he points to as "bad" writing strike me quite differently -- I can see the purpose of the writing, and can see how it functions and works to a specific effect, and I'd call almost all of the quoted passages quite good, rather than bad.
posted by Forktine at 12:35 AM on November 27, 2009


As long as we're recommending authors, I just got through about bunch of short stories by Ted Chiang and a few novels by Philip K Dick. Now those are good scifi.
posted by msittig at 1:09 AM on November 27, 2009


My crazy uncle thinks it's the Jews, and he uses almost exactly the same language as you just did, but that's not what you meant, right?

No, more of a Noam Chomsky Manufacturing of Consent tip.
posted by philip-random at 1:10 AM on November 27, 2009


In other words, he's fine with good literary writing. He just wants to see more emphasis on the "good" and less emphasis on the "literary" for its own sake.

I don't think this is it, What Myers really wants his own tastes to be considered "literary." As a literary critique writing in the Atlantic, he is already very much a member of "the cultural elite." What he is trying to do here is downgrade the status of other writers and critiques so his own prestige is enhanced.

This is why all the big emotional points in the piece are broad vaguely political denunciations, while the actual literary criticism is limited to pedantically mocking cherry picked sentences.
posted by afu at 2:02 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm sort of nonplussed by the Proulx-hate in this thread. I would have to say "The Shipping News" is one of my top five favorite books, and I really loved "That Old Ace in the Hole." I happen to be partial to (among other things) absorbing and eccentric geographic atmosphere - books in which the location plays an important role, almost like another character. I'm also a very visual reader and love "evocative" (scare quotes courtesy Myers) and atmospheric prose, and really like quirky (but not picaresque) characters and situations. Proulx's writing, at least in these two works, happens to encompass many of my personal reading preferences in a way that I appreciate and enjoy. Other people won't feel the same way, and that's fine, but to declare her books pretentious pap is telling me that what I enjoy is shallow and paltry. Why is this a good idea? If it's not okay for so-called genre writing (and it's not), why is it okay here?

I'm a fairly omnivorous reader, so I imagine that I love some of the same books and writers as Myers, and some of you here who dislike Proulx, so what does this mean? Sometimes I'm a discerning reader, but other times I'm just blindly sucking up affected, pretentious crap? Maybe it just means that not all readers always like the same things, and this doesn't represent a failure on the part of the author or the reader.
posted by taz at 2:15 AM on November 27, 2009


I'm almost positive the only people who read literary magazines like Granta are people who have been or are hoping to be published there themselves.
You might be positive, but in my case at least, you are wrong.
posted by Megami at 2:47 AM on November 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


Blah... though I greatly dislike Proulx and don't really like McCarthy, this sort of thing bothers me. I like to think that any reasonable person is able to come up with a book they loved that other people hated. I know I'm certainly able to come up with several. What it comes down to is certain styles and certain types of stories just don't connect with everyone, which is why it's great there are is such a wide variety of books. I don't think a "cultural elite" is trying to push books down anyone's throat, it's just that some people really like those books -- seriously, actually like them, and are not just being pretentious -- and it's baffling to others who don't. And some people are real assholes when they like a book others don't, and they like to blame it on the intelligence or taste of the other people.

It's also interesting because, to me, Proulx and McCarthy are two examples I think of when I just can't connect with something other people like a lot. I saw Brokeback Mountain before I tried to read the story. I LOVED the movie but the story felt like it was written by a halfway literate middle schooler. I was seriously shocked by how bad I thought the prose was. But then I realize that whomever wrote the screenplay read that same story and somehow got a ton more out of it than I did, and so did the others who went into making the movie. Proulx's writing, for whatever reason, hits buttons in other people it doesn't for me, and some of those people are good at translating what Proulx made them feel into something that I can feel, too. I just can't get it directly from Proulx.

Same with No Country for Old Men. That is my favorite movie of all time. But I started reading the book last week and for now, I've had to put it down halfway. The movie is practically the book itself in movie form, with few changes in the way of events or dialogue, but the book just doesn't move me like the movie did. I thought about this while reading, and what one might make of McCarthy's stylistic choices, and I came to see how someone could read the book and translate those choices into the atmosphere I get from the movie. But if the movie didn't exist and hadn't already suggested that atmosphere to me, I wouldn't get that at all from the book. It just doesn't read that way in my head, and I can only mentally sustain the feeling of the movie's atmosphere for a few sentences or so before it falls apart. I can think of ways to rewrite some of the sentences so that I would get that same feeling. But to some people, that sort of feeling is more readily available from those sentences than it is to me. And other people probably get different feelings.

I'm sure lots of people have had the experience of re-reading something they read when they were younger, especially something they liked, and now it just doesn't seem to connect as readily. Sometimes it's just because I'm more aware of problems with the book, but I can do this with books where I can't find any actual issues with the prose or plot or characterization or dialogue, or the themes aren't ones I suddenly dislike or disagree with... the magic is just gone and I can't pinpoint precisely why, except I'm a different person and things read differently in my head than they used to.

I've also had the odd experience of having someone else read my writing and REALLY liking particular sentences that seem completely random to me. Sometimes there is some overlap in sentences I thought were the best ones, but not all that much and usually only if it's a funny sentence.

Then there are still other examples. All my college professors would give a half-hearted apology for when we had to read John Locke because apparently his sentences are difficult for a lot of people to follow. Locke just flows smoothly and concisely in my head, though. No one ever apologized for Hobbes but I would have to reread sentences over and over because something about the way they were phrased wouldn't hook onto anything in my head and it was like I hadn't read anything at all. Hobbes was much easier to follow for a lot of my classmates, though. John Stuart Mill was easy for me to follow, but not de Tocqueville; the opposite for most of my classmates. Faulkner was easier for me to follow than Hemingway. I could go on and on. It seems like there are certain kinds of sentences that work for some people and not others, and certain trains of thought that are intuitive for some people but difficult for others. I don't think there's any "better" or "worse" about this in terms of judging taste or intelligence. I've noticed this again and again, in all kinds of intelligent people, and it always seems arbitrary.

The more I read and the more I write, the more clear it is to me that you really can't please everyone, and other people aren't being stupid or pretentious when they like something I don't; they seriously experience the same book in a wildly different way. I feel a lot of jealousy, really, for anyone that's deeply engaged by Proulx or McCarthy or anyone else that I'm not; if I could connect with more books I would be disappointed less and moved more. The Readers Manifesto comes across as more elitist to me than anything he accuses anyone else of; it's just a different humility-free categorization of what's good and what's not. There's some value in critiquing things, but trying to turn it into some "wah you guys are trying to make me feel stupid and actually YOU don't have any taste SO THERE rawr rawr" is just tiresome.
posted by Nattie at 3:13 AM on November 27, 2009 [8 favorites]


Horrible article, just awful.

Cormac McCarthy is the only author addressed in the essay that I'm familiar with, so I'll limit my comments to that portion of the essay.

Myers' sneers at the passage on the horse as "bad poetry". This doesn't say much; I happen to think it's beautiful. The only specific claim he makes is that the phrase "who's will" is obscure and is intended to bully the reader into acknowledging McCarthy as a deeper soul. Obscure? It echoes Blake's Tyger, Tyger but the meaning is clear enough even if you don't catch the allusion. Myers doesn't seem to get that McCarthy is looking to evoke a sense of wonder, in his descriptions of the natural world, while also retaining a sense of how foreign and strange it can appear.

It is a rare passage that can make you look up, wherever you may be, and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank. I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retching for the call of wild animals. But "wild animals" isn't epic enough: McCarthy must blow smoke about some rude provisional species, as if your average quadruped had impeccable table manners and a pension plan.

The section quoted is not about the horse's mistaking human vomiting for wild animal calls. It's that the humans are a jarring presence on the landscape, that their motivations and behavior are removed and distant from what animals would expect.

Then he switches from the horses' perspective to the narrator's, though just what something imperfect and malformed refers to is unclear.

He doesn't switch from the horse's perspective to the narrator's; he never leaves the narrator's perspective. The something imperfect and malformed refers to that rude and provisional species, i.e. the humans.

The last half sentence only deepens the confusion. Is the thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace the same thing that is lodged in the heart of being?

Yes, it is.

And what is a gorgon doing in a pool?

It isn't physically in the pool.

Or is it peering into it?

Yes, that's right. Allegedly, if you stare a gorgon full on in the face, you turn to stone. So only their reflection can be seen.

And why an autumn pool?

To heighten the association with death.

I doubt if McCarthy can explain any of this; he probably just likes the way it sounds.

I'm betting he can.

Commenting on a passage about horses and their souls:

More to the point, especially considering The New York Times's praise of All the Pretty Horses for its "realistic dialogue," is the stiltedness with which the conversation is reproduced.

Pretty stingy with the good will, eh? He's not even trying to appreciate the perspective of the author. The conversation is not reproduced, it is summarized. McCarthy's dialogue is laid out on separate lines.
posted by BigSky at 3:51 AM on November 27, 2009 [9 favorites]


While I don't agree with all of this essay, it lead me to read Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy (the first two of which were excellent) and O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra, and I am grateful to the author for those recommendations.

(I found BUtterfield 8 to be terribly labored though. When he name dropped from Appointment, I actually put the book down in embarassment.)
posted by Jorus at 9:04 AM on November 27, 2009


From "The Crossing" by Cormac McCarthy. A boy is holding a dead wolf.


"Where she ran the cries of the coyotes clapped shut as if a door had closed upon them and all was fear and marvel. He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it."


So screw you, basically.
posted by nathancaswell at 9:06 AM on November 27, 2009


Personally I can't decide which I dislike more: overly literary writing or the people that harangue so vehemently about others' enjoyment of it.
posted by tehloki at 9:31 AM on November 27, 2009


The McCarthy hate in this thread is kinda surprising to me. I've only really seen him lauded on Metafilter before.

I remember that when this article first came out, I cackled along with it. It was a pretty big topic of discussion around the English department of my university and led to some fun fights. Pretty much just to be provocative, I incorporated part of it into an undergrad presentation on one of the authors eight years ago. And now, maybe not so surprisingly, it doesn't really ring true for me anymore. Well, the non-Proulx parts, anyway; I still find her pretty awful.
posted by painquale at 10:14 AM on November 27, 2009


I've read the thing twice now and, though I don't exactly love Myers' style or back his points 100%, if this was a democracy, he'd get my vote. Because I do think that too many BIG DEAL literary talents (and all of Myers' "suspects" are serious talents, no question) will disappear up their own assholes if allowed to.

In the case of Cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses", I recall one passage from fairly early in the story, where the two young men head off on horseback for Mexico by light of the stars. The description of the moment is just so breathtakingly beautiful it made me put down the book for a while so I could just stay with it for a while. SEE IT. But later on in the book, as the narrative picked up force, I found myself skimming through his pretty-prose more and more, thinking JUST GET TO THE FUCKING POINT, MAN!

And no, the point can't be that masterful craft and style is its own justification; not for me anyway. That's just wanking, like any number of hot guitar players who are far more likely to make a song worse than better. Craft has to be in service of something bigger than itself, which, in the case of fiction, is The Story, isn't it? The themes, the conflicts, their presentation, their resolution. If not, then we're sliding down an awfully ugly slope where the elements of story become mere play-things for the artist to do some razzle-dazzle with.

Life's too short. Mine anyway.
posted by philip-random at 10:57 AM on November 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


No links on the front page?!?!?! Harumph!

That said, I do not really like McCarthy or Proulx. I do like DeLillo. I have avoided Auster like the plague because of my own prejudices. I haven't read Guterson. He sounds like a one-hit wonder...

What about Pynchon, Atwood, Foster Wallace, Powers, Rushdie, Roth, or Erickson? Do they suck?
posted by mrgrimm at 11:20 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, I didn't read any of the links (because they weren't on the front page), but does anyone actually explains what distinguishes "literary" fiction from "non-literary" fiction?

I've always found the distinction to be specious.

Stephen King is a great writer, literary or not.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:24 AM on November 27, 2009


Well, I dunno who decided that one kind of book was literature and one kind was not, but I'm willing to bet that the guy who decided what kind of book was was a literary writer. I hope that helps.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:28 AM on November 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Capital "L" Literature? Who knows? I imagine it's whatever some exclusive club of culturally elite snobs (who need to separate their tastes from those of the proles in the holes) say it is.

My definition, the small "l" variety? Stuff that stands the test of time, that transcends generations.
posted by philip-random at 11:46 AM on November 27, 2009


hey lay offa Granta! they've published so much great stuff over the years. photos, non fiction essays, excerpts from good books (like that memoir from the blind indian guy who seduced various ladies... i have to dig that up). there's no way i'd lump it in with most other Lit mags. [/not an aspiring writer]

it warms the cockles of my heart (cockles?) to see people getting all shouty about books. hope yall are on goodreads...
posted by jcruelty at 11:53 AM on November 27, 2009


Ok. It has been days now and no one has come in here and remarked on Mencken and stirring up the animals. So I will.
posted by pelham at 2:48 PM on November 27, 2009



It's about time someone stood up for all the illiterate philistines of America.
posted by bukharin at 3:11 PM on November 27, 2009


Aw, I'm not feeling the love for Proulx here, Tits-up in a Ditch is like story-telling worthy of King...

Also:

I really liked Close To The Edge, but Yes lost me by Tales from Topographic Oceans.
Nice sleeve, though.
posted by ovvl at 4:03 PM on November 27, 2009


I don't like this article OR Annie Proulx. I'll read just about anything with words - from Don Quixote to the cereal box, and it kind of makes me a little pissy to read this sort of "Manifesto" claiming that one type of prose is "better" than another: Ok, fine, you like it or you don't. Good for you. Pass me that cereal box when you're done.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:48 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I imagine it's whatever some exclusive club of culturally elite snobs (who need to separate their tastes from those of the proles in the holes) say it is.

These fictional people you're sneering at? They don't exist. You're only hurting yourself with that ridiculous attitude.
posted by straight at 4:58 PM on November 27, 2009


I imagine it's whatever some exclusive club of culturally elite snobs (who need to separate their tastes from those of the proles in the holes) say it is.

These fictional people you're sneering at? They don't exist. You're only hurting yourself with that ridiculous attitude.


I've seen a fair number of people in this thread referring to the notion of "cultural elites" as a right-wing tactic and as essentially illegitimate. Yet, being a student at the U of Chicago I tend to run into the notion of "cultural elites," sometimes referring to particularly privileged groups, sometimes to societal structures such as the media, etc. It doesn't seem too particularly out there to imagine that there's a certain amount of gatekeeperism regarding literary taste, among other things. Certainly I've seen that sort of thing within other circles (music, sports). Whether such people are "snobs" or not is, of course, something of a matter of personal opinion.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:46 PM on November 27, 2009


That wasn't as clear as I intended it - I tend to run into the notion of "cultural elites" in the works I read and in courses I take. The U of Chicago being, generally speaking, not exactly a hotbed of right-wing thought.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:48 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Capital "L" Literature? Who knows? I imagine it's whatever some exclusive club of culturally elite snobs (who need to separate their tastes from those of the proles in the holes) say it is.

My definition, the small "l" variety? Stuff that stands the test of time, that transcends generations.


This is an incoherent aesthetic.

OK. You don't like members of group X. You think they're snotty and elitist. Well and good. That is entirely your perogative as a grown man living in a (somewhat) free society. But that's a piss-poor guide for deciding which books you actually enjoy. Suppose your tastes and theirs happened to coincide? What if you picked up a book, loved it to death and a few days later, picked up a copy of the New York Review of Books and found that they were heaping praise on that very same book? Would you then disavow it?

I think you would be better served as a reader if you made a choice to focus on the words on the page in front of you, rather than the salons you haven't been invited to.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:52 AM on November 28, 2009


What if you picked up a book, loved it to death and a few days later, picked up a copy of the New York Review of Books and found that they were heaping praise on that very same book? Would you then disavow it?

No, I wouldn't disavow it. I'd be glad. Same way I'm glad when a movie I've particularly enjoyed gets well reviewed. As my younger brother is known to say, "I always agree with the reviews that I agree with."

I think you would be better served as a reader if you made a choice to focus on the words on the page in front of you, rather than the salons you haven't been invited to.

I agree and strive to read (and live) accordingly. But if these alleged salons start to influence the entire cultural discussion, then I believe some comment is not just acceptable, it's required. And, for the record, I've been invited to the salons. I've found them to be boring, uptight rat's nests of infighting, ego and absurdity ... but that's a whole other thread.
posted by philip-random at 11:17 AM on November 28, 2009


It's kind of funny that users of a website that has received over 130 comments on a post about contemporary literary criticism don't think that there is a cultural elite in the United States. You (and I, as graduate student at an elite university) are part of that elite. It's not necessarily a bad thing. Every society has a cultural elite, and yes, for every generation they determine what is "high quality" and what is not. Myers himeself (whether he knows it or not) is part of that cultural elite, based on the very fact that he has been published in a culturally elite magazine. The cultural elite likes to argue amongst itself -- we've got a lot of time on our hands -- and that's what's been going on in this thread. But that's ok. That's just how it is.

What has bothered me about some of the authors Myers mentioned (and others of our time) is that I come away from their books feeling unmoved. I think this kind of writing seeks to describe so much that it takes away my ability to really connect to the characters and the events. Some people would probably say that I am not appreciating the art enough, and that I am relying too much on my gut reaction to what I read. But I really like what my gut likes. So I'm going to keep relying on it.
posted by imalaowai at 10:18 PM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


...and that stupid Picasso ruined everything I love about ART!

Why aren't all the writers still imitating Tolstoy? Why's my spork made of plastic instead of good old Bakelite (or, better yet, OBSIDIAN!)??!?!?!

Get off my lawn!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:49 PM on November 28, 2009


Why aren't all the writers still imitating Tolstoy?

Well, ripping off his style would likely be boring, but as for his intentions, I suspect that's something we could use a bit more of.

Another problem with a great deal of art is that it reproduces past models, and so it is not properly rooted in a contemporary and sincere expression of the most enlightened cultural ideals of the artist's time and place.
posted by philip-random at 12:34 AM on November 29, 2009


Next time I'm sitting around the samovar with Tolstoy I'll have to ask him what "his intentions" were.

Or did he tell you already?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:37 AM on November 29, 2009


And I thought I told you to get off my lawn?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:38 AM on November 29, 2009


Next time I'm sitting around the samovar with Tolstoy I'll have to ask him what "his intentions" were. Or did he tell you already?

Tolstoy wrote a book called "What is Art"? I linked to its Wikipedia page in my previous comment. Do you require more info? Here's another few words:

All good art has a Christian message, because only Christianity teaches an absolute brotherhood of all men. However, this is "Christian" only in a limited meaning of the word. Art produced by artistic elites is almost never good, because the upper class has entirely lost the true core of the Christian religion.
posted by philip-random at 9:06 AM on November 29, 2009


And I'm supposed to just trust Tolstoy to accurately represent his intentions?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:52 PM on November 29, 2009


imalaowai: It's kind of funny that users of a website that has received over 130 comments on a post about contemporary literary criticism don't think that there is a cultural elite in the United States.

It's not that so much, as the concept of "cultural elite" (and it's contrasting image of the unwashed masses) is little more than a caricature. I suspect the number of people who pretentiously only read McCarthy and Proulx while holding the attitudes ascribed by the quote in the FPP are about of the same number as those who dress up like a million-dollar trooper,
tryin' hard to look like Gary Cooper (super duper).
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:09 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


AdamCSnider, you and imalaowai are using the phrase "cultural elite" in a very different sense than Myers. Myers himself is clearly part of the group you are referring to.

What has bothered me about some of the authors Myers mentioned (and others of our time) is that I come away from their books feeling unmoved...Some people would probably say that I am not appreciating the art enough, and that I am relying too much on my gut reaction to what I read. But I really like what my gut likes. So I'm going to keep relying on it.

imalaowai, I don't see a single person in this thread taking issue with people like you who simply don't enjoy these authors. That's fine. What's not fine would be if you go on to complain that people who do like these authors (and talk or write about how much they like them) are somehow oppressing you and looking down their noses at you and somehow preventing you from reading the authors you enjoy.
posted by straight at 2:35 PM on November 30, 2009


I've just come across this thread, and can't help responding.

"[They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they'd ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool." (All the Pretty Horses)

About this Cormac McCarthy quote. The critic seems to miss the connotations. The style is a little overwrought, sure. But, if one focuses on the minutiae that comprise a work, rather than the overall gist or essence, one can always find fault. A beautiful woman or man apprehended in whole is beautiful, but individual parts can appear flawed, ugly. And, in every work, from the deepest to shallowest, from Tolstoy to Shakespeare to Danielle Steele, from Kurosawa to Cassavetes to "The Hottie and the Nottie," some pieces are always subpar.

But the point doesn't seem to be to dramatize the act of vomiting in a bleak, epic landscape. He seems to be implying that the human species as a whole, or at least this iteration, is somehow grotesque, an aberration to the laws of nature, a failed experiment that nature will eventually reject. The sound of the vomiting is used metaphorically. It's possible that the horses have heard this sound before and would not think much of it (though I imagine it would always unsettle them). However, this strange faraway noise coming from their masters, in uncertain liminal light, piques a kind of preternatural intuition of something inimical to nature. Whether this is a true philosophical observation is a different matter, but it's probably a thought, more conscious or less, each person has had at some point. Moreover, the quote is taken out of the context; one should look at its context within the overall themes of the novel (which, by the way, is a pretty good one).

I defend Cormac McCarthy. I think that, especially in his best works, he has a lot to offer. He touches some worthwhile aspects of the human experience that other writers haven't hitherto, at least not quite in the same ways.
posted by cotesdurhone at 11:03 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


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