Tearing the Wizard Away from the Curtain
Educational poster featuring Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are
“Give me a time-tested masterpiece or what critics patronizingly call a fun read, Sister Carrie or just plain Carrie. Give me anything, in fact, as long as it isn’t the latest must-read novel, complete with a prize jury’s seal of approval on the front and a clutch of precious raves on the back.” So begins B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto, appropriately subtitled An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose. In less than 100 pages, Myers argues, citing copious examples from the texts themselves, “that some of the most acclaimed contemporary prose is the product of mediocre writers availing themselves of trendy stylistic gimmicks.” The original title of the book (its course to publication in current form has a storied history) was Gorgons in the Pool, referring to this passage from Cormac McCarthy’s National Book Award-winning All the Pretty Horses:
[They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddle-legged 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.
To which Myers responds, in part:
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 table manners and a pension plan… And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why an autumn pool? I doubt if even McCarthy can explain any of this; he just likes the way it sounds.
It’s what he sees as this willing tendency of “literary” writers—Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and David Guterson get the same treatment—to fetishize sounds over sense (sometimes to the exclusion of the latter altogether) that bothers Myers, who also takes the critical and literary award establishments to task for their enabling of the disingenuous and condescending practice: “This is what the cultural elite wants us to believe: if our writers make no sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren’t worthy of them.” He also condemns the practice of giving writers points up front simply because they have lofty influences and lofty ambitions, when they should be judged like every other writer—based solely on “whether they hit the mark.” Having read a critical mass of the writers Myers picks apart, as well as quite a few he mentions in passing, I’m convinced that he’s right about pretty much everything.
2008 UK Genre Fiction Sales (ft.com)
The Manifesto doesn’t delve into the publishing industry’s involvement in the process, but naturally that’s where it all starts. Over 60 years ago, George Orwell contrasted the “good bad book” (G.K. Chesterton’s phrase) and “escape literature” with “more serious productions” (more than 600 years earlier, Dante sent a pair of lovers to his literary hell for being seduced by a romance), but the number and variety of novels published back then was nothing compared to the trail of dead trees we leave behind now. Swirski estimates that 14,000 books total were published in Great Britain annually in 1955 (Orwell estimated 15,000 before World War II), and in 1995 that number hit 90,000. In 2001, according to Wikipedia, the number stood at 119,001. Now, I’m no math whiz, and I don’t know what percentage of all those totals were novels, but I do know that literary fiction gets a pittance of today’s total take. All this is to say that elevating it on principle from the common lot of mass-market paperbacks—carving it into a unique genre with its specific (and superior) conventions and idioms, touting its next-great-thingness, its prize jury’s seal and (elite) critical praise—is how that pittance is made. I’m not saying the next Flaubert won’t emerge from the ranks of what’s marketed today as serious fiction, only that publishers of serious fiction are just as guilty of spinning their products as publishers of romance fiction.
One of the criticisms leveled at Myers is that he lets readers off too easily, that he isn’t asking them to challenge themselves, but of course that’s not the case at all. He may prefer Larry McMurtry to Cormac McCarthy (if Lonesome Dove doesn’t outlast Blood Meridian, I’ll eat my head), but he is very clear throughout the Manifesto that his ultimate loyalty lies with the authors and titles traced on the spines of the Penguin Classics: “The truth is that a lot of us are perfectly happy with literature written before we were born—and why shouldn’t we be? The notion that contemporary fiction possesses greater relevance for us because it talks of the Internet or supermodels or familiar brand names is ridiculous.” Right again. Great novels are great not because they’re new or because they win awards that have always been poisoned to some degree by politics and big business, but because they speak of all things human to people from every generation, and because they have endured.