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The Soul-Sucking Suckiness of B.R. Myers

By posted at 6:00 am on November 1, 2010 74

The Bad Boy’s Anger

One opens The Atlantic Monthly and is promptly introduced to a burst of joyless contrarianism. Tiring of it, one skims ahead to the book reviews, only to realize: this is the book review. A common experience for even the occasional reader of B.R. Myers, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft and execution. Myers writes as if the purpose of criticism were to obliterate its object. He scores his little points, but so what? Do reviewers really believe that isolating a few unlovely lines in a five hundred page novel, ignoring the context for that unloveliness, and then pooh-poohing what remains constitutes a reading? Is this what passes for judgment these days?

If so, Myers would have a lot to answer for. But in the real world, instances don’t yield general truths with anything like the haste of a typical Myers paragraph (of which the foregoing is a parody). And so, even as he grasps for lofty universalism, Brian Reynolds Myers remains sui generis, the bad boy of reviewers, lit-crit’s  Dennis Rodman.

coverMyers came to prominence, or what passes for it in the media microcosmos, via “A Reader’s Manifesto,” a long jeremiad against “the modern ‘literary’ best seller” and “the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose.” It earned notice primarily for its attack on the work and reputation of novelists lauded for their style – Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and E. Annie Proulx, among others. Many of these writers were ripe for reevaluation, and “A Reader’s Manifesto” was read widely enough to land Myers a contributing editor gig at The Atlantic. It was subsequently published as a stand-alone book. Yet the essay was itself little more than an exercise in style, and not a very persuasive one at that. It was hard to say which was more irritating: Myers’ scorched-earth certainties; his method, a kind of myopic travesty of New Criticism; or his own prose, a donnish pastiche of high-minded affectation and dreary cliché.

I can’t be the only reader who wanted to cry out against the manifesto being promulgated on my behalf, but Myers had insulated himself in several ways. First, he had been so thoroughgoingly tendentious, and at such length, that to rebut his 13,000 words required 13,000 of one’s own. Second: his jadedness was infectious. It made one weary of reading, weary of writing, weary of life. Finally, in the The Atlantic‘s letters section, he showed himself to be no less willing to resort to pugnacious misreadings of his correspondents than he had been of his original subjects. “I have no idea why Jed Cohen thinks I have disparaged a hundred years of literature…” he wrote, in an exchange about his Tree of Smoke review. “Saying that reputations must never be reviewed would place reviewers above criticism.” No, one wanted to object. Saying that reviewers must never be reviewed would place reviewers above criticism. Mr. Cohen is himself criticizing a reviewer. But to argue with Myers was, manifestly, to summon his contempt. And so he whirled mirthlessly on, flourishing the word “prose” like a magic wand, working pale variations on his Reader’s Manifesto. In your face, Toni Morrison!

To date, I have yet to read a comprehensive debunking of the Myers bunkum. But his recent review of Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom really does seem to invite one – not so much because I liked the book and he didn’t, or because it caught the eye of David Brooks and from there spread to the far corners of the Internet, but because of the willfulness of his misrepresentations to the reader, and the radical degree of projection involved. To the long-time Myers watcher, the review, titled, “Smaller Than Life” looks to be a giant mirror: what Myers takes to be the philistinism of contemporary literature is an enormous reflection of his own.

Close Reading

coverMyers premises his complaints against Freedom on the “smallness” of its characters – their likeness to “the folks next door.” In support of these descriptions, he tenders a few details from the text: Patty Berglund bakes cookies and is “relatively dumber” than her siblings. Her husband Walter has a red face and his “most salient quality . . . [is] his niceness.” Richard Katz is a womanizing punk musician. See? Tiny. Insignificant. “Nonentities.” But even at this early stage of the argument, what should be obvious to even unsympathetic readers of the book is the smallness of Myers’ imagination. Set Richard Katz aside for the moment (maybe Myers lives next door to some priapic indie rockers). Isn’t “relatively dumber” – an elaboration of the idea that Patty’s siblings “were more like what her parents had been hoping for” – meant to tell us more about Patty’s self-image than about her IQ? Patty will return to the theme in her whip-smart autobiography, after all. And mightn’t some readers find this will-to-averageness “interesting,” psychologically speaking? Also: Isn’t Walter’s most “salient” quality (carefully elided in Myers’ quotation) actually “his love of Patty?” And “salient” for whom? Not for the author, but for the subtly anti-Berglund neighbors on Ramsey Hill, whose point-of-view mediates the novel’s opening section, “Good Neighbors.” Either unwittingly or purposefully, Myers has made a cardinal error. He has mistaken the characters’ angle of vision for the novelist’s.

As if to compensate for the oversight, he hastily concedes that the “insignificance” of its principals (again, insignificance to whom?) need not doom a novel itself to insignificance: “A good storyteller can interest us in just about anybody, as Madame Bovary demonstrates.” Invidious comparison alert! But Myers seems to have not read Madame Bovary, or, at best, to have paid it the same glancing attention he pays to Freedom. For the former has more to tell us about the latter’s style than about its “storytelling.”

coverThough Franzen’s temperament is warmer – he doesn’t aspire to Flaubert‘s fearsome objectivity – his technique relies to an unusual degree on the free indirect discourse Madame Bovary pioneered. Flaubert inhabits his characters, Lydia Davis tells us in the introduction to her new translation, in order to “[hold] up a miror to the middle- and lower-middle-class world of his day, with all its little habits, fashions, fads.” Irony is everywhere present, especially, she writes elsewhere, “in the words and phrases in the novel to which he gives special emphasis” – that is, underlining or italics.

They appear throughout the novel, starting on the first page with new boy. With this emphasis he is drawing attention to language that was commonly, and unthinkingly, used to express shared ideas that were also unquestioned.

Freedom, too, aims to be contemporary – perhaps even, as Myers puts it, “strenuously” so. But the scattered instances of “juvenile” glibness and vulgarity he portrays as its mother-tongue (“the local school ‘sucked’. . . Patty was ‘very into’ her teenage son, who, in turn was ‘fucking’ the girl next door”) are not unexamined symptoms of “a world in which nothing can happen.” Rather, like Flaubert’s common, unthinking phrases, they are necessary constituents of the novel’s attempt to show that world its face in the mirror. And if Franzen “hints at no frame of reference from which we are to judge his prose critically,” it’s only because he assumes his readers have read other novels written since 1850, and so already possess that frame themselves.

Not that Myers has any apparent trouble “judging the prose”; Franzen’s is “slovenly,” he insists. Nor is this the only place he seeks to have it both ways. The vulgarity he imputes at first to Franzen he finally does get around to pinning on Patty…but only to demonstrate that she “is too stupid to merit reading about.” Conversely, Franzen’s attempts at eloquence reveal him to be one of those people “who think highly enough of their own brains” that they must “worry about being thought elitist.” (Stupid people, smart people, “middlebrow” people; is there anyone who doesn’t count as a “nonentity,” in B.R. Myers book?)

It would be a mistake, however – a Myers-ish one – to read too much into this incoherence. The simple fact is that Myers’ conception of language is itself vulgar. “Prose,” for him, equals syntax plus diction, and is expected to denote, rather than to evoke. He positions himself as prose’s defender. But when he uses the word, or its cousin, “style,” what he’s really asking is for it to give way to more and faster plot. (It’s a preference Flaubert would have regarded with some amusement. “‘These days, what I really adore are stories that can be read all in one go,'” he has his protagonist say. “‘I detest common heroes and moderate feelings.'”) Myers dismisses one of Franzen’s showier metaphors – “Gene…stirred the cauldrons like a Viking oarsman” – as “half-baked,” with no consideration for the way it connects to the Minnesota Vikings-themed rec room of the opening pages, or the Vikings garb these Minnesotans wear, or ultimately to “the old Swedish-gened depression” Gene’s son, Walter, feels “seeping up inside him . . . like a cold spring at the bottom of a warmer lake.” Similarly, Myers writes off Freedom’s ornithological tropes as clichés, while giving us, in his own voice, sinking hearts, pushed luck, “busy lives,” “[getting] a pass,” “aspects of society,” “interesting individuals” – shopworn phrase following shopworn phrase “as the night the day.”

(This is not to mention the larger cliché of think-piece provocation – the You thought it was black, but really it’s white school of journalism. It’s no coincidence that “A Reader’s Manifesto” appeared in a magazine that was clawing back market share with cover slugs like Is God an Accident? and Did Christianity Cause the Crash? and The End of White America? and The End of Men. The approach would be codified, with no apparent irony, in the 2008 relaunch slogan: “The Atlantic. Think. Again.” But is “thinking” really le mot juste here? It’s surely no commendation for a critic that we know what he’s going to say about a novelist before we’ve read the review. Or before either of us has read the book.)

Remarkably, Myers even manages to be wrong when he tries to concede something positive about Freedom. “Perhaps the only character who holds the reader’s interest is Walter,” he writes. But the adult Walter is by far the novel’s least fully realized character. Of course, this late softening in the review is probably, like the invocation of Emma B., purely rhetorical, but I’ll condescend, as a demonstration of my own fair-mindedness, to grant Myers exactly the same degree of benefit of the doubt he imagines he’s extending to Franzen.

He is absolutely correct that contemporary book reviewers are far too “reluctan[t] to quote from the text,” but he confuses close-reading with mere assertive quotation. He consistently shows himself, here and elsewhere, to be deaf to point-of-view, tone, and implication. Indeed, he seems to revel in this deafness. (He quotes a line of capitalized dialogue – “I KNOW IT’S NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN” – and then confesses, with italics. “I have no idea what this is meant to sound like.”) This is sort of like an art critic trumpeting his glaucoma. Or like a restaurant reviewer who can’t stomach meat.

Who’s Down in Whoville?

Of course, Myers’ real target isn’t Jonathan Franzen, or even “the modern literary bestseller,” so much as it is “our age, the Age of Unseriousness.” The old values – truth, civility, Seriousness – are seen to be under attack from “chat-room[s] . . . Twitter . . . The Daily Show . . . the blogosphere,” and “our critical establishment.” Extremism in their defense can be no vice. But, as with conservative pundits of many stripes, Myers is perfectly willing to be “truthy,” uncivil, and unserious himself, when it suits his purposes. “I especially liked how the author got a pass for the first chapter,” he huffs at one point, with the sarcasm of a high-school Heather. Thus does he participate in the destruction of value he claims to lament.

Moreover, Myers has, symptomatically, mistaken a signifier for the thing it signifies. The underlying cause of the contemporary ills he keeps alluding to is not the coarseness of our language, but our narcissism, whose most “salient” form (as I’ve argued elsewhere) is a seen-it-all knowingness that inflates the observer at the expense of the thing observed. In this sense, B.R. Myers couldn’t be more of-the-moment. It’s no wonder he’s baffled by those turns of phrase by which the novelist seeks to disappear into his characters.

Finally – and most damningly – Myers has little to tell us about beauty. For Flaubert’s contemporary Baudelaire, beauty was

made up of an eternal, invariable element . . . and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be. . . the age – its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Without this second element, which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake, the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion.

In his dyspeptic disregard for what might be amusing, enticing, or appetizing about the world we live in – his inability, that is, to read like a writer, or write like a reader – B.R. Myers has placed contemporary literature in toto beyond his limited powers. He offers us, in place of insight, only indigestion.





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74 Responses to “The Soul-Sucking Suckiness of B.R. Myers”

  1. George Balanchine
    at 11:47 am on November 26, 2010

    @Rahgav

    No, it was Gore Vidal who we were saying was philistine-ish for his remark about Balanchine, not Myers.

  2. A Crossland
    at 10:06 am on January 13, 2011

    My only problem is why you people are defending Franzen’s writing rather than Franzen himself.

  3. Down With Foodies
    at 11:43 am on February 16, 2011

    […] of criticism were to obliterate its object. He scores his little points, but so what?,” writes Garth Hallberg, for The Millions.  More to the point, “Myers’ faux-populist ranting is betrayed by […]

  4. On Batuman, Hype, and Literary Conspiracies « Fiction
    at 6:01 pm on May 18, 2011

    […] public by Reptoid illuminati anti-reader critics and editors. You can see this kind of thought in the buffoonery of B.R. Myers as easily as the angry one-star reviews of anonymous Amazon(.com)ians. No one wants to believe the […]

  5. Peter
    at 11:19 pm on July 28, 2011

    So much vitriol poured on a critic who just happens to disagree with the common wisdom. This is called “shooting the messenger.” Why don’t you call for a clause to the First Amendment banning the man, or just arrest and send him to the gulag? I say thank goodness for Myers, the underdog, who has more guts than any of you.

  6. Chris
    at 11:54 am on October 9, 2011

    Kudos to Garth for this excellent piece (I mean that sincerely, not snarkily).

    I don’t even particularly like Franzen, but I still find Myers to be the cure that’s worse than the disease he purports to remedy. I haven’t read FREEDOM, but I have read THE CORRECTIONS and thought it was overrated. I’ve no problem whatsoever with reviewers panning books they believe have drawn unearned kudos. It’s right and proper that Myers has a distinctive point and view. Unfortunately, the man’s ego keeps getting in the way, so that he can’t pan a book without making it emblematic of everything about “littra-chah” he can’t stand, and without smugly congratulating himself on what a “daring rebel against the system” he’s deluded enough to believe he is.

    A few more problems with Myers’ whole approach that haven’t drawn enough fire:

    1) Myers likes to set up straw men opponents to knock down.

    In his original version of his Reader’s Manifesto, Myers targets five “literary” authors for lambasting: Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx, Paul Auster, David Guterson. He then proceeds to pick apart their prose and mock the reviewers who praise them.

    The reason this is objectionable is that Myers targets the taste of a hypothetical “literary snob” who barely exists. Somebody somewhere probably admires all five of these authors, but by and large, they appeal to different demographics. Thus, someone like Harold Bloom (Uber-HighBrow Snob of Our Time) is a passionate admirer of McCarthy and DeLillo (though not every single novel or every single sentence of theirs, a fact Myers conveniently elides), but there’s no way in hell Bloom or his fellow Yale and Harvard lit profs would ever champion a writer like Guterson. This is an important qualification. Myers is essentially sparring with phantoms. Somebody out there liked Guterson, and someone liked DeLillo, but they aren’t for the most part the same people.

    This is dishonest of Myers. It’s a fundamentally dishonest way of arguing. He sets up imaginary enemies to knock down. It would be like ridiculing the taste of some hypothetical “snooty art gallery patron” by ridiculing his hypothetical admiration for Picasso, Francis Bacon, Thomas Kinkade, and Velvet Elvis paintings – as if our world were teeming with individuals who love all four. In fact, chances are if you revere Picasso you almost certainly don’t revere Kinkade, and vice versa, just as if you revere DeLillo, you probably don’t revere Guterson, and vice versa. Lumping together disparate and divergent tastes for the purpose of general mockery is nothing but Myer’s attempt to pull the wool over his readers’ eyes. It’s a feint, a piece of sleight of hand, a rhetorical trick.

    2) Myers is a coward who pretends to be brave.

    You’ll notice he blames everything on the easiest scapegoat to blame: the Snooty Highbrows. There’s no quicker way for an American writer to draw cheap and easy applause from the masses than by posing as an Average Joe fighting nobly against Snobby Academics and Intelllect-chawls. Thus, Myers lays into “the literati” but goes easy on Oprah and remarks on her great “intelligence.”

    This is nothing but craven, cowardly ass-kissing. In actual fact, it was the “Oprah demographic” who made novels like Guterson’s SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS a hit in the first place. That was who went ga-ga for Guterson. It wasn’t Frank Kermode or James Wood or Martin Amis or Harold Bloom or any other Snooty Highbrow: it was the Oprah Gang, not the DeLillo Gang. Right off the bat, Myers creates a distorted, false picture of reality – because of course, it’s easy as pie to get the Average Joe and Jane on your side by attacking “highbrows,” but woe betide anyone who dares to apply the same treatment, fairly and honestly, to mainstream literary taste. Thus, Myers wilfully miscategorizes the main fanbase of a writer like Guterson.

    Moreover, Myers attacks Oprah’s taste while pretending not to. He isn’t honest or brave enough to risk the wrath of her fans. He lambasts Toni Morrison for her supposed pretentiousness and snobbery, yet tries to squirm out of the plain truth, which is that Oprah unabashedly loves Morrison and even loves Morrison at her most “literary” and stylistically dense and prolix. Even funnier, in the years since the Manifesto was first published, Oprah has chosen to champion Cormac McCarthy as well. Since Myers tars and feathers all McCarthy and Morrison lovers as phonies and snobs, he is implicitly telling us Oprah is a fake and a phony – except of course, Myers is at heart such a gutless coward, he lacks the balls to state this plainly and explicitly. He wants us to believe in his false dichotomy between the noble Common Reader and the fake, phony Highbrow – and when the lines between the two become blurred, Myers conveniently glosses over the fact, since his whole position goes up in smoke if he tells the truth here.

    If any individual were to truly embrace all the names targeted in Myers Manifesto – McCarthy, DeLillo, Proulx, Auster, Guterson, Morrison – or at a later date, Franzen (who, you’ll recall, Oprah also chose for her Book Club) it would be much more likely to be Oprah Winfrey or a typical Winfrey viewer than any self-styled Academic Highbrow whomsoever. Once again: the fact of the matter is, Harold Bloom went bananas for Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison, but certainly not for Franzen and Guterson – whereas Oprah Winfrey declared her fondness for all four of these authors. For Myers to admit this truth, however, would mean admitting he’s really attacking the Average Jane Doe Reader under the guise of defending and chivalrously protecting her. Myers is far too much of an intellectual fraud to admit this truth, however. So in addition to being overbearing and truly obnoxious, he’s also chickenshit.

  7. Publications « Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 2:42 pm on January 5, 2012

    […] the New Atheism? * How Avant Is It?: Zadie Smith, Tom McCarthy, and the Novel’s Way Forward * The Soul-Sucking Suckiness of B.R. Myers * J.D. Salinger 1919 – 2010 * The Millions Interview: Péter Esterházy * Reality Squared: A […]

  8. John Lobell
    at 9:43 pm on January 18, 2012

    Interesting how we attack Myers rather than argue for the importance of the books he attacks.

  9. Olya
    at 3:39 pm on February 1, 2012

    For Christ’s sake. Myers’ reviews do not lack “any positivity”–in A Reader’s Manifesto, he routinely praises the observations of Proulx (for example) while criticizing the lazy postmodern “technique” of stacking them on top of each other without any sense of craft. Similarly, he praises McCarthy’s early novels while finding his shift to the same kind of obliterating, staccato style bizarre. He’s attacking a self-congratulatory and inept literary establishment as well as the authors who’ve grown lazy within it, and he says as much by quoting Herbert Gold’s account of being “blackmailed” within the writer/reviewer/publisher relationship. The only thing I find truly implausible about his account is that the film industry could be any less incestuous and corrupt.

    Your first paragraph was less a parody than a lazy copy & paste, and what exactly does this mean:

    /he had been so thoroughgoingly tendentious, and at such length, that to rebut his 13,000 words required 13,000 of one’s own/

    That his argument was so nuanced as to require point-by-point refutation, or that you’re an extremely tendentious critic as well? This is the kind of fat which can be cut from most of Myers’ literary targets.

    Also: /Myers has made a cardinal error. He has mistaken the characters’ angle of vision for the novelist’s/

    No, he hasn’t, not in any systematic way– Franzen has done an extremely sloppy job of maneuvering POV and free indirect discourse, which the “whip-smart” autobiographical section, identical in tone to the rest of the book, howlingly illustrates. (Maybe Franzen’s trick was to put his writing in the mouth of a “relatively dumber” character so that we’d be pleasantly grateful at how smart she/he/they are?)

    As a layperson who was thoroughly bored and repulsed by both Freedom and McCarthy’s The Road, these probing inquiries into who he’s pandering to don’t necessitate a Jane Doe strawreader– my disappointment in all Franzen’s hype was happily met by a “contrarian” “outsider.” Your assertion that Myers cannot “write like a reader” is laughable, seeing as how his review of Freedom was kinder than most of the negative reader reviews I read on Amazon before borrowing the book. Also, as a native Minnesotan (who was deeply disappointed by Franzen’s ignorance of the midwestern redneck culture he strove to capture), the Vikings defense of Franzen’s boring oarsman metaphor serves to underscore exactly how uninspired it was in the first place.

  10. Chris
    at 3:12 pm on February 9, 2012

    @Olya:

    The cardinal error that Myers’ fans all make is they believe “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” There are many reasons to dislike any number of favored novelists, including Franzen. Myers fails to see, however, that the genre fiction he favors can be and frequently is just as overrated as the “literary fiction.” He never really asks any difficult questions, preferring to tar and feather “the establishment” without understanding what the “establishment” is (and to what degree he himself is in thrall to it). Myers makes just as many aesthetic blunders as the hypothetical establishment critic he berates – they just aren’t the same ones.

    “Similarly, he praises McCarthy’s early novels while finding his shift to the same kind of obliterating, staccato style bizarre. He’s attacking a self-congratulatory and inept literary establishment as well as the authors who’ve grown lazy within it”

    Yet his own evaluations are frequently just as “inept,” and he is a master at leaving out crucial information in order to bolster his smug, pseudo-populist perspective. For instance, he neglects to mention that McCarthy was critically acclaimed by discerning readers and reviewers long before ALL THE PRETTY HORSES or THE ROAD. The man did receive a MacArthur Genius grant on the basis of his early novels, after all, which could not have occurred unless he had discerning admirers among the literati. Yet Myers conveniently prefers to elide that fact to make it sound like only he appreciated the early novels, while “the literary establishment” failed to. He likes to make it sound as if “the establishment” only praised the later novels and neglected the early ones, yet he never comes to terms with the fact that McCarthy won prize money and grants for his early work (which nonetheless failed to crack any bestseller lists) from this very same “stupid,” “inept” establishment.

    To be sure, after McCarthy became a bestseller and Harold Bloom and Oprah jumped on board the McCarthy train, it became fashionable to praise him and undoubtedly a lot of his admirers today are bandwagon-jumpers. Nonetheless, Myers lack of charity and honesty is striking. The picture he presents of the literary establishment is of a hive of group-think while Myers alone is honest and full of integrity. Myers’ schtick is really no different from Armond White’s.

    He, and you, also fail to engage with any interpretive readings of the novels Myers hates, such as THE ROAD or BLOOD MERIDIAN. You and he have every right to dislike THE ROAD. What you do not have the right to do is blithely ignore interpretations of the later, ostensibly overwritten novels which make an actual case for their merits beyond “I liked it therefore it’s good.” True, many of the reviews praising McCarthy have no meat to them, but that’s not true of all of them by any means. Myers simply glosses over the more substantive reviews and focuses on the stupid ones, because his whole schtick is that he’s the Lone Gunman, the one honest voice amid a sea of idiots. And because there are just enough idiots out there for his schtick to sound plausible, readers who should know better, like you, Olya, fall for Myers’ contrived act.

    Well, I’m not buying it. The enemy of my enemy is NOT my friend.

  11. Chris
    at 3:22 pm on February 9, 2012

    Interesting how we attack Myers rather than argue for the importance of the books he attacks.

    Those arguments have been made, and some of them are very substantial. Now, I don’t know if there have been any substantive close readings of FREEDOM produced, but certainly UNDERWORLD, BLOOD MERIDIAN, and other DeLillo and McCarthy novels have garnered their share of acute close readings.

    As I say, I’m not a fan of Franzen, at least not on the basis of THE CORRECTIONS. But certainly some of the authors and books Myers attacks have been rigorously defended.

  12. K Daniels
    at 9:48 am on March 7, 2012

    The author of this blog post wastes no time betraying his tin ear. This is the lamest, most childish (yeah, yeah, purposely so, right? Well, that’s no excuse) title I’ve come across in a long time. And you simply can’t refute Myers’ argument except to say, I happen to like my fiction stilted and nonsensical.

  13. Christopher Guerin
    at 10:44 am on May 12, 2012

    Having written reviews for several years, I found myself gowing weary of writing negative reviews, which I did of very bad books indeed by the likes of Updike and Delillo, writers whom I otherwise admire. Updike himself pretty much refused to review books he didn’t like, and took heat for it. Myers seems stirred to review only what he detests. Wood has recently achieved an admirable balance between the two. I quit reviewing because my heart wasn’t in it, not that I compare myself to either Updike or Wood. Bad books, like Delillo’s Point Omega, are so obviously bad that it hardly warrants the time to point that out. I found it depressing. Now, if the book’s bad, I close it for good and move on.

    Freedom isn’t bad. It just isn’t great, and the consensus of opinion has born that out, leaving Myers grumbling in his dark and lonely corner, like a troll pining for the next bone to strip. Ignore him and maybe he’ll turn to stone.

  14. Jermbo
    at 2:29 pm on June 5, 2012

    I skipped Hallberg’s entire anti-Myers piece once I got to “a burst of joyless contrarianism” in the first line. It’s such a dead phrase, and screams to me, “Getta load a this jabronie ova here who can’t get wit the program.”

    Although I would disagree with BRM on White Noise, personally, my enthusiasm for contemporary American fiction and my quest to find Great Living Writers to talk about got shot in the head multiple times by Tree of Smoke and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and since finding Myers’s take-’em-to-the-woodshed reviews of these books, I have become a big fan of his critical voice. How disappointed were you when you last read a hyped literary phenomenon and couldn’t keep yourself from laughing at its bad ideas or bad language? I think Myers reflects that common modern reading experience well. Myers’ main point in his reviews, that every bad overhyped book you read is one less classic you read, is important, even when it applies to Cormac McCarthy or Don Delillo. My project this summer is to read McCarthy entire, but that may change if the choice is between reading the Border Trilogy or something like Go Down, Moses.

    Btw, I just requested Myers’ North Korea book from the library.

  15. Gor Bismori
    at 7:26 am on June 1, 2013

    Why are you defending these people? Why can’t they defend themselves? You sound like a toady.

  16. donkeydonkey
    at 3:12 am on July 6, 2013

    One thing missed by a lot of the posters here, as well as the author of the piece, is how funny Myers is. I read all of his negative reviews the other day and he had me in tears. I think Myers is a great writer able to very ably communicate his humorously contrarian personality and intelligence or what not.

    I agree tho that Myers cherrypicks and fails to provide any good counterarguments in favor of the quotes that he uses. He tends to supply the most humorous and sardonic counterarguments instead, which works well for his jeremiad ranting tone. His arguments would be better if he presented serious-minded defenses of his targets and then took those on. But he’d be less funny.

  17. Pius DuBois
    at 1:22 am on September 24, 2013

    I read Myer’s essay and I thought it was illuminating. The literary world is filled with a lot of pretense and at least someone is speaking out about it. I wish he’d mentioned other awful hacks like Zadie Smith. Reading White Teeth was extremely painful for me.

  18. Ken Miner
    at 3:13 pm on October 10, 2013

    Am I the only reader to notice that “relatively dumber” is a solecism, therefore an example of the bad writing that Myers is always complaining about? Apparently Hallberg didn’t even get it.

    What do editors actually do these days? (That’s a sincere question.)

  19. Bruno
    at 8:27 pm on April 21, 2014

    Why would a guy who worships DeLillo and a whole lot of trashy American writers not be mad at B.R Meyers? Tree Of Life wasn’t that good. You can’t compare it to Jesus’ Son and Train Dreams. Denis Johnson is a master of the short form but terrible at writing novels. Let’s hope City on Fire lives up to expectations.

  20. David
    at 2:59 am on June 3, 2014

    We must be reading a different B.R. Myers. At any rate, I am suspicious of the he’s-right-but-so-what school. Upholding critical standards is not trivial or irrelevant.

  21. Germane Jackson
    at 10:22 am on June 4, 2014

    Myers is essentially right about a lot of the points he makes regarding the laxity in some examples of modern prose, but essentially wrong about the cause (as near as I can tell, he posits some kind of highbrow conspiracy to canonize, of all people, David Guterson) and the scale. He cherrypicks five writers who are indeed guilty of various moments of laziness and incoherence, and assembles them into an essay proving that these writers can be lazy and incoherent. He seems to want to demonstrate something systemic, but, of course, there are a multitude of more linguistically scrupulous, and equally lionized, modern writers who do not fit into this mold. Ishiguro, for example, or Coetzee, or Alice Munro.

    Furthermore, even with these writers he’s guilty of cherrypicking their worst moments. Proulx is brilliant, if occasionally slapdash, and even though I dislike McCarthy, he’s capable of moments of revelatory beauty in his writing (he’s also one of the best dialog writers in modern fiction). Myers’ dislike of sloppiness in these writers, and others, is appropriate and a criticism worth making, but he overplays his hand when he tries to turn some of Proulx’s more overripe metaphors and sentences into a systemic condemnation of her work, and by extension, the establishment who has overpraised it. The establishment, such as it is, has recognized and lauded Proulx’s brilliance in spite of these excesses, not because of them.

  22. Snooty Snobs Should Shut Up - The Digital Reader
    at 11:43 am on June 7, 2014

    […] for you? (If you can’t think of any answer, you’ll probably Google and find this: The Soul-Sucking Suckiness of B.R. Myers which, I warn you now, contains this sentence: “To date, I have yet to read a comprehensive […]

  23. Apologues
    at 7:17 pm on February 21, 2015

    Hallberg’s method is the opposite of Myers’s. He characterizes “A Reader’s Manifesto” as every possible type of bad, without quoting from it. We are just expected to take his word for it, because how dare Myers criticize award-winning writers? Myers, on the other hand, hoisted the five writers he attacked on the petard of their own terrible words, only to find himself lambasted for taking awful sentences and awful paragraphs “out of context.” What was he to do, reproduce the entire bad novel in the body of his text? His aim was a limited one — to show that these celebrated literary aesthetes are stylistically pretentious and lazy at the same time. He achieved his goal in spades, and even Hallberg has to concede that “Many of these writers were ripe for reevaluation.” But why did such bad prose get so favorably evaluated in the first place?

    I knew I wouldn’t be reading “Freedom” after I read “The Corrections.” So I don’t know if Myers is right about its triviality, but I do know that Franzen hates his characters. Perhaps the explanation lies in his observation about a writer he claims to admire: “Kafka teaches us how to love ourselves even as we are being mercilessly hard on ourselves. . . . It’s not enough to love your characters and it’s not enough to be hard on your characters – you always have to be trying to do both at the same time.” In fact, Kafka does not adopt any obvious authorial attitude at all toward his characters. He views them from a great distance. But Franzen can’t even put his misunderstanding of Kafka to work: his characters aren’t warts and all, just warts. He has virtues — a wonderful ear for dialogue in places, and some bitter comedy in his set pieces. Good for Hallberg if this is to his taste. He’s not an idiot for liking it. But Myers isn’t an idiot for not liking it.

  24. Stephen Brown
    at 12:40 am on May 9, 2015

    Born in ’63, Myers was ten when the “Police Action” in VN sort of ended. He never wants to hear about the sixties again, as if Tree of Smoke encompasses a decade, is about then and not about now. I never read the Atlantic Monthly before so until now I have been lucky enough to miss Mr. Myers efforts to poison the broth.

    Writing this type of literary criticism is meaningless, and puts into question all of Mr. Myers’ scholastic work, mostly done in Korea where I suppose he is more comfortable. No question he must have a talent for languages of great difficulty, but I would hesitate his interpretive skills and simply go with his linguistic ones. I suppose that unless he works for some organization not specified, no one of authority is interested in his talent other than a university far far away.

    I have simply one question for Mr. Myers. There are many novelists and books he could use as examples of what is worth a consideration. He picks the unreadable Sister Carrie. I guess he does so he can be clever with “Carrie” which I believe is by King, though I may be mistaken, whom I have never read for reasons likely similar to Myers’ reasons. Very clever. Personally, crazy and hated as Lewis may have been, he certainly deserved “The Prize,” which Mr. Myers despises, much more than Dreiser.

    “To bury him would have been such an easy kindness! It would have been so much in accordance with the wisdom of life, which consists in putting out of sight all the reminders of our folly, or our weakness, of our mortality; all that makes against our efficiency — the memory of our failures, the hints of our undying fears, the bodies of our dead friends…I found out how difficult it may be sometimes to make a sound. There is a weird power in a spoken word. And why the devil not?…And a word carries far — very far — deals destruction through time as the bullets go flying through space.” Lord Jim

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