Volume II, Issue 4 -- November, 2001
Literary Fiction Grabbing All the Attention
"Literary" Best Sellers
Proulx/McCarthy/DeLillo/Auster/Guterson at the Complete Review
Note: (added 18 September 2002) B.R.Myers' essay, A Reader's Manifesto, originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, has now also been published (in slightly altered and expanded form) as a book -- see our review.
A major addition to the book is the Epilogue on "The Response to A Reader's Manifesto", in which Myers responds to his critics. For what it's worth, this cr Quarterly piece finds no mention there -- though perhaps we are included among the nameless "amateur online book-reviewers who disagreed with me".
This piece has not been updated to reflect the changes and additions found in the book (see our review for that). The only changes made since it was first published last year are the addition and deletion of links -- most notably, the deletion of Lee Siegel's response to Myers in The Los Angeles Times, which is sadly no longer freely accessible.
Except .... we can't resisting noting one of the "supportive articles" Myers mentions in his reactions. Amanda Craig apparently wrote this in The Sunday Times (it's unclear whether the piece reproduced here is identical to the Craig-article Myers refers to). Aside from misspelling his name on occasion, Craig also pens such gems as "his arguments have already received grudging agreement from one of the Washington Posts's leading critics". Those lucky arguments, receiving agreement ! From one of the Posts's leading critics no less. With literary friends and supporters like this .....
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B.R.Myers' piece, A Reader's Manifesto, was published in the July/August 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly; it is also available online.
The piece is subtitled: An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose. (In the table of contents it is slightly differently described, as: An impassioned attack on the pretentiousness of American literary prose).
It is -- so Atlantic editor Michael Kelly in his introductory comments -- "a splenetic and unforgiving polemical romp".
Kelly also explains about Myers:He writes not as a literary critic (indeed he has never published as such) but as a reader, outraged and seeking to be outraged in turn.The piece made quite a splash, receiving wide coverage (for a literary issue) in the press -- both domestic and international -- and eliciting responses from a number of commentators. (See links for a selection of the responses available online.)
Readers should, of course, turn to A Reader's Manifesto itself to see what it (and all the fuss) is about. But the complete review can't quite resist adding its own notes and observations to the discussion (or the controversy, if you prefer).
Myers' "Manifesto" is basically a call towards a "reorientation towards tradition". He argues that modern literary fiction (defined by him as "everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose") gets too much attention and critical praise (specifically for being "literary"). He sees contemporary literary fiction as being deemed "always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance" -- and he doesn't think that is right or good. He yearns alternately for the days of yore, when you could find solidly written books that told an actual story, and for the abolition of what he sees as a literary/genre divide in how books are perceived (Stephen King is a favourite example of his, apparently being neglected as "just a very talented genre storyteller").
It is a messy, broad argument, with Myers lashing out in all directions, trying to make a variety of points around an unclear thesis. One can agree with much of what he says, but the piece as a whole is a bit too unwieldy to fully convince.
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Literary Fiction Grabbing All the Attention:
The debate around "literary fiction" is usually a befuddling one. Myers is certainly partially correct in finding that the term has become quite limited when applied in the United States (and specifically to American fiction). The recent to-do about Jonathan Franzen's best-selling novel, The Corrections (see our review), and Oprah Winfrey -- she chose it for her "Book Club", then disinvited Mr.Franzen from the show after he made what she apparently perceived as disparaging remarks about her book club (see our piece on that fun episode, A Book, an Author, and a Talk Show Host: Some Notes on the Oprah-Franzen Debacle) -- again highlights the bizarre need to label, define, and compartmentalize writing in America -- as well as how touchy everyone is about these labels.
Literary fiction, genre fiction, highbrow, lowbrow, nobrow: who cares ? A good book is, surely, a good book, regardless of the label attached to it. Myers seems to firmly believe this (though admittedly one can argue with how he defines a "good" book). So why all this concern about labels and "literary" fiction ?
Well, Myers seems to be terribly troubled by what he perceives to be the fact that a certain type of book (what he defines and labels as "literary fiction" -- and a very limited definition and label it is) is getting too much attention. Press attention, academic attention -- and prizes and awards. He begs:Give me anything, in fact, as long as it doesn't have a recent prize jury's seal of approval on the front and a clutch of precious raves on the back.Such broad generalizations and easy dismissals are, unfortunately, found throughout Myers' piece. Here, for example, he ignores the fact that most genre fiction (as he applies the term) also comes adorned with raving blurbs (even the latest Stephen King book), and many have prize-seals of approval as well (as there are a multitude of science fiction, mystery and other "genre" awards). What he is attacking, very specifically, are the literary awards: the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner etc., as well as the precious literary blurbs from fellow "literary fiction" writers.
Myers does have a point about blurbs, an offensive marketing technique that we can't imagine fools or influences anyone. Yes, the books he is attacking are usually the worst offenders, as friends recommend friends' books back and forth, but whether precious or bombastic the raves on the back of any book can and should be disregarded by one and all.
As to prizes -- and specifically those apparently prestigious Pulitzers and NBAs and others -- well, prizes are always contentious. The standards of the American ones admittedly are very uneven. But it should be noted that this is not something new: look over that list of old Pulitzers and see how many have stood the test of time. And it is not just an American problem: almost every national literary prize across the world is cause for complaint from some quarter, and even the Nobel Prize in literature has gone to more than its fair share of mediocre writers.
What Myers does not note is that the "prize jury's seal of approval" on American literary fiction titles rarely has much of an impact on sales: people perhaps know the worth of these dubious prizes and are generally unimpressed. (This is especially noteworthy in comparison to British, French, and other foreign "literary" prizes: even making the Booker (or Goncourt or Renaudot) shortlist generally results in a sales-spike, and winning such an award almost invariably leads to a huge surge in sales). Some of the American prize-winning books are best sellers (Annie Proulx's The Shipping News is one of his examples), but the prizes themselves seem to play only a small part in helping the book achieve best-selling status -- in fact, the books are usually best sellers before they are honoured.
The one seal of approval which does make a difference in the United States is Oprah's. But then she rarely covers what Myers would consider "literary fiction" (Toni Morrison and, possibly, Jonathan Franzen being among the exceptions).
Myers is also particularly upset about the critical attention paid to what he considers "literary fiction" (at the expense of apparently ignored "genre" fiction). He thinks it particularly unfair that: "most 'genre' novels are lucky to get an inch in the back pages of The New York Times Book Review", for example -- while, presumably, all the good space is taken up by far more extensive accounts of rarely worthy "literary fiction".
Again, he undermines valid points with exaggeration and imprecision:
But Myers does raise some valid points. There is a certain incestuousness in the literary establishment, of covering authors who meet certain expectations. The big review outlets also do tend to flock together, covering many of the same titles. Certain types of books also do seem to find more favour -- perhaps the very ones Myers means.
- Even the shortest reviews in The New York Times Book Review (in "Books in Brief", "Crime", or "Science Fiction") are longer than an inch in length. (Myers suggests that "at the very least, the critics could start toning down their hyperbole" but apparently doesn't feel compelled to do so himself.)
- Any novel is lucky to get any notice whatsoever in that (or any) publication: most fiction goes largely unreviewed by the mainstream press.
- Stephen King, Michael Crichton, and other authors Myers apparently believes are considered "genre" authors do receive prominent and extensive review coverage in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere. (The New York Times recently (25 October 2001) even gave a full review to a Clive Barker book (Coldheart Canyon), with reviewer Janet Maslin suggesting that Barker eventually "may indeed reach the point of rising above genre limitations to more widely palatable material".)
The complete review has long complained about what books are reviewed and what aren't. Regardless of specifics, pretty much everyone can agree that too few books are reviewed. Personally, we are less troubled about the absence of reviews of "genre" fiction (which seems able to find its audience through other means -- and can often even afford to buy huge advertising spreads (if not reviews) in The New York Times Book Review) than the absence of reviews of serious literary fiction (as we understand it, not as Myers does). You've heard it from us before, but we'll repeat it again: there have still been essentially no reviews in the mainstream American media of such significant (and exceptionally good) fiction titles as Amélie Nothomb's Loving Sabotage (see our reviews in the crQ and the Complete Review) and Irmtraud Morgner's Trobadora Beatrice (see our reviews in the crQ and the Complete Review), to name just two of an immense number of worthy but ignored titles..
Arguably "genre" fiction also does not need the same review coverage as "literary" fiction: it requires less explication, less of an introduction. Readers familiar with Sue Grafton probably don't need to read an extensive review of her fifteenth or twentieth alphabetical novel.
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"Literary" Best Sellers:
The first sentence of Myers piece has him noting his dismay about "the modern 'literary' best seller". This suggests that it is this specific beast he attacks in his piece -- not just trumped up "literary fiction" but the best selling variety thereof, presumably confusing and confounding misguided readers who figure that popularity equals quality and tearing down all of literary culture with it.
But what is this beast ? Myers offers several examples (notably Annie Proulx's The Shipping News), but as it turns out the literary best seller, as he defines it, is a fairly elusive beast. Of the five authors that Myers focusses on (see also below), Paul Auster is pretty far from best-selling (we haven't gone back and checked, but we're fairly certain none of his fiction has ever come even close to a best seller list any broader than that of the Voice Literary Supplement) -- though perhaps Myers singles him out because of the nice prizes he has won. David Guterson doesn't strike us in the least literary (but it's Myers definition we're working with, so we should probably accept how he stretches it to fit his arguments). Don DeLillo has occasionally flirted with best-sellerdom, but is also hardly a mainstay of the best seller lists.
Myers two other examples, Proulx and Cormac McCarthy, have (like Guterson) had genuine best sellers. But the American best seller lists -- whether that of The New York Times Book Review or Publishers Weekly -- rarely include books of the sort he rails against. Genre fiction totally dominates, literary fiction (by any definition) is the exception (Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections being a notable one in the fall of 2001).
Taking a (random, we hope) best seller list from The New York Times Book Review from the time of the whole Myers controversy (26 August 2001) we find on the hardcover fiction list only two (out of fifteen) titles received full reviews in The New York Times Book Review. Two additional titles received brief reviews -- both in the "Crime" section. Supporting at least some of Myers' argument, the two full reviews were of titles that might be called literary fiction: John Irving's The Fourth Hand and Alice Hoffman's Blue Diary. It is unclear, however, whether Myers would consider these authors perpetrators of the type of "literary" writing he is condemning; both authors do have a reputation as being concerned with storytelling, and thus might even find Myers' approval.
The rest of the list, including the briefly reviewed titles, seems entirely made up of genre fiction, with books by such writers as Catherine Coulter, James Patterson, Stephen Coonts, and J.A.Jance.
So where are the literary best sellers Myers is complaining about ? Maybe what he means is the best-selling authors and titles in this "literary" subset of fiction -- but since he condemns the whole subset (as he defines it) surely it doesn't matter whether the books are best-selling or not. Or maybe he only means those rare "literary" titles that do make it onto the best seller lists, like The Shipping News -- but since he mentions so many books that never achieved adequate sales to break onto the list that doesn't seem to be it either.
In fact, best-sellerdom seems fairly incidental -- making for some prominent examples, but not really his main point of interest. He fudges the distinction a bit, but what he is mainly opposed to is not the popular but the critical attention these "literary" books get:Today's "literary" novel (...) need only evince a few quotable passages to be guaranteed at least a lukewarm review. (...) Many critically acclaimed novels today are no more than mediocre "genre" stories told in a conformist amalgam of approved "literary" styles.These statements are, in part, true -- but with a few caveats. Reviews might be lukewarm -- if there is any review at all (a big if). The biggest names -- the five authors Myers focusses on, all except Guterson with relatively long track records of success (popular and/or critical) -- will almost certainly get extensively reviewed, but other literary pretenders generally have a much harder time.
Surely, also, critically acclaimed novels throughout the past century have been similar conformist amalgams (though admittedly of different styles).
Significantly, whatever the critics say, the public does not seem to be fooled. What Myers considers "literary fiction" generally doesn't sell extremely well (at least as measured by how many such titles make it to the best seller lists), and the public seems content to buy "genre" fiction en masse instead. Myers actually specifically uses Paul Auster (!) as an example of a "commercially successful" author. By some definitions Auster perhaps is -- but he is a prolific author who has been publishing for a long time, it took him many years to reach a stage where he was able to live even just reasonably well off his writing, some of his earnings come from the more lucrative business of writing screenplays, and the amount he makes from his writing is trivial compared to practically any of the genre-authors on this (or any) week's best seller list.
Perhaps reviewers (and their editors) are focussing on the wrong titles -- and are too generous in their praise of what currently passes for literary. But the public doesn't seem all that impressed.
Myers is very selective in the literary establishment he attacks. The admittedly older school of prize-winning literary (at least by some definitions, though perhaps not Myers') authors that continue to pop up on the bestseller lists -- including Roth, Bellow, and Updike -- for some reason are largely ignored. They too are guaranteed widespread review and media coverage (and invariably also "guaranteed at least a lukewarm review", regardless of the merits of their current work).
Are these authors not as influential as the ones Myers attacks ? DeLillo may be an idol to many young writers, but surely no author chooses to emulate David Guterson over Roth, Updike, and Bellow.
Myers does quote from Bellow's 1947 work The Victim, using it as a counter-example to modern trends, but Bellow's contemporary work isn't mentioned -- perhaps it has become too "literary" ?
Myers' selectivity as he focusses on his very narrow definition of "literary" (and ignores much of the published world around it) is disorienting. He claims to attack contemporary "American literary prose", but the label is misleading: he only targets the narrowest (though admittedly a highly visible) band of it.
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Proulx/McCarthy/DeLillo/Auster/Guterson at the complete review
Myers focusses on various examples of what he terms contemporary American "literary prose", using five representative authors to make his points: Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and David Guterson.
We note that not a single work by any of these authors is available at the complete review. Admittedly, we don't "get" most contemporary American fiction, and our coverage in this area is eclectic and limited (see the index of contemporary American fiction under review) -- and some of the authors we cover probably trouble Myers more than the ones he discusses (Walter Abish ? William Gass ? David Markson ? Harry Mathews ?). Still, with over 700 books under review we found it striking that none of these authors are under review here.
(For the record: we are likely to eventually cover some of Paul Auster's titles, and we might at some point feel obligated to cover some Don DeLillo (though we will avoid it if at all possible). Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy don't tempt us in the least and are extremely unlikely ever to be covered by the complete review. And David Guterson has long been on our list of authors Who won't make the Complete Review.)
(The complete irrelevancy of Guterson in any literary discussions was again demonstrated in A.O.Scott's recent piece in The New York Times on the Oprah-Franzen debacle (4 November 2001). Scott mentions Myers' piece, and lists his "case studies": McCarthy, DeLillo, Proulx, "and Steve Guterson". While it admittedly is embarrassing for a journalist (even just a critic) like A.O.Scott to pay so little attention to details (Scott also overlooks the fifth of the case studies, Auster), and while it also reflects badly on The New York Times fact-checking/copy-editing department to let such a slip slip through, it is surely saddest as a commentary on Guterson's legacy. Despite his brilliant (and relatively recent) sales-success, no one (at least at The New York Times) even remembers his name -- or cares to get it right.)
We are as elitist as the next review forum -- just in a different way than Myers complains about. Obviously, however, we are sympathetic to some of Myers' opinions regarding these authors and their work. By and large they offer us fairly little and don't interest us much. This is mainly because of what these authors write about and how they write -- our complaints aren't always the same as Myers', but we certainly agree with some of his observations.
We also acknowledge, as a vaguely critical forum, a certain pressure to deal with some of these authors. At least with DeLillo, who seems near universally loved by the critical establishment and whose work is very widely admired (while never really having achieved that great popular success). The great acclaim -- from people whose opinions we at least vaguely trust -- leads us to wonder what we are missing (neither DeLillo's prose nor his tales resonate with us in any way) and suggests that DeLillo is at least worth considering.
Perhaps we should be overjoyed to find someone who we can agree with regarding DeLillo, but Myers' analysis isn't wholly convincing either. Despite it, we can still understand how DeLillo's writing can appeal to some people. And even if we didn't: isn't it enough that some people do find something there to give it a certain validity ? Perhaps the emperor has no clothes, but is that really such a problem, if the people who are blind to that don't mind ?
Literary tastes differ greatly and there are few absolutes. Even Dadist wordplay can have both validity and appeal, and one should be wary of those suggesting definitive rights and wrongs.
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Myers finds "a growing consensus that the best prose is that which yields the greatest number of standout sentences, regardless of whether or not they fit the context." He may be right: in a time of short attention spans and MFA-creative writing programs the focus on quotable details perhaps prevails over attention to the grand whole. Novels that actually work as novels, in their entirety, are rare (it is a common complaint we have) -- but it is unclear whether there are now fewer than in times gone by. (Myers quotes examples from the good old days, but here too he is terribly selective, conveniently ignoring the mass of horrible writing that prevails in almost all eras.)
Myers offers examples of what he means, each of the five authors he focusses on providing an example of a different type of the poor prose he finds so troubling: DeLillo for "edgy" prose, Auster for "spare" prose, etc. Myers is about half on target -- though in part, of course, his focus on detail misses what he himself deems essential: how does it work as a whole ? We note, for example, that any number of novels we admire could not very easily withstand criticism if it is focussed only on one level. Walter Abish's unlikely Alphabetical Africa and David Markson's Reader's Block are in no way exemplary -- for writers of fiction. One almost hopes that no one tries to imitate what these authors have done -- and yet what they have done works surprisingly well: their books are remarkable works of fiction, experimental and yet also successful as narratives, the wholes adding up to considerably more than their odd parts.
Myers does score some easy points off of DeLillo, Proulx, Guterson and consorts -- but then we are easy to convince (as we mentioned, we're not great fans). He's right that some critics -- such as Carolyn See, writing that Annie Proulx is "the best prose stylist working in English now, bar none" -- have gotten more than a bit too carried away. But haven't the vast majority of books, literary (by any definition) or otherwise, always been bad ? Haven't critics always overreacted -- when they react at all ? Myers brings up a smattering of examples of grand works of old (and a very odd smattering it is, too, but that's a different issue ...), but he doesn't convince that the literary world was once a better place -- especially since he ignores so much of the contemporary literary world, a world far more complex than his literary/genre split suggests.
Part of Myers' argument -- perhaps the strongest one -- is that this literary madness he is writing about feeds on itself, leading to the "growing pretentiousness of American literary prose". He accuses the "cultural elite" of "doing such a quietly efficient job of maintaining the status quo". Certainly, literary awards where prize-winners then become the judges in the same competition don't do much for expanding literary horizons. Creative writing-MFA programs also breed writers who focus on sentences rather than broader fiction, and publishers always just want more of the same. We too feel Myers' pain. But over the long term won't this inbred status quo, closing itself off from other influences, just starve itself ? Publishing is notoriously faddish, as everyone jumps on the same bandwagon. We don't see the situation as being quite as horrible as Myers seems to claim (we see lots of fads out there, some even worse than the one he attacks), but even if the American literary world has all jumped aboard this one bandwagon, surely he must know that it will sooner or later plunge off a cliff.
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Myers' article didn't make for a great literary debate, but in the quiet summer months it elicited a few passionate responses. (See links for a selection of the responses available online.) Lee Siegel got into quite a huff in one of the more entertaining reactions, and many others commented on various aspects of it. (Now, in the fall of 2001, it looks like the Franzen-Oprah tiff -- which addresses at least some of the same issues -- will largely push it aside (as, indeed, it did: see our piece on that fun episode, A Book, an Author, and a Talk Show Host: Some Notes on the Oprah-Franzen Debacle).)
One of the difficulties with reacting to Myers' piece is its amorphousness. He complains about contemporary American literary fiction and then ignores most of those authors that most people (well, us at least) would consider "literary". (The examples he uses are hardly representative of the unnamed authors either.) He complains about a type of author who gets certain awards, which is about as limiting as judging Commonwealth literature would be if one considered solely those who have won the Booker. And he offers half-right observations, such as reviewers' too uncritical focus on certain types of books and writing (while ignoring too many of the other issues having to do with contemporary literary criticism).
Myers' dissection of the various authors' prose is more entertaining and useful, and something that many of the respondents grabbed onto. Predictably, reactions ranged all across the spectrum, from those who were relieved to hear someone tell them that the much-praised writing they can't fathom is, in fact, simply pretentious drivel to those who accused him of being a crass populist.
Among the curious and more disappointing reactions were a number that emphasized Myers' status as an outsider (i.e. not an active participant in any facet of the literary community or establishment) -- from New Mexico no less. As if the substance of any argument has anything to do with who the author is (or, even more absurdly, where he lives -- or where his ideas are published).
Myers struck a nerve -- lots of nerves, actually. People tended to read into the piece what they wanted to, focussing on those aspects they agreed -- or vehemently disagreed -- with. Like the piece itself, it generally made for a messy series of debates.
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The complete review wholeheartedly agrees with much that Myers has to say. We naturally endorse several of his recommendations and prescriptions. Writing of reissued older novels he notes:It would be even more encouraging if our national newspapers devoted an occasional full-page review to one of these new editions -- or, for that matter, to any novel that has lapsed into undeserved obscurity.The complete review isn't a national newspaper, but it even reviews books that never made it out of obscurity. We can and do take more liberties than mainstream media outlets in what titles we choose to review (old and new, obscure and familiar, etc.) -- and our users seem to respond to this.
Myers also says that "Americans should also be encouraged to overcome their growing aversion to translated fiction", and we certainly try our best in that department as well -- going so far as to review books that haven't even been translated yet. (We do, however, acknowledge that our constant harping on the failures of translation might not be very encouraging for the already reluctant.)
Still, Myers piece does not fully convince. We agree with much of what he says, but his complaints don't quite add up to the argument -- the manifesto ! -- he suggests. In particular the artificial divide between literary and genre fiction he diagnoses is problematic: there may be such a divide, but the literary side is certainly much larger, more diverse, and more complex than he suggests. (The Franzen-Oprah debate seems much more promising on this topic.)
We are also annoyed by the critics' often uncritical enthusiasm about authors we don't think any readers should waste their time with -- but that isn't a very constructive point of view. Tastes and interests will and do vary, and we're the last ones to suggest that there is only one acceptable form of literature. (Well, that's not quite true: we love to suggest it, but we don't really mean it.) We'll never embrace DeLillo and we don't understand what the critics who enthuse about him are going on about, but we don't have that much of a problem putting up with either him or them -- as long as they don't exclude other authors (as Myers correctly suggests they often do).
For a tired summer it was a decent little literary to-do, but this fall's Franzen-Oprah conflict sounds like a whole lot more fun. (It was: see our piece about it, A Book, an Author, and a Talk Show Host: Some Notes on the Oprah-Franzen Debacle.)
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- A Reader's Manifesto:
- A Reader's Manifesto - the book:
- Plain Talk, by Mursi Saad El-Din in Al-Ahram Weekly
- Speaking Out, by Alex Good at goodreports.net
- A Serious Note on Fiction, by Mark Goldblatt in the National Review
- The End of Literary Fiction, by Robert McCrum in The Observer
- Sentenced to Death, by Laura Miller in Salon (and see also reader's reactions to her article)
- Unfair Sentence, by Meghan O'Rourke in Slate
- The Naked and the Bad, by Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post
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