Readers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your New York Times Book Review!
I first heard of The Reader's Manifesto on BookTV (C-Span), when a guest named it as one of the best nonfiction books of the year, and said it criticizes modern "literary" writers and the reviewers who love them. David Guterson was one of the writers the author critiques, so I couldn't wait to get the book.
Let me tell you why. I'm typical of the readers that Myers discusses. After reading mostly computer books for a while, I'd taken up serious reading again. Unfortunately, most of the books I read and audiobooks I listened to were bad. After looking for something that had received good reviews and awards, I chose Snow Falling on Cedars by Guterson.
The book was a grindingly slow, repetitive piece of crap. It didn't turn me off to reading as Myers worries, but after a handful of well-reviewed klunkers like that, who knows? If you're interested, you can click to see my other reviews and read my 1-star review. I even wrote some faux-Guterson dialogue as a bit of sport.
So I wanted to see if B.R. Myers agreed with me, and hallelujah, he did. He mentions us Amazon reviewers in this book (Myers says we know what we're talking about, for the most part, because we trust our own taste and sensibilities, and we discuss the author's style instead of recounting the plots. Yay for us!). I felt validated; a lot of reviewers loooooved Snow Falling on Cedars, it won all kinds of awards, and there *is* this kind of attitude out there that you don't like something the critics love, it's because you don't get it, because you're a philistine.
Myers is no philistine. He's well-read in both modern and classic works--much better read than I, and I had feared that I wouldn't be able to follow the references to so many writers and books, new and old. The fear proved (mostly) unfounded, because he does include so many illustrative quotes.
In each chapter, he contrasts passages from some modern writers with better passages from classic writers. It's very effective. Probably the most wonderful comparison was in the chapter, "Edgy Prose." He tears apart a passage from Don DeLillo's White Noise, which I'd not read, for being just a laundry list, lacking soul and depth.
Then he quotes a passage from Balzac's Lost Illusions, which explores a similar theme (consumerism), and I was just blown away. This (shorter!) piece said so much more. It had soul. It had depth. It brought pictures to my mind. It made me stop to re-read a sentence -- not because of non-comprehension or boredom, as is the case with DeLillo's writing, but to savor the turn of phrase, to let it sink in. It made me want to RUN to the library and take out Balzac. It was a fitting comparison.
But, I wondered throughout the book, 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.
In this respect, this book is not so much about bad writing as is it about bad reviewing. No one wants to say the emperor has no clothes. It's bad enough Guterson is a bad writer, but do we have to give him the PEN/Faulkner award? Does Granta have to name him one of the twenty best young novelists? Nay, I say, nay!
One criticism: White Noise was published in 1985. Other books he critiques date to the early 90s. Though their premature datedness is one of his points, it seems strange to complain about these books now, almost a generation later.
Myers himself is something of an enigma. Sometimes I wondered, if Myers hates these writers so much, why does he keep reading their books? Nothing on Earth could get me to read another Guterson book; I'd like to know Myers's motivation. It's not like he's in the publishing industry and *has* to keep up with what's new.
Of course, one of the most infuriating things to the literati, was that this upstart was an outsider. Myers includes many of their reactions to the original magazine article on which this book is based, and it's a fascinating chapter. It's amazing how consistently his detractors misrepresent his position, setting up straw-man arguments and launching ad hominem attacks, constantly calling him a philistine.
That chapter, as well as a bibliography and footnotes, make this book feel very complete, though only 149 pages. The tongue-in-cheek appendix giving "Ten Rules for Serious Writers" was funny but probably superfluous. Overall, this book is a much-needed, well-meaning kick in the butt, full of sanity and sincerity. Even if you're not familiar with the authors he criticizes, you'll understand and enjoy it.
Edited to fix author's name.