Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Reader's Manifesto / A Reader's Revenge

Saw this via Blissery's Twitter: A Reader's Manifesto by B.R. Myers, on The Atlantic. It's subtitled, "An Attack On The Growing Pretentiousness Of American Literary Prose". An excerpt:

Nothing gives me the feeling of having been born several decades too late quite like the modern "literary" best seller. 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 doesn't have a recent prize jury's seal of approval on the front and a clutch of precious raves on the back. In the bookstore I'll sometimes sample what all the fuss is about, but 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.

I realize that such a declaration must sound perversely ungrateful to the literary establishment. For years now editors, critics, and prize jurors, not to mention novelists themselves, have been telling the rest of us how lucky we are to be alive and reading in these exciting times. The absence of a dominant school of criticism, we are told, has given rise to an extraordinary variety of styles, a smorgasbord with something for every palate. As the novelist and critic David Lodge has remarked, in summing up a lecture about the coexistence of fabulation, minimalism, and other movements, "Everything is in and nothing is out." Coming from insiders to whom a term like "fabulation" actually means something, this hyperbole is excusable, even endearing; it's as if a team of hotel chefs were getting excited about their assortment of cabbages. From a reader's standpoint, however, "variety" is the last word that comes to mind, and more appears to be "out" than ever before. More than half a century ago popular storytellers like Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham were ranked among the finest novelists of their time, and were considered no less literary, in their own way, than Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be "genre fiction"—at best an excellent "read" or a "page turner," but never literature with a capital L. An author with a track record of blockbusters may find the publication of a new work treated like a pop-culture event, but most "genre" novels are lucky to get an inch in the back pages of The New York Times Book Review.

Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be "literary fiction"—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance. It is these works that receive full-page critiques, often one in the Sunday book-review section and another in the same newspaper during the week. It is these works, and these works only, that make the annual short lists of award committees. The "literary" writer need not be an intellectual one. Jeering at status-conscious consumers, bandying about words like "ontological" and "nominalism," chanting Red River hokum as if it were from a lost book of the Old Testament: this is what passes for profundity in novels these days. Even the most obvious triteness is acceptable, provided it comes with a postmodern wink. What is not tolerated is a strong element of action—unless, of course, the idiom is obtrusive enough to keep suspense to a minimum. Conversely, a natural prose style can be pardoned if a novel's pace is slow enough, as was the case with Ha Jin's aptly titled Waiting, which won the National Book Award (1999) and the PEN/Faulkner Award (2000).

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones (1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.

Click here to read the whole article.

Check out this link as well, A Reader's Revenge, which expounds further on B.R. Myers' argument that the time has come for readers to stand up to the literary establishment in America. His main arguments are summarized in this:

...that the typical "literary masterpiece" of today is usually in fact a mediocre work dolled up with trendy writerly gimmicks designed to lend an impression of artsy profundity and to obscure the author's lack of talent. An affected, deliberately unnatural prose style, banal pronouncements intoned magisterially as if they were great pearls of wisdom, relentless overuse of wordplay, and the gratuitous inclusion of foreign words are just a few of the affronts to good writing of which Myers finds several well-known authors guilty.Though readers don't tend to get much pleasure from the books that are selected for literary stardom, they usually wrongly attribute the problem to themselves, Myers explains, assuming that if a critically celebrated work fails to speak to them, it must point to their own lack of taste or limited understanding. Compounding the problem, he argues, is the fact that today's critics—most of whom are novelists themselves—try to foster the idea that good writing is recognizable to sophisticated literary connoisseurs but is beyond the ken of ordinary folk.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I kinda agree with this one. And sadly, the situation here in the Philippines, only on a smaller scale--with a lot less books published and lot less readers.

I think a lot of people are aware of this, even in the literary establishment and circles. No one is speaking up because everyone is afraid to be seen as having unsophisticated (i.e., unliterary) tastes and inclinations by their peers.

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'...the situation in the philippines is similar...' I meant to say.

1:16 PM  
Blogger pgenrestories said...

Well, I'M not afraid.

*breathes deeply--ehem, ehem--opens mouth to speak*


Okay, maybe just a little afraid, hehe.

But seriously, I do publish a genre digest that unabashedly accepts and prints stories that aim to entertain, even if nothing else (though that description doesn't apply to all the stories in there).

And you hit the nail on the head about there being less readers. Maybe it's a function of population, since after all, the US has more people, so a smaller percentage of readers there is still a lot bigger than the best percentage here.

But then again, I shoot down my own argument by putting up as examples countries like Thailand, Japan, Korea, which have a lot of readers no matter how big or small their populations are.

Naah, it's a matter of developing a reading culture here. That's a different, and bigger, issue, than the one illustrated in the links in my blog entry. I'm just happy to see anyone reading anything.

Thanks for leaving a comment! :)

1:32 PM  

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