BR Myers and Where He Differs with The Blogosphere

Recently, there's been some uproar in the blogosphere about BR Myers' review of Denis Johnson's latest book. Without going into a lot of detail about my opinion of Denis Johnson—the short version: Angels kicked ass, Jesus' Son was overrated, and Already Dead was so boring I didn't finish it and haven't bothered trying to read anything Johnson has written since)—I do think that Myers's detractors are not being fair to him. Some folks seem to have confused Myers aesthetic stance with James Wood's, seeming to think that Myers assault on what he sees as bad writing is in fact a call for a return to Flaubert style psychological realism. Others seem to think that he's more in the Dale Peck school of literary car bombing, taking imprecise aim at the contemporary literary lights and not really caring who gets caught in the cross fire. In fact, neither reading of Myers is the case, and in an attempt to take seriously the ideas of a critic who I think deserves to be taken seriously, I'd like to take a moment to describe how I read Myers critical stance.

The overall thrust of all of Myers critical writing is an inversion of contemporary standards of good writing. To put it another way, Myers believes that a lot of what is taken for good writing in contemporary prose fiction is in fact bad writing and most of his criticism is an attempt to illustrate what those things are and why they are mistaken. In this pursuit, Myers appears to me to hold to several general principals.

1.) Contemporary criticism is over focussed on the sentence as a unit of composition. Myers often points out where critics are praising an author's sentences and goes so far in his Reader's Manifesto to talk at length about how he thinks its bizarre how much import has been placed on a writer's sentences. The review of Denis Johnson on Powell's blog that caused so much furor is in keeping with this criticism because he opens with pointing out how Johnson's sentences have been praised in keeping with his over all thesis. Myers has marshaled a lot of evidence for this in his oeuvre, but frankly I think he makes over much of it. Yes, there are a number of well regarded contemporary authors who seem to write sentences at the expense of everything else, but I think what is going on here with Myers is more a criticism of other critics and this doesn't have much to do with what he likes and doesn't like about authors. That is, I think he thinks this is where contemporary critics go wrong in their reading of contemporary authors, not necessarily where contemporary authors go wrong.

2.) Contemporary prose celebrates novelty at the expense of meaning, therefore heralding bad writing as good writing. I think this is primarily what is at play in his criticism of Denis Johnson. Myers believes that what most contemporary critics call good writing is in fact merely the use of unusual verb/object words in novel constructions. Where I am familiar with Myers targets, I am inclined to agree. There does seem to be an overemphasis on the "fresh" or "crisp" image in much contemporary writing and what critics seem to mean by "fresh" and "crisp" are precisely the sorts of constructions that Myers points to for this criticism. He's made long arguments about why he thinks this is a problem, most pointedly in The Readers' Manifesto, and I tend to agree with those arguments. I'm not going to rehash them here, because I think he does a fair job of making his own points in his review. What I would say is that it's a position that his critics have to answer if they want their criticisms of him to be taken seriously.

3.) Authorial voice trumps character voice. This is the criticism that Myers makes repeatedly throughout his review of Tree of Smoke and it also figures significantly in his criticism of Cormac McCarthy. In a nutshell the view is that whatever it is that is being said doesn't make sense as something being said by whoever the author is claiming is saying that. It's this criticism that I think is most correct in Myers view of contemporary literature, and the one point that his critics have to counter if they want to save Myers targets from his attacks. That is, I think Myers does a very good job of marshaling his examples of this that it's a substantial argument on his part. The argument runs that an author's voice ought to subsume itself to the voice of a character at all times through a book rather than pushing through and printing itself on the characters. The reason that an author ought to do this is that not doing so displays a lack of the multivalence that characterizes novels and a lack of sensitivity to difference in the human condition as evidenced in language. If Myers is correct that this goes on and is heralded as good writing—and he makes a compelling argument that it does—then I think he has to be right on this point. Which means that if his critics are going to respond to him, they need to create an argument that supports the trumping by authorial voice. This is something that his critics do not attempt.

4.) Sloppiness is not impressionism. This criticism is the most implicit in Myers critical writings in that I don't think it's a view that the critic has fully fleshed out for himself. Primarily, the criticism takes the shape of what he tends to compare to Annie Proulx, that is, a smattering of images strung together without connective tissue in order to paint a large, vague, impressionistic portrait as a form of description. Here Myers also has a strong case that I agree with, but it's an argument that he has made less completely. Which is to say I think that on this point he's more vulnerable than he is on the others. So it strikes me as odd that he would not be called on this either.

Instead, he's called reactionary, or his position is made a strawman of either James Wood or Dale Peck and dismissed. I don't think this is particularly useful. Instead people who disagree with him ought to meet him on the grounds of his arguments and say why they disagree and what they believe in place of Myers clear and well expressed critical positions. Because to do otherwise is, frankly, bad criticism

Comments

Well done.

Well done.

"In a nutshell the view is

"In a nutshell the view is that whatever it is that is being said doesn't make sense as something being said by whoever the author is claiming is saying that. It's this criticism that I think is most correct in Myers view of contemporary literature, and the one point that his critics have to counter if they want to save Myers targets from his attacks. That is, I think Myers does a very good job of marshaling his examples of this that it's a substantial argument on his part. The argument runs that an author's voice ought to subsume itself to the voice of a character at all times through a book rather than pushing through and printing itself on the characters."

Yes. And yes if only because there's no chance of writing remaining good once the rule is broken. But then, Myers, in his eagerness to fight pretension, seems in his manifesto to mix up the trumping of authorial over character voice with belle lettres generally. That is, he seems to think that belletristic writing is so inherently flawed that one can't read his manifesto and agree with it generally without coming to the conclusion that one must write in a primarily plain style in order to write authentically, and write good stories. (He allows for some belle lettres, most conspicuously Nabokov and Hemingway (the latter probably so surrounded by the stereotyping of fame that people tend to forget he could be a very precise stylist, but on the whole the manifesto's message struck me as being: git rid of yer five dollar words!)

I have mixed feelings about Myers' critical position, and one reason is what you cite above: a tendency of those criticize Myers (in particular, his recent on Tree of Smoke -- a book I haven't read yet, and I suspect some of those who attack Myers' criticism haven't read yet either) to portray him in black-and-white terms. His argument is described as simple when it's not. But while I think Myers is a frequently perceptive reader -- like a lot of good critics, he can be hilarious when he's scathing -- he is also an ideologue, and that's where his conflation of bad belle lettres with the notion that belle lettres must *usually* be phony falls apart. Read several short stories in lit magazines to see how much a certain degree of successfully practiced belletristic writing can elevate a rather prosaic story into something worth finishing.

I also have mixed feelings on Myers-as-style-prophet because for a few years now I've been promoting the idea of the screenplay-novel (Eric was kind enough to offer some feedback early on), and I've repeatedly been criticized (often by people who haven’t read much of the work) as promoting a kind of writing that "can't" be literary because, well -- because we all know screenplay writing is hack writing and mass culture sucks and any author who'd dare write in the style of a screenplay must be a sell-out, etc., etc. (Ironically, I tend to admire what I consider good belles lettres, and pay close attention to style in my writing. But it seems literary discourse in the early days of the 21st Century doesn't require one read a work before forming an opinion about it. In any event, and acknowledging that at this point I'm prompted in part by bruised feelings which may be of no interest to anyone else, I have a stake in this issue.)

At the same time, Myers isn't just arguing for a particular aesthetic position; he's arguing to save contemporary writing from that mysterious something that seems to be eating away at its importance to the larger culture. In other words, he's arguing as a diagnostician. Whether his diagnosis is right to the degree of possessing an insuperable precision – that's another question.