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Why Great Literature Contains Everything But a Clear Answer: A Defense of Serious Fiction

July 29, 2001|LEE SIEGEL | Lee Siegel is a contributing writer to Book Review and a contributing editor to Harper's and The New Republic

Democracy beckons to a beautiful condition, but it also offers a wicked pretext. We should beware of those--including this writer--who claim to speak on our behalf. In an article in the current Atlantic magazine, titled "A Reader's Manifesto," one B.R. Myers claims to be speaking on behalf of the common reader. He rails against abstraction and pretentiousness, against inflated, self-consciously literary prose, against "pseudo-intellectual writing" and "fancy-pants language." Choosing as evidence several critically acclaimed and commercially successful writers, he places excerpts from their work under the light of common sense and actual experience. Myers' screed has received considerable attention in newspapers from Los Angeles to London.

Myers has a particular criterion, which grows out of a special gripe. As he told an interviewer on National Public Radio, right after his article appeared:

"In 1982, Don DeLillo published a novel called 'The Names.' And the narrator of this novel is an American based in Greece who routinely lies to his concierge about where he's traveling. He says he's going to England, but then he really goes to Japan and so on. Now the narrator tries to tell us, in all seriousness, that these little deceptions raise grave philosophical questions. And I quote, 'What was I tampering with: the human faith in naming, the lifelong system of images in Nico's brain?' End of quote. Now let's talk about this for a second. Tell your listeners right now that I'm flying to Canada tonight but, in fact, I fly to Mexico, then I'm not tampering with a system of names and images in everyone's brain. Even if they know where I'm really going, they'll just conclude that I'm a liar."

Los Angeles Times Sunday July 29, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 16 inches; 548 words Type of Material: Correction
Editor's note: Some type is partially obscured in the following excerpt from Lee Siegel's essay published today beginning on page 6 of Book Review. The article is also posted in its entirety at http://
The strange thing is that McGrath, and other overseers of the culture, are adopting their condescending outlooks at a time when people are flocking to the art museums, when there are more book clubs and reading groups than ever before, when more people are returning to college to enrich their lives, when more literary magazines are being published, more art galleries are opening than at any time in recent memory. But then, maybe that's why the custodians of the culture are worrying over and spreading the illusion of the public's limited predilections. If everybody loves Shakespeare, how special can he be? The condescension of officially refined taste is matched only by its insecurity.
It's the high echelons of official culture that are showing signs of decline, not the many people who hunger for complex and meaningful works of art. Myers might declaim, from the lofty altitude of The Atlantic, on the "declining standards of American prose since the 1950s," on the "declining" reading skills of the American people, on "the declining literacy of book reviewers," even on "the decline of the long sentence," but he himself does not seem able to read, write, or interpret complex American prose. Some of his examples may indeed be pretentious, but his readings are uncomprehending.
To begin with, Myers has a fatally weak grasp of logic. Savaging Annie Proulx, he writes that "Luckily for Proulx, many readers today expect literary language to be so remote from normal speech as to be routinely incomprehensible." Several paragraphs later, he reverses himself, declaring that Proulx "seems unaware that all innovative language derives its impact from the contrast to straightforward English." Trying to avoid the appearance of being a philistine, he displays his reverence for Henry James, truly one of the most unhurried writers in the history of literature, yet he mocks Ha Jin's novel "Waiting" for its "slow pace."
Myers complains that what he calls "genre" novels--novels with a "strong element of action"--don't get reviewed in the major newspapers, while what he characterizes as "self-conscious, writerly" fiction (no action) hogs all the review space. But then he again reverses himself and informs us that "many critically acclaimed novels today are no more than mediocre 'genre' stories told in a conformist amalgam of approved 'literary' style." So if so-called serious fiction is really "genre" fiction in disguise, what happens to Myers' lament that action and exciting storytelling have been marginalized? It seems instead that serious fiction writers are submitting

In his essay, Myers contrasts this kind of mendacity with a passage from Saul Bellow's "The Victim," which Myers praises for the way it accurately represents reality: "Scenes that show why a character falls in love are rarely convincing in novels. This one works beautifully...." Jonathan Yardley, chief book critic of The Washington Post, thanked Myers for a long-overdue blow to writing that transports us so far from ordinary life that we can barely recognize, as we read, our everyday world of appearances.

Myers argues that such language, with its bewildering verbiage, intimidates readers into thinking that they are in the presence of an artistic mystery, when they are merely being duped by a lot of nonartistic smoke and mirrors, as in the following four examples:

* "Such are the visions which ceaselessly float up, pace beside, put their faces in front of, the actual thing; often overpowering the solitary traveler and taking away from him the sense of the earth, the wish to return, and giving him for substitute a general peace, as if (so he thinks as he advances down the forest ride) all this fever of living were simplicity itself...."

* "All of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do but what he just had to do, had to do it whether he wanted to or not, because if he did not do it he knew that he could never live with himself for the rest of his life, never live with what all the men and women that had died to make him had left inside of him for him to pass on, with all the dead ones waiting and watching to see if he was going to do it right...."

* "I felt this was no mere formula of desperate speech, but a real alternative in the view of a strong soul."

* "She trusts me, her hand gentle, the long-lashed eyes. Now where the blue hell am I bringing her beyond the veil? Into the ineluctable modality of the ineluctable visuality."

Myers chooses his quotations from five writers--Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, DeLillo, Paul Auster, David Guterson--and then invokes such counter-examples as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, Joseph Conrad--"no one ... ever had to wonder what Joseph Conrad was trying to say in a particular sentence"--and William Faulkner. Myers writes: "If the new dispensation [for complicated prose] were to revive good 'Mandarin' writing--to use the term coined by the British critic Cyril Connolly for the prose of writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce--then I would be the last to complain." But, he asserts, that's just not what's happening.

Rather, we are getting the absurdity of "their face in front of" ... whatever, or the pretentiousness of repeating the verb "to do" or the total opacity of "a real alternative in the view of a strong soul" or the nonsense of "the ineluctable modality of the ineluctable visuality." Well, not exactly. The excerpts I've quoted are, in the order I quoted them, from Woolf, Faulkner, Conrad--he of the transparent sentence--and Joyce. Myers' principle is a good one--self-conscious "creative" writing has been marring American fiction for years, and critics have been lampooning it for years--but his method of ripping imaginative prose out of its context is foolishly flawed, and his premises are dangerously wrong.

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