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American literary criticism

Parents: American literature - literary criticism

People: Edgar Allan Poe - Edmund Wilson - Leslie Fiedler - Norman O. Brown

An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose (2001) - B. R. Myers

A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose (2002) - B. R. Myers [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

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. --An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose by B. R. Myers, 2001

A Reader's Manifesto is an article, written by B. R. Myers, from the July/August 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. The article, which saw no end of responses from admirers and critics, is, as Myers had described it, "a light-hearted polemic" about modern literature.

Myers is particularly concerned with what he sees as the growing pretentiousness of American literary fiction. He is skeptical about the value of elaborate, allusive prose, and argues that what is praised as good writing is often in fact the epitome of bad writing. His attack concentrates on E. Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, David Guterson, Don DeLillo, and (in the conclusion) Rick Moody, all of whom have enjoyed a great deal of acclaim from what critic Judith Shulevitz characterizes as the "literary establishment." Myers levels many of his harshest charges at literary critics for prestigious publications such as the New York Times Book Review, whom he accuses of lavishing praise upon bad writing because they do not understand it, which (according to Myers) makes them assume it must have great artistic merit.

Myers uses a number of oft-quoted passages from the above authors to make his argument. Where critics refer to Annie Proulx's writing as lyrical, Myers states that her sentences "call to mind a bad photographer hurrying through a slide-show...." He accuses Guterson of producing "concatenation[s] of uninspired phrases set to an elegiac cadence." The strength of Myers' analysis is his examination of quotations that had previously been held up for praise by other critics.

For many critics, Myers is simply continuing the popular attack on postmodernism, of which John Gardner (On Moral Fiction) was the most recent proponent, though Myers offers a more light-hearted, textural analysis. It so happens that Myers's favorite "modern" authors (Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow) are, to Gardner, the albatross of art's modern failures.

Critics also found Myers's choice of targets odd given the implication that he was attacking a new or current trend. Authors like Cormac McCarthy and Don Delillo have been publishing since the late 60s or early 70s, with their major works falling 15 years or more before Myers' "Manifesto." If these older authors were going to be analyzed, the critics found it odd that other older yet still publishing authors like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth were not discussed, Roth and Bellow easily being more towering figures in modern American literature than Guterson or Auster. In short, many critics felt Myers was being highly selective in his choice of targets; and that the five chosen were in no way representative of the entire spectrum of literary fiction (even well-selling and award-winning literary fiction) being published then[2].

Myers' article attracted heated criticism from aficionados of American literary fiction, especially of the authors Myers mentioned by name. Some critics charged Myers with being selective in his choice of targets, and of cherry picking particularly unreadable passages from the authors' works to make his point.

Melville House published an expanded edition of the article in a book titled A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose. (ISBN 0971865906) The book includes a section in response to the large amount of criticism directed at the original essay. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Reader's_Manifesto [May 2006]

See also: literature - nobrow

The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television (2006) - Kathleen Fitzpatrick

The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television (2006) - Kathleen Fitzpatrick [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

As Paul Mann’s Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde suggests, such obituaries [e.g. of poetry] must be read with a skeptical eye:

Throughout the history of the avant-garde, guardians of tradition, ideologues of various parties, and a host of parasites, promoters, and dreamers have been ready with the news of the passing of this or that once-innovative movement or style; modern culture is typified by such deaths, by the death of painting, the death of the novel, the death of the author, the death of x or y movement, even the death of the new.

And Don DeLillo delights in the death of the novel:

If I were a writer,” Owen said, “how I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating, to work in the margins, outside a central perception. You are the ghoul of literature. Lovely.” --Don DeLillo, The Names

It almost goes without saying that the rise in popularity of television has killed the audience for "serious" literature. This is such a given that reading Fitzpatrick's challenge to this notion can be very disconcerting, as she traces the ways in which a small cadre of writers of "serious" literature - DeLillo, Pynchon, and Franzen, for instance - have propagated this myth in order to set themselves up as the last bastions of good writing. Fitzpatrick first explores whether serious literature was ever as all-pervasive as critics of the television culture claim, and then asks the obvious question: what, or who, exactly, are these guys defending good writing against? Fitzpatrick examines the ways in which the anxiety about the supposed death of the novel is built on a myth of the novel's past ubiquity and its present displacement by television. She explores the ways in which this myth plays out in and around contemporary fiction, and how it serves as a kind of unacknowledged discourse about race, class, and gender. The declaration constructs a minority status for the "white male author" who needs protecting from television's largely female and increasingly non-white audience. The novel, then, is transformed from a primary means of communication into an ancient, almost forgotten, and thus, treasured form reserved for the well-educated and well-to-do, and the men who practice it are exalted as the practitioners of an almost lost art. Such positioning serves to further marginalize women writers and writers of color, because it makes the novel, by definition, the preserve of the poor endangered white man. If the novel is only a product of a small group of white men, how can the contributions of women and writers of color be recognized? Instead, this positioning abandons women and people of color to television as a creative outlet, and in return, cedes television to them. Fitzpatrick argues that there's a level of unrecognized patronization in assuming that television serves no purpose but to provide dumb entertainment to bored women and others too stupid to understand novels. And, instead, she demonstrates the real positive effects of a televisual culture. --via Amazon.com

--http://www.anxietyofobsolescence.com/ [May 2006]

See also: novel - television

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