Dispatches | December 05, 2007
The Artful Insult
I’ve been a fan of B.R. Myers since reading his essay “A Reader’s Manifesto” in the Atlantic Monthly in 2001 and have taught the piece to my creative writing students every semester since. Everyone likes their suspicions confirmed, and Myers provides cogent explanations for why I couldn’t get past the first few pages of Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, Don DeLillo’s White Noise and almost everything by Paul Auster. I thought it was me, but Myers shows with numerous purple passages plucked from the pages of these over-praised novels that the failure resides with the authors, who too frequently “exploit the license of poetry while claiming exemption from poetry’s rigorous standards of precision and polish.” In short, these books are sloppily written.
Delighted with “Manifesto,” I look forward to Myers’s nasty reviews, which are most often targeted at what passes today for “serious” literary fiction. In a recent review in the Atlantic Monthly he doesn’t disappoint. In “A Bright Shining Lie,” a savage review of Denis Johnson’s new book Tree of Smoke, Myers writes that no book review “can convey the tedium of reading bad prose in such unrelieved bulk,” citing several examples of Johnson’s lazy, cliché-ridden, repetitive prose style.
With his heavy-hitting reviews B.R. Myers challenges William Logan’s mantle as the most hated literary critic in the business. Like Myers, Logan’s spot-on judgments edge toward insult. In a review of the poetry of Frieda Hughes, the pedigreed daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Logan writes that literary talent is obviously not genetic. He goes on to say that she has had the benefit of nature and nurture and still there’s not a decent poem to be found in her debut collection Wooroloo. His cutting words captured the mixture of disappointment and disgust that I felt when reading Hughes’s poems in the New Yorker. One week she’s writing about a ferret and the next week about poppies, as if she can’t decide which parent’s style and subject matter to knock off.
There are few buyers of poetry and serious literary fiction, by some accounts a mere four thousand, who can be counted on to purchase any given title. And the apprenticeship of the writer is long and arduous and lonely. So then one might argue that Myers and Logan are picking on the wrong people. None of the writers they bash are imperialistic CEOs with $9,000 shower curtains and gold plated toilet bowls. All writers toil, even on the bad books.
Still it is vital for the health of writing to demand a level of expertise and artfulness from writers, especially our most prized and popular writers. And when they don’t deliver, Myers and Logan are ready and willing to deliver a dose of literary tough love.
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