The recent review by B.R. Myers of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (he hated it), brought to mind the Myers essay in The Atlantic Monthly from a few years ago (June 2001) called “A Reader’s Manifesto.” Turns out that Myers turned that essay into a small book by restoring sections the Atlantic’s editors had cut and adding a rebuttal to his critics. It is a quick read, and worthy of consideration, even if one doesn’t agree with everything he says.
The subtitle of the book is “An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose” and in it he takes on Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster and David Guterson as being representative of this problem. (Others come in for criticism along the way, like Jonathan Franzen and Rick Moody, but the toughest stuff is reserved for those five.)
Proulx, Myers argues, uses overwrought imagery, often devoting more than one metaphor to a single image, and using them in such rapid succession that he calls it a “slide-show technique,” one that doesn’t allow the reader time to realize the imprecision of any single image. Certainly the passages Myers quotes make this point. And I’m sympathetic; a jumble of metaphors will usually turn me off, and I believe all evocative prose really needs is one good metaphor per page.
DeLillo. Myers says DeLillo is an example of Consumerland fiction, heavy, unsubtle, incoherent irony about the American wasteland.
McCarthy. His “muscular prose” is just overwrought and archaic, says Myers, filled with “accumulations” in the same way that Proulx’s is. Myers also says the dialogue is unbelievable and also complains about the lack of quotation marks being pretentious.
Auster. Although Myers says Auster is considered a spare writer, he does a good job of convincing me that Auster is in fact an over-writer. The passages quoted are filled with “twigs” (to use a term Elizabeth Strout drummed into me).
Guterson. Myers accuses Guterson of “repetitive sluggishness,” which also doesn’t seem wrong. He is filled with purposeless “lexicological speedbumps”.
I believe there is some truth in all of this criticism. I wish Myers had identified contemporary writers he did like, though, because his insistence that he will stick with the classics seems as pretentious as the overwritten prose he is attacking. I wonder what others think of his argument?