The Soul-Sucking Suckiness of B.R. Myers

November 1, 2010 | 3 books mentioned 75 8 min read

The Bad Boy’s Anger

One opens The Atlantic Monthly and is promptly introduced to a burst of joyless contrarianism. Tiring of it, one skims ahead to the book reviews, only to realize: this is the book review. A common experience for even the occasional reader of B.R. Myers, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft and execution. Myers writes as if the purpose of criticism were to obliterate its object. He scores his little points, but so what? Do reviewers really believe that isolating a few unlovely lines in a five hundred page novel, ignoring the context for that unloveliness, and then pooh-poohing what remains constitutes a reading? Is this what passes for judgment these days?

If so, Myers would have a lot to answer for. But in the real world, instances don’t yield general truths with anything like the haste of a typical Myers paragraph (of which the foregoing is a parody). And so, even as he grasps for lofty universalism, Brian Reynolds Myers remains sui generis, the bad boy of reviewers, lit-crit’s  Dennis Rodman.

coverMyers came to prominence, or what passes for it in the media microcosmos, via “A Reader’s Manifesto,” a long jeremiad against “the modern ‘literary’ best seller” and “the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose.” It earned notice primarily for its attack on the work and reputation of novelists lauded for their style – Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and E. Annie Proulx, among others. Many of these writers were ripe for reevaluation, and “A Reader’s Manifesto” was read widely enough to land Myers a contributing editor gig at The Atlantic. It was subsequently published as a stand-alone book. Yet the essay was itself little more than an exercise in style, and not a very persuasive one at that. It was hard to say which was more irritating: Myers’ scorched-earth certainties; his method, a kind of myopic travesty of New Criticism; or his own prose, a donnish pastiche of high-minded affectation and dreary cliché.

I can’t be the only reader who wanted to cry out against the manifesto being promulgated on my behalf, but Myers had insulated himself in several ways. First, he had been so thoroughgoingly tendentious, and at such length, that to rebut his 13,000 words required 13,000 of one’s own. Second: his jadedness was infectious. It made one weary of reading, weary of writing, weary of life. Finally, in the The Atlantic‘s letters section, he showed himself to be no less willing to resort to pugnacious misreadings of his correspondents than he had been of his original subjects. “I have no idea why Jed Cohen thinks I have disparaged a hundred years of literature…” he wrote, in an exchange about his Tree of Smoke review. “Saying that reputations must never be reviewed would place reviewers above criticism.” No, one wanted to object. Saying that reviewers must never be reviewed would place reviewers above criticism. Mr. Cohen is himself criticizing a reviewer. But to argue with Myers was, manifestly, to summon his contempt. And so he whirled mirthlessly on, flourishing the word “prose” like a magic wand, working pale variations on his Reader’s Manifesto. In your face, Toni Morrison!

To date, I have yet to read a comprehensive debunking of the Myers bunkum. But his recent review of Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom really does seem to invite one – not so much because I liked the book and he didn’t, or because it caught the eye of David Brooks and from there spread to the far corners of the Internet, but because of the willfulness of his misrepresentations to the reader, and the radical degree of projection involved. To the long-time Myers watcher, the review, titled, “Smaller Than Life” looks to be a giant mirror: what Myers takes to be the philistinism of contemporary literature is an enormous reflection of his own.

Close Reading

coverMyers premises his complaints against Freedom on the “smallness” of its characters – their likeness to “the folks next door.” In support of these descriptions, he tenders a few details from the text: Patty Berglund bakes cookies and is “relatively dumber” than her siblings. Her husband Walter has a red face and his “most salient quality . . . [is] his niceness.” Richard Katz is a womanizing punk musician. See? Tiny. Insignificant. “Nonentities.” But even at this early stage of the argument, what should be obvious to even unsympathetic readers of the book is the smallness of Myers’ imagination. Set Richard Katz aside for the moment (maybe Myers lives next door to some priapic indie rockers). Isn’t “relatively dumber” – an elaboration of the idea that Patty’s siblings “were more like what her parents had been hoping for” – meant to tell us more about Patty’s self-image than about her IQ? Patty will return to the theme in her whip-smart autobiography, after all. And mightn’t some readers find this will-to-averageness “interesting,” psychologically speaking? Also: Isn’t Walter’s most “salient” quality (carefully elided in Myers’ quotation) actually “his love of Patty?” And “salient” for whom? Not for the author, but for the subtly anti-Berglund neighbors on Ramsey Hill, whose point-of-view mediates the novel’s opening section, “Good Neighbors.” Either unwittingly or purposefully, Myers has made a cardinal error. He has mistaken the characters’ angle of vision for the novelist’s.

As if to compensate for the oversight, he hastily concedes that the “insignificance” of its principals (again, insignificance to whom?) need not doom a novel itself to insignificance: “A good storyteller can interest us in just about anybody, as Madame Bovary demonstrates.” Invidious comparison alert! But Myers seems to have not read Madame Bovary, or, at best, to have paid it the same glancing attention he pays to Freedom. For the former has more to tell us about the latter’s style than about its “storytelling.”

coverThough Franzen’s temperament is warmer – he doesn’t aspire to Flaubert‘s fearsome objectivity – his technique relies to an unusual degree on the free indirect discourse Madame Bovary pioneered. Flaubert inhabits his characters, Lydia Davis tells us in the introduction to her new translation, in order to “[hold] up a miror to the middle- and lower-middle-class world of his day, with all its little habits, fashions, fads.” Irony is everywhere present, especially, she writes elsewhere, “in the words and phrases in the novel to which he gives special emphasis” – that is, underlining or italics.

They appear throughout the novel, starting on the first page with new boy. With this emphasis he is drawing attention to language that was commonly, and unthinkingly, used to express shared ideas that were also unquestioned.

Freedom, too, aims to be contemporary – perhaps even, as Myers puts it, “strenuously” so. But the scattered instances of “juvenile” glibness and vulgarity he portrays as its mother-tongue (“the local school ‘sucked’. . . Patty was ‘very into’ her teenage son, who, in turn was ‘fucking’ the girl next door”) are not unexamined symptoms of “a world in which nothing can happen.” Rather, like Flaubert’s common, unthinking phrases, they are necessary constituents of the novel’s attempt to show that world its face in the mirror. And if Franzen “hints at no frame of reference from which we are to judge his prose critically,” it’s only because he assumes his readers have read other novels written since 1850, and so already possess that frame themselves.

Not that Myers has any apparent trouble “judging the prose”; Franzen’s is “slovenly,” he insists. Nor is this the only place he seeks to have it both ways. The vulgarity he imputes at first to Franzen he finally does get around to pinning on Patty…but only to demonstrate that she “is too stupid to merit reading about.” Conversely, Franzen’s attempts at eloquence reveal him to be one of those people “who think highly enough of their own brains” that they must “worry about being thought elitist.” (Stupid people, smart people, “middlebrow” people; is there anyone who doesn’t count as a “nonentity,” in B.R. Myers book?)

It would be a mistake, however – a Myers-ish one – to read too much into this incoherence. The simple fact is that Myers’ conception of language is itself vulgar. “Prose,” for him, equals syntax plus diction, and is expected to denote, rather than to evoke. He positions himself as prose’s defender. But when he uses the word, or its cousin, “style,” what he’s really asking is for it to give way to more and faster plot. (It’s a preference Flaubert would have regarded with some amusement. “‘These days, what I really adore are stories that can be read all in one go,'” he has his protagonist say. “‘I detest common heroes and moderate feelings.'”) Myers dismisses one of Franzen’s showier metaphors – “Gene…stirred the cauldrons like a Viking oarsman” – as “half-baked,” with no consideration for the way it connects to the Minnesota Vikings-themed rec room of the opening pages, or the Vikings garb these Minnesotans wear, or ultimately to “the old Swedish-gened depression” Gene’s son, Walter, feels “seeping up inside him . . . like a cold spring at the bottom of a warmer lake.” Similarly, Myers writes off Freedom’s ornithological tropes as clichés, while giving us, in his own voice, sinking hearts, pushed luck, “busy lives,” “[getting] a pass,” “aspects of society,” “interesting individuals” – shopworn phrase following shopworn phrase “as the night the day.”

(This is not to mention the larger cliché of think-piece provocation – the You thought it was black, but really it’s white school of journalism. It’s no coincidence that “A Reader’s Manifesto” appeared in a magazine that was clawing back market share with cover slugs like Is God an Accident? and Did Christianity Cause the Crash? and The End of White America? and The End of Men. The approach would be codified, with no apparent irony, in the 2008 relaunch slogan: “The Atlantic. Think. Again.” But is “thinking” really le mot juste here? It’s surely no commendation for a critic that we know what he’s going to say about a novelist before we’ve read the review. Or before either of us has read the book.)

Remarkably, Myers even manages to be wrong when he tries to concede something positive about Freedom. “Perhaps the only character who holds the reader’s interest is Walter,” he writes. But the adult Walter is by far the novel’s least fully realized character. Of course, this late softening in the review is probably, like the invocation of Emma B., purely rhetorical, but I’ll condescend, as a demonstration of my own fair-mindedness, to grant Myers exactly the same degree of benefit of the doubt he imagines he’s extending to Franzen.

He is absolutely correct that contemporary book reviewers are far too “reluctan[t] to quote from the text,” but he confuses close-reading with mere assertive quotation. He consistently shows himself, here and elsewhere, to be deaf to point-of-view, tone, and implication. Indeed, he seems to revel in this deafness. (He quotes a line of capitalized dialogue – “I KNOW IT’S NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN” – and then confesses, with italics. “I have no idea what this is meant to sound like.”) This is sort of like an art critic trumpeting his glaucoma. Or like a restaurant reviewer who can’t stomach meat.

Who’s Down in Whoville?

Of course, Myers’ real target isn’t Jonathan Franzen, or even “the modern literary bestseller,” so much as it is “our age, the Age of Unseriousness.” The old values – truth, civility, Seriousness – are seen to be under attack from “chat-room[s] . . . Twitter . . . The Daily Show . . . the blogosphere,” and “our critical establishment.” Extremism in their defense can be no vice. But, as with conservative pundits of many stripes, Myers is perfectly willing to be “truthy,” uncivil, and unserious himself, when it suits his purposes. “I especially liked how the author got a pass for the first chapter,” he huffs at one point, with the sarcasm of a high-school Heather. Thus does he participate in the destruction of value he claims to lament.

Moreover, Myers has, symptomatically, mistaken a signifier for the thing it signifies. The underlying cause of the contemporary ills he keeps alluding to is not the coarseness of our language, but our narcissism, whose most “salient” form (as I’ve argued elsewhere) is a seen-it-all knowingness that inflates the observer at the expense of the thing observed. In this sense, B.R. Myers couldn’t be more of-the-moment. It’s no wonder he’s baffled by those turns of phrase by which the novelist seeks to disappear into his characters.

Finally – and most damningly – Myers has little to tell us about beauty. For Flaubert’s contemporary Baudelaire, beauty was

made up of an eternal, invariable element . . . and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be. . . the age – its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Without this second element, which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake, the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion.

In his dyspeptic disregard for what might be amusing, enticing, or appetizing about the world we live in – his inability, that is, to read like a writer, or write like a reader – B.R. Myers has placed contemporary literature in toto beyond his limited powers. He offers us, in place of insight, only indigestion.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. All true. The Meyers approach is so scattershot and self-serving that it could be used against everyone from Rabelais and Murasaki Shikibu to Melville and Tanizaki. Even if we grant some of the flaws that Meyers finds in our writers, he begs the larger question of why earlier writers have had similar flaws yet still remain worth reading. It’s impossible to figure out why Meyers picks certain writers for special condemnation when his standards could be applied to discredit nearly every novelist who has ever written.

  2. I’m not sure why The Atlantic continues to publish Myers’s literary criticism. I haven’t yet read Freedom (though I have read The Corrections–twice–and The Twenty-Seventh City, Franzen’s first novel) or Tree of Smoke, but I have read much of the other fiction pilloried by Myers in his various pieces published by The Atlantic over the past several years and I find that he discredits himself with his lack of subtlety or nuance. His fault-finding is in service of his cant; he lacks a fine literary sensibility (or if he possesses one, it is thoroughly obscured by his published prose) and what I think he intends as vigorous literary criticism (something akin to what Edmund Wilson produced) comes off as the cantankerous point-scoring of a crank.

    To give him his due, though, I understand that he is a professor at a university in South Korea and has recently published a well-received book on North Korea. Perhaps he should stick to teaching and writing about subjects that are commensurate with the size of his talent.

  3. I’m hardly a fan of FREEDOM, but I found it hilarious that Myers would point to MADAME BOVARY as the antithesis to Franzen’s “vulgarity.” Any literature undergrad knows that the Revue de Paris editors were put on trial shortly after BOVARY’S publication because Flaubert’s work was deemed morally offensive. Or what some 19th century Myers might describe as “reassuring vulgarity.” Like Myers, the prosecution against Flaubert attempted to fight on specific passages and phrases. And like Myers, the prosecution was taken with misreading.

  4. Nice article. You say: “To date, I have yet to read a comprehensive debunking of the Myers bunkum.” Try Steven Moore’s excellent introduction to his book The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 –you can currently read the whole introduction on Amazon.

  5. So, to get this straight: You wrote a piece criticizing a piece that is essentially a criticism of other critics.

  6. Reading this article made me realize why, despite having a writing degree, I never hung out with the writing majors at school: The literary world is so filled with pompous pricks, you’d swear you’re in some Victorian ball reenactment.

    Now, B.R. Myers is an asshat, make no bones about that. The lack of any positivity in any of his criticisms gives him a nihilist element that you don’t want in any form of criticism for any medium.

    But when this is the best we could offer for critics who are capable of subverting critical conventions, then what does that say about the rest of literary criticism? It’s like the literary world has forgotten that the modern world exists outside their ever-reinforced bubble, and has changed very little as a result, with the exceptional amount of brown-nosing. There’s no Mark Richardson or Ben Croshaw or Chuck Klosterman in the literary world. There’s never been a Lester Bangs. B.R. Myers seems to make an attempt at being the latter, but it comes across as sounding flaccid as a eunuch.

    And reading the comments, it only just seems to reinforce the unfortunate problem that Myers kind of understands, but fails to even attack. Example: “Any literature undergrad knows that the Revue de Paris editors were put on trial shortly after BOVARY’S publication because Flaubert’s work was deemed morally offensive.” The moment I read “Any literature undergrad,” the question must be begged: Why would anyone else CARE then? There are very small amount of people who hold literature degrees FOR A REASON. It’s a largely useless piece of information.

    Man, I could build a Ripfork-like site for book reviews, and spend days on end just trashing these reviews. The amount of pretension that literary criticism gives and gets from literature is enough to refill the Aral Sea. Honestly, B.R. Myers may be soul-sucking, but the level of vapidity in the literary world is enough to suck out the souls of an entire country in one swoop.

  7. The amount of posturing that youl get from a comment on a comment on an article on a review on a book is enough to refill the Aral Sea! It only serves to reinforce the unfortunate problem that people will get their panties in a bunch over what was merely a jocular aside. Question marks, I hereby challenge you to a water pistol fight at Times Square on January 11, 2011, at 11:11 AM. I don’t care if it snows!

  8. For what it’s worth, in college (during the Bronze Age) I took what I think were the minimum requirements in English and Lit–my majors were Political Science and Business (minors–back when liberal arts colleges had such quaint things–in Philosophy and Economics). Though I read, I do so as a non-specialist. I’m naive enough to believe this doesn’t disqualify my opinions on literature or its criticism. To my knowledge, I’ve never been called a pompous prick, though I was an attorney, so perhaps it went without saying.

  9. Thank you for this. But my complaint is with The Atlantic for giving this guy a forum; supposedly there are editors making the decision to spotlight this ranter. I feel like I did when New York magazine’s critic was John Simon, another contrarian trainwreck. Sells magazines to be controversial I guess, even if it means dumbing down the conversation and further digging the grave of intelligent criticism in the print media.

  10. You left out the period when you quoted the capitalized line (“I KNOW IT’S NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN.”), which is important because the reason why Meyers couldn’t understand how it’s supposed to sound is because IT’S ALL CAPS WITHOUT AN EXCLAMATION MARK.

  11. I lost interest in “Freedom” as soon as Franzen informs us that Patty is fundamentally incapable of making a moral judgment about anything. Oh great, here comes Emma Bovary again. Read that, don’t need to read it again.

    I don’t know about Myers. But I do know that when it comes to fiction, I don’t like shooting at fish in a barrel, and that’s how Patty has been designed by Franzen in “Freedom” — as a fish trapped in his barrel, to be shot at by his readers with his gun.

  12. If any arrogant wrongheaded jerk needed a dressing-down, it’s Myers. Hallberg’s response is impassioned and well-reasoned and important, and I’m grateful he took on the task.

    The appropriate response to someone like Myers ought to sound something like Steve Jobs’s retaliation to a very persistent, very critical journalist: “By the way, what have you ever done that’s so great?”

  13. it seems to me that were myers to read this post and its subsequent responses he may well declare mission accomplished. Isn’t it the critic’s role to be critical, and to be, yea, even an asshole? Also even if you do not agree with Myers, isn’t he kind of a kick in the pants to read? or consider James woods. The fact that so many people passionately hate him does not discount his opinions, but rather proves his relevance. He’s fulfilling a role. As old Baudrillard says, “theoretical violence, not truth, is the only resource left us.”

  14. Great piece. I agree with FR that Myers fulfills a necessary gadfly role. Part of the purpose of a gadfly, though, is to force others to think more carefully about why they do or don’t agree with him. If you compare Myers to James Wood, you can see that Myers incites a lot of angry responses not simply because he’s so unrelentingly negative but because the vast majority of people don’t find his points very convincing. With Wood, you see the opposite: he started out as a contrarian and has now been so effective at presenting his viewpoint that he has managed to have some impact on the ways that today’s novelists are writing. Myers serves a useful purpose, but it’s the purpose of making people think about how they can defend good work from his arbitrary and overstated abuse–which is what I think this piece does very well. James Wood actually succeeds in making writers think about what they’re doing and consider their flaws.

  15. Great point, RTW. I, too, was thinking about James Wood while reading this essay, and Myers’s stomach-churning “review” of Freedom. As much as Wood rankles me, I agree with a lot of his arguments–because they’re actually arguments, as opposed to Myers’s cherry-picked passages served up as evidence of a book’s meaninglessness.

    Also, having read Myers’s review of Freedom, wherein 99% of the critic’s sentences aren’t just negative, but relentlessly unkind, I have to wonder if this kind of vitriol isn’t better off reserved for more pressing and dangerous issues, like violence and racism. No lie, I had to stop reading the review midway through it and then pick it up again later. I needed a break before I could continue; it’s hard to digest that much spite in one sitting.

  16. Joshua, I agree about the viciousness of BRM’s “essay” “about” “Freedom.” (Once you start using scare quotes w/ Myers, it’s hard to know when to stop.) It was really hard to stomach, and made me angry — in a much different way than I get angry at James Wood when I violently disagree w/ him. My Wood anger is affectionate, civil, & competitive. My Myer anger makes me want to fight his gang with my gang.

    Just a minor quibble with what you said above: I object to the “What have *you* ever done that’s so great?” response to a critic — it strikes me as an ad hominem cop-out that should be abandoned forever. A well-reasoned critique from Mr. Nobody carries the same weight as a well-reasoned critique from Mr. Fellow Successful Novelist. Unless you want to make the case that *only* a successful artist can meaningfully review another successful artist’s work, which I think is insane. (Although plenty of writers — Pound leaps to mind — have made this case. But then Pound was literally insane.)

    But then it’s possible I’m only saying this b/c I’m a book critic who’s never done anything great. So take it w/ a grain of salt.

  17. Point taken, Sam. There’s a lot of great and valuable criticism out there. Probably I would reserve the Steve Jobs riposte only for people as continuously and toxically negative as Myers.

    But back to what Gary said earlier, I think I’m more upset about the fact that a venue as widely read as The Atlantic is giving this guy a bully pulpit. Myers’s negativity is productive of almost nothing, save for online flame wars such as this one. That no other, better book critic applied for Myers’s job I find hard to imagine.

  18. To address Gary’s comment, The Atlantic Monthly needs subscribers. In 2005, you may recall that it cut costs and moved to DC. In 2008, the Atlantic ditched its paywall. And it’s hardly a surprise that the same desperate magazine that publishes alarmist and flimsily supportive essays from Lori Gottlieb (“Marry Him”) and Nicholas Carr (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) — both, incidentally, turned into books; both, incidentally, receiving considerable argument on the Internet — and that the same magazine that hired Caitlin Flanagan and Jeffrey Goldberg would be a home for BR Myers. This was once a very classy magazine that I used to subscribe to — even with Robert Kaplan. Even when it posted controversial essays, there was at least some factual underpinning or legitimate argument behind all the bluster. Now, no more. Thanks again, Garth, for the much needed corrective.

  19. A poet/reviewer friend of mine suggested once that he simply didn’t believe in the value of the negative review. Why do it? said he. If the book is bad, it won’t get any attention. If it’s bad and getting attention, then the bad review comes off as a self-serving “I am smarter than all you stupid readers out there.” Hmm…

    I thought of William Logan, a poetry analogy to Myers. This article by Eric McHenry in Slate a few years ago may be an interesting analog to this conversation. Logan is also a poet himself, which is interesting. (I don’t have the same hatred for Logan that some do, perhaps because I’m not a poet. I agree that his praise, albeit infrequent, is quite impassioned and contagious.)

  20. I don’t know that Myers makes the best and most ironclad case for why Freedom is not worth the praise it received, but ultimately, I don’t think he’s wrong. I’m somewhat baffled by all the love for Franzen, and know that I would never have chosen to read any of his novels were it not for the massive hype surrounding the last two. I find it depressing to know that this is what readers in America want, and for that reason, I understand where Myers is coming from, even if anyone can pick at the points he makes. Hallberg is depressed by the “soul-sucking” negativity of Myers, and I certainly agree that it would be tough to see him denigrate books I loved. In general, I’d rather turn to someone like Wyatt Mason or James Wood for criticism.

  21. Thanks for this broadside against Meyers.

    I for one loved Freedom. I thought it was a funny, joyful, and uncannily observant Zeitgeist novel. I don’t expect everyone to feel that way, but why does Meyers have to be such an insufferable little bitch about so many great writers?

    I cannot for the life of me understand why the Atlantic would publish him. While many commenting here don’t respect the Atlantic, I think it is a far better magazine than that, and I think the editors are smart enough to realize that Meyers long ago exhausted everything he has to say in the world of literary criticism. At least some of them.

    He is a single-minded crank. Like that distant old relative who was kind of fun when you first met him, because he was so unconventional, and willing to tip over sacred cows. But by the 3rd family get-together, you just want him to shut the fuck up. You’ve hear it all, you get the point.

    And I disagree with the commenter above who believes the point of criticism is to be critical “yea even an asshole”. I think the point of criticism is to engage and contribute to the larger conversation. And Meyers doesn’t do that. He is a conversation killer.

  22. “Either unwittingly or purposefully, Myers has made a cardinal error. He has mistaken the characters’ angle of vision for the novelist’s.”

    Actually, I think his point was the Franzen failed to develop the character’s voices and angles of vision so that they were in any way distinct from his own, which I agree with. Patty’s dairy, for example, read exactly like the rest of the book: smirky, clever but not too clever, pretty light, and pretty flat.

  23. I loved Meyer’s book, “The Cleanest Race,” an analysis of North Korea mainly through the historical evolution of its propaganda. So, I do not think that he is a “crank” or a “monster.” But, I have to say, I always found his literary criticism boring and confusing until I read your fine piece which allowed me to see “why.” Bravo! It is said that, “Historians make poor philosophers.” Perhaps he is some proof of the old addage. I have not read “Freedom,” but Meyers does indeed seem to always miss the fact that love of reading is never diminished by what the individual chooses to read, what resonates in a particular place in a particular time. Self-reference is a bad place for any critic to begin unless it is to confess that bias, in my opinion. And may I say, you are quite a writer yourself! Well done.

  24. BR Myers is unfortunately right on about Franzen, who *was* perhaps the best of the pseudo-Literary with a capital L writers in American letters. At least The Corrections was somewhat entertaining and not so focused on how dull everything was (the characters has somewhat satisfying internal revelations and weren’t entirely glib). Also, Myers was certainly right about Franzen striving to feel ultra-contemporary in his word choice and name-checks. I generally hate that sort of thing (which is partially why DeLillo tires me so easily) but Franzen really takes it to a look-away sort of level. In the Twenty-Seventh City, Franzen was an uneven writer, looking for his voice, but he wasn’t so smugly self-aware of being judged by a few literary insiders (his friends) and was able to search for meaning. I’m not against irony and the fascination with mediocrity, but Franzen seems psyched out, like he is incapable of writing characters infused with any meaning or revelation that isn’t written in a tone contemptuous or at least glibly dismissive of that meaning or revelation. I’m sure he has something to say, but this book unfortunately says nothing. This is even sadder to write as I’m a Swarthmore graduate as well.

    P.S. The Reader’s Manifesto, in article form, was right on and well needed. Novels are not performance art.

  25. Well aren’t I glad to have been steered over here by Andrew Sullivan, whose of no party or clique credo happily extends to recommending this trashing of his own magazine’s fiction pleasure-killing machine. (Remember, Myers doesn’t just sneer at High Lit; he also gratuitously trashes great entertainers like Elmore Leonard and Alan Furst.) B.R. Myers may be a skilled interpreter of North Korean political culture, but he’s a one-man North Korea of sensibility. The only thing I regret about Garth Risk Hallberg’s comprehensive whipping is his pinning it largely on a defense of “Freedom”; you don’t have to love the Franzen to have the Myers make your skin crawl. Myers has been the perpetrator of more unearned and unsubstantiated scorn than Letterman’s old Dwight the Troubled Teen character, who always exited shouting, “I hate you! I hate all of you!” But to keep things in perspective, I think that the sum total of Myers’ achievement has been to inspire the kind of pique and revulsion we see on display here today; the only question that remains unanswered is why the Atlantic has indulged so long in this unaccountable bit of stunt casting. Sam Anderson (see above) has lapped B.R. Myers about a billion times already in his brief but consistently fine tenure as a book critic for New York magazine.

  26. This take-down of Myers is spot-on, but Myers being dopey doesn’t make Franzen the great genius that many seem to think he is. Franzen is a very good storyteller who constructs, with precision, interesting characters. This made “Freedom” an enjoyable book — a page turner, even. But Franzen isn’t really covering any ground that Roth or Chabon or even Tolstoy hasn’t already, with considerably more wit and style. I don’t say this to denigrate Franzen, who’s quite good. He just ain’t god’s gift to literature.

  27. “the novel’s attempt to show that world its face in the mirror”.

    but that is the problem. Franzen’s world is nothing like our world. One gets the impression that Franzen learned about reality in a writing class or by watching television. His books strike me as completely false. He has a tin ear and no understanding of the way the world really works.

  28. I think you may be hitting a little hard. Anyone who finds Delillo’s characters repellent or his stories enervating is probably on the right track. I think I shall read Myers.

  29. Hello,

    Where is literary invective when you need it? This is the best you can do? Truly, we live in a fallen age.
    I happen to agree with Myers both in the Reader’s Manifesto and his article on Franzen, and there’s not much to say, either you agree or you don’t. But this attack on Myers could have been a lot stronger.
    Allow me to point out that you don’t dispute the examples of poor writing that Myers used to make his points, either in his review of Franzen or his Reader’s Manifesto.
    Bring forth the shining examples of Franzen’s prose that will prove Myers wrong, my friend! Or any of the authors attacked in Reader’s Manifesto, let’s see excerpts of beautiful writing from their novels, that’s the way to win this argument.
    But I’ll tell you what really “sucks” with a tremendous amount of suckiness: writing workshops, Post-Modernism, Theory and “ironic detachment=snarkiness”. But since we’re heading into a Second Great Depression, things may change.

    George Balanchine

  30. I agree that Myers is often tendentious, but he certainly picks the correct targets, and in a world in which reviewing has become mindless puffery, he is to be valued rather than condemned.

  31. Hallberg says, “The simple fact is that Myers’ conception of language is itself vulgar. ‘Prose,’ for him, equals syntax plus diction, and is expected to denote, rather than to evoke. …”

    I’ve read the above several times this morning and can’t, for the life of me, understand what it might possibly mean.

    I’m someone with only a high-school education, so I’ve a difficult time grasping why it’s “vulgar” to understand prose as equaling “syntax plus diction.”

    As opposed to what? I mean, what’s the “refined” conception of prose? Syntax plus pitch? Plus volume? Timbre? Well-chosen dance steps?

    Also, why is it “vulgar” for prose to “denote, rather than to evoke”?

    Again, what might this possibly mean?

    Where’s the contradiction? The tension? The disagreement?

    How can prose “evoke” if it doesn’t denote?

    I mean, for example, how could “Madame Bovary” evoke provincial bourgeois life in 19th century France if Flaubert’s words didn’t signify things that Flaubert’s readers could immediately apprehend, such as, I don’t know, cows or dresses or arsenic?

    And why get all worked up over Myer’s displeasure in the first place?

    What little I’ve ever read of Franzen has struck me as facile and soulless, so I can’t quite grasp why criticizing his work, however harshly or unfairly, should elicit a strong need on anyone’s part to defend or protect him.

    In what way does Franzen’s work challenge the status quo? Does he have a Christlike message for humanity that must at all costs, and at all corners, be defended from the “vulgar” predations of Pharisees?

    I mean, isn’t Franzen just basically a comfortable writer for the bien pensant middle-classes?

  32. It must take a man who studies fascism for a living to properly deal with morass. Bravo to Myers for being alive and well enough to deflate the hype of a novel soon to be forgotten. Let us not forget his vitriol against the beloved Toni Morrison for her attempt at Historical Fiction. Just because you can string together thousands of words does not mean it is in any way memorable or conforming to the tradition of excellent novel writing, and that goes for every human.
    Oh, and it seems the same people who love this book would be the one’s who decry product placement in movies…am I wrong? That is irony…

  33. Having been steered here by, I had never heard of either Myers or Franzen, but read the article and comments and have come to the conclusion that Myers, whatever his faults, dislikes pretentiousness in style (tick); loves to find snippets of overblown prose and freeze-frame them for maximum ridicule of the author (tick); and really annoys the literary cogniscenti (tick). So I think I like him. I’m rooting for the bad guy!

  34. Wow. Deja Vu. I was a member of The Atlantic’s Art Dept. back when we first published Myers’ Manifesto. Your article brings roaring back the exact feelings I had about the piece then, not to mention my memory of the palpable literary tension in the office. (Why? Why was this guy reviewing for the magazine?!?!). Not only can’t I believe he’s still at it, but apparently he hasn’t evolved or learned anything at all. Sigh.

  35. I’m with Ed Champion. After that “Marry Him” article not to mention Caitlin Flanagan (and I know she’s contributed to the New Yorker, too…mind numbingly confusing), I stopped reading The Atlantic- although I did pick up their yearly fiction issue in the past. But the essays- the neo con stuff they publish– is beyond bad. It’s offensive. They are like the Fox TV of the literary world.

  36. I must second George Balanchine’s emotion. Meyers’s manifesto is smack-on. I came here first, read this essay, then followed the link to read his. It was quite a shock, because aside from a few snide put-downs, Meyers is really quite gentle. This is even more true when one considers the sheer tonnage of hackery with which he is attempting to deal. I laud him for the optimism it must take to have to repeatedly read and review such revolting dreck and not jump out of a window in despair; indeed, that’s what I nearly did when it was announced that Toni Morrison had won the Nobel Prize. To quote Gore Vidal in a differenct context, never underestimate the Scandinavian sense of humor.

    I cannot for the life of me understand how it American literature has arrived at this horrid cul-de-sac. Certainly the decline in education is part of it, and although I possess such a degree myself I must also admit that the proliferation of creative writing programs is partly to blame. The hothouse flower environment of the modern creative writing workshop – and the attendant “theory” with which everything is saturated – is a serious problem. Film schools work because cinema is a highly technical and collaborative medium, but writing takes much more time and is therefore in some ways more subjective and less amenable to a training environment. Also, too many young writers learn to self-censor all of that which makes their own work shine, all the idiosyncracies, all the joyful experimentation, so that the sharp edges of their work are relentlessly ground away.

    But the biggest problem arising from the creative writing departments and their now-attendant culture of literary retreats, chap books and independent imprints is that it is easy for a fraud like Franzen to rise to the top undetected. Throw in the destruction wrought upon publishing houses by the leveraged buy-outs of the late 1980s, and thudding mediocrities end up on the cover of Time Magazine. God help us.

    Or perhaps I should say “B.R. Meyers help us”, and heaven knows he does. It is a testament to the truth of what he is writing – and how few others are telling said truths – that he is the target of so much vitriol. In that regard, the hypocrisy of this risible essay is all too apparent.

    Off-topic just a bit, I must rush to defend Lori Gotlieb’s “Marry Him” and the resulting book. Having spent the last two years actively seeking a mate, I can attest to the absolute truth of her observations. Yes, they are anecdotal, but in the best sense – an aggregate of observation lending itself to certain uncomfortable truths. Last but not least, The Atlantic in general – and while by no means perfect – has been one of the livelier publications going for the last five or six years. It is to be commended.

  37. @Robert Anderson

    Thanks! I’m glad we agree.

    @Garth Risk Hallberg
    So, no response? Perhaps another article from you with all the excellent examples of Franzen’s prose or excerpts of wonderful writing from the other writers that Myers criticizes in the Readers Manifesto?
    But you’re not going to write that article are you? Because Myers is right and you know it.

    George Balanchine

  38. @George Balanchine

    Keep up: Hallberg has already written the article you want, a number of times in a number of forms about a number of writers, including Franzen. How can you expect anyone to take your remarks seriously when you can’t even put forth the most minimal effort to look into what you’re talking about? That must be why Myers has such great appeal for you: you clearly bond with his laziness and shoddy thinking, since those are the necessary blinders for the second-rate self-righteousness that you share with him. Aren’t you embarrassed for yourself? If not, you should be.

    Nobody dislikes Myers just because he is unhappy with modern literature. People dislike him because his criticisms are poorly reasoned and poorly written. His main appeal is to those who enjoy malice for the sake of malice, and who can’t tell the difference between, say, the intelligent criticism of Gore Vidal (who has always made extremely strong but extremely smart attacks on many highly praised modern writers) and the indiscriminate, lazily conceived attacks in which Myers indulges. You seem to have the odd notion that Myers is the only critic out there railing against Franzen and other novelists that you don’t like. This is such a shamefully inaccurate thing to believe that you clearly know very little about either modern literary criticism or any of the book reviewing that goes on all around you. You can cure your ignorance and save yourself later embarrassment by going to, for instance, the Arts & Letters Daily site, where you’ll find a whole list of book review publications from around the world. Do yourself a favor: spend a few months reading the reviews from all those publications and then see how you feel about Myers, who simply isn’t a good reviewer regardless of whether you agree with him.

    And about your pseudonym: If Myers were a ballet critic, he would hate everything Balanchine ever choreographed, and you would have to listen to ludicrous trolls applauding Myers for his “boldness” in trashing you.

  39. @RTW

    At last! someone who recognizes Balanchine’s name.
    But may I ask, how on earth do you know that Myers would not like Balanchine’s ballets? Are you acquainted with the man personally? Has Myers written about ballet, ever? If he has and has something on the internet please post a link, I’d be happy to read it. Otherwise, you’ve just said something really silly and therefore embarassed yourself. By the way, Gore Vidal didn’t like Balanchine’s ballets, so does that mean that Vidal is less of a literary critic than you say he is?
    You keep saying ‘modern’ this and ‘modern’ that, clearly you don’t have a sense of the history of 20th century literature. For example, you misuse the phrase ‘modern writers’, when you really should say ‘post-Modern, buried-by-theory, workshopped-to-death writers’. Modern writers could mean anyone from Virginia Wolf to Thomas Pynchon to Wallace Stevens to John Dos Passos to James Joyce. It’s the fiction of the last, say 30 years or so that Myers is very critical of, and rightly so, in my opinion. Similarly, you write ‘modern literary criticism’ which could mean mean anyone from F.R. Leavis, Yvor Winters, Helen Vendler to some cultural studies schmuck writing about the semiotic significance of popcorn in American fiction of the 1970s.
    Also I don’t see Myer’s opinions as incoherent or poorly argued, as I said in my original post, either one agrees or one doesn’t.
    And how do you know that I have ‘the odd notion that Myers’ is the only attacking Franzen? In addition, I don’t care the ‘people'(what people, whom?) dislike Myers, why in God’s name should that matter? I care about what Myer’s critics SAY in response to his writing.
    Also, the tone of your posting is rude, since you’re talking about my state of mind/knowledge when you have no basis for doing so, and you resort to personal attacks. I didn’t do anything like that in any of my postings, well maybe the last one when I speculated that Hallberg hasn’t responded because he must sense that Myers is right, but I don’t think that’s unreasonable inference, and I wasn’t rude about Mr. Hallberg either.
    And at the end, Myers makes the perfectly valid request that people who disagree with him, for example about Franzen, present or reference the page after page of beautiful writing from Franzen’s work that will prove him(Myers) wrong.
    I notice that, like Hallberg, you haven’t done that either, you didn’t even post links to the articles by Hallberg where you claim he does reply in this way to Myers.
    So, to rate your posting, a C+ for invective, F for content.

  40. @ George Balanchine

    Vidal loves Balanchine’s work. He has said so many times. He has also made a few critical comments, but the overwhelming bulk of his comments on Balanchine are positive. The same could be said about his criticism of, say, Tennessee Williams or Henry James.

    Myers has made it clear that he thinks any time spent on contemporary artists is almost always time wasted because it’s time taken away from the classics. It was precisely this attitude that Balanchine encountered from people who rejected his ballets at the time they were first performed. The comparison to Myers is reasonable. Myers is reflexively hostile to contemporary art: he has said so quite openly himself. If Balanchine had been his contemporary, and if Myers had written ballet criticism, Myers would have been reflexively hostile to Balanchine. You might want to consider looking up the meaning of the word “If,” by the way, before you get upset about someone posing a hypothetical for you.

    The use of “modern” that upsets you would only apply if I had used “Modern” capitalized, in which case it would clearly refer to Joyce, Proust, etc. You know as well as I do that you’re simply playing fast and loose with terminology, and certainly I made it clear that I was talking about modern in the sense of current, belonging to our contemporary writers and critics. After all, I directed you to read the critics who are writing at the moment, and this is a very straightforward indication that I meant modern in its common dictionary sense of “present and recent time.” As usual, your arguments are designed not to comprehend but simply to obscure and attack.

    Post-modernism is only one force among many in contemporary writing. I don’t especially care for post-modernism either, but it’s ludicrous to think that Myers is somehow a great voice for sanity against the post-modern hordes. Again, read what’s being written by the reviewers of our time — and by the novelists too, for that matter. Like Myers, you’re fighting with shadow-enemies, phantoms of your own creation.

    Hallberg links to his Franzen review in this article itself. Is it really too much trouble for you to click on that link? Or to click on Hallberg’s name in this article and read the other pieces he has written? You’re welcome to disagree with those pieces, but you can’t pretend he hasn’t given examples of good writing from the authors he admires.

    You’re in no position to attack others for rudeness. My tone was matched to yours.

  41. @RTW

    From “A queer history of ballet” by Peter Stoneley:

    “The return of Balanchine killed off interest in some quarters. Gore Vidal commented: ‘My days as a balletomane – and lover of dancers – ended when Balanchine appeared on the scene and swept American ballet off the stage’. Vidal admitted the ‘mathematical charm’ of Balanchine’s work, but he wanted a more localised repertory, in which an actress-dancer such as Nora Kaye would ‘illuminate our generation, to the music of Copland or Bernstein.’ ”

    You really don’t know what you’re talking about do you?


    P.S. Interestingly, that’s a somewhat Philistine comment by Vidal, especially about the music. While I like Copland and Bernstein(less), Balanchine was able to take much more complex music like Hindemith or Stravinky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra and make truly wondrous ballets. At least, in my opinion they were.

  42. @ George Balanchine

    Vidal later retracted that statement, as I suspect you know but hope I don’t. Anyway, I agree with you that the comment is more than a bit Philistine, and let’s leave things at our shared admiration for Balanchine, since otherwise it’s clear we’re going to either stray hopelessly off-topic or circle around in endless carping.

  43. @RTW

    Don’t leave me in suspense! How about a footnote or reference where Vidal changed his mind on Balanchine?

  44. Oh yes, I almost forgot! You wrote:

    ‘Vidal later retracted that statement, as I suspect you know but hope I don’t.’

    So you’re implying that I’m a liar or at the very least, mendacious. What’s wrong with you?
    Do you seriously think I would say that Vidal didn’t like Balanchine’s work if I knew there’s a quote out there showing that in fact, Vidal adores Balanchine’s work and then hope against hope that you don’t know about that? That I would do this now, in the age of Google? Are you daft?
    This is what I meant about rudeness in my earlier post. I wouldn’t question your integrity in this way at all, so you’re wrong, our “tones” are not the same at all.

    Mr. B

  45. Yes, we know, Brian Myers is such a philistine, isn’t he? What’s interesting to me about these anti-Myers tantrums, starting with Judith Shulevitz’s article in the New York Times, is that they never manage to get their facts completely right. (Shulevitz thought Myers was born in South Africa.) Hallberg’s no exception. Myers isn’t a conservative pundit; he’s a Green Party supporter. Nor does he think that prose is just for denoting, and he says so in his October 2002 Atlantic interview. The opposite of close reading is lazy reading, I guess.

    What’s also interesting is that some of the commenters who responded warmly to this essay actually disagree with Hallberg without realizing it. The very first commenter, for instance, writes that “[i]t’s impossible to figure out why Meyers picks certain writers for special condemnation . . . .” But one of Hallberg’s complaints is that he knows “what [Myers is] going to say about a novelist before [he’s] read the review.”

    What about the actual review (of a review and another review of reviewers, as another commenter pointed out)? Well, it’s mostly spittle. As a result, even the substantive bits have to be overly harsh so as not to seem tonally incongruous. It’s not actually the narrator zeroing in on Walter’s niceness, it’s his neighbors, and Myers is a cretin for not noticing this. Franzen’s “sucked” and “fucked” are just like Flaubert’s use of “le nouveau” or “se compromettait,” and Myers is a buffoon for not getting it. Myers criticizes Franzen for using “ornithological tropes” (though I see only one) while using expressions like “interesting individual,” so he must be measurably Dumber. And if he doesn’t realize that being in Vikings country makes it possible to stir a cauldron like a Viking oarsman, he probably can’t even do up his shoelaces. All these criticisms might or might not be true (I myself see no evidence that all the details we’re told in the first part are “mediated” through the neighbors’ point of view), but even if they are, Hallberg promised us a “comprehensive debunking” and this is just weak tea. Sorry, that was a cliche; I meant thin Viking gruel.

  46. @Rahgav

    No, it was Gore Vidal who we were saying was philistine-ish for his remark about Balanchine, not Myers.

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  48. So much vitriol poured on a critic who just happens to disagree with the common wisdom. This is called “shooting the messenger.” Why don’t you call for a clause to the First Amendment banning the man, or just arrest and send him to the gulag? I say thank goodness for Myers, the underdog, who has more guts than any of you.

  49. Kudos to Garth for this excellent piece (I mean that sincerely, not snarkily).

    I don’t even particularly like Franzen, but I still find Myers to be the cure that’s worse than the disease he purports to remedy. I haven’t read FREEDOM, but I have read THE CORRECTIONS and thought it was overrated. I’ve no problem whatsoever with reviewers panning books they believe have drawn unearned kudos. It’s right and proper that Myers has a distinctive point and view. Unfortunately, the man’s ego keeps getting in the way, so that he can’t pan a book without making it emblematic of everything about “littra-chah” he can’t stand, and without smugly congratulating himself on what a “daring rebel against the system” he’s deluded enough to believe he is.

    A few more problems with Myers’ whole approach that haven’t drawn enough fire:

    1) Myers likes to set up straw men opponents to knock down.

    In his original version of his Reader’s Manifesto, Myers targets five “literary” authors for lambasting: Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx, Paul Auster, David Guterson. He then proceeds to pick apart their prose and mock the reviewers who praise them.

    The reason this is objectionable is that Myers targets the taste of a hypothetical “literary snob” who barely exists. Somebody somewhere probably admires all five of these authors, but by and large, they appeal to different demographics. Thus, someone like Harold Bloom (Uber-HighBrow Snob of Our Time) is a passionate admirer of McCarthy and DeLillo (though not every single novel or every single sentence of theirs, a fact Myers conveniently elides), but there’s no way in hell Bloom or his fellow Yale and Harvard lit profs would ever champion a writer like Guterson. This is an important qualification. Myers is essentially sparring with phantoms. Somebody out there liked Guterson, and someone liked DeLillo, but they aren’t for the most part the same people.

    This is dishonest of Myers. It’s a fundamentally dishonest way of arguing. He sets up imaginary enemies to knock down. It would be like ridiculing the taste of some hypothetical “snooty art gallery patron” by ridiculing his hypothetical admiration for Picasso, Francis Bacon, Thomas Kinkade, and Velvet Elvis paintings – as if our world were teeming with individuals who love all four. In fact, chances are if you revere Picasso you almost certainly don’t revere Kinkade, and vice versa, just as if you revere DeLillo, you probably don’t revere Guterson, and vice versa. Lumping together disparate and divergent tastes for the purpose of general mockery is nothing but Myer’s attempt to pull the wool over his readers’ eyes. It’s a feint, a piece of sleight of hand, a rhetorical trick.

    2) Myers is a coward who pretends to be brave.

    You’ll notice he blames everything on the easiest scapegoat to blame: the Snooty Highbrows. There’s no quicker way for an American writer to draw cheap and easy applause from the masses than by posing as an Average Joe fighting nobly against Snobby Academics and Intelllect-chawls. Thus, Myers lays into “the literati” but goes easy on Oprah and remarks on her great “intelligence.”

    This is nothing but craven, cowardly ass-kissing. In actual fact, it was the “Oprah demographic” who made novels like Guterson’s SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS a hit in the first place. That was who went ga-ga for Guterson. It wasn’t Frank Kermode or James Wood or Martin Amis or Harold Bloom or any other Snooty Highbrow: it was the Oprah Gang, not the DeLillo Gang. Right off the bat, Myers creates a distorted, false picture of reality – because of course, it’s easy as pie to get the Average Joe and Jane on your side by attacking “highbrows,” but woe betide anyone who dares to apply the same treatment, fairly and honestly, to mainstream literary taste. Thus, Myers wilfully miscategorizes the main fanbase of a writer like Guterson.

    Moreover, Myers attacks Oprah’s taste while pretending not to. He isn’t honest or brave enough to risk the wrath of her fans. He lambasts Toni Morrison for her supposed pretentiousness and snobbery, yet tries to squirm out of the plain truth, which is that Oprah unabashedly loves Morrison and even loves Morrison at her most “literary” and stylistically dense and prolix. Even funnier, in the years since the Manifesto was first published, Oprah has chosen to champion Cormac McCarthy as well. Since Myers tars and feathers all McCarthy and Morrison lovers as phonies and snobs, he is implicitly telling us Oprah is a fake and a phony – except of course, Myers is at heart such a gutless coward, he lacks the balls to state this plainly and explicitly. He wants us to believe in his false dichotomy between the noble Common Reader and the fake, phony Highbrow – and when the lines between the two become blurred, Myers conveniently glosses over the fact, since his whole position goes up in smoke if he tells the truth here.

    If any individual were to truly embrace all the names targeted in Myers Manifesto – McCarthy, DeLillo, Proulx, Auster, Guterson, Morrison – or at a later date, Franzen (who, you’ll recall, Oprah also chose for her Book Club) it would be much more likely to be Oprah Winfrey or a typical Winfrey viewer than any self-styled Academic Highbrow whomsoever. Once again: the fact of the matter is, Harold Bloom went bananas for Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison, but certainly not for Franzen and Guterson – whereas Oprah Winfrey declared her fondness for all four of these authors. For Myers to admit this truth, however, would mean admitting he’s really attacking the Average Jane Doe Reader under the guise of defending and chivalrously protecting her. Myers is far too much of an intellectual fraud to admit this truth, however. So in addition to being overbearing and truly obnoxious, he’s also chickenshit.

  50. For Christ’s sake. Myers’ reviews do not lack “any positivity”–in A Reader’s Manifesto, he routinely praises the observations of Proulx (for example) while criticizing the lazy postmodern “technique” of stacking them on top of each other without any sense of craft. Similarly, he praises McCarthy’s early novels while finding his shift to the same kind of obliterating, staccato style bizarre. He’s attacking a self-congratulatory and inept literary establishment as well as the authors who’ve grown lazy within it, and he says as much by quoting Herbert Gold’s account of being “blackmailed” within the writer/reviewer/publisher relationship. The only thing I find truly implausible about his account is that the film industry could be any less incestuous and corrupt.

    Your first paragraph was less a parody than a lazy copy & paste, and what exactly does this mean:

    /he had been so thoroughgoingly tendentious, and at such length, that to rebut his 13,000 words required 13,000 of one’s own/

    That his argument was so nuanced as to require point-by-point refutation, or that you’re an extremely tendentious critic as well? This is the kind of fat which can be cut from most of Myers’ literary targets.

    Also: /Myers has made a cardinal error. He has mistaken the characters’ angle of vision for the novelist’s/

    No, he hasn’t, not in any systematic way– Franzen has done an extremely sloppy job of maneuvering POV and free indirect discourse, which the “whip-smart” autobiographical section, identical in tone to the rest of the book, howlingly illustrates. (Maybe Franzen’s trick was to put his writing in the mouth of a “relatively dumber” character so that we’d be pleasantly grateful at how smart she/he/they are?)

    As a layperson who was thoroughly bored and repulsed by both Freedom and McCarthy’s The Road, these probing inquiries into who he’s pandering to don’t necessitate a Jane Doe strawreader– my disappointment in all Franzen’s hype was happily met by a “contrarian” “outsider.” Your assertion that Myers cannot “write like a reader” is laughable, seeing as how his review of Freedom was kinder than most of the negative reader reviews I read on Amazon before borrowing the book. Also, as a native Minnesotan (who was deeply disappointed by Franzen’s ignorance of the midwestern redneck culture he strove to capture), the Vikings defense of Franzen’s boring oarsman metaphor serves to underscore exactly how uninspired it was in the first place.

  51. @Olya:

    The cardinal error that Myers’ fans all make is they believe “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” There are many reasons to dislike any number of favored novelists, including Franzen. Myers fails to see, however, that the genre fiction he favors can be and frequently is just as overrated as the “literary fiction.” He never really asks any difficult questions, preferring to tar and feather “the establishment” without understanding what the “establishment” is (and to what degree he himself is in thrall to it). Myers makes just as many aesthetic blunders as the hypothetical establishment critic he berates – they just aren’t the same ones.

    “Similarly, he praises McCarthy’s early novels while finding his shift to the same kind of obliterating, staccato style bizarre. He’s attacking a self-congratulatory and inept literary establishment as well as the authors who’ve grown lazy within it”

    Yet his own evaluations are frequently just as “inept,” and he is a master at leaving out crucial information in order to bolster his smug, pseudo-populist perspective. For instance, he neglects to mention that McCarthy was critically acclaimed by discerning readers and reviewers long before ALL THE PRETTY HORSES or THE ROAD. The man did receive a MacArthur Genius grant on the basis of his early novels, after all, which could not have occurred unless he had discerning admirers among the literati. Yet Myers conveniently prefers to elide that fact to make it sound like only he appreciated the early novels, while “the literary establishment” failed to. He likes to make it sound as if “the establishment” only praised the later novels and neglected the early ones, yet he never comes to terms with the fact that McCarthy won prize money and grants for his early work (which nonetheless failed to crack any bestseller lists) from this very same “stupid,” “inept” establishment.

    To be sure, after McCarthy became a bestseller and Harold Bloom and Oprah jumped on board the McCarthy train, it became fashionable to praise him and undoubtedly a lot of his admirers today are bandwagon-jumpers. Nonetheless, Myers lack of charity and honesty is striking. The picture he presents of the literary establishment is of a hive of group-think while Myers alone is honest and full of integrity. Myers’ schtick is really no different from Armond White’s.

    He, and you, also fail to engage with any interpretive readings of the novels Myers hates, such as THE ROAD or BLOOD MERIDIAN. You and he have every right to dislike THE ROAD. What you do not have the right to do is blithely ignore interpretations of the later, ostensibly overwritten novels which make an actual case for their merits beyond “I liked it therefore it’s good.” True, many of the reviews praising McCarthy have no meat to them, but that’s not true of all of them by any means. Myers simply glosses over the more substantive reviews and focuses on the stupid ones, because his whole schtick is that he’s the Lone Gunman, the one honest voice amid a sea of idiots. And because there are just enough idiots out there for his schtick to sound plausible, readers who should know better, like you, Olya, fall for Myers’ contrived act.

    Well, I’m not buying it. The enemy of my enemy is NOT my friend.

  52. Interesting how we attack Myers rather than argue for the importance of the books he attacks.

    Those arguments have been made, and some of them are very substantial. Now, I don’t know if there have been any substantive close readings of FREEDOM produced, but certainly UNDERWORLD, BLOOD MERIDIAN, and other DeLillo and McCarthy novels have garnered their share of acute close readings.

    As I say, I’m not a fan of Franzen, at least not on the basis of THE CORRECTIONS. But certainly some of the authors and books Myers attacks have been rigorously defended.

  53. The author of this blog post wastes no time betraying his tin ear. This is the lamest, most childish (yeah, yeah, purposely so, right? Well, that’s no excuse) title I’ve come across in a long time. And you simply can’t refute Myers’ argument except to say, I happen to like my fiction stilted and nonsensical.

  54. Having written reviews for several years, I found myself gowing weary of writing negative reviews, which I did of very bad books indeed by the likes of Updike and Delillo, writers whom I otherwise admire. Updike himself pretty much refused to review books he didn’t like, and took heat for it. Myers seems stirred to review only what he detests. Wood has recently achieved an admirable balance between the two. I quit reviewing because my heart wasn’t in it, not that I compare myself to either Updike or Wood. Bad books, like Delillo’s Point Omega, are so obviously bad that it hardly warrants the time to point that out. I found it depressing. Now, if the book’s bad, I close it for good and move on.

    Freedom isn’t bad. It just isn’t great, and the consensus of opinion has born that out, leaving Myers grumbling in his dark and lonely corner, like a troll pining for the next bone to strip. Ignore him and maybe he’ll turn to stone.

  55. I skipped Hallberg’s entire anti-Myers piece once I got to “a burst of joyless contrarianism” in the first line. It’s such a dead phrase, and screams to me, “Getta load a this jabronie ova here who can’t get wit the program.”

    Although I would disagree with BRM on White Noise, personally, my enthusiasm for contemporary American fiction and my quest to find Great Living Writers to talk about got shot in the head multiple times by Tree of Smoke and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and since finding Myers’s take-’em-to-the-woodshed reviews of these books, I have become a big fan of his critical voice. How disappointed were you when you last read a hyped literary phenomenon and couldn’t keep yourself from laughing at its bad ideas or bad language? I think Myers reflects that common modern reading experience well. Myers’ main point in his reviews, that every bad overhyped book you read is one less classic you read, is important, even when it applies to Cormac McCarthy or Don Delillo. My project this summer is to read McCarthy entire, but that may change if the choice is between reading the Border Trilogy or something like Go Down, Moses.

    Btw, I just requested Myers’ North Korea book from the library.

  56. Why are you defending these people? Why can’t they defend themselves? You sound like a toady.

  57. One thing missed by a lot of the posters here, as well as the author of the piece, is how funny Myers is. I read all of his negative reviews the other day and he had me in tears. I think Myers is a great writer able to very ably communicate his humorously contrarian personality and intelligence or what not.

    I agree tho that Myers cherrypicks and fails to provide any good counterarguments in favor of the quotes that he uses. He tends to supply the most humorous and sardonic counterarguments instead, which works well for his jeremiad ranting tone. His arguments would be better if he presented serious-minded defenses of his targets and then took those on. But he’d be less funny.

  58. I read Myer’s essay and I thought it was illuminating. The literary world is filled with a lot of pretense and at least someone is speaking out about it. I wish he’d mentioned other awful hacks like Zadie Smith. Reading White Teeth was extremely painful for me.

  59. Am I the only reader to notice that “relatively dumber” is a solecism, therefore an example of the bad writing that Myers is always complaining about? Apparently Hallberg didn’t even get it.

    What do editors actually do these days? (That’s a sincere question.)

  60. Why would a guy who worships DeLillo and a whole lot of trashy American writers not be mad at B.R Meyers? Tree Of Life wasn’t that good. You can’t compare it to Jesus’ Son and Train Dreams. Denis Johnson is a master of the short form but terrible at writing novels. Let’s hope City on Fire lives up to expectations.

  61. We must be reading a different B.R. Myers. At any rate, I am suspicious of the he’s-right-but-so-what school. Upholding critical standards is not trivial or irrelevant.

  62. Myers is essentially right about a lot of the points he makes regarding the laxity in some examples of modern prose, but essentially wrong about the cause (as near as I can tell, he posits some kind of highbrow conspiracy to canonize, of all people, David Guterson) and the scale. He cherrypicks five writers who are indeed guilty of various moments of laziness and incoherence, and assembles them into an essay proving that these writers can be lazy and incoherent. He seems to want to demonstrate something systemic, but, of course, there are a multitude of more linguistically scrupulous, and equally lionized, modern writers who do not fit into this mold. Ishiguro, for example, or Coetzee, or Alice Munro.

    Furthermore, even with these writers he’s guilty of cherrypicking their worst moments. Proulx is brilliant, if occasionally slapdash, and even though I dislike McCarthy, he’s capable of moments of revelatory beauty in his writing (he’s also one of the best dialog writers in modern fiction). Myers’ dislike of sloppiness in these writers, and others, is appropriate and a criticism worth making, but he overplays his hand when he tries to turn some of Proulx’s more overripe metaphors and sentences into a systemic condemnation of her work, and by extension, the establishment who has overpraised it. The establishment, such as it is, has recognized and lauded Proulx’s brilliance in spite of these excesses, not because of them.

  63. Hallberg’s method is the opposite of Myers’s. He characterizes “A Reader’s Manifesto” as every possible type of bad, without quoting from it. We are just expected to take his word for it, because how dare Myers criticize award-winning writers? Myers, on the other hand, hoisted the five writers he attacked on the petard of their own terrible words, only to find himself lambasted for taking awful sentences and awful paragraphs “out of context.” What was he to do, reproduce the entire bad novel in the body of his text? His aim was a limited one — to show that these celebrated literary aesthetes are stylistically pretentious and lazy at the same time. He achieved his goal in spades, and even Hallberg has to concede that “Many of these writers were ripe for reevaluation.” But why did such bad prose get so favorably evaluated in the first place?

    I knew I wouldn’t be reading “Freedom” after I read “The Corrections.” So I don’t know if Myers is right about its triviality, but I do know that Franzen hates his characters. Perhaps the explanation lies in his observation about a writer he claims to admire: “Kafka teaches us how to love ourselves even as we are being mercilessly hard on ourselves. . . . It’s not enough to love your characters and it’s not enough to be hard on your characters – you always have to be trying to do both at the same time.” In fact, Kafka does not adopt any obvious authorial attitude at all toward his characters. He views them from a great distance. But Franzen can’t even put his misunderstanding of Kafka to work: his characters aren’t warts and all, just warts. He has virtues — a wonderful ear for dialogue in places, and some bitter comedy in his set pieces. Good for Hallberg if this is to his taste. He’s not an idiot for liking it. But Myers isn’t an idiot for not liking it.

  64. Born in ’63, Myers was ten when the “Police Action” in VN sort of ended. He never wants to hear about the sixties again, as if Tree of Smoke encompasses a decade, is about then and not about now. I never read the Atlantic Monthly before so until now I have been lucky enough to miss Mr. Myers efforts to poison the broth.

    Writing this type of literary criticism is meaningless, and puts into question all of Mr. Myers’ scholastic work, mostly done in Korea where I suppose he is more comfortable. No question he must have a talent for languages of great difficulty, but I would hesitate his interpretive skills and simply go with his linguistic ones. I suppose that unless he works for some organization not specified, no one of authority is interested in his talent other than a university far far away.

    I have simply one question for Mr. Myers. There are many novelists and books he could use as examples of what is worth a consideration. He picks the unreadable Sister Carrie. I guess he does so he can be clever with “Carrie” which I believe is by King, though I may be mistaken, whom I have never read for reasons likely similar to Myers’ reasons. Very clever. Personally, crazy and hated as Lewis may have been, he certainly deserved “The Prize,” which Mr. Myers despises, much more than Dreiser.

    “To bury him would have been such an easy kindness! It would have been so much in accordance with the wisdom of life, which consists in putting out of sight all the reminders of our folly, or our weakness, of our mortality; all that makes against our efficiency — the memory of our failures, the hints of our undying fears, the bodies of our dead friends…I found out how difficult it may be sometimes to make a sound. There is a weird power in a spoken word. And why the devil not?…And a word carries far — very far — deals destruction through time as the bullets go flying through space.” Lord Jim

  65. BR Myers has chosen to spend his life studying North Korea. He lives in South Korea. That says it all. The joylessness of BR Myers runs to such a supernatural depth that it could goof up the space-time continuum.

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