Monday, June 12, 2006

Reader, Trust Thyself

There are several interesting things about A Reader's Manifesto by B.R. Myers, not least of which is the Northwest Airlines boarding pass from Minneapolis to Madison, Wisconsin the previous owner of the book left at page 96. There are 134 pages in the book. Did she (Miss Karin Larson according to the ticket) finish the book? Or did she stop there in 2002, put the book on her shelf and finally decide to rid herself of it recently? The history of a used book is almost as interesting as the book itself sometimes. But that is a post for another date. Today it's what's in the book that matters. A Reader's Manifesto has a history behind it that includes self-publication, then severe cutting to become an Atlantic essay, and finally reinstatement to full length with a response to the critics added published by the fantastic Melville House Press. The book is a cry for readers to take charge. Don't swallow whole what the critics say. Think for yourself. If you don't like a book the critics tell you you should like, don't blame yourself, it's probably the critics who have it wrong. If you were bored, like Myers was (and me too) by Snow Falling on Cedars it isn't your fault. If you think that sometimes Don DeLillo (haven't read him) doesn't make sense, it's probably not your fault either. Myers insists that the cultural elite have it in for us, that what they want us to believe is "if our writers make no sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren't worthy of them." Myers is here to say the truth is, they aren't worthy of us. How he goes about it is rather over the top. He singles out for a lashing the prose of Annie Proulx, Don Delillo, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, and David Guterson. He tries to stick with examples of the author's prose that have been quoted in book reviews as praiseworthy and show how it isn't very good at all. He rails against what he considers bad prose style, particularly what he calls the slide-show (clipped pieces of action strung together), the shopping list, the andelope (using and to string together phrases into very long sentences), and the chant ("a concatenation of uninspired phrases set to an elegiac cadence"). He tends to focus on these to the exclusion of anything else so that sometimes I wondered if that was all that was wrong it wasn't really that bad. I think what Myers is most upset about is not the writing but the critics who praise bad writing and call it things like "transcendent" and "the best ever." It's like Myers sees critics (and he picks out many of them by name) as a pit of vipers and he can't help but poke at them and get them all stirred up. The inclusion of a response to the critics is highly amusing. He criticizes them for their personal attacks against him (he was living in New Mexico at the time and one critic said because of where he lived he couldn't possibly know anything about literature!). He accuses them of not providing any real counter-argument to prove him wrong. And he crows when a few critics admit that he might be a little right. Annoying? Certainly. Entertaining? You betcha. In all the whoop-te-do the original point gets lost, but Myers tries to bring it back around in the end by encouraging readers to trust themselves and trust their response to what they read. And on this he is right. All too often we bow to "expert opinion." But really, who is more of an expert about what you read than you are? We don't have to like every book and we certainly don't have to feel guilty about not liking a book that is supposed to be a masterpiece. It has taken me a long time to get to a place where I can give up that guilt. It's a good place. There are far too many books to read and enjoy to be bothered by the ones I didn't like. Trust your reading instincts. They won't lead you astray.