A Reader’s Manifesto, by B. R. Myers

Even before B. R. Myers lobbed this magnificent stinkbomb into the mailbox of the New York literary establishment, I think most of us knew what this book tells us. Yes, the emperor has no clothes; yes, the book reviews will praise the most ridiculous tripe rather than risk losing an advertiser, and the bigger the author’s name, the more blatantly they will cringe and fawn. And yes, too many ‘literary’ authors today have inherited all the pretentiousness of their predecessors, but none of their skills. After all, why learn skills when attitude is so much easier?

For readers, this is pretty good fun, and Myers’ caustic wit makes the journey doubly worthwhile. But for writers, it is a message that we ignore at our peril.

Most writers work in a blind fog that occasionally thins enough to reveal a landmark or a patch of ground. We know what we mean by the words we write, but we seldom know what they mean to our readers. Any reader can read a book and dislike it; not many can articulate their reasons; still fewer bother to do so. It is so much easier just to stop buying books by that author. Most of us will go through our entire careers without receiving such a thorough and cogent critique from a real live amateur reader. A Reader’s Manifesto is a foghorn that may save many an unwary writer from a fatal reef.

Myers has experience teaching literature (if not American Lit), and it shows in his method, which is admirable. For most of the technical pitfalls he covers, he gives at least two examples: something done badly (by an overhyped Big Name of the moment), and the same thing done well. We see Don DeLillo cheaply satirizing Western consumerism with a dull compendium of shopping lists and brand names; then a passage by Balzac, a compelling word-picture of the psychological needs that drive people to consume superfluous things. We see Cormac McCarthy drivelling about the souls of horses, and then Louis L’Amour expressing home truths in the crisp, natural dialogue of believable characters. And so down the list. The abridged form published in The Atlantic Monthly leaves out most of the good examples, which is reason enough to shell out ten dollars for this edition.

Myers makes both the choices and the temptations plain. For it is clear that the fake sophistication of the bad examples is actually much easier to write than the deceptive clarity and smoothness of the good. Yet reviewers will praise you to the skies if you write like the bad examples; and American Lit professors and creative-writing teachers are all too likely to encourage you to do so. (If craft is hard to learn, it is even harder to teach.) You may sell your creative soul for a feature review in The New York Times; how much sadder to sell it for nothing more than a BFA.

Almost 60 years ago, George Orwell wrote the immortal ‘Politics and the English Language’. That essay has taught three generations of journalists the virtues of plain writing and the desperate need for clear thinking. Now B. R. Myers has given the same priceless gift to the novelists of the world. The American literary novel may seem to be in terminal decline, but if the next generation of writers should read this book and learn its lessons, American literature may have a bright future after all.

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