We Bear Watching

We have too much respect for the printed word, too little awareness of the power words hold over us. We allow worlds to be conjured up for us with very little concern for the implications. We overlook glaring incongruities. We are suckers for alliteration, assonance, and rhythm. We rejoice over stories, whether fiction or “documentary,” whose outcomes are flagrantly manipulative, self-serving, or both. Usually both. If a piece of writing manifests the stigmata of literature — symbols, metaphors, unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, structural ambiguities — we afford it unlimited credit. With occasional exceptions, the only “criticism” brought to such writing is the kind that seeks to elaborate its brilliance, its cleverness, its creativity. What surprised me most when I first began publishing fiction myself was how much at every level a novelist can get away with.

Tim Park

We bear watching, we tricksy writers.

In 2001, writer B. R Myers lit a fire with a piece published by The Atlantic titled "A Reader's Manifesto." In his polemic, Myers ridiculed what passes for a literary press and the literary awards establishment and the publishing industry's serial megaphones for lauding so many badly written books; he was led to wonder if the people who ardently promoted contemporary literary writers really knew how to read. Among the writers he skewers are Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, David Guterson, and Rick Moody. HIs essay gleefully cites passage after passage of writing that on close inspection makes no sense or exhibits shallow thought or displays no art, but nevertheless attracted lavish praise and awards and elevation as literature above mere entertainment. Lard a book with enough literary flourishes, Myers asserted, and you can get away with anything:

At the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter's sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison's reply was "That, my dear, is called reading." Sorry, my dear Toni, but it's actually called bad writing. Great prose isn't always easy, but it's always lucid; no one of Oprah's intelligence ever had to wonder what Joseph Conrad was trying to say in a particular sentence. This didn't stop the talk-show host from quoting her friend's words with approval. In similar fashion, an amateur reviewer on Amazon.com admitted to having had trouble with Guterson's short stories: "The fault is largely mine. I had been reading so many escape novels that I wasn't in shape to contend with stories full of real thought written in challenging style."
This is what the cultural elite wants us to believe: if our writers don't make sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren't worthy of them.