This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

October 7, 2001 — It stirred the hottest debate in the literary world this year — a long, erudite and passionate polemic in the summer issue of The Atlantic Monthly called "A Reader's Manifesto," by a previously unknown critic named B. R. Myers. It attacked some of the biggest "literary" writers of the day for "self–conscious, writerly prose" that, Myers said, had little more to say than "I express myself differently from you, therefore I am a Writer."

Using numerous examples, Myers skewered Annie Proulx for "pyrotechnic" writing that made it seem "as if she were afraid that we might forget her quirky narratorial presence for even a line or two"; Cormac McCarthy for "pseudo–archaic formulations" that rely "more on barrages of hit–and–miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words"; Don DeLillo for "disjointed strings of elliptical statements" and "spurious profundity"; Paul Auster for misusing fancy words ("nominalism") in "facetious displays of erudition"; and David Guterson for "repetitive sluggishness" that makes it clear he "thinks it more important to sound literary than to make sense."

Throughout, Myers cited rave reviews from the "cultural elite" to show how the literary establishment does an "efficient job of maintaining the status quo."

Critics immediately waded in on both sides. "He's got the big stuff right," said Jonathan Yardley in his Washington Post column. "In essence he's saying that the dominant themes of contemporary American 'literary' fiction (and of the criticism that legitimizes it) are self–regard and self-promotion."

"Myers is wrong," said Lee Siegel in a review for the Los Angeles Times. He called Myers "the loudest proponent of phony populism who has appeared in some time."

Right or wrong, it stirred people up — writing just days after the publication appeared, Jonathan Yardley said, "already many readers have written to me in praise of it." That was true at this website, too, where letters about Myers started coming in as soon as the article appeared in June.

But that issue was long gone from newsstands when Judith Shulevitz, a columnist at the New York Times Sunday Book Review, finally weighed in.

Myers, she admitted in her Septmeber 9 "Close Reader" column, "scores some hits." She said he was right about Proulx and Guterson, but Shulevitz pointed out — in language that brings to mind what Times reporter Felicity Barringer called, in another case, "the offhanded evisceration of various literati" — that "the two are easily recognizable as the sort of overwrought writers who are eternally popular and frequently forgotten," and "In reaches of the literary establishment Myers seems unfamiliar with, they have already been discounted as such." (Where those reaches are, she doesn't say, although it is, apparently, a place where you can get both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, as Proulx has.)

But Myers "loses it completely," says Shulevitz, when he criticizes Don DeLillo, and she savages Myers accordingly. To miss DeLillo's "brilliant aptness," she says, "requires either obtuseness or unfamiliarity with American culture."

By way of substantiation, Shulevitz cites one of the several passages from DeLillo's oeuvre that Myers quotes. This particular passage, from "White Noise," Myers had pointed out in his "Manifesto," contains numerous tautologies and "clumsy" alliterations, which Myers said he cited mostly to show — as he'd mentioned about another passage earlier — that DeLillo writes in a "prose that is simply flat and tiresome." And Myers not only gave citation after citation — he first quoted the passage at uninterrupted length, as if to let the reader make up their own mind.

Shulevitz, on the other hand, quotes the briefest fragment of the DeLillo passage to subtantiate her view that Myers "misinterprets" it; she says what she thinks "DeLillo seems to be saying" in it; she provides none of the kind of textual analysis that Myers does to support herself.

But perhaps that's because, at that point, late in her essay, she's running out of room; as readers may have guessed from some of the earlier Shulevitz quotes I cited, rather than really analyze what Myers says, Shulevitz actually spends far more time talking about the fact that Myers is — her word — an "outsider."

"Myers, who lives in New Mexico," she writes, "is not just a man without a stake in the literary establishment. He is foreign to it in every way." Myers, Shulevitz reveals, is "South African by birth." What's more, he studied in Germany, spent time in China, and will be teaching in South Korea.

While such blatant xenophobia was surprising, the sloppy rhetoric — writers, for example, being simultaneously "eternally popular" and "frequently forgotten" — sadly, is not. Nor is the ad hominem nature of Shulevitz's attack.

After all, this is the same Judith Shulevitz who, as a columnist for Slate, attacked none other than Lee Siegel for giving a harsh review to (or, in Shulevitz's words, "taking a hatchet to") novelist Kurt Andersen . . . without mentioning that she had worked for Andersen (at New York magazine) and they were friends. This is the same Judith Shulevitz who, again at Slate, attacked Renata Adler after Adler criticized New York Times book review editor Charles McGrath in her book, "Gone" . . . except Shulevitz failed to mention that she regularly moonlighted for the Times, and that McGrath was a close friend, too.

And of course, this is the same Judith Shulevitz who — shortly after that last piece, when she was given her plumb job at the Book Review by McGrath, and with flagrant conflicts unhidden for once — attacked Dave Eggers (saying his magazine "McSweeny's," "isn't even that cute anymore," in an article called "Too Cool for Words") . . . after Eggers, in an essay on the McSweeny's website, had famously attacked Shulevitz's colleague and Times book reporter David D. Kirkpatrick for what Eggers thought was an unfair profile.

Well, there we are. Whether or not Don DeLillo turns out to be another one of her friends, Shulevitz's bizarre chauvinism toward Myers, and her assertion that intelligent readers like him have no "stake in the literary establishment," are enough to prove a large part of his case — that is, that there really does appear to be a "cultural elite" mindlessly "maintaining the status quo."

Lord knows, the very trajectory of Shulevitz's career (scroll down) might be proof enough of that — she didn't, as it turns out, get to write for the most powerful newspaper in the world due to her reporting skills. Myers, as he clarified in a letter to the Times after Shulevitz's attack — and as if it had anything to do with anything — was born in the U.S.

Last Week’s Column: POETRY IN A TIME OF NEED In the wake of tragedy, more and more people seem to be turning to poetry. Luckily, there's a lot to choose from lately . . .


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.