Has it been 10 years already? In the July/August 2001 issue of The Atlantic, B.R. Myers published a now-infamous essay titled “A Reader’s Manifesto,” in which he complained about the tyranny of pretentiousness that dominated the American fiction of the day. In particular, he set his sights on a group of well-regarded American novelists that included Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, E. Annie Proulx, and Cormac McCarthy (never let it be said that Meyers refused to swing for the bleachers).
At the turn of the 21st century, Myers argued, “any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be ‘genre fiction’ “ at best an excellent ‘read’ or a ‘page turner,’ but never literature with a capital L.” By contrast, “Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose … is now considered to be ‘literary fiction’ “ not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.”
Myers’ essay caused quite a furor. And while his argument did falter in places (anyone who criticizes DeLillo’s acerbic 1985 satire White Noise by saying that “no real person” would talk the way DeLillo’s characters talk has clearly missed the point entirely), he nevertheless laid out a persuasive argument against the kind of middlebrow, unchallenging fiction that continues to hold sway 10 years later.
How can we tell that this kind of fiction continues to hold sway? Because The Huffington Post has published Myers Redux: Anis Shivani’s list of “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers.” Shivani echoes Myers’ complaint that today’s literary fiction is composed largely of what Myers called “self-conscious, writerly prose,” and extends it to writing promoted by apparently ubiquitous MFA programs and their “mechanisms of circulating popularity and fashionableness,” which “[lean] heavily on the easily imitable.” This echo-chamber effect has been criticized before, with some validity. The sheer glut of MFA programs is problematic in itself, as a recent article in Mother Jones pointed out (referring, it should be mentioned, to the U.S.):
Last summer, Louis Menand tabulated that there were 822 creative writing programs. Consider this for a moment: If those programs admit even 5 to 10 new students per year, then they will cumulatively produce some 60,000 new writers in the coming decade. Yet the average literary magazine now prints fewer than 1,500 copies. In short, no one is reading all this newly produced literature “ not even the writers themselves. And with that in mind, writers have become less and less interested in reaching out to readers “ and less and less encouraged by their teachers to try.
The alliance of these programs with what Shivani calls “conglomerate publishing,” where “the decision-makers wouldn’t know great literature if it hit them in the face,” fosters an environment that creates “at least a minimum of readership for mediocre books.” And this environment is promulgated by mainstream reviewers acting as shills for conglomerate publishers’ PR departments rather than providing analytical responses to the literature of the day.
In place of DeLillo, Auster, Proulx, and McCarthy, Shivani slags William T. Vollmann (a “third-rate Pynchon desperate to impress with quantity rather than quality”), along with heavyweights such as Amy Tan (“Perfect soothing balm for Jesse Helms and his fellow conservatives”), Jonathan Safran Foer (“Always quick to jump on to the bandwagon of the moment”), and Michael Cunningham (“Another devotee of the antihumanist message, which comes packaged as resignation to reality”). Shivani also broadens the field of his attack, including seven poets and one critic (The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani).
Although his choices are bound to be met with the same resistance as Myers’ were a decade ago, Shivani makes a number of compelling points. It’s hard to argue that today’s MFA-wielding (post-)postmodernists, and their obsessions with picayune anxiety and narcissistic self-absorption, have not sold out the modernist legacy, which was based on an existential understanding of mortality that was at its core also bracingly moral. And the lack of anything resembling a willingness to address the big issues of the day (except, as in Safran Foer’s case, in a cynical attempt to cash in on the cachet of current events) is practically endemic to literatures on both sides of the 49th parallel. Where, one might reasonably ask, is the current generation’s Tolstoy, its Faulkner, its Dickinson (or even its DeLillo or McCarthy)?
They may in fact already be on the scene. It’s impossible to know which books will stand the test of time, which authors currently publishing will still be read 100 years from now (assuming, of course, that human beings are still reading anything at all 100 years from now). Shivani makes certain errors in his assessments (for example, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “cloying” as “extremely sweet” or “excessively sentimental,” terms that seem diametrically opposed to the fiction of Denis Johnson), but his central points are well taken, as were Myers’ back in the summer of 2001.
In the end, however, perhaps that Mother Jones piece provides the best prescription for writing that is likely to endure, a prescription with which both Myers and Shivani would likely agree: “Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.”