Twenty Years Later: B. R. Myers, A Reader’s Manifesto

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on this series.


Twenty years ago this month, The Atlantic published a critical essay on the then-current state of American prose. As dry and dusty a topic that sounds—doubly so when published by an august New England monthly—it improbably became a cultural sensation, leading to op-eds in international newspapers, vitriolic letters-to-the-editor, screechy denunciations from professional reviewers across the media spectrum, and readers everywhere debating—of all things—the modern novel.

Writer B. R. Myers unexpectedly touched a raw nerve in an America that was better-read than the literati believed possible. “A Reader’s Manifesto” dissected without mercy the work of such literary lights as Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, and David Guterson. Myers didn’t merely criticize their prose on terms of its grammar and diction, he attacked these writers on grounds of pretentiousness, and accused the literary establishment of abetting their ascendancy.

Charged stuff, but still very inside baseball. To rouse an impassioned response from readers over books like White Noise and Snow Falling Like Cedars was a remarkable moment in American culture. It’s more remarkable considering some of the above authors’ books satirize the inanity of American culture.

Looking back, it seems dream-like for a critical examination of literary novels to ignite such a furor. I can’t imagine such a thing happening today. Then again, it seemed equally unimaginable twenty years ago.

History of Manifesto

Fed-up with fawning reviews of works like Timbuktu and All the Pretty Horses, Myers first wrote his manifesto in 1999. Using careful, reasoned prose punctuated with wit and scathing humor, he analyzed passages from prize-winning books—passages which had been the subject of so much praise by literary reviewers as examples of masterful writing. In his hands, and using tried-and-true close-reading techniques, he punctured these writers’ obtuse and repetitive language to reveal prose he found to be turgid, meaningless, and pretentious.

Myers was convinced no magazine or newspaper would publish his critique. He was an unknown in the literary world; a monograph on the quality of modern literary prose hardly promises to fly off bookstore shelves.

So Myers did what many writers would do in later years: He self-published his manifesto on Amazon. He titled it Gorgons in the Pool: The Trouble with Contemporary “Literary” Prose after a particularly choice passage in a Cormac McCarthy novel. “Nothing happened,” he later wrote. “I went online and ordered three copies for myself; they were the only ones ever sold.”

One of the copies he mailed out for review wound up in the hands of an Atlantic editor, who offered to publish rather than review it. The Atlantic demanded severe cuts and revisions, and the version published in the magazine comes off nastier than he’d intended. He also had the gut-wrenching task of waving off the Times Literary Supplement from publishing a review of Gorgons, as he’d already signed a contract with The Atlantic. (“As someone said to me the other day, ‘How do you know [Times Literary Supplement] wasn’t going to tear you apart?'” he later remarked. “I suppose everything worked out for the best.”) Bad timing would develop into a cadence for Manifesto.

Gorgons in the Pool by B. R. Myers

The Atlantic article, tucked away deep inside the July/August double-issue, improbably made Myers a name-brand overnight. His outsider status only buffed his credentials as a hard-nosed reviewer. Even his use of first initials added a mysterious air to his origins. Although he received praise from many quarters, it mostly came from readers and (interestingly) journalists, a profession notorious for attracting writers shut-out of the book publishing world.

Although the literati initially ignored the essay, drumbeats of support from readers for Myers basic thesis—modern lit is pretentious—caught their attention. Much of the criticism directed back at Myers originated from book reviewers, book supplement editors, and literary novelists. Some of it was quite vitriolic, outraged anyone could even suggest the writers he selected weren’t unassailable geniuses. A few of these refutations had a smug air about them, as though they were slamming the door on Myers and putting an and to the dreary affair once and for all.

It didn’t work. The rebuttals only stoked increased support for Myers from readers around the world. The back-and-forth debate raged online and, as a mark of the times, across letters-to-the-editor pages, which printed point and counterpoint letters for weeks. This simply did not happen often, even in a time when a lot of people still had their news delivered to them via bicycle.

Frustrated. the literary professional class took up what is today recognized as a surefire stratagem for shutting down an Internet debate: They doxxed him.

Not exactly—while The New York Times Book Review didn’t print Myers’ phone number and street address, they did see fit to delve into his past for anything incriminating (much like the Twitterati today will dumpster-dive people’s feeds to dig up embarrassing tweets from eight years ago). With the ethics of a tabloid reporter, Judith Shulevitz dished to her readers that Myers was a foreigner (he’s not) who lived in New Mexico (i.e., not New York City) and was at that moment preparing to spend a year in Seoul “teaching North Korean literature to the South Koreans.” (Myers’ response: “I would probably have described my job in a way less calculated to evoke the phrase ‘selling ice to the eskimoes.'”)

Myers, Shulevitz wrote, “is not just a man without a stake in the literary establishment. He is foreign to it in every way.” His manifesto could have

proved that a critic needs nothing more than taste to make a case. Does Myers’s essay do all this? It does not, because Myers doesn’t have a sure grasp of the world he’s attacking.

Most of the denunciations of Manifesto are steeped in this kind of a haughty condescension, and it served Myers well.

(I should add that I’m uncomfortable throwing around the phrase “literary establishment” as a catch-all for a wide and disjointed segment. Yet, Shulevitz seemed comfortable acknowledging its existence in 2001, so I’ll assume it existed then and exists today.)

Manifesto continued to be a lodestone of bad timing. The Times‘ nativist pillorying of Myers was published on September 9, 2001. Two days later, the Times—and the rest of the world—was focused on a very different subject. The literary debate Myers had sparked that summer ground to a halt.

The history of Manifesto could easily have ended with the attacks on the World Trade Center, if not for events which nudged a little harder on the snowball Myers had started rolling in 1999.

First was Oprah selecting Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections for her book club. To get an idea of how close this shaved against Myer’s Manifesto—and his continued game of footsie with bad timing—the same edition of the New York Times Book Review that exposed Myers as a Korean-teaching foreigner also included a glowing review of The Corrections with an ironic premonition of Oedipus Rex proportions: A winking approval that the book contains “just enough novel-of-paranoia touches so Oprah won’t assign it and ruin Franzen’s street cred.” Actually, Oprah was set to announce The Corrections as her next book club pick four days later (only to postpone it due to 9/11). When Franzen bristled that Oprah was attempting to smarten-up her book club by associating it with the “high-art literary tradition,” a new literary controversy erupted to displace Manifesto.

Although the imbroglio between Oprah and Franzen is better framed as tabloid-level tit-for-tat, Manifesto played a minor role. Online commenters made the point that Myers’ gripes about the literary establishment sneering down on the reading public were playing out before the nation’s eyes. Gone was his critics’ suggestion that, on this point, Myers was jousting with windmills.

The second event was Melville House publishing A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose in 2002 (one of the two first books produced by the then-fledgling publisher). This full-length treatment gave Myers the opportunity to restore much of what was lost from Gorgons in the Pool when it was adapted for The Atlantic. It’s this edition I’ve based this review on.

The backward glance

The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001
The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001.

I vividly recall reading “Manifesto” in the summer of 2001. I’d written my first novel and was discovering the ego-melting process called “finding a literary agent.” Over the prior years I had enrolled in evening and weekend creative writing courses around the Bay Area, where many of the books Myers lay judgment upon were held up as models exemplar. Also at the time I was a member of a weekly “writer’s reading group.” A member of the group handed me a Xerox of The Atlantic essay along with a half-joking warning not to take anything this Myers guy has to say too seriously.

I wound up taking B. R. Myers quite seriously. I had never read anything like “A Reader’s Manifesto.” Rereading Myer’s book for this post, I still marvel over his concision and convictions. It can be read in a single sitting, and unless you’re a grump, it will keep you engaged from chapter to chapter. Myers understands the game he’s taken up: He can’t poke a stick at others’ bad prose if his own prose is lacking. His manifesto is meticulous, refreshing, lively, and enlightening, as seen here when he trains his gimlet eye on McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:

As a fan of movie westerns I refuse to quibble with the myth that a rugged landscape can bestow an epic significance on the lives of its inhabitants. But as Conrad understood better than Melville, the novel is a fundamentally irreverent form; it tolerates epic language only when used with a selective touch. To record with the same majesty every aspect of a cowboy’s life, from a knife-fight to his lunchtime burrito, is to create what can only be described as kitsch.

Not only is this arguable, there’s a lot packed in there to argue with: I find this to be a positive.

Or here, where he’s analyzing David Guterson’s output:

…a slow tempo is as vital to his pseudo-lyrical effects as a fast one is to Proulx’s. What would otherwise be sprightly sentences are turned into mournful shuffles through the use of tautology. “Anything I said was a blunder, a faux pas,” “a clash of sound, discordant,” “She could see that he was angry, that he was holding it in, not exposing his rage,” “Wyman was gay, a homosexual,” and so on.

This level of tight engagement with the work at hand shows this is well above the usual culture-war crap that’s saturated our nation’s dialogue for decades now.

Some of his lines of attack are novel. Performing a close and scathing read of Annie Proulx’s self-approving dedication in Close Range (“my strangled, work-driven ways”) is the kind of antic you’d expect of the University Wits or Alexander Pope. His oft-quoted rejoinder to an exchange between Oprah and Toni Morrison is his most acidic and least endearing: “Sorry, my dear Toni, but it’s actually called bad writing.” (Less oft-quoted is his explanation: “Great prose isn’t always easy but it’s always lucid; no one of Oprah’s intelligence ever had to puzzle over what Joseph Conrad was trying to say in a particular sentence.”)

Regardless of what you might have read elsewhere, the boilerplate attacks on Myers don’t stand up to scrutiny. Supposedly he values plot over form; he disdains “difficult” books; he cherry-picked bad passages from the books he attacks; he selected writers who’d gone out of fashion; or the confounding claim that he’s a humorless cur prone to sarcasm and snide shots. Having read his book at least four times now, I say none of these complaints hold water. (Sarcasm may be the lowest form of humor, but it’s not humorless.) I’m not saying there’s no room for criticizing Manifesto, only that dismissing Myers without engaging his points is not fruitful.

And there’s plenty in Manifesto for writers to take away. Rather than being satisfied with throwing spitballs at modern lit, he contrasts prose he finds vapid with prose that stands up. Myers will forever get grief for quoting Louis L’Amour’s Hondo with approval, but the passage he includes is a model of clean, effective writing. Myers makes the point several times that the prose he’s complaining about could have been written with less-pompous English, and takes a few stabs at editing it as proof. He’s engaged with the texts under the gun, a marked difference from his critics who sniff down on him (and, it seems, cannot be bothered to quote and refute his specific claims).

My take-away from Manifesto for writers is, don’t produce affected writing, produce affecting writing: Language that stirs the reader and shines a light rather than obscures. Good editing requires close reads of your prose, and questioning what every word is doing in a sentence. Ditch the idea that affecting prose is “easy” and affected prose is “difficult,” an avant-garde pose. “‘Prose,’ for [Myers], equals syntax plus diction, and is expected to denote, rather than to evoke.” I think he expects it to do both.

Revolt of the reading public

The significance of Myer’s Manifesto is not a perverse thrill of taking down holy cows like McCarthy and DeLillo, but how eerily it presaged the next twenty years in American publishing. The circuitous route Myers followed from Gorgons in the Pool to The Atlantic Monthly to Melville House is a once-in-a-generation aberration, but the elements of getting said critique out of the word processor and into the hands of readers rings awfully familiar today.

When I read in 2002 of Myers self-publishing Gorgons on Amazon, I was floored: I had no idea such an opportunity was available to mere mortals. It was a bona fide light-bulb moment, the first time I pondered the possibility of making an end-run around the New York City publishers and selling my work directly to readers. Ten years later, not only was Amazon still open to self-publishing, the company was rapidly tooling up to make publishing your own e-book as easy as clicking a mouse button. The Guardian has made much mirth over the quality of self-published novels and much hay over the coming death of e-books. After the pandemic shuttered libraries, bookstores, and schools throughout 2020 and 2021, I now see little resistance to the long-term viability of e-books.

Less obvious today, but notable in 2001, was a writer in a national magazine praising Amazon user reviews (of the books Myers was criticizing, not his own overlooked Gorgons). Before Manifesto, any reference in the popular media to Amazon’s user reviews was bound to be dismissive or sardonic. Cultural commentators back then saw putting opinion-making into the hands of readers as ludicrous as a truck driver penning a starred Michelin review. (Don’t forget, there were still people in 2001 arguing the Internet was a passing fad—that it was faster to drive to the bookstore and buy a book than for Amazon to deliver it, ergo Amazon’s days were numbered.) Myers didn’t merely approve of Amazon user reviews, he used them as evidence that readers can and do understand difficult literature. I believe this is the first time I saw anyone in the cultural sphere do this.

Self-publishing; “average people” versus the experts; the power of reader reviews; the pseudo-doxxing Myers was subjected to; online discussion boards keeping the debate alive; and vitriolic denunciations from on high. All that’s missing is a hash tag, some Bitcoin changing hands, and the dust-up around Manifesto would sound like any number of social media episodes we’ve seen in recent years.

Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public deserves mention here. Although I’ve not read it, I have read plenty of reviews and analyses, simply because this 2014 book appears to have predicted the rise of Donald Trump, Brexit, cancel culture, the Capitol Hill attacks, QAnon, #MeToo, and more. (It too was self-published on Amazon.)

Gurri’s thesis is that the Internet is destabilizing public respect for institutional authority and, in due course, undermining the authorities’ control over social and political narratives. The expert class, once considered the final word, now must defend itself from an increasingly skeptical public.

It seems to me that the narratives being disrupted by digital communications may not merely be political narratives but also traditional ones—the narratives offered by the literary novel, and the narratives sold to the public by the literary expert class. Not only are big-name authors being treated with skepticism by the general public, but their fawning reviewers as well. (There is less distinction here than would first appear: Literary novels are often reviewed by other literary novelists. This incestuousness would be a scandal in other fields. “Imagine what would happen if the Big Three were allowed to review each other’s cars in Consumer Reports,” Myers noted in an interview. “They’d save the bad reviews for outsiders like the Japanese.”)

A before-and-after example of the Internet’s effect on the publishing world is Lorenzo Carcaterra’s Sleepers (1995) and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003). Both were mega-bestsellers whose publication dates bookend the Internet’s ascension in daily life. Both were published as memoirs, and both had their factual accuracy challenged. The controversy around Sleepers was reported by the mass media copy-and-pasting publisher press releases and quoting book agents. A Million Little Pieces was put under the Internet’s collective magnifying glass thanks to an investigation by the amateur web site The Smoking Gun.

This people-powered exposé became a nightmare for James Frey, and his reputation never recovered. Editions of A Million Little Pieces (another Oprah book club pick!) now include a publisher’s note warning of “certain embellishments” and “invented” details: “The reader should not consider this book anything other than a work of literature.”

Carcaterra largely escaped unscathed in 1995 thanks to the controversy being framed by the media as a publishing industry squabble. Sleepers remains sold today as memoir. (Funny enough, it’s also listed under Amazon’s “Hoaxes & Deceptions” category.) Carcaterra’s luck can be measured in years. If Sleepers had been a bestselling memoir in 2005, the Internet would have torn it to shreds.

“Leaders can’t stand at the top of pyramids anymore and talk down to people,” Martin Gurri writes. “The digital revolution flattened everything.” I say A Reader’s Manifesto was the initial deflating puncture of the literary world’s cozy status quo.

Engendered reputations

In the conclusion of Manifesto, Myers writes:

I don’t believe anything I write will have much effect on these writers’ careers. The public will give them no more thought in twenty years than it gives, say, Norman Rush today, but that will have nothing to do with me, and everything to do with what engendered their reputations in the first place.

(If you’re wondering who Norman Rush is, I confess I had to look him up myself.)

I was tempted to produce a list of the writers whose work Myers criticized to see where their reputations stand today. I won’t do that; any reader so inclined could make such a list on their own. Some of the rebuttals directed at Myers in 2001 claimed a few of these authors were already “on their way out,” although each critic seemed to formulate a different list of who remained relevant and who was exiting stage left.

I will point out that some of Myers’ subjects have sunk into a comfortable life of teaching, penning the occasional pop culture piece, and a general resting upon of laurels. Myers makes a couple of pointed barbs about Old Man and the Sea, but at least Hemingway was still throwing left-hooks at the end of his life.

(When Myers’ critics claim that literary book awards and glowing reviews in highbrow magazines are “meaningless,” or that Myers ignored genre fiction’s own system of awards and reviews, they’re overlooking the enduring social capital of “literary significance.” A science-fiction writer receiving big-time accolades in 2001 is not going to be, in 2021, a tenured professor, traveling the writer’s retreat circuit as a featured speaker, and penning think pieces for Harper’s. The self-propelling feedback loop that is the literary world should not be discounted.)

Note that Myers leaves unsaid what exactly engendered these authors’ reputations in the first place. The optimist in me thinks he’s referring to the quality of their writing—live by the sword, die by the sword.

The pessimist in me suspects what really engendered their reputations is an enabling literary establishment, which has proven resiliently fickle, lacking a healthy sense of introspection, and is eager to maintain a country-club exclusivity while claiming commitments to diversity. Even in the face of a massive shift in digital publishing, and the concomitant explosion of voices now available via e-books and print-on-demand, the literary establishment remains a closed shop. Its reviewers walk hand-in-hand with big publishers who regularly ink seven-figure publishing deals and expect a return on said investment. Positive reviews in well-placed periodicals are an important component of any publishing marketing plan. (The podcast “Personal Rejection Letter” explored this question in 2017, along with a retrospective of Myer’s Manifesto.)

In other words, the authors Myers put under the microscope may or may not be relevant twenty years later, but the system that held them aloft remains alive and strong. The Internet has kneecapped it some—the literary establishment is less commanding than it once was—but it’s still humming along.

Well, then, could Myers have at least shifted the conversation? I would say he did. While Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 “Perchance to Dream” (re-titled “Why Bother?”) and Tom Wolfe’s 1989 “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” are both considered modern literary manifestos of great import, it’s plain to me that Myers’ Manifesto has shown far more staying power in the public’s and writers’ consciousness. Even in a 2010 critical response to B. R. Myers review of Franzen’s Freedom, the comments section swings back and forth on the significance of Myer’s Manifesto, with the most recent comment coming in 2016. There are YouTube videos produced as late as last year going over the debate Myers ignited twenty years ago.

Meanwhile, in creative writing courses across America, mentioning Myers’ name will still earn an eye-roll and a dramatic sigh from the instructor, wordlessly asking when this guy will just go away.

The double-edged sword

Ally Sheedy as Allison Reynolds

In The Breakfast Club, introverted Allison dares rich-girl Claire to say if she’s a virgin. When Claire demurs, Allison says,

It’s kind of a double-edged sword isn’t it? … If you say you haven’t [had sex], you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap.

This is how I feel when the question comes up about the distinction between literary and genre fiction. If you write literary novels, you’re a prude. If you write genre books, you’re a slut.

Is it really that simple? Nothing in this world is so simple. Yet, here are some true-life examples from my own experiences:

Prude

While shopping around my first novel, I got a tip that a prestigious national imprint had a new editor seeking fresh manuscripts. I sent mine along, hopeful but also realistic about my chances.

The rejection slip I received was fairly scathing. The editor claimed my book read of a desperate MFA student who doesn’t understand the “real world.” It was fairly derogatory (and oddly personal, considering this editor and I shared a mutual friend). A simple “thanks, no thanks” would have sufficed, but this editor decided it was my turn in the barrel.

Make no mistake: This hoity-toit imprint reeks of MFA aftershave. It’s not a punk-lit imprint. It’s not an edgy alt-lit imprint. It publishes high-minded literary fiction. The author list is upper-middle- to upper-class, blindingly white, and yes, many of them hold an MFA.

And I hold an MFA too, so perhaps the criticism is spot-on—except I wrote the bulk of novel before I set foot in grad school. I didn’t aim for it to be a literary masterpiece. I wanted to write a page-turner. It’s categorized as literary fiction because it’s not mystery, science-fiction, fantasy, romance, Western, thriller, or YA/New Adult. Write a story about a character and his family, and it’s not merely literary, you’re trying to “be literary.” Who knew?

In my novel, the main character has grown up in a town of physicists who design and perfect weapons of mass destruction—this is the actual childhood I experienced. I thought it would be a good read. (It is a good read.) My character is snarky, sarcastic, crude—and at times, he can be a right asshole. The technical background of the novel is, as they say, ripped from the headlines.

This seems pretty real-world to me. I thought I was writing a funny novel with an unusual setting and situation. This editor took it upon herself to declare I’m actually a Raymond Carver-esque hack penning quiet stories of bourgeois desperation. And that I should stop being that writer.

So, there’s the rejection slip telling me to quit being literary, even though that’s a categorization I never asked for. And it came from a literary publishing house. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, isn’t it?

Slut

After Amazon published my second novel, I began to sense a change in the attitudes of many of my writer friends. At first it was slight, like a shift in air movement when a door in the room is opened. Gradually, though, the emotional tension grew to the point it could not be denied.

I wondered if the problem was one of jealousy. My book had been picked up by a large company, but Amazon was not what you would call an A-list publisher (back then, at least—times have changed). And, they only published my book in digital Kindle format. I had to rely on CreateSpace to offer a paperback edition. The advance money was not huge, and the publicity not so widespread. It all seemed pretty modest to me, and I thought my friends would recognize it as such.

My novel is set in an alternate universe where human reproductive biology is tweaked in a rather significant way. This book is obviously science-fiction. Since the protagonist is a thirteen-year-old girl, it neatly fits into the YA slot as well.

And I’m comfortable with those categorizations. I grew up reading Asimov, Bradbury, Silverberg, and other science-fiction writers of the Golden and Silver Ages who laid so much groundwork for the genre. More importantly, I wanted to write another page-turner, a real unputdownable book. From the Amazon reviews, I think I succeeded.

The tip-off for the issue with my friends was when my wife asked one of them if she’d read my new book. The answer was a murmured, “I would never read a book like that.” This from a person I counted as a friend, and had known for ten years.

Before this, I’d heard her repeat the trope that all genre fiction is formula, as mindless as baking a cake from a box of mix. I always let it go, for the sake of harmony. Now it was being thrown in my face.

The funny thing is, one Amazon editor told me she felt in hindsight my science-fiction YA novel was not a good fit for their imprint. They were more interested in “accessible” genre fiction for their readers, and that my work was—yep—too literary. It’s a trap.

Tease

When Claire refuses to reveal if she’s a virgin, bad-boy Bender suspects she’s a tease:

Sex is your weapon. You said it yourself. You use it to get respect.

Between being a literary author and a genre writer, there’s a third way: The literary-genre writer. These are the teases. They write genre fiction, but make it literary to get respect. And, often they do.

Examples of teases are Haruki Murakami, China Miéville, Cormac McCarthy, and Margaret Atwood. Much of their work is patently genre, but they are received and analyzed with the same awe and respect reserved for literary novelists.

The knee-jerk reaction is to say these writers prove it’s possible to write literary-genre fiction. I don’t think that’s true at all, though. It only proves that authors accepted into the literary realm get to have it both ways: They avoid the stigma of genre fiction while incorporating the high-stake dramatic possibilities genre fiction offers.

Consider another literary-genre writer: Kurt Vonnegut. He wrote science-fiction, but his books are rarely shelved in that section. Hell, he even wrote a diatribe about how bad science-fiction writing is (Eliot Rosewater’s drunken “science-fiction writers couldn’t write for sour apples” screed). Yet, Vonnegut is rarely, if ever, permitted into the same circle as Atwood or McCarthy. There’s something “common” about Vonnegut. Only at the end of his life was he cautiously allowed into the literary world. Some still say he doesn’t belong there.

I remain unconvinced it’s the sophistication of a novel itself that moves it into the upper literary tiers. I can point to plenty of books supposedly in the literary strata that are not exceedingly well-written or insightful. Something other than an airy quality is the deciding factor.

The success of a handful of literary-genre writers doesn’t open doors, it only creates a new double-edged trap. An author who pens a literary-style novel can claim it’s literary. See, he added his book to the “Literary Fiction” section on Amazon! But does it mean he’s a member of the literary world? Not at all. There’s something else holding him back.

The trap

The literary/genre distinction purports to explain every aspect of a story: Its relevance, its significance, its quality, its audience, even the goals of the writer when they sat down to write it. Nothing in this world is so simple.

There’s a smell about the literary/genre divide. It smells like class. Literary is upper-class, and pulpy genre is for the proletariat. This roughly corresponds to the highbrow/lowbrow classifications. We even have a gradation for the striving petty bourgeoisie, middlebrow.

(Even calling a novel “middlebrow” is treated with disdain—a lowbrow attempt to raise a genre book to a higher status. It’s easy to fall down the literary/genre ladder, but difficult to ascend.)

I definitely believe the Marxist notion of class exists, both abroad and here in the United States. What I don’t believe is that a work of fiction is “of a class.” Books are utilized as a marker of class—tools to express one’s status. Distinctions like literary vs. genre communicate to members of each class which books they should be utilizing…I mean, reading.

Amazon says new Kindle replicates experience of holding real book cover in public

This is not the most original thought, but is it really that simple? Nothing in this world is so simple. And I don’t want it to be simple. As with food, the best reading diet is varied, eclectic, and personal.

Note the real damage here. If a writer writes the books he or she wants to write, and puts their heart and soul into making it the highest-quality they can for their readers, all that hard work is instantly deflated by the literary/genre prude/slut highbrow/lowbrow labels.

And if a writer introduces genre conventions into their literary work, they’re a sell-out—a prude tarting it up for cheap attention. And if the author of a genre novel tries to achieve a kind of elegance with their prose and style, they’re overreaching—a slut putting on a church dress. You use it to get respect. We’re punishing people for being ambitious.

I’ve said it elsewhere: People will judge a book by its cover, its publisher, the author’s name, the number of pages, the title, the price, the infernal literary/genre label, its reviews, the number of stars on Amazon—everything but the words between the covers. You know, the stuff that matters.

The New American Regionalism

Detective (hans van den berg, CC BY 2.0)

An untested opinion I’ve held for many years:

Modern mystery fiction has supplanted 19th-century American regional literature, sometimes known as “writing of local color,” as its dominant form.

Regionalism is most strongly associated with Southern writers like Kate Chopin and Joel Chandler Harris, but after the American Civil War local color writing sprung up all over the country. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper”) cataloged New England’s parochialism while Bret Harte wrote roaring tales of California’s Gold Rush. Scholars make distinctions between the terms “regional literature” and “writing of local color,” but I’ll use them interchangeably here.

Regionalism in American writing faded after the turn of the century to be replaced by a more consensus-based literature. Perhaps the twin rise of mass literacy and mass media contributed to regionalism’s fade, although it did not go extinct. Faulkner and Jean Toomer wrote well into the 20th century, and wrote using techniques that would have been foreign to the earlier regional writers, but their fiction is unmistakably grounded in regionalism.

But did regionalism truly fade away? Or was it replaced by something else?

It seems to me that mystery fiction quietly—almost subversively—filled in regionalism’s absence. Every major city in America is host to at least one major crime or detective writer, from Seattle (Aaron Elkins, G. M. Ford) to Boston (Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane) to Chicago (Sara Paretsky) to New Orleans (James Lee Burke), all representing their respective locales through their work. Name almost any place in America today and you’ll find crime writers prowling its dark corners. In the process, they’re introducing the region’s colors and textures to a national audience.

More than any other form of fiction today, mystery is concerned with setting. Science fiction has almost no restrictions when it comes to setting. Fantasy explicitly takes place elsewhere than the here and now, otherwise it’s not fantasy. Romance fiction has setting too, but its concerns are before the fireplace and in the bedroom.

Even contemporary American literature—”fiction of literary intent,” so-called hard realism—is not as connected to setting as mystery fiction. Too often stories from the small literary magazines feel as though they could take place in any city or suburb or small farm, whichever backdrop suits the characters and the emotional arcs they traverse.

Perhaps the only other form of American fiction so tied to setting is the Western, a genre that not coincidentally shares a great deal in common with the American mystery, especially the private eye genre.

I’m not saying other forms of fiction don’t possess a setting, or that they don’t concern themselves with setting. I’m saying that, for the form as a whole, mystery adopts a priority for regions—regionalism—other forms do not.

In mystery, scenes unfold on streets with grounded names and in bars with a history. A great mystery reads like a travelogue of a town, a neighborhood, or a county. The American mystery has a tradition of hewing to real-world settings, such as the streets of Nob Hill in Hammett’s stories and novels. Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” police procedurals take place in a fictional New York City borough, but it’s the Big Apple all the same. Sue Grafton’s stand-in for Santa Barbara (“Santa Teresa”) is so Southern California, you can imagine The Eagles cutting a single about it.

This, I say, is the New American Regionalism. Mystery writers delight in bringing alive their surroundings, and by doing so they share their surroundings with their readership. Local color means local characters and local charm. Look at what stylist Elmore Leonard does so expertly in his Florida novels, capturing all the facets of dialects and cultures in Miami. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry of local color emphasizes “the features and peculiarities of a particular locality and its inhabitants.” This fits Florida crime writing to a T, with an emphasis on the peculiarities and particulars of the genre’s always-colorful cast of characters (Leonard, Carl Hiassen, Edna Buchanan).

My first inkling of the connection between regional writing and mysteries came to me twenty-five years ago living in San Luis Obispo, California. An ever-reliable bookstore there stocked a case of local writers, including several mystery series. Perusing the back cover blurbs, it was apparent the writers had mined the peculiarities and particulars of San Luis Obispo County for all it had to offer. My cynical younger self found it ludicrous, these over-boiled private eyes and steely Lt. Detectives walking the mean streets of San Luis Obispo, a place ranked “one of the happiest cities on Earth.”

Over the years I’ve lightened up. I came to realize the mystery writers of SLO Town were merely doing what all regional writers have done in America: Explore, critique, and celebrate they places they live.

Sherlock by train

Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson by Sidney Paget (1860-1908) (Strand Magazine)Last summer I had the great fortune to spend ten weeks in Japan. I traveled by train up and down the islands, from the agriculturally diverse Hokkaido to the richly historical city of Nagasaki at the southern tip of Kyushu. Japan is a fugue of culture, architecture, and landscape. The country never repeats itself, but is stitched together by interlocking themes.

On one leg of the trip I made the key mistake of failing to pack a second book, thinking B. Traven‘s The Death Ship was a hefty enough read until my return to Tokyo. Well, I ripped through The Death Ship in no time (a great novel, by the way) and found myself facing a long stretch of time on Japan’s shinkansen (bullet train) without a thing to read. Even if I understood Japanese, Japan’s trains are not like other systems where you might chance on a discarded newspaper or a light magazine in the seat-back pocket. The Japanese do not leave their detritus behind when they detrain. They even pick up their trash when they exit a baseball game.

Desperate, I searched my smartphone and discovered on my Kindle app The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), the first published collection of Holmes’ adventures. Most of the collection’s story titles are as well-known as books of the Bible: “The Adventure of the Red-headed League”, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, and more. The stories have fallen into the public domain, hence the collection is often the free sample book Amazon supplies when you buy a Kindle or install their app.

Before my trip to Japan, I was never a fan of Sherlock Holmes. I found the Victorian airs and British pleasantries stuffy compared to Holmes’ American counterparts. When I first read “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” at age ten or eleven, I was going through a boyhood codes-and-ciphers phase. By all rights I should have loved the story. Instead I felt a bit let down by its lack of focus on actual cryptanalysis. As I learned on that train ride, Doyle’s stories are often more concerned with a viscount’s ancestry or Tsarist intrigue or preserving the good name of the British Empire than the dead body lying at Holmes’ and Watson’s feet.

All this is to explain that although I’ve read mystery fiction my entire life, from Encyclopedia Brown at the age of seven to the adult pleasures of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (which I reread every few years), on that bullet train ride I was not terribly conversant with the Sherlock Holmes corpus. I’d read The Hound of the Baskervilles a few years before at an acquaintance’s suggestion when I mentioned I’d enjoyed the neo-Gothic Rebecca. Other than some Sherlock Holmes movie spoofs and casual viewing of Jeremy Brett’s BBC series, my exposure to the detective was largely through cultural references and the turns of phrase that have entered our common language, much like someone ignorant in Shakespeare will recognize bits of Hamlet.

Something wonderful happened on that train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto. As these stories of detection and deduction spooled out before me, I realized much of Doyle’s contemporary British audience would have been reading these stories on trains as well. Since he was writing for Strand magazine, Doyle’s audience would’ve picked up a copy at a newsstand before boarding, the Victorian version of buying a thriller at an airport bookstore before a long plane ride.

The cadences and rhythms of Doyle’s stories almost appear crafted for train reading. The percussion of the shinkansen tracks below and the low whistle of the passing wind was the perfect white noise to accompany a Holmes mystery. More than once I started a story as our train left the station, and by the time Holmes was announcing his solution, we were slowing for our next stop. Obviously Doyle wasn’t timing his stories for bullet trains, but it felt he crafted them with a sense of being read in a single sitting between destinations, whether traveling by steam or horse or electromagnets.

How often does Holmes send Watson scurrying to locate a train schedule to confirm some paramount clue or destroy an alibi? How often does Holmes engage in mysterious research in London before setting off by train first thing in the morning, only revealing the details of his research to Watson on the ride north?

Holmes and Watson call for cabs, hire carriages and watercraft, borrow steeds, follow bicycle tracks, and so on. Freedom of mobility is vital to a Sherlock Holmes story. It’s the core question in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”. A horse-and-carriage ride is the central puzzle in “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”. The climax of A Study in Scarlet involves, of all things, hailing a cab off Baker Street.

All fiction writers are writing to a perceived readership, whether they acknowledge it or not. This is distinct from a “target audience,” which commercial writers are all too familiar with. (A staff writer for Wired magazine will consciously know her target audience, which is distinct from the target audience for a sportswriter in a Midwestern farming community.) My notion of a “perceived readership” is more personal than a target audience, a writer’s internalization of their desired audience rather than a market demographic.

Some writers write with magazine editors and agents and publishers in mind—people they hope will publish the story they’re crafting. Some writers think of authors they admire or authors they desire to emulate. Some writers are thinking of friends and family whom they hope to impress, or at least earn their respect. Some writers are thinking of the public at large (whatever that abstract concept means) hoping to earn a wide audience.

Unlike “target audience,” it doesn’t mean the writer is actually writing for this perceived reader. The writer doesn’t actually believe only their friends will read their book, or that some big-name writer will pick it up, especially since that big-name writer may be dead. But just as painting a house requires a house to apply the emulsion, a perceived readership in the back of a writer’s mind gives the writer a kind of fuzzy target to aim for without committing to it.

By the time I returned from Japan, I’d devoured three Sherlock Holmes collections. For all the faults and stuffiness, Doyle is a generous writer, one who engaged with his readership and even challenged them a bit, but never denying them their desires. I suspect Doyle (like Dickens) read correspondence from his readers and was sensitive to their criticisms and praise. I don’t think it’s an accident Doyle modeled his first-person narrator as a physician, Doyle’s own intended profession, or that Watson wrote of Holmes’ exploits under the conceit of penning newspaper articles. Not only did it fill the public with the sensation Holmes was alive—many believed so at the time—but Watson’s audience also gave Doyle the house for which to apply the paint.

Doyle’s perceived readership began to coalesce with his target audience, like blurry double-vision sharpening into a single distinct form. I’m not arguing this is desirable or advantageous, but I do think it happened and that Doyle’s writing was the better for it. I also believe this is part of the reason for Sherlock Holmes’ character persisting as a vivid creative construct well into the 21st century. After all, Holmes’ as an individual is not some empty vessel for each generation of readers to pour their own ideals into. His persistence comes from being odd, unique, idiosyncratic, and ripe for reinterpretation.

This connection between author and perceived readership is a direct rebuttal to the 20th century myth of the “walled-off” author, the lone genius in a room with a typewriter penning works of high art unsullied by mammon or mass culture. While Nabokov, Faulkner, and Woolf may not have been writing for money and celebrity—although I think people are too quick to assume such things—I certainly believe all three were writing for a perceived readership, some idealized notion of the reader they wished to attract.

With the rise of ride-sharing like Uber and Lyft, and with the inevitable arrival of driverless cars in the future, we may experience a fresh resurgence of people with additional time on their hands to read. Who knows? Much as digital music led to the renewal of singles, there may soon be a burgeoning market for short stories and story collections, mysteries and otherwise, as people seek a brief form of entertainment while traveling.

What kind of story matches the cadences and rhythms of a self-driving car? And can America today produce writers as sensitive and generous as Doyle?

The absence of technology in literary fiction

Smartphones by Esther Vargas. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Smartphones by Esther Vargas. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

One of my complaints about literary magazines—both the small lit mags of university English departments and the literary lions like New Yorker, Tin House, and so forth—is the peculiar absence of up-to-date technology in their fiction. Characters don’t send much email. People rarely text each other. Voicemail is about the most modern of the Information Age conveniences in contemporary literature, and even then, it’s usually summarized by the narrator rather than “heard” by the reader. Why?

It’s no longer cyberpunk for your characters to have instant access to cyberspace in their coat pocket. It’s not science fiction for your character to read the morning news on a handheld view screen. Literary fiction often preens itself as being “realistic” compared to genre fiction, but how realistic is it today for a mother of two in Long Island not to have a 4G touch tablet in her purse or a FitBit on her wrist reminding her she’s not burned enough calories today?

Unless it’s set in the past or some truly remote locale, you forfeit your right to call your story a work of realism if your characters don’t have access to the Internet and they’re not using it fairly regularly. Digital access is simply that pervasive, worldwide. Yes, there are exceptions. I’m certain some writers think their characters or their settings are those exceptions. Probably not, though.

One reason for technology’s absence in literary fiction, I suspect, is that modern tech screws with storytelling. As greater minds than me have pointed out, we live in a age bereft of bar bets. The Guinness Book of World Records was originally conceived to settle pub arguments, but it was Wikipedia that ultimately fulfilled that burning need. Any question we have about the world or history, the answer can be located in an instant.

It carries into personal relationships as well. People no longer craft letters and post them in a box, then anxiously await a reply over the next days or weeks. When I was young, a friend might say he would call at eight—and so I would have to wait by the phone in the kitchen at eight o’clock, telling everyone else in the house not to make a call because I was waiting for one. My parents would wake my brother and I up in the middle of the night to say hello to our Midwestern relatives because the long-distance rates dropped after 11pm. (Remember paying a premium for long distance calls?) For years, many of my extended family members were nothing more than a tinny voice at the other end of a phone line and a yellowing Kodachrome print in my mother’s photo albums.

For all the nostalgia value of these tales, I’m happy to no longer be bound by such ancient analog technology. The key word of modern communications is instant. Unfortunately, such friction-free gratification often runs counter to a lot of storytelling precepts, things like tension (which involves time) and desire (which involves immediacy).

But mostly I suspect the writers of contemporary literature simply don’t like modern tech. Receiving a pop-up on your phone for an email explaining a long-forgotten lover’s death lacks a certain airy elegance that a hand-penned note on hospital letterhead offers. The terseness of SMS and instant messaging grates against the literary author’s desires for eloquence and nuance.

More broadly, there’s a general disdain for popular American culture in our contemporary literature. SUVs and dining at Olive Garden are often literary code words for boorish, crass people. Sympathetic characters tend to read the New York Times on Sunday mornings, walk to work, raise a vegetable garden, and run into friends at farmers’ markets.

This is one reason why I don’t buy the assertion that contemporary American literature is realistic. Too often it presents a world the writer (and their readers) would like to live in. That’s not hard realism. And this restrictive view of proper living feeds back on itself: literary magazines print these stories, developing writers read these stories and think they represent “correct” fiction, and so they write and submit likewise.

Give your characters the technology they deserve. If you’re writing about the past, that’s one thing, but if your story is set in modern times, don’t shortchange your characters’ resources.

Instead of viewing commonplace technology as a liability to storytelling, consider how vital the technology has become for us. Watch this magic trick, from Penn & Teller’s Fool Us:

The audience feels the risks the emcee is taking when instructed to place his own phone in an envelope. The surprise when the mallet is brought out, the tension it raises. Look at the audience’s visceral reaction when the mobile phones are hammered up. Even though Penn & Teller see through the act, there’s a kind of narrative structure to the magician’s “story.” At each step of the act, the stakes are raised.

Do this: The next time you’re out with a group (people you know and people you’ve just been introduced to), pull up a photo or a message on your smart phone, and then hand your phone to someone else. (Or, if someone offers you their phone, take it, twiddle with it, and hand it to another person.) Rare is the person comfortable with this. We don’t like these little things leaving our grasp.

That means, as writers, these devices are a goldmine.

We are wed to our new conveniences in ways we never were with “old” modern technology like microwaves, refrigerators, or even automobiles. Americans may love their cars, but they are married to their smart phones. Our mobile devices are lock-boxes of email and text messages, safe deposit boxes of our secrets and our genuine desires (versus the ones we signal to our friends and followers). Gossipy emails, intimate address books, bank accounts, baby pictures, lovers and lusts—our lives are secreted inside modern technology. This is rich soil for a writer to churn up, this confluence of personal power and emotional vulnerability.

Why dismiss or ignore this? Why not take advantage of it in your next story?

Quote

Philip K. Dick on realism, consistency, and fiction

Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other ConversationsRecently I dove into the superb Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (from Melville House, publisher of the increasingly-intriguing Last Interviews collection) and am enjoying every page. I’ve written before about my semi-tortuous negotiations with PKD’s novels, and am finding some justification for my issues in these interviews with him.

With PKD I remain hamstrung: he’s more speculative and philosophical than the run-of-the-mill hard sci-fi writer. This is right up my alley. I absolutely love PKD’s questions of existence, identity, and freewill that lay the foundations of his novels; and he’s a Bay Area writer to boot. Yet I find him to be a flawed writer, one who was so-very-close to writing perfect novels but had trouble overcoming basic hurdles, such as with cardboard characters and sci-fi’s obsession with “ideas” over story.

(For the record, my list of great PKD novels, in no order, remain A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle. I’m sure PKD’s fans find that list ridiculously short and astoundingly obvious. I still pick up his work now and then, so who knows, maybe I’ll find another one to add. PKD was more than prolific.)

In The Last Interview, PKD mentions to interviewer Arthur Byron Cover his early affinity for A. E. van Vogt. (I recall being fascinated with van Vogt’s Slan in junior high school, a book built from much the same brick as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.) PKD observes:

Dick: There was in van Vogt’s writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null-A. All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.

Cover: What about Damon Knight’s famous article criticizing van Vogt?

Dick: Damon feels that it’s bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor.

It’s like he’s viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he’s building your house. But reality is a mess, and yet it’s exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s the questions after my emphasis that make the book’s back cover (“How frightened are you of chaos? How happy are you with order?”), and for good reason: They strike near to the heart of the questions asked in all of PKD’s work.

But I’m interested in the line about the building inspector. Damon’s review of Null-A is dismissively brief (although I suspect what’s being referred to here is Knight’s essay “Cosmic Jerrybuilder”). I’ve not read Null-A, but in principle I line up behind PKD on this one.

Reality is not as sane and orderly as many writers would have us believe. If I’m critical of contemporary American literature’s obsession with “hard realism”, it’s because I think PKD has put his finger on a deep and unrecognized truth: Reality is a fragile facade, but what a thorough facade it provides. It’s one thing for the average person to think they have total understanding of things they have no access to—the heart of a politician, the mind of a celebrity, the duplicity of a boss or coworker—but it’s truly tragic when a writer writes as though they have this reality thing all sewn up.

In contemporary literature, there are often moments where the narrator will have some moment of clarity into another person’s life. Usually this moment is presented as the epiphany, although it’s rarely epiphanic. (See Charles Baxter’s “Against Epiphanies” for a better argument on this point than I’m capable of producing.) Never mind that these pseudo-epiphanies are the inverse of contemporary lit’s obsession with quiet realism and slight personal movement. These mini-epiphanies are the literature’s cult of poignancy, and they’re often not interesting because they’re predictable, rational, and orderly.

There is chaos in our world, and it produces strangeness and unexpectedness that is neither poignant nor tied to fussy notions of realism. This, I think, is what PKD was referring to.

My only quibble with PKD’s observation is that I don’t see chaos as an external dark force in the universe. We are the chaos. We produce it. I’m less concerned about the wobble in Mercury’s orbit than the ability for just about anybody to murder given the right circumstances. (See the 2015 film Circle for an exploration of just that.)

The human psyche is like a computer performing billions of calculations a second. Most of the results are wrong, some are off by orders of magnitude, but the computer smooths out the errors to walk a thin line of existence and consistency. Even with these errors, the human psyche assures itself that its footing is steady and sure, when in fact it’s walking on the foam of statistical noise. The number of calculations it gets right are the rounding error.

The noise and errors do not matter. Our minds have the cognitive plasticity to bind contradictions into coherency. We can absorb chaos and make sense of it. This, I think, is close to the heart of PKD’s novels.

Update: Shortly after posting this I discovered Damon Knight partially backtracked on his criticism of A. E. van Vogt:

Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period [while writing Null-A] he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.

Reading closely, Damon isn’t exactly agreeing with PKD’s comments (or mine, for that matter), but he does concede some flexibility on the supposed rigid strictures of fiction writing.

Twenty Writers: Peter Bagge, HATE

See the Introduction for more information on “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books.” The current list of writers and books is located at the Continuing Series page.


Hate 5

Hate 5

Peter Bagge is my venerated saint. It took me far too long to figure that out.

Back in the 1990s, I stumbled across Bagge’s brilliant HATE comics more than a few times—on a comic book store rack, in a cool barber shop’s magazine pile (not that I spent much time at barber shops back then), stuck in the middle of a friend’s stack of High Times back issues, that kind of thing.

Intrigued by Bagge’s manic, skittish covers, I thumbed through these random issues and chuckled over his taffy-stretched characters, all of whom seemed filled with the same gunk they inject into Stretch Armstrong dolls. They flapped their arms in perfect circles as they spewed venom at each other. Their teeth splayed out geometrically toward the reader when they vented or raged about whatever was sticking in their craw at that moment. Then, after achieving a measure of calm, some new perceived outrage would arise on the next page (“perceived” is the key word here) and their tomato would flame up all over again.

In those early encounters with Bagge’s work, I never read an issue of HATE all the way through. I didn’t have to. All the fun was in watching Buddy and his cohorts lose their minds over things most everyone else would find perfectly innocuous or trivial.

And yet…I understood why they would lose it. Yes, I screen my calls, and so do you, so don’t give me that. Yes, I don’t want you drinking from my private beer stash. Yes, don’t tell me you aren’t dating guys and then start dating my roommate. Buddy’s short fuse made perfect sense to me.

Bagge's rendition of Daffy Duck, Bob Clampett-style

Bagge’s rendition of Daffy Duck, Bob Clampett-style

At age 32, after a few encounters with Bagge’s work, both in the real world and online, I slowly gathered I’d missed out on something pretty damn important. I began seeking out every HATE issue and collection I could lay my hands on. (By that time, Bagge had quit producing monthly editions of HATE and only released annuals for fans starved to keep up with his incredible pantheon of characters.) Over a two-week reading spree—30 issues, published from 1990 to 2000—I dug into his epic storyline of Buddy Bradley’s clench-fisted life and the miscreants, losers, and delusionals surrounding him. With this closer sequential reading of his work, my heart sank. There was so much more to Bagge’s brilliant decade-long narrative than ranting and arm-flapping. I should have been following HATE as it was published, not lapping it up after the fact.

HATE centers on Buddy Bradley, a New Jersey hipster transplanted to Seattle smack in the middle of the grunge era. The early issues circle around the concerns of most any twenty year-old: parties, temp jobs, roommates, looking for sex, looking for authenticity, scrounging for free meals, consuming cheap beer. Buddy’s roommates include paranoiac George Hamilton III and carefree Stinky Brown, one of those guys who manages to get by entirely in the moment and never lacks a girl on his arm. The elliptical orbit of Buddy’s love life has two foci: unstable, abortion-prone Lisa and uptown girl Valerie.

Hate 13

Hate 13

Buddy manages to eke his way through Seattle’s grunge scene (and later, suburban New Jersey) through a combination of entrepreneurship, conning favors from friends and strangers, shoplifting, and mostly-idle threats. Although HATE‘s early issues delve deep into college life sans actual college enrollment, something less remarked upon is the tension in later issues when Buddy swears it’s time to shape-up and grow-up, moving back to New Jersey to settle down with Lisa in his parents’ basement.

Doonesbury‘s Yale hippies and commune malcontents progressed into adulthood in the 1980s, but their outlook (i.e. their politics) shifted not one iota—thankfully, otherwise they might have had to live up to the judgy pronouncements they’d decreed a decade earlier. In the final monthly issues of HATE, the New Jersey Buddy Bradley is but an echo of his Seattle predecessor. He’s like that college pal who swears off pot, buys a tie, and obtains a business loan to start selling water bongs mail-order. What a square.

Hate 15

Hate 15

I do not see myself as a live-in-the-flesh Buddy Bradley, but there is much of him I recognize in myself. His firebrand rant about hating rock ‘n’ roll is one I’d preached as well (almost down to the word) to a San Luis Obispo house full of Generation X hippies. (They never invited me back.) And while I never had a roommate like George Hamilton III, I kinda-sorta resembled him due to my Robert Anton Wilson-inspired pet theories about secret power structures and hidden knowledge. And Buddy drinks Johnnie Walker Red Label. Eerie! (I could go on.) When I reached age 32, I thought I’d been through something unique—as unique as a crushed Coke can, HATE informed me.

Bagge’s genius as a storyteller reflects one of my personal peeves about contemporary fiction—”the cult of poignancy” as editor David Holler dubbed it. That is, the urgent desire of literary fiction to land in a moment of soft, still self-reflection. This desire is simply a rejiggering of Hollywood’s desperate need to reach a concluding morality that assures us there is Good in this world, and genre fiction’s love of pat, satisfying endings.

HATE eschews closing any story with revelation or insight into Buddy’s life, or even a resolution you would call “a resolution.” There’s rarely any forward momentum at all. In almost every issue, Buddy winds up pretty much where he started, albeit bruised or unconscious or a bit richer or poorer for the journey. HATE isn’t anti-poignant, as that suggests Bagge was consciously working against easy pathos. HATE is merely absent of poignancy, or any moral compass for that matter. Buddy Bradley is a vector of force propelled by the rocket fuel of disgust, outrage, and self-interest—and yet Bagge maintains our sympathy for him. Our sympathy for Buddy Bradley parallels our sympathy for Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. We recognize too much of ourselves in them both to toss them overboard.

But that sympathy is never comfortable. There’s an unsettling randomness to the consequences of Buddy’s antisocial decisions. There is no divine thumb on the cosmic scales in HATE. There aren’t even scales. When Buddy screws over a roommate or a girlfriend and comes out ahead free-and-clear, his brash grin for the reader is disturbingly celebratory. Buddy is bragging to us, “I got away with it.” And Bagge, the author, never steps in with a value judgment.

Many writers claim they write amoral or morality-free stories, but few writers have truly shorn our Western value system. Even Seinfeld had a karmic ethos of deserved and undeserved comeuppance. Whether Buddy’s unscrupulous world-view and self-centered priorities are the symptom or the disease—or the cure—I leave that question to others. But I’ll take Buddy’s value system over Holden Caulfield’s cap-wringing and Tyler Durden’s under-microwaved existentialism every time.

Hate 28

Hate 28

For all the praise Bagge’s received for documenting the grunge era in Seattle, I say Bagge actually recorded something more important. HATE performs an X-ray on an oft-overlooked segment of the American population, the suburban-bred young adults who didn’t power through college and upward into the American workforce. Nor did they coast into the coastal creative classes thanks to a grandmother’s trust fund or their partner’s cushy income stream. They’re educated and savvy enough to hold down service work and low-paying professional jobs without falling backwards into poverty, the supposed only possible outcome in the traditional left-wing scripts handed down to us. They discovered early on that getting ahead in America is a far more vicious enterprise than it should be. They quit pretending upward mobility is even a worthy goal. Instead, they relented to a daily grind of work, alcohol, sex, and hate.

I’m not playing a violin for these folks. Neither is Peter Bagge. That’s kind of my whole point.

Now an admission: When I was 20 I resembled this guy more than any single figure in Bagge’s epic:

A good (and free) introduction to Bagge’s narrative and artistic style is “The Hasty Smear of My Smile”, an alternate history of postwar America and one of my favorite standalone strips he’s put together. Koo-koo-ka-choo.

More in the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” series.