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

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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.

Sarah Dessen & the Internet’s new literary feud

Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen
(Larry D. Moore, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Last week a dust-up swirled on Twitter that grew to a Category 5 hurricane. Young Adult author Sarah Dessen learned her name was mentioned in a small-town university newspaper. The article was a feature piece on the university’s successful campus-wide reading program. One of the program’s student committee members—a junior at the time—told the newspaper

“She’s fine for teen girls,” the 2017 Northern graduate said. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

(Although I share the student’s last name and my father hails from the same state as the university, I’m not related to the student. Trust me: There are a lot of Nelsons in South Dakota.)

Miffed, Sarah Dessen took her disgruntlement to her Twitter account, where she shared with her over 268,000 followers:

Authors are real people. We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.

What ensued is a now-familiar pattern on the Internet: mob outrage followed by mob backlash followed by apologies followed by meta-analysis of what transpired (which includes this post, I suppose).

In the initial burst of Twitter outrage, the student’s remarks were construed as demeaning YA fiction, demeaning teenage girls, internalized misogyny, promoting abuse toward women, and worse. Her social media accounts were tracked down and she was hounded offline. She was even snubbed by other big-name authors she may have read and possibly admired. One of them attacked her by name in the newspaper’s comment section.

The authors’ attacks were amplified a thousand-fold by their supportive followers on Twitter, which only served to energize the authors’ continued denunciations and self-righteousness. Remember, most of the authors involved write YA, a genre whose subject matter centers around solitary young people being kicked around by those in power.

The backlash probably started on Twitter, but picked up strength when online commentary outlets voiced their incredulous disbelief at the mob mentality. The backdraft circled onto Dessen and her prominent supporters, leading them to delete their old tweets and issue apologies.

(This narrative is better covered by places like Vulture and Slate. For the gory blow-by-blow details, I suggest starting there.)

The story has more or less died down now. The media outlets have updated their reports to include these apologies. The door is closing on the story. Time to move on.

The transitive logic underpinning the entire affair is remarkable. A single college student opined that books by a certain author are not suitable for a college-level reading program. From a single paragraph in a tiny university’s newspaper (current enrollment: 3,622) sprang a hornet’s nest of vicious conclusions. The logic magnified an innocuous criticism of a single YA author to an attack on all YA fiction and its readers. Thus, the logic went, if you’re a reader of YA fiction, it’s a personal attack on you. From there the maelstrom spiraled off into more sinister territory.

It’s confirmed: One’s tastes and reading habits may now interpreted as a systematic attack on the underprivileged and powerless. Before the incident faded off, there were tweets (now deleted) declaring the college student wielded more power than Dessen—after all, the student was on a committee at a tiny Midwestern school. Imagine if she had dared to write a bad Amazon review.

The muted blandness of the authors’ apologies are no match to the heights of the original vitriol or the depths of the condescension. Some of the apologies read like the calculated boilerplate of a publicist or press agent. Some of the apologies suggest the problem is not with the authors’ own attitudes or sensitivities, but that the college student wasn’t more powerful and thereby deserving of attack. I could spend another thousand words attempting to reconstruct how the hell our culture reached this point. And yet, here we are.

Would these authors have trained the same level of indignation on a professional critic with, say, the New York Times or USA Today? I doubt it. There’s a lot at stake there. A lone reader in a flyover state? (“People have strange and inflated ideas about their taste level.”) Different story.

“For the man led a mob”

What’s at play here is the rise of the superauthor: Bestselling novelists who also maintain major media platforms—interactive web sites, message boards, podcasts, and social media feeds with hundreds of thousands of followers. They’re not merely authors, they’re brands. Many of these YA authors have crafted an online persona of a confidant and sympathizing mentor. You don’t merely read their books, you hear from them everyday. You see their vacation photos and hear about their pets. You share their ups and downs in the real world.

Utilizing the tidal hydropower of the platform to take down amateur critics is a new twist. G. K. Chesterton noted Dickens could not be ignored or dismissed “for the man led a mob.” Imagine if Dickens had Twitter.

Literary feuds are the stuff of legend, but they almost always involve authors, editors, and/or professional critics. We’re now seeing a new-style of literary feud in the Internet Age: author versus reader. This won’t be the last time writers hit back at reader criticism with the support of the multitudes behind them.

Judy Blume
Judy Blume

(This is not so far-fetched. In private channels, I’ve witnessed writers outraged over a bad Amazon review asking other writers what they know about the reader. I’ve never seen the anger escape those private channels, though.)

Successful YA writers are often adored by their fans for bringing magic and solace to a gray, heartless world. Classic YA writers like Judy Blume have shined a much-needed beacon for generations of young people who are struggling and desperate. Of course she’s adored. (I read Judy Blume when I was young. I thought she was wonderful too.)

But I simply cannot imagine Judy Blume engaging with the behavior on display last week. She’s a human being, a real person with quirks and faults, but she puts readers first—not only her readers, but readers of all stripes. Would Judy Blume have responded “I love you” to someone who posted worldwide “Fuck that fucking bitch” about a college-aged reader? I don’t see it.

Readers of any taste are comrades-in-arms with authors—this is doubly true in an age of Netflix, video games, and big-budget film. Fiction is increasingly perceived as losing relevance, if not irrelevant entirely. Of course negative reviews sting (I’ve suffered them too) but I hope I’ll never take for granted the grace of a reader devoting their time and energy to read my work. The college student’s remarks demonstrate she’s a passionate reader. It’s too bad none of the authors involved noticed that before launching their crusade.

That’s why I can’t let go of this line from Dessen’s original message:

Authors are real people.

As are readers.