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.

Quote

A publisher’s note worth reflecting upon

Anthony Boucher

Years ago I discovered on Forest Books‘ sidewalk cart an unassuming hardback with an unassuming title, Great American Detective Stories, edited by legendary Bay Area writer Anthony Boucher and published in June 1945.

Curious what stories made the cut, I expected the usual names and the usual reprinted titles. I did see the usual names—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Cornell Woolrich being of the most interest to me—but was surprised by Boucher’s story selections. He included one of the three Sam Spade short stories Hammett wrote for easy money (which were not widely reprinted until recently) and a Chandler novella I’d never heard of before, “No Crime in the Mountains”, which appears to have been the nucleus (Chandler would say “cannibalized”) for The Lady in the Lake. Over the years I dipped into this collection on occasion, and discovered it to be a fine snapshot of late-World War II popular American writing.

But it was the book’s front matter that gives me pause, specifically the publisher’s note:

This book is manufactured in compliance with the War Production Board’s ruling for conserving paper. … Thinner and smaller books will not only save paper, plate metal and man power, but will make more books available to the reading public.

The reader’s understanding of this wartime problem will enable the publisher to cooperate more fully with our Government.

It’s a fine-print reminder of how the cost of war used to burden everyone’s daily life, and therefore was a constant reminder of war’s price, both in human cost and economic.

Printed above the note:

“Books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

– President Roosevelt

They still are, but we’ve allowed our attention to wander, and it’s to our detriment.

Kurt Vonnegut on story structure and punctuation

Kurt Vonnegut

Previously I wrote on Kurt Vonnegut’s considerable body of interviews, especially his comments on story shape and fiction as a series of experiments.

One fascinating (Vonnegut-esque?) tidbit in his interviews was an offhand moment in a 1971 profile by Richard Todd (New York Times Magazine):

The class began in a surprising way. Vonnegut remarked that last time they had been talking about form, and he walked to the blackboard and drew there a question mark, an exclamation point and a period. He said these bits of punctuation were the outline of a three act play or story:

? ! .

A student asked if the end might be “Dot, dot, dot.” Vonnegut agreed.

? ! …

So maybe this is a gimmicky or silly way to describe story structure, but I’m game to play along.

I’ve written about organizing structure to motivate my fiction, so this little lesson in punctuation caught my attention. The way I organize my thinking, the three acts of story (really, four) look something like this:

  • Act 1: Setup
  • Act 2A: Complication
  • Act 2B: Confrontation
  • Act 3: Resolution

This list comes from my reading of Syd Field’s books on film structure, which I’ve modified (slightly) for the purposes of writing fiction, especially novels.

Syd Field

I agree with Vonnegut that most stories, if not all, open with question marks. Even if I’ve read a book two dozen times—and there are books I can make that claim—the pleasure of the opening chapters is the illusion I do not know what is coming. (I would say this is related in spirit to Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief.) There are numerous, sometimes playful, ways to pose those questions when a story opens, but those questions are almost always there. Rare if ever does an interesting story open with all the questions answered and the main characters in possession of all the facts. Jim Thompson said there was only one type of story: “Things are not what they seem.” That is another way to say stories open with question marks.

Vonnegut’s exclamation point jibes with what I’ve labeled 2A, Complication. Exclamation points do not have to be action or cliffhangers. Sometimes a quiet revelation or admission can turn a story on its head and rearrange how we see the main character and their situation. I hold a pet theory that the art of storytelling lays in reversals (perhaps I’ll post about that some day). The exclamation point is one such reversal for the characters: a well-kept secret revealed, a surprising discovery, a fortune amassed, a fortune lost, and so on.

Vonnegut’s three punctuation marks (and most of his story shapes) imply three acts. I wondered if my idea about a fourth act, Confrontation, could fit into his punctuation-as-story-structure?

Confrontation, I think, could be expressed as an em-dash. Tension draws taut in the confrontation phase of a story. More than any other part of a story, confrontation is where the reader should be asking herself “Wait—what happens next?” In contrast, final acts are generally not “What next?” but rather “How will it end?”

With an em-dash, then, Vonnegut’s story structure could be punctuated like this:

? ! — …

Which seems about right to me.

From Chimpan-A to Chimpanzee: The Swiftian genius of Planet of the Apes

English translation of La Planète des singes (1963), Pierre Boulle.

A guilty pleasure of mine is Planet of the Apes. I’m speaking of the original movie—not the 1970s sequels, not the remakes, not the one with the Golden Gate Bridge, and not the one everyone hates with Mark Wahlberg. I am a fan of the 1968 film that launched them all, the Charlton Heston vehicle spawning over fifty years of sequels, reboots, “re-imaginings,” TV shows, and comic books. The others have little draw for me. It’s the original I return to time and again.

The first Planet of the Apes is campy, riveting, preachy, and provocative— Franklin J. Schaffner’s sci-fi classic is the very definition of middle-brow entertainment, in that it pleases the senses while challenging the mind. The film has only grown on me over the years. I’ve come to appreciate its complexities and contradictions, even as its flaws have become more apparent as well.

Although I find it difficult to believe any person in the industrialized world today is not a little familiar with Planet of the Apes and its shocking ending, let me open by saying: Spoilers follow.

Seriously: If you’ve not watched the original 1968 film, do not continue reading. The ending is simply that stunning. I hate to think I would spoil it for anyone.

Background of the Apes

It’s sometimes said Planet of the Apes is the rare instance of the film being better than the book. I’m not so certain, although I’m convinced the film’s impact is the stronger of the two. A better description, I think, is that the novel and film are different approaches to the same source material, much as the gospels of Matthew and Luke are thought to draw upon common material from an earlier source known to scholars as Q.

Pierre Boulle’s epistolary La Planète des singes regards a space traveler named Ulysee who finds himself stranded on a planet circling the distant star Betelgeuse. There he discovers a modern ape civilization that enjoys all the trappings of 20th century man. The simians smoke tobacco, drive cars, shop for clothes, take walks in parks. The humans on this planet are mute, savage, and hunted for trophy. To the apes the narrator is a freak, this human who can talk and reason and claims to have fallen from the sky.

The Q Document for Boulle’s lean novel would seem to be Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in particular Gulliver’s final voyage to the land of Houyhnhnms. Swift’s race of intelligent speaking horses administrate an orderly and rational society on their island. Like Boulle’s apes, the Houyhnhnms are plagued by the Yahoos, mute and savage humans who rape and kill with abandon. The Houyhnhnms shocking final solution for this plague is what today we would call genocide: Their Assembly votes to exterminate the Yahoos. The apes on Boulle’s planet seem to be building toward a similar resolution.

In Bright Eyes, Ape City: Examining the Planet of the Apes Mythos, a recent critical examination of all things Ape, contributor Stephen R. Bissette reveals a number of antecedents to Boulle’s slim novel of apes running a world. In particular, he focuses on the popular 1904 French short story “Le Gorilloide et Autres Contes de L’Avenir.” This story and its author, Edmond Haraucourt, were so popular in the first half of the 20th century, Bissette notes “it is impossible to read ‘Le Gorilloide’ for the first time and not be rocked by the realization that Pierre Boulle had to have read this story, or at least heard of it. … This is the Holy Grail for Apes devotees.” Furthermore, Bissette catalogs an entire corpus of ape-world stories predating Boulle’s novel, from science-fiction shorts to comic books.

These earlier ape-world stories would seem to dilute the originality of Boulle’s novel. From Bissette’s capsule summaries, none of these earlier authors seemed to have the same ambition as Boulle, making La Planète des singes a kind of sui generis in the intersection of science fiction and “social fantasy,” as Boulle himself called it.

While I can’t offer any direct literary evidence Boulle was working out of Swift’s mode of satire, it seems rather obvious he was. The other stories cataloged by Bissette make much of apes running a planet; Boulle made much about a man being treated as an animal because he is an animal, which corresponds neatly with Swift’s dark worldview.

Like Gulliver, Boulle’s protagonist Ulysee is a wide-eyed narrator brimming with wonder and curiosity. The common device of animals with human-like qualities allows Swift and Boulle to hold a polished mirror up to man’s violence, avarice, and ignorance, to interrogate our supposed civilized rise over the beasts, and to show our vices for what they are. Ulysee and Gulliver adapt to the animals’ ways, even going so far as to adopt their language, culture, and mannerisms. Both animal societies are generally better-run than man’s, although Boulle and Swift are smart enough to give their respective animal races blind spots. For Boulle’s apes, it’s unquestioned faith; for Swift’s horses, excessive pride.

“I shot an arrow into the air”

Rod Serling, 1959.

Shortly after publication of Boulle’s novel, Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame was tapped to write a big-screen adaptation. Serling kept the device of an astronaut landing on a planet run by apes—how could he not?—as well as Ulysee’s crueler treatment at the hands of the apes. He also carried forward the main ape characters, scientists Zira and Cornelius, and Dr. Zaius, the authoritarian keeper of ape law. Beyond that, Serling jettisoned most of Boulle’s novel in favor of a darker, more cynical territory.

Because the movie’s credits list Michael Wilson before Serling, there was a long-running question of how much of the movie emerged from the Twlight Zone creator’s pen. Wilson’s silver screen credits include such monuments as Lawrence of Arabia, Boulle’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, and A Place in the Sun. Some wondered if Serling’s contributions had been overplayed compared to this seasoned Hollywood writer.

A 1998 issue of Creative Screenwriter settled the question by examining Serling’s early scripts. They show Serling definitely shaped the novel into what the movie finally resembled, including his idea for the stunning final moment, one of the most shocking endings in Hollywood history.

Serling also carried forward Boulle’s concept of apes living in a modern world much like our own, which was abandoned before production began. The final movie’s apes inhabit mud huts on the edge of a desert. They make do with horseback travel and wooden carts and dirt roads. This change was apparently due to studio budget restrictions, and Michael Wilson’s revisions accorded this limitation. Wilson or another writer (probably John T. Kelley) also “punched up” Serling’s dialogue, yielding several groan-inducing aphorisms (“I never met an ape I didn’t like”, “human see, human do”). Later drafts also introduced the teenage ape Lucius, who preposterously carpet-bombs the last act of the film with anachronistic counterculture lingo. Leaving these “improvements” on the cutting room floor would have done much to polish the final film.

Still, the artistic compromise of a pre-industrial ape society fortuitously contributed to, rather than detracted from, Serling’s vision. In the film, the apes maintain an austere, Puritanical social structure. They live close to the field, close to the well, and close to their scripture. Zira’s and Cornelius’ claim of discovering a man who can talk doesn’t merely fly in the face of scientific thinking (as in Boulle’s novel), but against religious orthodoxy, adding an Inherit the Wind subtext that supercharges the movie’s stakes.

Planet of the Apes: Visionaries by Dana Gould & Chad Lewis adapts Rod Serling’s original screenplay. The cover illustrates the original concept of apes living in a modern rather than agrarian world.

As with the original novel, Gulliver’s Travels seems to be a source for the film, and not merely the device of man trapped in an animal society. Swift’s misanthropy is far stronger in Serling’s vision than Boulle’s. When the Houyhynms vote to destroy the Yahoos, it’s not a stretch to think Swift is advocating for the destruction of the actual human race. This level of misanthropy is nowhere to be found in Boulle’s work; Serling’s script is marinated in it. Serling’s nicotine-addled gaze and his penchant for purple dialogue means the script affords more time for damning philosophizing than in Boulle’s work.

The vehicle for Serling’s misanthropy is Taylor (Charlton Heston), a red-blooded, cigar-chomping astronaut who replaces Boulle’s wide-eyed French explorer. Unlike Ulysee and Gulliver, Taylor never lowers himself to the ape’s level—or, perhaps, he never rises to their stature. Considering the European backgrounds of Swift and Boulle, perhaps Serling’s choice of a hardheaded “cowboy” astronaut is indicative of Serling’s American-ness. Or, perhaps Serling was making a statement about the hubris of his countrymen. America was deep in the Vietnam War by this point. American exceptionalism was being questioned from all sides.

“I leave the 20th century with no regrets”

Although some critics knock the movie as pretentious action-adventure fare, the film’s sensitive opening doesn’t line up with such dismissive claims. Staring out a spaceship’s viewport at an expanse of stars, astronaut Taylor notes that, due to Einsteinian relativity, hundreds of years have passed on Earth although the crew has only been traveling for six months of ship time. Speaking into a black box recorder, the cynical Taylor announces “I leave the 20th century with no regrets.”

Then he admits

“Seen from out here, everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.”

Before slipping into extended stasis for the final leg of their journey, Taylor offers the listener of his voice recorder—whomever it may be—his final thoughts:

“Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox that sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”

Serling’s script opens not with high action or tense drama. It doesn’t even open with the inciting incident, a bang to set the story into motion. Taylor’s admission before falling into hypersleep sounds like a confession from a man not in the habit of making confessions.

Charlton Heston, from a promotional still for Planet of the Apes (1968)

After the opening credits, the crew awakens to discover they’ve crash-landed on a desolate planet. Taylor’s vigorous misanthropy immediately fills the screen. He taunts the others for holding any faith in the survival of America or even civilization. He declares mankind all-but-extinct, and with the only female crew member dead, its destruction now seems assured. He boasts how satisfied he is to leave Earth behind, and wonders if the remaining crew will last a week on this daunting new planet.

It’s Taylor’s private admission to the black box—”It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely”—that reveals his confident cynicism is to some degree a facade. Not coincidentally, packed inside those two sentences is a concise foreshadowing of the film’s conclusion.

“I’ve always feared man”

Taylor, one of the last examples of “that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox,” is hunted and captured by the apes. He’s subjected daily to humiliations fit for a laboratory animal: Stored in a cage, rewarded with food, washed down from a hose (a movie visual sickeningly similar to a strategy police used in the 1960s on peaceful civil rights protestors), and given a mate to encourage breeding. The threat of castration and lobotomization looms in the background (the latter a trendy topic in a decade preoccupied with the treatment of mental illness).

Charlton Heston turns in a rather physical performance as he’s stripped naked, manacled, chained, gagged, and paraded through streets on a leash. Due to a throat injury he literally has no voice against his captors. When he regains his voice—the campy “Take your stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”—he discovers he still has no say in this society of apes, where he’s regarded as an ignorant freak of nature.

Taylor’s hatred of man isn’t challenged by the apes or ape society, it’s reinforced. As with the lands Gulliver travels to, evidence of man’s failings abound on this supposedly backwards planet. The apes don’t kill each other. They seem to have no war or famine or deprivation to speak of. While not perfect, they seem to have built a more egalitarian society than the world Taylor left behind. And yet Taylor can’t help but see himself as their equal. Soon his human ego leads him to believe he’s their superior. This shift is so subtle and smooth the viewer doesn’t even sense it.

Serling is a cruel god to his creation. Its not ironic enough for misanthropic Taylor to entertain notions of equality with the apes. Serling forces Taylor to defend mankind as intelligent and rational while standing naked and unwashed before a tribunal of jeering, dismissive apes. When Taylor visits an archeological dig and proves man ruled the planet before the apes, his defense seems all the more credible. Headstrong Taylor makes much hay over his victory.

Consider the film’s opening once more. In his voice recorder, Taylor’s questions—”Does man still make war on his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”—are obviously not questions at all. Taylor believes man is incapable of changing his basic nature. After crash-landing on the ape planet, Taylor mocks the notion mankind might have survived the five thousand-year span. His attitude is one of good riddance: “I leave the 20th century with no regrets.” Yet by the third act, this man is sneering down on the apes and declaring man was better, stronger, and most importantly, first.

With Taylor’s hubris reaching a crescendo, he twists out this admission from Dr. Zaius:

“I’ve always feared man. From the evidence, his wisdom must have walked hand-in-hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him. Even himself.”

At this point, Taylor has won. He’s gained his freedom as well as an admission of man’s primacy from the ape’s top authority. If movie ended with Taylor riding his horse into the horizon, satisfied and free, it would have been a tidy, if unsatisfying, ending.

Discovering the Statue of Liberty is the door slamming shut on Taylor. Cowering on the beach naked as Adam, he realizes

“I’m back. I’m home. All the time it was—”

Taylor’s character arc is one of the cruelest, most severe punishments I’ve ever seen in film or literature. Gulliver leaves the island of the Houyhnhnms unable to stand the sight or smell of other humans, but his change is orders of magnitude less than Taylor’s crushing defeat at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Taylor’s misanthropy has been scooped out of his black heart and fed back to him in a dog’s bowl.

In the first act, one of the surviving astronauts attempts to plant a tiny American flag in the dirt of their newly-discovered planet. Taylor roars in laughter at the absurd futility. In the final scene, another American symbol towers over him in ruins, with Taylor on the beach like a meager, limp flag planted in the sand. He’s the object of amusement now, and his climb from misanthropist to philanthropist has collapsed and crushed him whole.

Nicolas Gattig reviews Murakami’s “Underground”

Haruki Murakami

Nicolas Gattig of The Japan Times reviews Murakami’s Underground, a collection of interviews with victims of the Tokyo subway sarin attacks as well as members of the cult who perpetrated it:

In an attack that killed 13 and sickened and traumatized thousands, the supposedly peace-seeking cult had turned violently against Japanese society.

Murakami was shocked by the news. About to return permanently to Japan after years of living abroad, he felt the attacks could not be explained as a product of simple “evil.” They were a failing, he thought, of society as a whole. The Japanese sense of self would have to integrate Aum.

Unwilling to move on, Murakami set out to portray the people involved, both victims and members of the cult, and thus “to probe deep into the heart of my estranged country.”

Professor Mayumi Fukunaga of the University of Tokyo on the attacks:

“Aum was a place for dissatisfied young elites, who saw the bubble economy as superficial consumption,” she explains. “Aum followers had seen the failure of leftist movements, but still wanted social reforms. At the same time, they knew they’d never enjoy the rewards of the bubble. … In Japan, the struggle of belonging continues.”

The entire article is well worth the read, especially how Gattig connects Underground‘s characters and themes to Murakami’s fictional work.

For an additional perspective, check out my 2014 review of Underground.

Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes, writing with style, and running experiments

Recently I picked up Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, part of the Literary Conversations Series from University Press of Mississippi. The collection offers interviews and profiles of Vonnegut published between 1969 and 1999. The first comes shortly after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. The subsequent rocket ride of literary stardom Vonnegut enjoyed—or endured—follows.

The collection seems rather complete, culling all manner of sources, right down to a softball Q&A with Harry Reasoner for 60 Minutes. The collection is breezy if enjoyable reading, much like many of Vonnegut’s books, but it still held a few surprises for me. (Apparently after the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut contemplated throwing out Breakfast of Champions when he realized he could now sell any book he wrote no matter its quality.)

The more I learn about Vonnegut, the more I’ve come to see how pragmatic he was when it came to the craft of writing. Vonnegut often lists Robert Louis Stevenson as one of his favorite authors because, as a boy, he was “excited by stories which were well-made. Real ‘story’ stories…with a beginning, middle, and end.” His essay “How to Write With Style” is advice of the roll-up-your-sleeves variety, featuring watery chestnuts like “Find a subject you care about” and “Keep it simple.” More interestingly, while teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he led a course to help students make a career out of writing after graduating—teaching, technical writing, ad copy, anything to put bread on the table. Apparently the course was not well-regarded by the other faculty.

One popular meme is Vonnegut’s lecture on the shape of stories. The audience chortles as he chalks out curves and lines graphing a set of basic story structures. (Maya Eliam’s infographics of these shapes are lucid and wonderful.) Most likely many in the auditorium thought he was satirizing when he said story forms could be graphed mathematically or analyzed by a computer, but his lecture is in earnest. This was his master’s thesis in anthropology, after all.

In a 1977 interview with Paris Review—the most in-depth interview in the collection—Vonnegut drops a mention of his story shapes:

Vonnegut: Somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way…

Interviewer: If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.

Vonnegut: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.

The last sentence may be the most plainly spoken argument against the avant-garde I’ve read.

Vonnegut even compared writing novels to experiments, which I’ve explored myself. He felt experimentation was in his nature due to his education as a chemist and an engineer. (I believe this is the first time I’ve read another fiction writer describe creating fiction as a kind of experiment.) Here he talks with Laurie Clancy about Breakfast of Champions (still unpublished at this point):

Interviewer: Could you indicate what direction your new work is taking?

Vonnegut: It’s in the nature of an experiment. I don’t know how it’s going to come out or what the meaning’s going to be—but I’ve set up a situation where there’s only one person in the whole universe who has free will, who has to decide what to do next and why, has to wonder what’s really going on and what he’s supposed to do. … What the implications of this are I don’t know but I’m running off the experiment now. I’ll somehow have a conclusion when I’ve worked long enough on the book. … Regarding [God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater], I said to myself “Well, all right, what happens when you give poor people money?” So I ran the experiment off and tried to control it as responsibly as I could.

The Clancy interview is one of the best in the book. Vonnegut is engaged, thoughtful, and revelatory.

Ray Bradbury on getting stories published

When I was a younger writer, one question that monopolized far too much of my time was how to get published. Early on I recognized publishing was a numbers game for the starting writer. Any naive notions I held about the quality of my short stories leading to quick publication were dashed. Publication would only come by getting my work out there, far and wide.

Although short story writers are admonished to “study the market” and zero in on magazines suitable for their work, I honestly can’t say studying the market helped me get published in an of itself. What was more educational was when magazines flat-out rejected my best work, which encouraged me to continue to hone my craft and expand my scope. In other words, rejection slips taught me my best work was not so special after all.

I’ve been dipping into Wayne L. Johnson’s 1980 book Ray Bradbury the past couple of months, part of the Recognitions series published by Frederick Ungar. The Recognitions series features critical work on genre writers who’ve transcended their genre. Johnson’s Ray Bradbury is a biography of the author tracked through his output rather than a stiff-backed recounting of dates and locations of events in his life. Bradbury’s short stories are grouped by subject matter and style as a strategy for analyzing the author’s approach to fiction. Johnson’s book paints a picture of a man who delved deep in the human imagination and returned with some fantastic stories for the ages.

Galaxy Magazine (February 1951). Bradbury’s novella “The Fireman” was the nucleus for Fahrenheit 451.

Ray Bradbury was one of the most prolific short story authors of the 20th century because he never abandoned the form, unlike other authors who move on from them to novel writing. Bradbury capitalized on his bounty by disguising his short story collections as novels (The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man). Even Fahrenheit 451 is itself a maturation of a shorter work first published in Galaxy Magazine.

What caught my eye (and sparked the idea for this blog post) was a brief aside in Johnson’s introduction about how Bradbury was able to sell his prodigious output of short stories across the spectrum of American publishing:

Convinced that most editors were bored with seeing the same sort of material arriving day after day, Bradbury resolved to submit stories which, at least on the face of it, seemed inappropriate to the publication involved. Rather than send “Dandelion Wine” (later a chapter in the novel) to Collier’s or Mademoiselle, therefore, Bradbury sent it to Gourmet, which didn’t publish fiction. It was immediately accepted. “The Kilimanjaro Device” was snapped up by Life, which also didn’t publish fiction, after the story had been rejected by most of the big fiction magazines. … Bradbury insists that he places complete faith in his loves and intuitions to see him through.

Bradbury was certainly a known quantity when these short stories were published but, as Johnson indicates, he still faced his share of rejection slips. I don’t think Bradbury’s wanton submissions were ignorant of market conditions; it sounds to me he was quite savvy with this strategy. (Sending “Dandelion Wine” to Gourmet magazine is kind of genius, actually.) But Bradbury’s strategy transcends the usual mantra to “study the market.”

I’ve been a front-line slush pile reader at a few literary magazines and I can tell you Bradbury’s intuition is spot-on. When you’re cycling through a stack of manuscripts, they soon begin to look and read the same. Too many short stories trod familiar paths. Too often they introduced characters awfully familiar to the last story from the pile.

A story with some fresh air in it certainly would wake me from my slush-pile stupor. The magazine market has changed dramatically in the past ten years—and absolutely has reinvented itself since Bradbury was publishing “Dandelion Wine”—but I imagine similar dynamics are still in place in the 21st century. Surprise an editor with your story and you just might have a shot at publication.

And if you’re banging out short stories and fruitlessly submitting them one after another to the usual suspects, try taking a risk and following Bradbury’s lead. Trust me, if you can put on your next cover letter that your short fiction was published by Car & Driver or National Geographic, that will surprise editors too.