Tyler Cowen links approvingly to this review by B. R. Myers of a book that I haven’t read. Unlike Cowen, I haven’t seen the book in question–so far, I’ve only read the excerpt that appeared in the New Yorker–but I can say that I found Myers’s review very annoying. Myers writes:
The same narrator who gives us “sucked” and “very into” also deploys compound adjectives, bursts of journalese, and long if syntactically crude sentences. An idiosyncratic mix? Far from it. We find the same insecure style on The Daily Show and in the blogosphere; we overhear it on the subway. It is the style of all who think highly enough of their own brains to worry about being thought “elitist,” not one of the gang. . . .
But if Freedom is middlebrow, it is so in the sacrosanct Don DeLillo tradition, which our critical establishment considers central to literature today. . . .
Are we to chuckle at the adult woman for writing this in seriousness, or is she mocking her younger self, the teenage rape victim? Either way, she is too stupid to merit reading about. . . .
Walter is constantly holding forth on issues he has researched, but not dramatically experienced. They are entertaining tirades, but this is not what fiction is for. . . .
Countless pop-cultural artifacts are name-checked, in the most minimal sense of the term. When Joey and a girl fly to Argentina, Pirates of the Caribbean is playing on the seat backs in front of them. Facile, yes, but Franzen knows his market. Many people who eschew great books for the latest novels do so because they want precisely this kind of thing. (Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread.)
Hmmmm. . .. Myers seems to think it’s somehow illegitimate to use very long sentences and the word “sucked” in the same work of literature, and attributes it to a desire on Franzen’s part to connect with the masses. Maybe. But maybe some of us just think this way. “Sucks” is part of the English language too! I refer you to Mark Twain for further discussion of this point.
There’s also this funny thing going on with “middlebrow.” We all know that middlebrow is bad–it has all the pretension of the highbrow with none of the sophistication, and all the simplicity of the lowbrow with none of the vitality.
What else is going on? We’re not supposed to be interested in reading about stupid people. Fiction is not for tirades (tell that to Saul Bellow!) And we shouldn’t be reading any new books, except the few that reach the ranks of the world’s classics. (That must even more so for newspapers, blogs, and–gulp!–the Atlantic Monthly!) And at another point he criticizes Franzen for having a jocular chapter title. Hasn’t Myers ever read any John P. Marquand?
By the way, as I note in my essay on Alfred Kazin, I can get a lot out of a good review even if I am in disagreement with it–Kazin was no fan of Marquand’s books but still had some interesting insights on them.
What’s really buggin me here?
What’s going on here? Why am I wasting my time writing a review of a review of a book that I haven’t read? (If you notice carefully, my above comments are all about the review, nothing about the novel under review.) Wouldn’t I be better off spending my time on some “service to the community,” or else simply curling up on the couch with one of the world’s timeless classics (no Mark Twain, though; perhaps someone like Henry James who would never use the word “sucked”). Or I could just chill out completely and read the latest entertaining trash from Olen Steinhauer? (Sorry, James Patterson just doesn’t do it for me.)
What bothered me about Myers’s review what seemed to me an inappropriately political tone. To Myers, the new book by Franzen represents all sorts of trends that he doesn’t like, and he (Myers) is reduced to an incoherent, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink sort of rant, mixing resentment at “our critical establishment” (excluding the Atlantic, I suppose) with some good old fashioned mourning over the decline of the West.
I had a similar feeling after reading Caitlin Flanagan’s rant about gardens in schools. Pundit that she is, Flanagan was so hung up about the cultural meanings of the gardens that she overlooked actual research evidence on the topic.
And I had a similar feeling about John Podhoretz’s otherwise interesting memoir about life in New York, where he pointlessly threw in some political buzzwords that blurred his argument entirely. (Yes, I know that’s a mixed metaphor. One of the joys of writing for free is that you don’t have to go back and clean up all the problems in all your sentences. That takes work, you know.) Anyway, to return to Podhoretz, he seemed all too eager to cram his thoughts and experiences into pre-assigned political boxes. (In that case, he implicitly mocked the “cries of horror” of “poverty advocates,” right before actually agreeing with them on the substance of an issue.)
OK, OK. To be fair, the standards for literary criticism are different from those in journalism about science, policy, or history. Unlike in these other fields, a literary critic doesn’t have to be right (whatever that means); his primary duty is to be interesting and though-provoking. And Myers is certainly readable. Still, I think he’s letting his resentments get in the way of his coherence, and I think he’d be a bit more readable and more interesting if he were to think a bit more about what he’s trying to say.
P.S. On the other hand, I thought this was excellent (aside from gratuitous swipe at the New York Times Book Review, which is particularly silly coming from a reviewer for the not-so-obscure Atlantic Monthly).
P.P.S. It’s not that I’m saying that all reviews of novels have to be positive. I can appreciate a fun slam-bang negative review.