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Fiction is not for tirades? Tell that to Saul Bellow!

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.)

A couple more examples are here and here.

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.

10 Comments

  1. Rick James says:

    This entire post was a waste of my time. Stick to statistics, please.

  2. Andrew Gelman says:

    Rick:

    I recommend that, when you read this blog (as when you read other publications), you only read the items that interest you. You can also stop reading in the middle if you find a post to be uninteresting. That will minimize time wasted.

  3. Teddy Groves says:

    Please don't stick to statistics: I love the culture stuff.

  4. Anderson says:

    Charles Baxter's NYRB review ultimately found the book wanting; I think it would repay at least 1/2 the attention you've given to the Myers review.

    "… it is surely not an engagement with the culture that dooms any fictional treatment of it but rather a tendency to create polarized oppositions of public behavior, the entirely virtuous on one side, the entirely bad on the other, generating a landscape where no middle ground exists for any character to occupy."

    "What has happened, I think, is that the public sphere is regarded here as a total loss, so that all the big problems are imagined as unsolvable. The result is a particular kind of despair, the sort that arises from rage with no outlet, the core emotion of a large proportion of educated readers during the George W. Bush administration. Corrupted by ruinous quantities of money and the cynical application of power, the public world depicted here seems incapable of saving anything of value."

  5. Andrew Gelman says:

    Anderson:

    Thanks for the pointer. Baxter's review is about 5 times as interesting as Myers's. It's not even close. Baxter raises some of the issues that Myers does, but in a much more self-aware way.

    I guess the real question is not, Why did Myers write a clueless review, but rather, Why does the Atlantic Monthly publish it? For awhile, though, the Atlantic has liked to publish poorly-thought-through articles whose main strength is Attitude with a capital A, and Myers's review fits in this pattern.

  6. Kaiser says:

    It's not clear from your post if you are aware of the multiple fawning reviews that have been bestowed on the Franzen novel, especially the two reviews that showed up in the New York Times. I think part of the overwrought tone of Myers's review is in reaction to the equally overwrought tone of some of the positive reviews. The first review in the Times said this novel is equal to any of our absolute classics.

    I agree that Myers's review is incoherent and not well written. I have to say, not having read the book, that I am also not impressed by the quality of writing in the passages cited by Myers. (And I admit that I'm a style snob.)

  7. JSE says:

    There's a history. In 2001 he Atlantic published Myers's essay "A Reader's Manifesto," a long complaint about writers Myers didn't like — Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, etc. The piece drew a huge amount of attention and the Atlantic — which is, as you say, in the business of getting lots of attention, not in the business of being right about things. You should think of BRM as kind of the literary world's Camille Paglia.

    And, like Paglia, he's right about some things! Yep, people should do more close reading than they do and pay more attention to sentences than they do. But if this attention is mediated through lists of forbidden words like "sucked" and "into", then it's not doing useful work.

    I haven't read Freedom, but based on other stuff I've read by Franzen, the accusation that he's not a careful writer of sentences isn't justified.

  8. Nick Cox says:

    Will no one speak up directly for B R Myers? I've never heard of him before, I've never read the book in question and I am not likely to, but it's a book review, for goodness' sake. He didn't like the book and he said so in a lively way. You can disagree, surely, on all sorts of grounds, but the diatribes seem way out of proportion.

  9. Sonya says:

    Found your blog looking into the Statistics and Political Science programs at Columbia…

    Many people who eschew great books for the latest novels do so because they want precisely this kind of thing.

    No, many people who eschew great books for the latest novels do so because the latest novels more accurately reflect their experiences. Like Elif Bautman said, the original purpose of the novel was to point out the degree to which reality did not reflect what happened in (previous) literature.

    Name-checking is an easy way to make something current, maybe, but it's even easier for writers to just copy other fiction and not pay attention to what's been happening in the meantime. Anyway, sometimes it's interesting.

  10. Adam says:

    JSE wrote:

    There's a history. In 2001 he Atlantic published Myers's essay "A Reader's Manifesto," a long complaint about writers Myers didn't like — Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, etc.

    Not to mention that Myers also published a book by the same title. I get the sense that he's something of a career curmudgeon. His work on North Korea, his area of academic specialty, has similar vibes.

    I've enjoyed some of his writing in the past, but one thing that occurs to me is that he doesn't seem to write with any interest in convincing the reader. His review of The Omnivore's Dilemma actually compared Michael Pollan to Armin Meiwes (who is famous for killing and eating a voluntary victim whom he found online). As a vegan who was annoyed by some of Pollan's sillier jabs at vegetarians, I couldn't help but smile at the comparison, but I had no delusions that it would be received well by omnivorous readers. (In response to a reader letter, Myers also claimed that it would be hard to imagine an author getting upset about the review.)

    I don't know to what extent Myers believes the more outlandish things he writes. They do get attention, though.