Idea Of The Day

An Attack on Literature Sinks

Serious fiction#2:,6903,497147,00.html}} has had a rough summer. B.R. Myers’ attack on Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, and Annie Proulx, among others, has caused a stir. The Atlantic Monthly article even prompted a florid (and Austin Powers-like) defense of these novelists by Lee Siegel in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. “Democracy beckons to a beautiful condition,” Siegel says, “but it also offers a wicked pretext. … Myers wants action and excitement? They’re right here, baby. Right between the covers of a serious book.” Oh, baby, be-have! (Writing in Slate, Meghan O’Rourke called Myers’ essay “crudely off target”; and Ian Jack, editor of Granta, offered a sober defense of contemporary fiction.)

To make his various points about the deadly condition of American fiction, Myers gives many examples of what he considers bad writing. The quotations he employs often prove the opposite, however. For example, take this passage from DeLillo’s White Noise:

In the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those crowded bags suggested, the weight and size and number, the familiar package designs and vivid lettering, the giant sizes, the family bargain packs with Day-Glo sale stickers, in the sense of replenishment we felt, the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls—it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less, who plan their lives around lonely walks in the evening.

Of this passage, Myers says:

Could the irony be any less subtle? And the tautology: mass, plenitude, number; well-being, contentment! The clumsy echoes: size, sizes; familiar, family; sense of, sense of; well-being, being! I wouldn’t put it past DeLillo’s apologists to claim that this repetition is meant to underscore the superfluity of goods in the supermarket. The fact remains that here … the novel tries to convey the magical appeal of consumerism in prose that is simply flat and tiresome.

Any less subtle?” “Wouldn’t put it past?” “The fact remains?” “Simply flat?” We should perhaps give Myers the benefit of the doubt and assume his careless use of the language is no indication of what he considers good writing—unless these clichés are, in one way or another, meant to underscore the superfluity of words in this particular novel. (Note also Myers’ loose use of exclamation points, which, as Elmore Leonard points out, is a sure indication of untidy writing.) More to the point, Myers misses the beauty of the final part of DeLillo’s long sentence. “It seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less, who plan their lives around lonely walks in the evening.” Now that’s very good. Everything leading to this last clause is shambolic and repetitious and deliberately so, which is why the stillness of the final (and ironic) image is outstanding.

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