McCarthy 2, and Myers' A Reader's Manifesto

Some time ago, I read B.R. Myers' cranky A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, in which he excoriated notable and praised practitioners of select styles of American fiction. There's been a fair bit of conflict about Myers' slim volume, so beware my opinion unless you research it yourself, but Myers makes more sense than he should: as Gerald Howard, executive editor at Doubleday, put it, the book is "sort of smart but definitely annoying." I completely agreed with Myers about Annie Proulx, the one author I'd read of his targets, but for some reason it doesn't affect my pleasure in her work.

I sense that this somehow marks me as a failure.

Anyway, Myers deals in one chapter with Cormac McCarthy. Myers was writing before The Road, but the objections hold nonetheless: "McCarthy relies more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words.... [I]t's really just bad poetry reformatted to exploit the lenient standards of modern prose" (47).

There's one regular stylistic detail in McCarthy that galled me, I have to say, because I flinch at my own writing when I see it, and that's the construction "like [phrase] some [adjective + noun]." The phrase is optional, but here are some examples:
  • page 3, "Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world"
  • page 3, "Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast"
  • page 10, "like some old world thespian"
  • page 24, "They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long since stolen."
Oddly, I didn't have to look up that word "discalced" -- not because I'm a word and trivia freak, though I kind of am, but because Diane Schoemperlen used it in precisely this context in Our Lady of the Lost and Found.

And don't forget the lack of commas: "In that long ago somewhere very near this place he'd watched a falcon fall down the long blue wall of the mountain and break with the keel of its breastbone the midmost from a flight of cranes and take it to the river below all gangly and wrecked and trailing its loose and blowzy plumage in the still autumn air" (20). Too good for punctuation, I guess.


fiona-h said…
You make the Myers book sound quite interesting, cranky though it may be. Will look for it.
John Mutford said…
His attack on McCormac doesn't seem to be about pretension at all. I'd figure stylistic liberties, such as the absence of a comma, would be just the opposite. As for the "like [phrase] some [adjective + noun]" comment, I wonder which author could hold up under such scrutiny? Isn't this just a question of the author's own particular style? I'm not saying Myers needs to like it, just that he should find an author that suits his fancy rather than griping (rather hypocritically) about pretension.
richard said…
Actually a fair bit of Myers' attack has to do with pretension. He says McCarthy can't tell a good story and uses fancy words and phrasing to give the illusion of complexity to insignificant ideas. I happen to think Myers is about right, but it doesn't take away my pleasure in reading McCarthy: I really enjoy getting carried along on McCarthy's rhythms.

And the objection to "like [phrase] some [adjective + noun]" is mine, not Myers'. Naturally my response to this construction is simply my own reading idiosyncrasy. This technique, when used very often, feels amateurish to me, like an in-progress project for some grandiloquent creative writing class. (See?)
John Mutford said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Mutford said…
Richard, Oddly, I wasn't a huge fan of The Road, yet I find myself coming to its defence. For the most part, I thought it steered pretty clear of fanciful words- in fact, I think most people talk about how quick a read it is. I don't think, in this case, he used words like a field littered with some coldwar era trip wires or landmines. Ocassionally I felt he did that and yes, I would agree with the pretension at those times. Maybe in his other books (of which I've read none), it's much more dominant.

As for the "like, some" phrases- I threw one in above, just for you ;) - my biggest beef was that if felt out of place in an argument being based on pretension. I misunderstood and thought Myers had made that case. But, I can understand not being overly impressed with the tactic, though, my issue is with the word "some"; it seems too vague and noncommital. Without that word, however, it's just a regular old simile, and I can't really have a problem with that unless it's overdone; used once or twice in every paragraph or so.
richard said…
You're exactly right about the "some" -- similes are part of the basic writerly toolbox, but "some" can reduce precision and add fog. In your case, too, you used it as a plural article ("some coldwar era trip wires"), whereas I was objecting to McCarthy's use of it with singular nouns. Why not a/an, as in "a cold glaucoma," "a granitic beast," "an old world thespian," and so on?

I read The Road in only a few hours, and there was never a chance I wasn't going to finish it. The rhythms carried me and the core father/son relation engaged me, so I think I appreciate the book's strengths. I'll even recommend it to others, albeit with caveats.

I was just surprised by the Pulitzer -- not that I've read enough American fiction released in the last two years to suggest alternative winners -- and reminded of Myers enough to go back and re-engage with his contrarianism.

Popular Posts