Saturday, October 02, 2010

Annoying Critics' Tricks: B. R. Myers Edition

B.R. Myers reviewed Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Here are the annoying parts, or, at least, some of them:
The language a writer uses to create a world is that world, and Franzen’s strenuously contemporary and therefore juvenile language is a world in which nothing important can happen.
It's difficult to tell if Myers is objecting to the use of contemporary language or just using it strenuously, but "contemporary" does not necessarily mean "juvenile, even if you put the word therefore before the pronouncement. Furthermore, important things can happen in a world built of contemporary or juvenile language. Critics enjoy noting that a work of art violates some universal rule, making it inferior. This despite the fact that many great works violated some rule or another. For instance, not many writing instructors would tell you to stick a bunch of details about whaling into your novel that is about much more than a whale. But Melville made it work.My point is not that it is unfair to say that something has made choices that the critic doesn't agree with, but it is not enough just to say, "the author did this, therefore the book sucks." There are no universal rules. (I know what you're thinking.)
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.
The first part of this is a list of adjectives that I suppose are to be taken as pejorative, but Myers gives us no reason to think so other than a snarky tone. Then he brings up a pop culture reference, which according to him makes a work of fiction unserious. Guess it's okay for a review. But anyway, is there something insecure about The Daily Show? And are the show's writers known for using compound adjectives? And if I hear one more person erupting into bursts of journalese, using long if syntactically crude sentences, I'll explode! By the way, not everyone reading the review lives in New York, so what's the "we" business? How about "one" or "New Yorkers"?
Emphatic lines of dialogue continue to appear, chat-room-style, in capital letters sans exclamation marks: “I KNOW IT’S NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN.”
First the blogosphere, now chat rooms! What does Myers have against the Internet anyway? And why do we have to know what something sounds like when we read it? Maybe Franzen is challenging you to use your imagination or has created some unique? Maybe not, but the mere fact that Myers can't imagine it doesn't make the technique a bad one. One more thing: my personal rule is that people who say "sans" are unserious, and therefore this review is completely bogus.
Why was Freedom written? The prologue raises expectations for a socially engaged, or at least social, narrative that are left unmet. Too much of it takes place in high school, college, or suburbia; how odd that a kind of fiction allegedly made necessary by America’s unique vitality always returns to the places that change the least. Franzen clearly has little interest in the world of work. (The same applies, incidentally, to whoever edited the novel.) Of the four main characters, only Walter has a real job, about which we learn nothing until it becomes a matter of traveling around with an admiring young assistant. (American novelists never tire of the student-don romance; they just dress it up in different clothes.) 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.
Myers doesn't tell us what fiction is for.
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.) These readers want a world that is recognizably their own in every trivial particular, right down to Twitter, even if the book says less of real relevance to their lives than one written a century ago.
And now Twitter! Myers not only imagines what Franzen's "market" is, but what they want. He also knows it is inferior to what it is they should want, and that is: to read old books. I'm going to finish with a thought about that ridiculous line, "Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread." Is he saying we should read only classics? Do we need to be told beforehand that a book is good before we should waste our time reading it? And who defines classic? And what reader hasn't had the very same thought (should I be reading Balzac instead of Stephen King)? Myers would have us discover nothing on our own, ignore contemporary writers who have the audacity to write about what they see today rather than pretending those things don't exist because it violates what "should be" featured in a work of fiction.

I think that sucks, dude!


mythofmatt said...

Bravo Jason!

Anonymous said...

The point is that writers today should be writing as good as or better than the agreed upon and appreciated writers of the past. Why? Because those past writers are known, and to be competitive, these new writers know that readers expect more, and hopefully, the writers themselves want to meet or beat that standard. Surely we want to rise to the challenge, right? I mean, we are not going to say all the best writing is done, and there is nothing new or better to write, correct? We are at least going to try to achieve more and better. More importantly, a reader today comes to new writing and spends time and money on it. For that reason alone, it better be damn good. Myers wants to say that writing needs to keep up, and writers need to avoid being slack. How is that so bad?

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