blog-O-rama archive
may 2003

ann maria bell


a reader's manifesto

Here's the first installment of my long dormant comments on A Reader's Manifesto by B. R. Myers (an expanded version of an Atlantic Monthly article with the same title) which I found on the new non-fiction bookshelf at the public library.

Myers' target is the "growing pretentiousness in American literary prose," which he blames on critics and prize juries who promote the obtuse and repetitive works of mediocre "literary writers" over the better and more clearly written work of (some) genre authors and classic novelists. I don't often read bestselling/prizewinning novels or reviews of them, which leaves me with a limited basis for judging Myers' argument (I have only read 3 books by the authors discussed and none of the reviews). His specific points are well-taken but he fails to offer much analysis of the relationship between the critical and commercial success of the novels he examines. If the critics are indeed responsible for the commerical success enjoyed by these novels, how have they succeeded in duping so many people into reading such mediocre productions? If, on the other hand, the novels have succeeded largely on the basis of word-of-mouth recommendation through reading groups and independent booksellers, then the critics are merely adding a patina of literary respectability to one particular subset of popular fiction, annoying perhaps, but hardly indicative of "the decline of Amercian prose since 1950." Myers commends the willingness of some amateur reviewers to express contrarian views on popular novels without noticing that commercial success represents legions of readers voting with their dollars -- bestseller lists are essentially popular referenda on novels.

Ultimately, Myers fails to shape his specific examples into a convincing argument for the decline of American prose in general. He makes a compelling argument against reading contemporary book reviews, but not against reading contemporary novels. His conclusion that we should all hunker down and take refuge in the "classics" annointed by a different generation of critics strikes me as elitism warmed over. Myers' tone ranges from sour to sarcastic and back again, too much towards the smarmy and self-satisfied style of talk radio for my tastes, though he redeems himself with specificity. It's ironic that Myers chooses to couch his criticism of "overwrought prose" in the overwrought rhetoric that typifies the decline of American public discourse since 1980.

A Reader's Manifesto does suggest two interesting questions about writing and reading. Seeing as book reviews and bestseller lists rarely influence my choice of books to read, it made me think about how I choose the books that I do read, and how other people make their choices as well. In his discussion of author Don DeLillo, Myers notes that critics frequently refer to DeLillo's work as "sharp" and "analytical." The larger question is then: " what does it mean for a work of fiction to be 'analytical?'" I hope to offer some thoughts on these two points in another installment, but first I'll look at Myers' comments on the three books that I have read.

Bill & I both read The Shipping News by Annie Proulx when we were travelling around Indonesia, a choice motivated more by the scarcity of books than attraction to the subject matter. (We both read Swamp World, featuring a beautiful brunette trapped in the body of a cyberdog, and Garbage Planet, about a scavenging society living on the local garbage asteroid, on that same trip which shows just how desperate the situation can become.) I thought The Shipping News was 'just okay' and Bill actively disliked it. My main complaint was that it tried too hard to be quirky, to the point of triteness. Bill felt that the plot stopped making sense about 2/3 into the book, causing him to lose interest in the characters as well. Myers takes issue with Proulx's "overwrought" prose, though at times he seems more bothered by the praise that Proulx's florid writing has received than by the writing itself. Bill also read Proulx's Accordion Dreams, despite his negative response to her previous novel, because the plot is loosely structured around a musical instrument. He found it a bit better. Like Myers, I'm amazed that The Shipping News won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and that a critic declared Proulx "the best prose stylist in the English language."

I didn't read Don DeLillo's The Body Artist, I listened to Laurie Anderson's audiobook version, an apt choice of narrator as the book's main character is a performance artist. The premise seemed interesting and the audiobook version fufilled my three requirements: it was unabridged; it was short; and it was on the shelf at the used bookstore. Based on Myers' account, I don't think it's considered to be one of DeLillo's better novels. I found the first part of the novel excruciating --- it detailed the interactions between the body artist and her depressed husband, a formerly successful screenwriter. Their lives and conversations were a complete blank to me, each interchange between the two seemed to begin or end with a bewildered "what?" I don't doubt that people can and do live that way, but their lack of engagement left me feeling exhausted and glad to get out of their blank world. The story picked up after the husband's suicide, when the focus shifted more towards the body artist and her mysterious performances. Not terrible, and I'd consider reading White Noise at some time in the future, for instance, if I had to choose between it and Swampworld West.

My step-mother-in-law gave me Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson as a Christmas present a few years back. It explores the dynamics of a small Northwest fishing community as World War II approaches and the Japanese-American citizens are rounded up and sent to internment camps. Myers lambasts it for being repetitive and boring, noting that one reviewer at Amazon referred to it as Sleep Falling on Readers, but I thought it was a good read. (I'm a fast reader, and when the information rate drops I just read faster.) Myers also claims that Snow Falling on Cedars is squeezing out the more worthy 'classic' Farewell to Manzanar, the coming-of-age autobiography by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. The two books are not really comparable -- Farewell to Manzanar is short and admirably straightforward (I'm always a bit suspicious of writers whose personal experiences are overly metaphorical), with the narrow focus of a first person nonfiction narrative. It's length, style and theme suggest a young adult audience, though I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to adult readers as well. A novel typically develops broader and inter-related themes, and a novel has to work harder to create meaning because it can't stand on the foundation of having actually happened -- truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense. For me, Snow Falling on Cedars succeeds because it depicts credible characters navigating an unsavory and unjust stretch of history, the sympathetic characters endure despite flaws, the unsympathetic ones are meanspirited but not monstruous, each plays out their own role in a collective tragedy. That reviewers may have missed some of Guterson's stylistic lapses, or treated his later works with undue respect is irrelevant to my assessment of this novel.


email switch-a-roo

cold, gray, overcast --- sounds like wisconsin, but this time it's cape cod, the first stage of the bi-annual "tour de relatives" with several long days and steep climbs to go before bill & I head back to madison. then we only have about a week before we leave for santa cruz for the summer.

in the meantime, my NASA email account with the suffix will lapse for a month or longer, so this is a friendly reminder to use my permanent email address based on my long standing affiliation with the institute for mundane studies. if you have lost it or didn't know it in the first place, you can reach me via the 'instant friends' form at the top of the page.


happy (belated) birthday to me

on friday I went on a 40 mile bike ride in honor of my birthday. instead of a loop I chose a route heading south out of madison, planning to rendezvous with bill at the end and head to bed & breakfast somewhere in southern wisconsin. the first 15 miles were on bike paths heading west out of madison: the southwest commuter path and the capitol city trail linking up with the military ridge trail through verona. on the other side of verona I left the trail to head south to new glarus and the start of the sugar river trail.

and there my troubles began: the wind was blowing hard out of the south/southeast and the road heading south went up and over many rolling hills. the 17 miles between verona and new glarus were the slowest I have ridden on my bike since I got a 'bike computer' (odometer/speedometer). I tried to coast on one downhill section --- without pedaling I clocked in at 9.5 miles per hour --- that is not 'downhill', that is a cruel joke. it was even a struggle when the wind gusted more or less perpendicular to the road. on several windy uphill stretches I was moving at less than 3 mph.

it was 3:00 when I got to new glarus, with 32 miles down, only 8 miles to the 40 mile goal, but 23 to the end of the sugar river trail. fortunately, the trail runs along an old railway, so it's completely flat, though it was soft on account of the recent rains. 8 miles put me right in the heart of downtown monticello, where I called bill before collapsing in a heap on the sidewalk.

after a good night's sleep I was ready for birthday celebration part II, at six flags/great america in gurnee IL. roller coasters & more roller coasters, unpredictable ups & downs, rapid changes in velocity, and once you've strapped yourself in you're along for the whole ride --- there's a metaphor in there somewhere, I'm just not sure where.


phoenix airport, take 4

Bill & I flew into Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport on 24 April, en route to the Grand Canyon. We picked Bill's sister Mal up at the same airport the next day, and after 5 fabulous days in northern Arizona I said goodbye to Mal and Bill at the airport on 30 April, and met up with my friend Mary who was arriving from Boston after another Jackal event. Now I'm back at the Phoenix airport waiting to fly to Madison, after 5 fabulous days in southern Arizona. 'Sky Harbor' is relatively new, and resembles a mall, at least in the central parts of Terminal 3 where I've been camped out at Starbucks for going on 2 hours. I just saw a police officer ride by on a bicycle inside the airport .

My website is showing signs of neglect after my trips to France/Italy and the Southwest; blog-O-rama itself is long overdue to be archived (although this file is still only 180 KB). We took 454 digital pictures at the Grand Canyon, Wupatki Ruins, and Sunset Crater, and I took another 170 in Tucson, the Saguaro National Forest, Bisbee, and Bioshpere II. A greatest hits webpage is on the way, as well as the photo-documentation of lizard sightings. The Grand Canyon was quite amazing, the pictures are cool but fail to convey the gestalt of the experience.

I've just updated "meet my instant friends". I now have 66 instant friends, with instant non-friends holding steady at 12. There were several substantive comments from the latest batch, mostly about politics, responding to my blog entry on Bowling for Columbine, recommending other sites, and generally ranting. I added a link to blog-O-rama from democratic underground a few weeks ago, that may account for some new traffic. Slashdot generates most of the referred hits on my site.

My flight to Chicago is boarding, but I'm holding out as long as I can so my laptop battery can recharge.

. . .

On the plane now. I had a long rambling discussion about meditation, Buddhist psychology and psychotherapy with my friend David when I was in Tucson. Afterwards, I bought The Pocket Dalai Lama published by Shambhala for inspiration while I was still travelling. Heres a few insights from the Dalai Lama:


In Buddhism, any thought, feeling or mental state that undermines our peace of mind from within -- all negative thoughts and emotions such as anger, pride, lust, greed, envy and so on, are considered to be afflictions.

We tend to imagine these negative thoughts and emotions to be an integral part of our mind about which we can do very little. Far from recognizing their destructive potential and challenging them, we often nurture and reinforce them. But ... their nature is wholly destructive. They are the very source of unethical conduct. They are also the basis of worry, depression, confusion and stress which are such a feature of modern society.

Anger is the real destroyer of our good human qualities; an enemy with a weapon cannot destroy these qualities, but anger can. Anger is our real enemy.
As long as there is a lack of the inner discipline that brings calmness of mind, no matter what external facilities or conditions you have, they will never give you the feelings of joy and happiness that you are seeking. On the other hand, if you possess this inner quality of calmness of mind, a degree of stability within, then even if you lack various external facilities that you would normally consider necessary for happiness, it is still possible to live a happy and joyful life.

I'm also reading The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage by David Lamb as an easy first step towards reducing my ignorance of the history and culture of the Middle East. One point that he raises early on is that racist stereotyping of Arabs continues to be acceptable in the West, in the media and in public discourse, long after similar degradation of Jews, blacks and other minorities has become unacceptable. This is something I had long noticed myself. I fear that American society as a whole is moving in the wrong direction on this issue.

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