A Dilettante’s Manifesto?

B.R. Myers reviews Tree of Smoke and cuts straight to the point in his second paragraph: “Having read nothing by Denis Johnson except Tree of Smoke, his latest novel, I see no reason to consider him a great or even a good writer, but he is apparently very well thought of by everyone else.”

Whether you see any reason to consider B.R. Myers a great critic or even a good critic for willfully copping to such ignorance and for blasting a writer’s work over one misfire is, of course, subject to your discretion.

[UPDATE: The Rake offers this hilarious Myers takedown.]

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24 Comments

  1. He’s at least upfront about it, which allows readers to give his assessment as much or as little credence as they think it deserves. But yes, you’d think it would behoove a reviewer to check out some of the author’s previous books.

    But then, that would interfere with the overall tone of “Hmmm, what’s all this fuss about? (Sniff, sniff.) Nope, no talent here.”

    What also annoyed me about the review was the way Myers positioned himself as an expert about everything from the speed of mental processes to the way soldiers think and act in combat. And some of the language criticisms seemed off-base too, IE complaining that one character talks in “a jumble of language levels.” Yeah, that NEVER happens.

    I also find Johnson to be sometimes a bit of a slog. But Tree of Smoke is in my to-be-read pile, and that review did little to scare me off.

  2. Myers’ problem with the book is very similar to mine. There are many passages that are just leaden and stiff, and not what you would expect from someone who has written poetry in the past. It was not what I expected after reading Already Dead.

  3. But yes, you’d think it would behoove a reviewer to check out some of the author’s previous books./i>

    Not necessarily; Myers isn’t critiquing an oeuvre, after all, but a single book. If the prose in Tree of Smoke is truly as dreadful as Myers says (and I have little reason to doubt it is), what does it matter if Johnson has written better? Does that make the experience of reading a mediocre novel any easier?

  4. Ah! I received such horrible, scathing emails when I said that Tree of Smoke wasn’t my favorite Johnson book. I couldn’t believe it. On the whole, I didn’t like the book and said so.

    BUT I would never deign to say that one “misfire” makes a writer unworthy of consideration as an excellent writer. That Meyers would make this pronouncement after happily announcing he’s not read any of Johnson’s other work is ridiculous.

  5. Myers also has a problem with DeLillo, McCarthy, Auster, Proulx, and Ha Jin, so Johnson is in
    pretty good company. I liked Tree of Smoke – I love the way Johnson writes and this book impressed the hell out of me. Myers has his little shtick and he’s going to stick with it.

  6. I seldom read fiction these days, but I have read a Johnson book. It was good. I also liked a movie based on one of his novels. Maybe I should be a book reviewer too, if that’s all it takes to make a judgment call and get paid for it.

  7. The least you can do, night of the lepus, is not belittle Myers’ criticism just because he treats some very popular authors harshly. This review wasn’t just some glib provocation.

  8. It would be more a interesting, and intellectuallyhonest, review, I think, if Meyers actually tried to understand the effect of purposefully flattening out the prose the way Johnson does in Tree Of Smoke. There’s a method to what’s being done.

    It’s hard to actually consider a reviewer to be fair when he goes out of his way to avoid anything meritous in the novel, which is certainly the case in this review.

    There have been no shortage of thoughtful and smart reviews of this book. Meyers’ review is not one of them. But that’s kind of evident when he not only goes out of his way to avoid reading Jesus’s Son, but proclaims it as a point of pride. Really, what that tells me is that this guy doesn’t care about contemporary fiction in the slightest.

    But then we already knew that.

    It’s really a cynical and corrupt enterprise to have him review Tree of Smoke. Just what we need from one of the few magazines willing to give considerable space to a book review any more.

  9. John,
    My point was that Myers hammered the book because it didn’t fit his Saul Bellow/Stephen King ideal of what a book should be (going back to his readers’ manifesto). Charles B (above) stated it much better than I can – but if he had hated the book because of the books actual flaws, I could accept that. Calling the book shit because it doesn’t fit his preconceived idea of what a book should be is not fair to the book or to people reading the review who don’t know Myers’ history.

  10. “Calling the book shit because it doesn’t fit his preconceived idea of what a book should be is not fair to the book or to people reading the review who don’t know Myers’ history.”

    But that’s not what he did at all. He used actual sentences from the book to show why he [Myers] doesn’t feel the book is deserving of the priase it has received.

    To review this book, he doesn’t have to read other books by Johnson. And when he says, in the second paragraph, that he “see[s] no reason to consider him a great or even a good writer” it’s in response to a back-of-the-book blurb slapped on to Tree of Smoke by someone else. What Myers appears to be arguing is that this book is not well written at all; if that’s the case, then why call Johnson’s writing in this book “prose of amazing power and stylishness.” Judging from the quotes Myers uses (and what I admire about Myers is his culling of quotes other reviewers use) — this book does not sound like is has prose of any kind of power.

    One of Myers more powerful arguments against Johnson in this review — and also in previous reviews, including A Reader’s Manifesto — is that “[Johnson] hasn’t fully felt” much of what he writes. It’s “startling word combinations” without giving any thought to what is actually being communicated to the reader.

  11. Well, I just disagree. I think this is a perfect example of the type of book Myers disparages to make his reputation. I don’t understand how he can say ‘”[Johnson] hasn’t fully felt” much of what he writes’ – how does he know what Johnson felt when he was writing or what I felt when I read it? A reviewer can cherry pick quotes from any book to conform to the theory he is trying to promote, but that doesn’t mean he is correct. He totally lost me when he complained about the character Black Man, when it states in the book that his last name is Blackman (it makes a lot more sense knowing that). I’m not saying that everyone will, or should, like this book. I’m just saying that this was a horseshit review by a horseshit reviewer who is more interested in promoting his own ideas about what literature should be than giving books a fair shake on their own merit.

  12. “A reviewer can cherry pick quotes from any book to conform to the theory he is trying to promote, but that doesn’t mean he is correct.”

    I could be misreading your argument — but it sounds a little sour-grapesy to me. I’m not sure what else Myers should have used besides quotes from the novel to show how poorly written the novel is. And what’s interesting about Myers as a reviewer is that he’s not cherrypicking. He generally uses quotes that other reviewers have used. Would you have been as angry with Myers if he had loved the novel? And if Myers’s quotes supported a positive view of the novel, would that make him a better reviewer?

    Again, you may not be saying that.

    “I’m just saying that this was a horseshit review by a horseshit reviewer who is more interested in promoting his own ideas about what literature should be than giving books a fair shake on their own merit.”

    I didn’t get that. But then, I like B.R. Myers very much, and admire his thoughts on books and literature. I imagine that if I liked modern literature then I would not find much of value in Myers’s reviews. Reviews are not objective, though. I think you will have a tough time finding a reviewer who doesn’t promote her own ideas.

  13. No sour grapes, I just think the whole point of his review was to push his own agenda and giving a fair appraisal of the book was not something Myers was concerned with. I do enjoy modern lit and I can see where we would disagree.

  14. Hmmm. I doubt very much you could “cherry pick” that much shitty writing from “Underworld”. In fact, I doubt very much that one sentence can be found in DeLillo’s masterpiece to clang, splat or thud as awfully as the hunk of stuff Myers calls out on “Tree of Smoke”.

    A great writer will aim high and miss with a novel or a passage, from time to time (or often, even)… but “shit” on the sentence-level is a bad sign. There’s always the “excellent storyteller/ mediocre writer” paradox to consider. Are we a little hung up on the quest for a Messiah? Do we need Johnson to be The One before we can enjoy his book?

    And since when is a reviewer required to compare the book under scrutiny with other works from the writer’s catalogue? Will other books do as a standard of comparison? Certainly. I usually dislike Myers’ work, but I can’t see how this particular piece can be dismissed with a sneer. The “cherry picking” defense is wobbly.

    And I’ll bet Philip Roth just had the time to read a “cherry picked” passage before he provided (or signed) that blurb.

  15. From Myers’ Manifesto:

    1. In Underworld (1997) a man’s mouth fills with “the foretaste of massive inner shiftings”; another character senses “some essential streak of self”; the air has “the feel of some auspicious design”; and so on. This is the safe, catchall vagueness of astrologists and palm readers.

    also…

    2. But today’s Serious Writers fail even on their own postmodern terms. They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead—and then they subject us to the least-expressive form, the least-expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel. Time wasted on these books is time that could be spent reading something fun. When DeLillo describes a man’s walk as a “sort of explanatory shuffle … a comment on the literature of shuffles” (Underworld), I feel nothing; the wordplay is just too insincere, too patently meaningless.

    and…

    3. Their first foray into literature shouldn’t have to end, for lack of better advice, on the third page of something like Underworld.

    He was writing about White Noise, but the above quotes were in there.

    I don’t think Myers needed to read any of Johnson’s other work to review Tree of Smoke and I sure as hell don’t think Johnson or DeLillo need me to stick up for them. I just think this was a dishonest review written more to promote Myers and his reputation as an iconoclast than to inform readers about the book. That is all.

  16. Lepus, is the implication of your comparison meant to be that if Myers is wrong once (or twice or three times), he’s wrong forever? I don’t need to know all of Myer’s past reviews in order to critique the review at hand, though I’m more than familiar with the take-down you cite (who among us isn’t?)

    I’m not a DeLillo fanatic… I consider “White Noise” to be a dry run… his groping for the voice. I wasn’t even bowled-over by Falling Man (though it was fine enough); I’d be satisfied if DeLillo had only ever written “Underworld,” “Libra”, “Mao II” and “Cosmopolis” (a woefully-misunderstood satire). In point of fact, I have no interest in DeLillo as a figure or in his works as a sacrament, because I’m not on the lookout for a Messiah.

    I’m not sure that all of Johnson’s disciples can in good faith claim that.

  17. ” I just think this was a dishonest review written more to promote Myers and his reputation as an iconoclast than to inform readers about the book. That is all.”

    Or: Myers is offering a counterpoint to a lot of the rave reviews out there. Paraphrasing Myers: “Nominally important people in the world of literature are practically beside themselves over this book. I don’t think it’s worth the hype. Here are some examples of where I think the book goes horribly wrong.”

    Myers is a useful critic for me, because we share similar tastes. I am not impressed or interested in New Literature or New Criticism. I think novels that tell stories without attempting new things with the form are better than things like The House of Leaves or the guy who wrote Everything is Illuminated. (There are some caveats to that position, of course. I read Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women for a book group, and while I think it’s a rather sophomoric novel written by a frightened young man, I did get a lot out of it, and found myself thinking about it for many days afterwards. I also like Jose Saramago very much. And Milan Kundera. And Kazuo Ishiguro.)

    Because Myers reviewd Tree of Smoke poorly in your eyes does not mean that Tree of Smoke is now in danger of being pulled off the shelves. There’s an almost hysterical quality to your vitriol against Myers. (This is to Lepus.) He’s offering a different opinion — one you don’t agree with. But isn’t that the whole point? The conversation that critical thinking about books creates?

  18. Wow. You are really attributing things to me that I did not write. I only used the Underworld quotes (which I liked, not quite as much as Running Dog – just a personal favorite of mine) because Steven wrote:

    I doubt very much that one sentence can be found in DeLillo’s masterpiece to clang, splat or thud as awfully as the hunk of stuff Myers calls out on “Tree of Smoke”.

    I just thought this was a review written more to prop up Myers and his view of books than to inform potential readers about the book. That is all I am trying to say. I’m not a Johnson disciple (but I’ve enjoyed some of his books, same with DeLillo) and I don’t think they are going to pull the books off the shelves. Myers can have any opinion he wants, he can write anything about the book he would like to. I just think the review was more about Myers than about Tree of Smoke – that is all. It is great that we disagree and we can discuss it (as you can guess, I don’t have much use for Myers) but some of what you’ve written above has nothing to do with what I wrote.

  19. … and one last thing. If my tone offended anyone, it wasn’t intentional. I was just writing what I was thinking at the time.

  20. If Meyers hates it, just one more reason to go out and buy it.
    Seriously, after how hilariously his Reader’s Manifesto’s predictions imploded over the last 6 years you would think smart editors wouldn’t want to be associated with him. Only in a job as irrelevant as book critic could one fall so consistently on one’s face and still have a job.

    I mean, most of his venom was used on Cormac McCarthy who he said would have no staying power and whose prose no one enjoyed except lit snobs. Now McCarthy might as well be the best selling author in America with endorsements from everyone from the Pulitzer to Oprah. Everyone I know outside of the literary world, from my dad to my neighbors, have been reading and loving him.

    and certainly Annie Proulx’s reputation hasn’t been hurt by having the film adaptation of her story win a billion awards, and DeLillo is all over the places these days.

    And looking at this review, why is BR Meyers spending the whole time reviewing the REVIEWS instead of reviewing the book. That sounds like the kind of thing Meyers would ostensibly hate, if he actually had any consistent principles.

    Oh well, just another hack with a tin-ear trying to play book critic.

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