Turning the tables on B.R. Myers
I’ve invoked B.R. Myers’ criticism of contemporary American literature several times on this little weblog, but not everyone finds his crotchetiness so charming. In fact, Garth Risk Hallberg over at The Millions makes some really great points about Myers’ particular brand of criticism, using Myers’ unfavorable review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as a prime example, stating that “what Myers takes to be the philistinism of contemporary literature is an enormous reflection of his own.” I appreciate that Hallberg doesn’t just grumble because he disagrees with Myers’ reading, but he seems to accurately put his finger on the source of the problem. He says:
Of course, Myers’ real target isn’t Jonathan Franzen, or even “the modern literary bestseller,” so much as it is “our age, the Age of Unseriousness.” … Moreover, Myers has, symptomatically, mistaken a signifier for the thing it signifies. The underlying cause of the contemporary ills he keeps alluding to is not the coarseness of our language, but our narcissism, whose most “salient” form (as I’ve argued elsewhere) is a seen-it-all knowingness that inflates the observer at the expense of the thing observed. In this sense, B.R. Myers couldn’t be more of-the-moment. It’s no wonder he’s baffled by those turns of phrase by which the novelist seeks to disappear into his characters.
It’s a fascinating essay — part book review, part literary theory, part cultural expression. Highly recommended.
And if you’ve got the time, you might as well check out the much shorter but no less insightful essay “Does Franzen’s Freedom Suck?” by Eric Herschthal in The Jewish Week.
Bottom line: Franzen comes out on top.