B. R. Myers's critique of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke essentially amounts to these two complaints: a) Johnson is not a psychological realist, and b) there are passages in the book that Myers doesn't like. To my mind, neither of these points is relevant to an honest assessment of Johnson's novel, and thus Myers's "review" should be read as another installment in his "manifesto" against contemporary fiction and its readers and should not be confused with actual criticism of Tree of Smoke.
In his admitted ignorance of Johnson's other fiction, Myers finds it a crippling flaw that this latest novel does not "depict characters with extraordinarily rich and complex inner lives." Myers warns potential readers of Tree of Smoke: "Anyone expecting a psychological novel from characters so lacking in complexity deserves to be disappointed."
But what if, in fact familiar with Johnson's other books, we don't expect this latest one to be a "psychological novel"? What if we have concluded that Johnson's strengths as a writer don't lie in detailing the "extraordinarily rich and complex inner lives" of his characters? And what if this is so because Johnson so often portrays characters who lack an ability to reflect much on their actions, whose lives seem propelled by forces they don't control or who get caught up in events they can't foresee? What if in taking up a Denis Johnson novel we just don't think Tolstoy is a particularly apt touchstone in beginning to evaluate it?
Further, what if we think the very concept of "psychological realism" is specious to begin with? Myers thinks that the mark of a good novel is "style and depth" and that it's the psychologizing that brings the "depth." A "psychological novel" is one in which the novelist descends into the murk of human consciousness and brings up nuggets of clarity and enlightenment. Exactly what it is that makes a novelist a sufficiently expert analyst of the human mind that I would care what he/she comes up with in this dive into the depths, or that qualifies some passages of discontinuous prose or halting exposition as "psychology," has never been adequately explained to me. Pretending to mirror the ongoing operations of consciousness (or to translate those operations into coherent language) is just another way of getting words onto the page, and by now it's a dull and overused strategy. It has no special merit that entails an inherent superiority to other ways of writing.
For me, that Denis Johnson is not a psychological novelist is one of the primary reasons I would want to read his fiction in the first place.
And then there are Johnson's putative lapses in style. I'm prepared to believe that in a book as long as Tree of Smoke there will be some sluggish moments, some stylistic treading of water, or even that in this particular novel Johnson's subject has not called out the best in his prose style. However, I can't rely on Myers's analysis in order to entertain these possibilities, mainly because he doesn't provide any analysis. Most of the examples of bad writing he cites are condemned for their lack of psychological astuteness--surely a colonel would never use an "artsy compound adjective thrown in with profanity and genteelisms"--for trivial "mistakes" in word choice--apparently one must never use the word “bric-a-brac” if Vietnamese villagers are in the vicinity--for insufficent knowledge of physics--"Could someone standing in such a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?"--or an overreliance on "startling word combinations"--one's pulse shouldn't "snicker" and one's sweat shouldn't "creak--but rarely are they examined in any detail or with much insight. Frankly, many of the passages Myers cites seem ok to me. But because I don't share Myers's assumptions about how a novelist's words "should mean something," I guess I'm just one of those who "contribute to the rot" of the King's English.
Certainly Myers does almost nothing to demonstrate that Johnson's prose style actually is deficient, aside from quoting a number of passages and making some irritated remarks about them. He assumes we will agree with him that the passages are indeed bad, but I don't, or at least I want some close reading of them that points out their particular flaws. Instead I get this, about one extended sample of "bad prose":
It is not always easy to tell whether Johnson is being serious or merely unfunny, but I sense no irony here. Rather than disdain Edward’s puerile humor and self-importance, we are to share his condescension toward a society that would never “get” his lampoon, which, by the way, has little chance of being off-color with an “unmountable” lead (another case of Johnson canceling out his own words). We are also to accept that although Edward is now the kind of man who lets puppies starve to death, and is something of a sociopath to boot, his experiences afford him unique insight into Philippine society. In a mad world only the madmen are sane, and all that. . . .
Note that what is supposed to be an example of bad prose turns out to be a criticism of one character's "puerile humor and self-importance" and of the notion that "in a mad world only the madmen are sane," etc. Nothing in Myers's commentary is an examination of style. Perhaps he tells me that I might not like this particular character or that the underlying theme is banal (both a matter of individual judgment of course, each requiring a separate critical argument), but he tells me nothing about Denis Johnson as a stylist. In fact, there is nothing in Myer's review that suggests to me that he knows anything at all about what makes for an effective prose style, nor that he read Tree of Smoke in order to fairly appraise it for what it is trying to accomplish rather than find in it what he wanted to find--an excuse to engage in more splenetic denunciation of contemporary fiction.
Myers's review serves to remind us that he doesn't much care for contemporary fiction. (Although, having read A Reader's Manifesto as well as several of his subsequent reviews, I still don't really know why.) I'm not sure, however why the Atlantic Monthly's book editor otherwise thought it was something worth publishing. As a piece of literary criticism, it's pretty wretched.
At Wet Asphalt, "J.F. Quackenbush" defends B.R. Myers against his critics. (Which, of course, includes me.) As I read the post, JFQ argues that, read comprehensively (a courtesy Myers himself was not willing to extend to Denis Johnson when reviewing Tree of Smoke), Myers is focused on essentially two flaws in contemporary fiction: an overemphasis on "the sentence as a unit of composition" and a concomitant focus on "novelty at the expense of meaning," as well as a kind of slippage between "authorial voice" and "character voice." The latter seems to be Myers's special bete noire, and according to JFQ, is "the one point that his critics have to counter if they want to save Myers' targets from his attacks." Further: "if his critics are going to respond to him, they need to create an argument that supports the trumping by authorial voice. This is something that his critics do not attempt."
I hereby take up this challenge, and intend to both "counter" Myers's analysis and supply an argument justifying "the trumping by authorial voice" in works of fiction.
As someone who does indeed read fiction more for the "sentences" than for the plot or the "meaning" or whatever it is Myers thinks is being obscured by "too much writing," I am not well-disposed to Myers's reiteration of this complaint. However, to the extent that he is pointing out an overemphasis, as much by critics as by fiction writers themselves, on conventionally "poetic," writing, on prose that, as JFQ puts it, relies on "fresh" imagery in the form of pretty figures of speech (the kind of writing often privileged in writing workshops), I actually agree with some of this line of criticism. "Fine writing" of this sort too often substitutes for more challenging explorations in style and distracts attention from relevant formal considerations (such as point of view).
Unfortunately, Myers's review of Tree of Smoke offers no evidence that this sort of stylistic vapidity is what he has is mind in lamenting the dominance of the sentence in contemporary prose. The sentences Myers isolates are either accompanied by no stylistic analysis at all, or are criticized for their denotative lapses, as defined by Myers's own schoolmarm-ish principles of "good English": characters do and say things that Myers finds objectionable, are described in terms he can't assimilate, objects and images are deemed inappropriate according to the most narrowly-focused notions of context ("from the villagers' perspective a less appropriate word than bric-a-brac is hard to imagine"), syntax ("Johnson fills the space between purple passages by dropping his sentence subjects, leaving bursts of adjectives to stand alone") and word choice ("As for snickering and creak, they will please only those who skim for startling word combinations"). Just as often his judgments are simply wrong. There's nothing "slapdash" about this sentence: "Listening for his murderers, he became aware of the oppressive life of the jungle, of the collective roar of insects, as big as any city's at noon." This seems to me a perfectly coherent account of the character's state of mind at this moment, and I do not in the least have to "linger over" these words "in order to make sense of them."
Myers is finally not at all interested in "style" as that word can be meaningfully applied to works of literature. His bilious examination of Denis Johnson's sentences ultimately can be reduced to the charge that Johnson doesn't understand the "proper use of words," doesn't obey the rules governing "application of word to thing" that Myers wants so desperately to enforce. He understands style to mean "which words are right for a given context" and thus the most damning indictment he can make of a writer like Denis Johnson is that "he does not respect words enough to think they should mean something," a formulation by which "meaning" in construed in the most literal, predetermined, unimaginative of ways. Fiction writers should get it "right," should find what's "proper" in their choice of words, should make sure they correctly evoke the plain meaning of words and represent the transparent relationship of "word to thing." Any writing that isn't pristine in this fussy Myersian mode is, per se, overwriting.
This indignation about writing that refuses to tame itself in a manner acceptable to B.R. Myers is related to JFQ's second point about "voice." JFQ elaborates:
The argument runs that an author's voice ought to subsume itself to the voice of a character at all times through a book rather than pushing through and printing itself on the characters. The reason that an author ought to do this is that not doing so displays a lack of the multivalence that characterizes novels and a lack of sensitivity to difference in the human condition as evidenced in language.
This is really quite an astonishingly autocratic dictate: "an author's voice ought to subsume itself to the voice of a character at all times." It necessarily restricts an author using 3rd-person narration to a formulaic version of "psychological realism" in which the author's prose style "subsume[s] itself to the voice of a character," whether that "voice" is literally the character's way of speaking or more broadly the "voice" in which the character's subjective perception is expressed. (Presumably this restriction would be eased for 1st-person narratives, as long as the "voice" is plausibly the voice of the character as well, and not just a fancy or idiosyncratic style imposed by the author--but then isn't narrative voice always imposed by the author?) It essentially eviscerates the concept of literary style itself, since the writer's prose is reduced to its most functionary role, as the medium in which the character's manner of thought and speech is reflected as transparently as possible.
As for "multivalence": How multivalent is Hemingway's fiction? Faulkner's? No two writers could have more contrasting prose styles, but what they do have in common is that their work does have a distinctive style. In both cases, I would argue, the author's own voice "push[es] and print[s] itself on the characters." If this were not the case, we would have no reason to consider Hemingway's "style" to have been as revolutionary as it in fact was, since he wouldn't be using his autistically laconic style for deliberate effect but merely to "reflect" the thinking of a series of autistically laconic characters. And what about those characters in Faulkner's work who "think" in Faulkner's own circuitous, declamatory style? Is Faulkner to be removed from the pantheon of American writers because in retrospect he failed to observe the Myers Rules of Decorum? Did he show "a lack of sensitivity to difference in the human condition as evidenced in language"? For that matter, how "multivalent" is the fiction of, say, Virginia Woolf, one of the great psychological realists? Even when she's dipping in and out of the consciousness of multiple characters, how aware are we of the individuality of each voice, as opposed to Virginia Woolf and her fluent prose style in the process of dipping?
A writer who especially challenges the Myers/Quackenbush philosophy of prose style is the American writer Stanley Elkin. No writer in literary history has ever "printed" his own characteristic style "on the characters" more than Elkin. Here's a passage from his 1983 novel, George Mills:
Mills was always thirsty now. Talking to his horse, coaxing him along the orbit of the salt carousel, his tongue flecked with salt dust, his throat burned raw with the dry pebbles, gagging and talking baby talk, horse talk, nonsense, philosophy. He did not know what the other horse talkers told their beasts--the merchant was disinterested; it made him drowsy, he said, to listen; he did not like, he said, to stay long in the farm-- because they spoke in what Mills did not even know was Polish, and in addition to his constant thirst, to the annoyance caused him by his great raw burning and wounded mouth, to his stinging eyes and smarting, salt-oiled skin like the sticky, greasy glaze of ocean bathers, there was the problem of finding things to say to it, of saying them, getting them out through the hair-trigger emetic atmosphere of his throat and mouth. And in the mitigated light, watery, milky as the hour before sunrise save where the torches, igniting salt, exploded into a showerwork of sparkler ferocity, white as temperature. But mostly the talk, what to say.
Here's another from his 1971 novel, The Dick Gibson Show:
By now he had enough experience in radio to handle anything. He was an accomplished announcer, a newsman, an MC, an actor. He could do special events, remotes, panel discussions. He had a keen ear for which songs and which recordings of which songs would be the hits, and was even a competent sports announcer. Though he had not yet broadcast a game from the stadium, he had done several off the Western Union ticker tape, sitting in a studio hundreds of miles from the action and translating the thin code of the relay, fleshing it out from the long, ribbony scorecard. More than anything else this made him feel truly a radio man, not just the voice of radio itself, the very fact of amplification, the human voice lifted miles, beamed from the high ground, a nexus of the opportune. See seven states! And everything after the fact so foreknown, the game itself sometimes already in the past while he still described it; often the afternoon papers were on the streets with the final box score while he described for his listeners the seventh-inning stretch or reported a struggle in the box seats over the recovery of a foul ball--his foreknowledge hindsight, a coy tool of suspense: "DiMaggio swings. That ball is going, going, oh, it's foul by inches."
Both of these passages are ebullient, robust, bordering on excessive. (In my opinion, gloriously so. In his later work, Elkin's prose style became if anything more mannered, more extravagant, as if over the course of his career he'd learned to shrug off the nagging demands of character development, point of view, and plot construction to concentrate solely on the still untapped resources of writing itself.) They contain truly novel and "fresh" images--"the hair-trigger emetic atmosphere of his throat." Neither of them bother with the distinction between "author voice" and "character voice," neither of them bow to the commands of critics urging "multivalence." It's all Elkin, even Dick Gibson, who is after all a radio "voice" of great skill but who ultimately still speaks Elkinese.
In the literary world of B.R. Myers's dreams, we would presumably be rid of writers like Stanley Elkin, in my opinion one of the great writers of the post-World War II era. Anyone who is inclined to give Myers's criticism of contemporary fiction the benefit of the doubt should take that warning under advisement.
Readers like B.R. Myers and J.F. Quackenbush are of course entitled to their preference for writers who toe the stylistic line, who are careful not to intrude too much prose onto their prose styles. But no one should accept their criticism of writers who don't provide this service as anything but a stentorian defense of their preferences. If they don't like writers who write too much, they should stay away from them and not elevate their intolerance of style into some sort of universal principle of literary correctness.