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Nigel Beale

Interesting how Myers' review flails both at novelists heaping unwarranted praise on novelists, and boosterism among reviewers. This isn't new. It's been done better before by Dale Peck and Dwight MacDonald among others.

They have point, much contemporary fiction is poor, some is good, hardly any is great. It's up to the critic to argue persuasively as to which category a book justifiably falls into.

Odd that Johnson's book should get such a lickin' here given all the accolades and awards it's received. This year's By Love Possessed?

I tend to agree with you. The quotes Myers choses to disassemble are not as bad as he would have us believe. The only thing he has convinced me of is the need to read the book myself. Which isn't such a bad thing.


B.R. Myers is the Armond White of book reviews.

Lloyd Mintern

I don't think Myers has YOU as a targeted reader of his review. He is trying to ward off people even reading Denis Johnson to begin with. And I fear that a person reading this piece of yours is likely to just throw up their hands. Critics tearing each other to pieces becomes completely incoherent, doesn't it?


I actually found it quite coherent and very helpful since I began to drowse half way through the Myers review. (It was around the 2nd or 3rd time he quoted a character and observed that his behaviour or dialogue was realistic.)

I've never read Johnson before and considered starting with "Tree of Smoke"; I don't like war novels, usually, but the Vietnam setting was rare enough. (It's always WWII with some star-crossed couple and/or the poor Jews, which is fine, but gets a bit dull, wouldn't you say?) I think I'll go for "Jesus' Son" though, because I saw the novel in-store and it was bloody huge -- did not relish carrying that thing around. Same thing with the new A.N. Wilson. With those dimensions (length more than width) you'd think they were publishing encyclopaedia volumes.

This is all a chatty way of saying, Dan, that I had the same thought when I read what I could manage of the Myers' review. He never once stopped to question if, perhaps, "psychological realism" wasn't what Johnson was going for. Maybe it came up often enough in other positive reviews that he didn't think another angle was worth while.

Happy to see that you're well enough to resume blogging. Take care of yourself.

Steven Augustine

As a one-word-at-a-time kinda reader (plodding, but very nearly OCD-methodical), I find the following sentence, among the others that Myers picks on, to be the sort of thing that the type of writer I tend to enjoy couldn't write:

"From all around came the ten thousand sounds of the jungle, as well as the cries of gulls and the far-off surf, and if [Bill] stopped dead and listened a minute, he could hear also the pulse snickering in the heat of his flesh, and the creak of sweat in his ears."

This is, in my opinion, a *bullsh-t* sentence. It's not DeLillo mystico-allusive to use "snickering" and "creak" in these ways, it's sloppy/callow. One remembers the character Rain (from Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives") making up the word "apucious". And that description-free, "ten thousand sounds of the jungle" bit; those "far off surf" and "gull" sound about a little throbbing of ominous jungle drums, too?

And this:

"...having been raised in the American heartland he was dedicated to steering clear of personal controversy, to ignoring scowls, honoring evasiveness, fending off voices raised in other rooms."

Where it isn't merely Wheaties-box banal, it clangs with falseness. More Heathkit writing.

Myers proved himself a goon in his "Manifesto", certainly, but the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend, and despite the jarring infelicities of Myers' reviewing style, he's steered me clear of a book, in this case, I'm sure would bug the bejeezis out of me.

Which is not to say that Johnson may not, in fact, be a compelling story-teller. I'm just not as interested in stories as in how they're told.

Jacob Russell

Good writing can't be reduced to "good sentences."

What is a "good sentence," free standing, has little to do with what makes a "good sentence" in context, in the evocation of the narrative voice and what it is seeks to accomplish.

Without respecting how that voice uses words, and for what ends, without letting that guide one's critical evaluation, one is left with... well, Myers' piss and tinkle irrelevance. Such a banal level of "reading" quote unquote--doesn't deserve the space, time or thought that's been lavished on it, here or elsewhere.

Jacob Russell

... which is not to say I'm not happy to see your demolition of Myer's review. Conflicted, yes. Part of me would like to quote the whole of it, part of me is revolted that this kind of thing should be given a moment's attention... that the Atlantic has stooped so low... ach... we are doomed.

Steven Augustine

"Good writing can't be reduced to 'good sentences.'"

Good writing can't be *reduced* to "good sentences" and nothing else, but "good sentences" are without a doubt a foundation. Again, I don't think you're distinguishing between great writing and (possibly) compelling story-telling.

"What is a 'good sentence,' free standing, has little to do with what makes a 'good sentence' in context, in the evocation of the narrative voice and what it is seeks to accomplish."

Sorry-I think this is demonstrable nonsense. Certainly, a sentence that jars (or presents a non sequitur) in the context of the paragraph containing it is problematic, despite the individual merit of the sentence. But that truth in no way leads to the conclusion you attempt to draw from it, and a shitty sentence, in harmonizing with its host paragraph, indicates nothing grander than a shitty paragraph.

To paraphrase what I've written elsewhere, I defy anyone to extract a sentence as poorly-written as the examples Myers extracts from "Tree of Smoke" from, say, "Underworld" or "Sheltering Sky" or "The Information". Even "Lolita", allowing for its couple of examples of English-as-an-extra-language idiosyncratic usage, is a flawless work on the level of its sentences.

Really topnotch writing is done one word at a time. A writer is first of all a chooser of words and can be judged by her/his choices.

Jason Hyun

In this and other discussions of Myer's review of Johnso'sn extremely problematic novel, one thing is always left out.

Myers hones in (with lots of carefully cited evidence) on the racist characterizations of black American soldiers in particular, replete with weird, ignorant, and not-at-all funny references to penis size and other effects. Myers quotes entire passages and speaks to the context of passages that spell out these unnecessarily bigoted portrayals.

1) If Johnson had been making *clear* arguments about racism within the military that placed blacks in deadly frontline positions at a greater disproportionate frequency than whites;

2) if Johnson had been drawing portrayals about the racism of his *characters*--an approach that requires well-rounded characters and relationships, which the novel does not contain;

3) if, in addition to his negative black characterizations, there were other more rounded black characters, just like the varying characterizations of whites that appear in the novel (and in Vietnam there were as many blacks as whites fighting in the trenches so there is no cause for having only stock black, negative, stereotypical, sexually offensive characterizations and diverse white portrayals);

4) if Johnson had done any of these things, then the charges of authorial (and not just character-specific) bigotry would hardly stick. But, when the black and Asian characters are deliberately drawn as racial/sexual jokes without even giving them personal names (they are race-types, like "black soldier") then we have a classic example of deeply misguided, intentionally bigoted by all evidence, and hurtful invention on the part of the author.

I recognized these problems when I read Johnson's novel across several sittings at Barnes and Noble. However, I did not hear it better expressed than in Myers carefully argued and well-cited review.

Dan, in this case, I don't think you are reading Myers' review carefully if you say that he does not provide evidence for his views that pertain to the formal construction of the novel. (You said "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.")

I am also saddened that you did not post your own review of the novel. What do you really think of the book? What is the purpose with starting critical turf wars with other critics? This kind of debate goes nowhere because each side will undoubtly have its own ideas. I'd much rather have your own firsthand view of the novel. "Taking on" critics like Myers and Woods seems a less productive (for the sake of reasoned criticism of contemporary fiction, experimental or otherwise) than hearing your own close readings of specific novels like Johnson's. I must say that your bona fide talents shine most when you are analyzing the works themselves. Your attacks on other critics end up being deeply problematic: you generalize poorly about Myers evidence and arguments and miss whole details that he takes pains to point out.

Would you like it if someone missed your finer points and evidence and read your criticism by disregarding many of the details that you raise (like the details of Johnson racial portrayals)?

In fact, Myers arguments plainly point out that the problems in the novel could easily not only be a matter of his own personal likes and dislikes; they are formal problems on the level of the sentence, on the level of character portrayals, on the level of structure, and on the level of theme. Moreover, what I like about both Myers and your criticism is both of you attend to formal matters of construction.

In Myers' manifesto (which is as opinionated and bombast as many of your own and many others' blog entries as well as my own forays so we should hardly fault him for putting out a manifesto) he never talks about "psychological realism" versus other realisms or anti-realism. These speculative contexts involve points that you are committed to making. Myers *does* say that he reads each work for its individual merit as far as the details of their construction go, and not for the hype (theoretical or commercial) surrounding the work. On that point, it almost seems that you and he should have something to agree on.

Not being aware of an author's past work is not a crime. We pick up books for all sorts of reasons. We should be able to pick up a book written in the middle of an author's career and assess it without having to read the author's backlist. Sometimes deep research into an author's production helps. Sometimes not. But all books ought to stand on their own artistically. Johnson's does not but he still gets awards.

Some authors--postmodern or modern; realist or not-so-realist--get into the industry and become favored for reasons that defy logic and reason. Johnson past work has been fascinating to me but his recent novel fails on so many levels formally and thematically that his recent award must have been an inside coup based on his past success.

Jacob Russell

"What is a 'good sentence,' free standing, has little to do with what makes a 'good sentence' in context, in the evocation of the narrative voice and what it is seeks to accomplish."

Sorry-I think this is demonstrable nonsense.

Well, then, "demonstrate" its nonsense.

You've done no such thing, nor have you demonstrated that you've understood what what I've said.

A critique, very much like Myers.

You might at least grant me the courtesy of asking me to clarify what you clearly don't understand.

I'll expand on this on my blog in the next few weeks.

Steven Augustine

I demonstrated my point by underlining the essence of your fallacy (I wrote: "...a shitty sentence, in harmonizing with its host paragraph, indicates nothing grander than a shitty paragraph"). You didn't get it. My fault.

"A critique, very much like Myers."

The critique may or may not be like Myers' critiques, since Myers is neither always right, nor invariably wrong; a statement, I know, which doesn't serve the partisans on either side of the divide.

Bit like politics, isn't it? Or a football game. Or two Maginot Lines, facing each other.

"I'll expand on this on my blog in the next few weeks."

Blog on.


>But, when the black and Asian characters are deliberately drawn as racial/sexual jokes without even giving them personal names (they are race-types, like "black soldier") then we have a classic example of deeply misguided, intentionally bigoted by all evidence, and hurtful invention on the part of the author.

But Johnson does give the name, first and last, of the black soldier who claims he has a small penis. Did you miss it?


Some passages in Tree of Smoke are akin to jazz riffs.
If that is your bugaboo then you won't like the book.

Jason Hyun

Susan: What is the name of the black soldier because most of the time the narrator simply identifies him as the black soldier and not by his character's name, which is my point about figuring him as a racial/sex type than as a fully drawn character...


The character wishes to be known as Black Man. His real name is Charles Blackman. There's quite a discussion about it.

He's not a main character, but I don't see evidence of authorial bigotry in his name or in that of Kenneth Johnson, another minor black character.

Jason Hyun

Susan: You are not convincing. It's fiction. Johnson drew the portrayal. He is called "black man" repeatedly. There is not thematic or plot-specific reason for the stereotypes and bigotry. Even is last name is "blackman," Susan. Yet you still claim that this is not a NEEDLESSLY bigoted portrayal. I'm sure if an author--with no attempt to link the bigoted portrayal to any theme or plot movement or anything formally significant--made a character call herself "white woman" and refer to the length of her vaginal lips, then many may think that it is patently sexist and UNNECESSARY! Just because Johnson MAKES his black male race/sex stereotype say that he wants to be debased does not make the portrayal any less racist. If the book developed the race relations and engaged the problems of racial stereotypes than it would be different but, for the love of God, this novel does not at all develop these matters. I guess you liked this portrayal and found it meaningful and if that's the case then I say no more because it is a reflection on you and no doubt many others because this ridiculously, and unnecessarily stereotypical novel won a big award.


Jason: you're condescending. I'm well aware that we're discussing fiction. I was describing the scene you appear to have missed altogether: the one that explains why the character wants to be known as Black Man.

I'm also well aware that Johnson's portrayal of black men is not as uniform as you'd make out; it depends upon whose perspective we're seeing things through. Therefore, I do not see, and you have not convinced me I ought to see, authorial bigotry.

Yes, I like the portrayal of Charles Blackman. I liked the way he undercut any potential ridicule about his name. He kept the others off balance; he was in control of the situation. You think Johnson debased the character; I think he managed to spin perception around and put the emphasis on the word "man" instead of "black." Or at least that was my readerly experience.


How is it that he is asked to review books at all after professing his hatred for stylized or complicated prose.

Jason Hyun

Susan: I am saying that, perhaps unwittingly, you cannot seem to see how BIGOTED the portrayal of "blackman" is. If, as I said before, this was a matter of there being other, well-rounded, non-stereotypical portrayals of blacks (or any other non-white person) in the book, then I would see this character move as an unsuccessful attempt at satire or a joke. But as the only truly viable black character in the novel then it smacks of bigoted invention. Yes, it is indeed possible for a person's racism and sexism to willfully shine through in their make believe, or their invention. Countless 19th century novels and tracts bear this out, including the anti-semitic DEBIT AND CREDIT by Freytag and many others. Nor am arguing for censorship. On the contrary, we should critique these works and point out the fallacious lapses in the invention. No, I'm not condescending to you. I am simply saying that not recognizing how bigoted and stereotypical the portrayal is also smacks of under-recognized bigotry. I think that we all suffer from this malaise of bigotry, including ME, just by virtue of living in the kind of world that we live in where whites hold so much socio-economic power to define the terms of modern living. I often wonder why a few non-white characters in novels by whites are devoid of character-specific development and rich, deep portrayal like the white characters; why they are jokes, stereotypes, cast-offs, background. It darn well IS fiction: these authors make these bigoted portrayals up and they should be held accountable for damaging invention. On a formal level of invention, a stereotypical portrayal of a black man that serves no discernible plot or thematic function--just a nasty joke--is a bottomless flaw that shows nothing but the author's weakness on all levels possible. That you like this character, that you think he was in control of his situation when he made self-debasing comments about himself and typified the minority-as-a-joke is disturbing to me in ways that it seems you simply do not or cannot understand.


Hi Jason,

I hope I don’t offend you with the following question, but I was just curious as to how you would respond to the idea the maybe we shouldn’t really care if a novel displays authorial bigotry or not? Looking for non-offensive fiction (or judging a book’s merits by its displays of tolerance) seems to me just to reinforce the culture (and the academy)’s haste to judge fiction for its utility – and to judge artwork by contemporary standards of morality/propriety.

Speaking more directly to the topic at hand, I have not read the book, but you and Susan’s discussion of the black character has not convinced me that Denis Johnson is a racist. Naming the character “Blackman” cannot possibly be anything but flagrant satire, and I suspect Johnson was purposefully try to put pressure on the notion of white people’s tendency to see black people as precisely that (“black” people), as “jokes, stereotypes, cast-offs, backgrounds.”

If Johnson did not create any more fully developed black characters, perhaps it’s because he doesn’t trust himself as a writer to speak for the black perspective – and is more interested in considering how white people conceive of blacks. Taking offense at that comes across to me as just political correctness gone overboard.



P.S. I hope this post didn't sound too critical of your ideas, Jason, as I was actually quite persuaded by most of what you wrote in your initial response to Dan's post.

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