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As Alexander Main said, "How can I cross-examine the universe when it jumps my bond?"

J F Quackenbush

Just to make a point, i don't necessarily agree with Myers on the issue of authorial vs. character voice. I just think it's a position that deserves to be taken seriously. Also, I specifically argue that what Myers is in favor of isn't the psychological realism favored by someone like James Wood. But rather a more neutral narrative realism wherein the authorial voice is expressed through character voice, rather than stamping it out. I think Faulkner is a perfect example of someone who does this in a way that Myers would approve of, the opening of the Sound and the Fury leaping immediately to mind as an instance where the author's style serves the voice of the character rather than ignoring it.

More importantly, as far as I can tell, the criticism is limited to the expressions by the character--Myers has a whole raft of different complaints about third person narrative tropes which he uses to address those kind of complaints. This is where I think Myers has the most teeth in pointing out that thoughts and ideas attributed to characters through a perspectival third person narration don't really "fit" the character.

Now again, I think that it's fine to disagree with him on this point. I don't agree with him altogether, myself. But I think if you're going to argue with him, you have to do him the credit of taking his critical position seriously rather than making straw men of it. For example, I don't agree that Myers believes a writer should "make sure they correctly evoke the plain meaning of words." That's a bald misreading of both what Myers says wants to see in fiction and of what I claim he wants to see in my defense of him. The heart of the Myers view is that many contemporary authors are trying and failing to be stylistically original, and in doing so they're writing badly. This is not the same thing as saying that stylistic originality is a bad thing, in fact, in the Readers Manifesto he explicitly lionizes Joyce as the right way to write "mandarin" prose. But failing that, having a unique inimitable voice at all times present in ones work is not the most important thing, and one should not fake it if one doesn't have it

For myself I tend to agree with the second part and disagree with the first. Originality and depth of style is supremely important and must be done well for a writer to be taken seriously. But rather than writing in a more pedestrian fashion, I think it would be preferable if the likes of Rick Moody and some of the other folks that have fallen into Myers crosshairs would just not write at all.


When doing "free indirect style," as Elkin is doing it in the second passage, there is a difference between using language that the character himself might use, like "truly a radio man," and words that the character might not use, like "nexus of the opportune." I like Elkin's writing, but... "nexus of the opportune" strikes me as infelicitious, because it seems abstract as well as not particularly apt for the character's internal reflection. I guess it could be justified in the sense that Elkins WANTS his prose to spill over like that. Or does he? I'm still undecided here...

Dan Green

J.F.: I don't think the Benjy section of Sound and the Fury is a very good example of what you're getting at. It's an unfiltered account of the character's consciousness--or at least wants to be taken that way--and thus an almost textbook case of "psychological realism." There is no authorial voice.

But what about a character like Vardaman in As I Lay Dying, an illiterate boy who in some passages sounds like a college professor? (Or like Faulkner.) Would Myers approve of this?

Whether you call what Myers wants "neutral narrative realism" or psychologial realism or whatever, it's still boring as hell.

Jonathan: Elkin does indeed want his prose style to "spill over." The "character's internal reflection" is of little interest to him unless he can incorporate it into his distinctive prose style.


Re - Elkin's "spilling over:"

As Leo Feldman said: "Obsession - that's where the money is. There's a king's ransom in other people's dreams."

Obsession, and its cousin excess, are two of Elkin's great themes.

Steven Augustine

"But rather than writing in a more pedestrian fashion, I think it would be preferable if the likes of Rick Moody and some of the other folks that have fallen into Myers crosshairs would just not write at all."

This is a pretty good imitation of the archetype of the critic as barren governess, severe in her envy. I'm no fan of Moody's, but he has his fans, and it's not quite apparent how Moody's ceasing to write (or exist, even, perhaps?) will restore the natural balance of good and evil, or suckage and brilliance, to the jolly world of Lit. On the other hand, I can well see how vaporizing a long list of people who earn their livings by selling the products of their imaginations might relieve you of some awful burden I can only guess at.

I wouldn't wipe my imaginary (incontinent) dog's arse with, say, anything by James Frey or JT Leroy, or the next nine-year-old wunderkind they rescue, with a six figure advance, from Kansas... neither would I wish them gone. If people enjoy that stuff, let them read it, whatever *my* opinion on its intrinsic aesthetic value.

It wouldn't give me a moment of pleasure to read that any writer with a following (with the notable exception of David Irving) had decided, suddenly, to go silent, on the advice of some prig with half a novel in a drawer somewhere.

Your above-quoted sentiment may well be a joke, but it says a lot about the sweepingly proscriptive, Mullah-ward drift of "criticism" these days. What, in the end, are you selling, Sir, but your own wounded resentments?


Throughout his Comédie Humaine, Balzac 'painted' images with clear prose. Later, we adapted such technique to something called 'movies.' Let's not forget that literature is art. Many authors become prose-challenged for lack of inspiration.


I enjoyed this myriad-minded exchange, Dan.

One stray issue for me is that reference to the "autistically laconic."

My experience is that children and adults with mild autism or Asperger's Syndrome often use words in a startling and even baroque way.


I've only stumbled in here this past week, so I've missed a bit of the ongoing fray. But I'll do my best to fire off something worthwhile...

First, I'm happy that I even have the chance to discuss something so startlingly baroque as the distinction between the author's and character's voice. Having spent a little bit of time under the influence of Federman, I laugh at the rigid, concrete critics and readers who demand the artifice of formula from their novels. But as a writer, I can't abandon my desire for multivalence, for transcendent reader reactions, for grandiose conceptions along the lines of "How would Joyce have written this sentence if he had included it in 'The Dead'?". So, sure, I'm all for arcane wordiness if that's the kind of excess to be celebrated in certain circles.

There is no question, as far as I'm concerned, that the state of casual literary criticism is horrible these days and that openmindedness is sorely lacking. I haven't read "Tree of Smoke" yet, and I may never, but I have been intrigued by its critical reception starting with the NYTimes BR and continuing through to this page. It seems to me that Johnson's supporters are highlighting a piece of fiction that is messy both in subject and style, individual and probably oblique. As a writer who's been accused of all that and more ("too wordy" and "comma-happy" are the nicest of my criticisms), I say fuck it, let's have at it! We need more mess, not less, and if the fussiness of criticism can't handle the biohazardous prose, then whose problem is that exactly? Pack up your latex gloves and red trash bags and go review "The Kite Runner" or any other Oprah-approved sentences. Seriously.

Anyway. I love "Mullah-ward" enough to steal it. Good one Steven.

Here's the thing about Hemingway. I hate him. Not personally, mind you. But in the sun-drenched heat of Kilimanjaro's... Oops, got off on a Masaic tangent there. Still, if "autistically laconic" isn't startling and baroque, then I'm the bullfighter's cape. I smiled when I read it, knowing full well from my working with students that while it wasn't meant to reflect derisively on inventiveness, it does perfectly capture the terseness of conversation I've experienced. Or something.

I'll be back.

Steven Augustine


I only post comments at all, given the thanklessness of the activity (larf), for that once-every-blue-moon "bing" of some other sick soul "getting" it, in whole or as a fragment.

"I say fuck it, let's have at it! We need more mess, not less, and if the fussiness of criticism can't handle the biohazardous prose, then whose problem is that exactly? Pack up your latex gloves and red trash bags and go review "The Kite Runner" or any other Oprah-approved sentences."

So: "bing" right back.

I thought the excerpts I read from "Tree of Smoke" indicated fairly strongly that the book isn't my bag, man, but it would be nice to offer a dissenting opinion on what constitutes "good writing" without being called "elitist" or any kind of "fascist" (living in Berlin, obviously, puts me under suspicion), for a change.

Neither loving Johnson's prose, nor endorsing the Quackenbush POV, I end up with no side from which to watch the ballgame, and, make no mistake, too many of these discussions feel exactly like a shout-down between Mets, or Yankees, fans. Even worse, I don't drink beer.

Here's to the truly great "messes"...


Amateur Reader

Since I have thrown a couple of jabs elsewhere on your blog, I think I should say that this post is excellent - sharply argued, with clear, pertinent supporting examples. Convincing.

Also convinced me to read more Elkin.

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