Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Sentence Cult

In Brian Reynold Myers' article "A Reader's Manifesto", Myer's criticizes the prose style and insight of writers such as Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, and Don Delillo. He says "literary fiction" has such a bad reputation because readers are only exposed to mediocre modern literary fiction promoted by what he calls "the sentence cult".

Myers argues that modern literary fiction is a term used to describe writing that is slow-paced and often adorned with decorative language. This style of writing gives readers the impression that they are reading something above them that must be admired. It allows the members of the sentence cult to praise a book by pointing to a single sentence rather than making the effort to criticize the story as a whole, including the insight, the plot, and the characters -- all of which are lacking in modern work. Classic literary writers such as Tolstoy (Myer's example, not mine!) strive for clear language, simple story-telling and depend on depth of character and insight to make their work great. And, because they think of their story as a whole, it's harder to point out a sentence or paragraph that makes them great writers.

I agreed with a lot of his points, and I know a lot of you readers also dislike literary fiction. I'm wondering if you agree that there is a difference between modern literary fiction and classic time-tested literary fiction -- for those of you who have read both. And, how do you feel about writerly writing? If you say you hate it, are you successful in avoiding it in your own work?


  1. I'm not well-read, but I did read some of Tolstoy's writings. The Kreutzer Sonata comes to mind most clearly. I remember enjoying the story as a whole, but I also felt as if the story contained many quotable sentences/paragraphs. Tolstoy's insight amazed me.

  2. The problem with "the sentence cult" argument is how it asks us to believe that decorative language and good storytelling are mutually exclusive ideas and cannot exist within the same work. That being said, I do think there are books out there where the writing can get in the way of the storytelling.

    I don't know if this example would count because it is technically a memoir, but Eggers "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" while overall a book that I enjoyed just felt really dense and difficult to get through at times.

    Annie Prioux, on the other hand, although I've only read her one story, Brokeback Mountain, but I remember loving the way she used words, but what struck me most (and stayed with me) was the power of her storytelling.

    This is really an interesting theory though, and I will definitely be thinking about it during future reading.

  3. Old English had about 60,000 words. Today we're pushing 500,000, more if you count scientific terms, etc.

    So with this in mind, I think it is mandatory that we view modern literature with a different perspective than "classic" literature. The language itself has evolved, and the increased vocabulary is just a portion of it. The changes in our societal infrastructure and all standards of communication also have a profound impact on how we read and write, and how we judge quality or writing.

    I think this is funny, if he is relating it to Cormac McCarthy: "Myers argues that modern literary fiction is a term used to describe writing that is slow-paced and often adorned with decorative language."

    McCarthy's writing is anything but slow paced, and his prose is remarkable for its simplicity, IMHO, not for its complexity.

    I've thrown this out in other blog posts when quality of writing is discussed. Judge these two phrases, and tell me which is better:

    A) At this time I extend to you an informal statement of welcome and greeting.

    B) Hi.

    Complexity does not always dictate quality. Sometimes it's just the opposite.

  4. Justus, I've got to read that one. Everyone says it's good. Thanks for the reminder.

    Kate, I should clarify that the the article doesn't make the two things mutually exclusive. That may have just been me shortening the summary too much. but, he says that a lot of writers are able to hide behind the decorative prose--decorative being distinct from descriptive prose that can be done well. Myers does actually praise Proulx more than some of the other writers. But he argues that a lot of her prose was contradictory when analyzed word by word.

  5. While Myers points out some awful prose (though some of what he doesn't like is cleary a matter of taste more than anything qualitatively measurable), this articles is at heart just another one of those "I don't like modern art" screeds that get published all the time. I see this sort of thing constantly being written about the Death of Classical Music and the Death of Poetry, too.

    Myers is dragging out the dusty old straw man of "the cultural elite" and painting all of "modern" literary fiction with the same brush, as if every non-genre novel is informed by the prose styles of DeLillo, Proulz, McCarthy, et alias. What he really means is that he doesn't like the books coming out today as much as he likes the books he read when he was younger. Which means, frankly, only that Mr. Myers is getting to be middle-aged.

    I can't defend Proulx, McCarthy or Delillo because I am not a fan. But perhaps Myers would like to read some Pamuk, Rushdie, Eco, McEwan, Byatt, Carey, Mitchell or any other of the nearly endless list of good writers working within interpretive fiction today.

    Hemingway and Faulkner were contemporaries with radically dissimilar styles; both were praised and ridiculed at the same time. What does this tell us except that there is a broad palette available to writers, and there are broad tastes even within the "the cultural elite." I don't know who Myers thinks he serves with this article if the best he can do while telling us that modern literary fiction stinks is to point us to Saul Bellow and Steven King.

    I do think I see trends in the way story-telling is structured in novels these days, trends about which I have mixed feelings, but that's got nothing to do with Myers' inability to get beyond the prose style of a handful of contemporary novelists. Myers makes claims about the story-as-whole, but studiously avoids discussing the subject in depth.

    I could go on, but I'll spare us all.

  6. Scott,

    You could have gone on, and I would have continued reading, but you really summed it up with this:

    "What he really means is that he doesn't like the books coming out today as much as he likes the books he read when he was younger. Which means, frankly, only that Mr. Myers is getting to be middle-aged."

    Now everyone, get off his lawn ;-)

  7. Davin, Doesn't it all come back to telling the story in a way which connects with the reader? Modern or classic? I love both as long as I can say I connected with the words on the page. And, as long as I can say the writer told the story in a way that kept me captivated. He's an old fuddy-duddy.:)

  8. Robyn,

    I think part of what Myers is saying is that there is some kind of literary sleight-of-hand going on, where we only *think* we are connecting with the words on the page but--because the words don't really add up to anything much--we aren't. So we're being fooled into thinking that these books are about something when they are not. Who is doing the fooling? Why, the cultural elite, of course. (In the classical music world, the villain is always "academia.")

    I will grant Myers that some of his excerpts are merely lists of metaphors that cancel each other out, but I will also argue that some of the passages he condemns *do* work; he just doesn't like the style or the choice of images.

    There is another movement that runs counter to the one represented here by Myers, that of critics who claim that The Past is Dead and only people like, say Michel Houellebecq, have anything to tell us about The Modern World.

  9. This is a subject I could rant on and on about. I think I can sum it up with the argument that just like art, there is "classic fiction" and "modern fiction" - which has nothing to do with the time it was written.

    Some people hate modern art. Some people hate classic art. Some people don't think modern art should even be CALLED art. Just like some people don't think some fiction like your typical drugstore romance can be called good writing or even remotely literary or artistic. Some would beg to differ.

    In an argument such as this, opinion weighs in heavily. However, I believe the test of time will really weed out what is deemed real "art" and "literary"

    I am going to be doing a series of posts on this soon, called "What Is Art" with my father-in-law as a guest on my blog. So hold on for a crazy ride!!!!

  10. "Kate, I should clarify that the the article doesn't make the two things mutually exclusive. That may have just been me shortening the summary too much."

    Or me being too lazy to hit the link and read the whole article to understand it better;) Now, all these comments have me really intrigued, I'm going to give it a read right now!

  11. The one thing that classic literature has going for it is that it has been time tested. One of the critics I respect a lot is Harold Bloom, and he claims that time is the ONLY judge of whether or not a book is good. That's also really bad paraphrasing, but I think it makes at least part of his point.

    I felt that many of Myer's arguments were, exactly as Scott mentioned, questionable and a matter of taste. I have a limited library in my current apartment, but I did manage to get two books from authors that Myers claimed were "better" than the contemporaries. I opened up Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse and Proust's Swann's Way and picked the first paragraph I saw.

    Woolf: He turned and saw her. Ah! She was lovely, lovlier now than ever he thought. But he could not speak to her. He could not interrupt her. We wanted wanted urgently to speak to her now that James was gone and she was alone at last. But he resolved, no; he would not interrupt her...

    Proust: My mother opened the latticed door which led from the hall to the staircase. Presently I heard her coming upstairs to close her window. I went quietly into the passage; my heart was beating so violently that I could hardly move, but at least it was throbbing no longer with anxiety, but with terror and joy.

    Although Myers uses these writers as examples of greatness, I think he could have just as easily used both of these passages as examples of the same kind of bad writing he sees in Proulx or McCarthy. There's plenty of redundancy in Woolf's passage and, technically, the violent beating of a heart wouldn't make one move less.

    Myers makes interesting points, but I just wasn't completely convinced by his argument. Although, I do agree with a lot of what he says. At least in my own reading I rarely analyze the language as closely as I should and his idea that shallow reading can fall under the spell of this false poetic writing is valid.

  12. "I do agree with a lot of what he says. At least in my own reading I rarely analyze the language as closely as I should and his idea that shallow reading can fall under the spell of this false poetic writing is valid."

    The problem is that we can't find a universal definition of "true poetic writing." Or at least I can't. Maybe Myers is onto something when he says that the "middlebrow" category of literature seems to have disappeared, and things once considered "middlebrow" are now being labeled "highbrow." Which could be a valid argument, but it's really an argument about marketing and not writing.

    I also wonder how closely a reader is expected to engage with the text. Some writing depends on an accumulation of imagery in the reader's mind, even if the images seem to be disconnected. Should we condemn language that is perhaps self-contradictory and possibly fails as it strives toward some kind of poetry? I don't know. I like writerly writing; it's one reason I read: for the sheer joy of seeing what can be built using only words. Sometimes it's prose that beats itself to death, and that can be interesting and even "good."

    Certainly there's bad writing going on all around us, and I'm as violently opinionated as the next reader, but I think Myers' "sentence cult" is another straw man.

    "He searched for his accustomed fear of death and could not find it. Where was death? What death? There was no fear because there was no death."

    Is that good writing or bad writing? It's not the sort of metaphor-laden stuff Myers is talking about, but I can see someone making fun of it.

    These are interesting questions that I am certainly not qualified to answer. Yet I keep talking, don't I?

  13. My take on what Myers is calling poetic writing is simply an attention to the language on a word level, which is what I tend to get from my poet friends. I've never studied poetry, or at least not well, so I don't know much more than that. I can't say if there is a school of thought that promotes the accumulation of images in light of the individual subunits not necessarily having to work at close inspection. (Maybe too-close inspection?) I think people often try to deconstruct the art in order to understand it and they want to be able to understand it all the way down to the word level.

    For me, the thing to take from this, if there is anything to take, is to use it to evaluate our own writing based on your preferences. Myers says the idea of needing the language to accumulate to work is bad, but, Scott, you're saying that it works for you. Some of the passages Myers quoted as being bad were quite beautiful to me.

    But, I personally think that close inspection is a test that I hope my writing will pass. The idea of needing the images to accumulate, for me right now, feels too advanced. I feel like that requires some sort of understanding of neural pathways, which is something I'm not able to tackle in an intelligent way.

    I think marketing definitely has a role in this. I doubt I would ever browse the semi-literature shelf in a book store. Come to think of it, maybe I would! And, would the literature shelf then be almost empty?

  14. There is a place for both. I believe a lot of it has to do with preference. Modern audiences who are bombarded with movies and images might prefer books that are fast paced as opposed to those that require a lot of thought. I am always stunned when I ask my students if any of them like to read, and very few say yes. They prefer to watch TV and movies.

    I like literary classics, and I like modern books that challenge me intellectually. I also like an easy read here and there. That's just my preference. Who am I to say what's good and what's bad. It's a moot point!

  15. Francine Prose has some good things to say about reading/writing at the word level, and certainly in my own prose I want each word to have weight; or perhaps a better metaphor would be that I want each word to have a gravitational attraction to the surrounding words that makes the sentences, the paragraphs and the whole piece into a finely-balanced planetary system. Ugh. Enough with the metaphors.

    I thought that the first excerpt from Proulx was a mess and I didn't know what she was getting at. I try to make sure that I mean every word I write, and that every word I write has a specific meaning. So maybe I'm agreeing with the broader points Myers is trying to make. Maybe I have a knee-jerk reaction to labels like "cultural elite" and was blinded to some of his points. I get like that, and I apologize for the combative tone of my comments today.

    Would I shop the "middlebrow" shelves at a bookstore? They'd have to come up with a better name for it first!

  16. Yeah, litgirl, it always breaks my heart when people say they don't like to read. I've been getting better at figuring out which books to give to people, though. I used to try to share the books I like which never worked. Now I try to give my friends books that they'll like and they are much happier.

    Scott, I didn't think you were combative. Not in a bad way at least. Though I fail to say it often, most of my posts are meant to start discussions rather than to make points. I think I have more to learn than I have to teach. What amazes me is that I actually made progress in two of my stories that had me stuck while this discussion was going on.

  17. It is sad! :-( I work REALLY hard to find things my student's might like. Sometimes I'm successful and sometimes not.

    Scott - "Would I shop the "middlebrow" shelves at a bookstore? They'd have to come up with a better name for it first!"


  18. Awesome discuss. I don't read much classic literary. But I can attest to my distaste of literary novels that go on and on about nothing. Seems like some literary authors have lost the ability to have a story but then there's Cormac McCarthy who I find to be an intriguing writer... oh well, it's all a matter of opinion.

  19. For me, it's not the language that I have issues with in literary fiction. It's the plot. I simply don't care about the art of the words as much as I care about an interesting story. Cormac McCarthy is one of those people who have both beautiful words and amazing story--and I love him. But some literary fiction focuses more on the language than the story, and that's what I simply cannot stand. I think one reason why The Time Traveler's Wife did so well is because it blended the beautiful language with a genre story.

  20. I agree with Scott; I'm suspicious of any attack on "modern" versus "classic" literature, because it seems the attacker has fallen prey to the pathetic fallacy. If I don't come to literature with the naive enthusiasm at 44 that I did at 14, it must be literature's fault, and not the fact that I've read 3000 books in between, so nothing seems as new and wondrous anymore.

    I write in genres (sf and fantasy) where it is particularly difficult to employ metaphors. As Orson Scott Card wrote in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy if a literary writer mentions, "the buses were dinosaurs which lumbered from one rotting street to the next" the reader will understand this is a description of a decrepit urban scene. But a science fiction reader may assume the buses are actually reptiles.

    I often miss the freedom to delve deeply into metaphors on the sentence level. When I read literary fiction, the accumulation of rich and arresting metaphors are one of the joys of the writing. In sf, beautiful writing can distract from clarity, which is one thing. But it seems weird to me that anyone would complain, "This writing is so beautiful it distracts from being beautiful."

    There are many ways to tell a story.


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