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Watch out for writing called Muscular, Sparse, or Lyrical

Do you ever pick up a book because it received a rave in the New York Times, but it ends up feeling like a miserable chore reading it?  Or maybe the book’s jacket was plastered with awards and blurbs authenticating its brilliance, but the story seems dry and impenetrable to you?  And to add insult to injury, you have this book sitting around your house for weeks or years, occasionally popping up to accuse you of being a halfwit?  If so, I share your pain.

And take heart; there are those who have written in our defense.  I was recently introduced to a decade old polemic against the snootiness of literary fiction called A Reader’s Manifesto by B.R. Myers.  The book takes to task writers and reviewers who ignore storytelling in favor of pretentious sentence crafting.  Myers uses examples lifted from the pages of many of the literary elite circa 2002 (Annie Proulx, Don Delillo, Cormac McCarthy – heavyweights still) and levels some pretty unforgiving criticism, which is still largely applicable.  Even if you love the book he is gutting, the examples provided are so spot-on that they’re tough to disregard.  Here is a condensed version of his argument, which appeared as an essay in The Atlantic.

Now, I don’t think his point was that we should shy away from challenging fiction.  He offers many examples of “highbrow” work that is direct and engaging.  But I do think he would suggest that some authors should expend less time impressing themselves -  because their writing can be burdensome to readers.

Have some examples?  Feel free to put them in the comments.  – Ransom Jabara, Reference

2 Comments

  1. Cate Murphy says:

    Mine is a positive example: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is meaty, though-provoking, sad, funny and altogether a terrific piece of “literary” fiction. I don’t know quite how to describe the style. Maybe 21st century stream-of-consciousness? It’s natural. It’s the way we really do talk to ourselves: not in pages-long Faulknerian or Joycian long rambling sentences, but in short, often interrupted phrases.

    I found this book so powerful that, after having read LPL’s copy, I bought my own copy. Definitely a book I want in my collection.

  2. Lisa says:

    I really like Cormac McCarthy’s work and the fact that it doesn’t lend itself well to public reading. I think “pretentious” is subjective. To me, the literature that is often read at public readings is pretentious because the emphasis is on how the words sound rather than the action and images conveyed. It’s not more natural. It’s just less visual.

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