Myers described the original article, which saw no end of responses from admirers and critics, as "a light-hearted polemic" about modern literature. Myers was particularly concerned with what he saw as the growing pretentiousness of American literary fiction. He was skeptical about the value of elaborate, allusive prose and argued that what was praised as good writing was in fact the epitome of bad writing. His critique concentrated on E. Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, David Guterson, and Don DeLillo, all of whom enjoyed substantial acclaim from the literary establishment. Myers directed many of his harshest charges at literary critics for prestigious publications such as the New York Times Book Review, whom he accused of lavishing praise upon bad writing either for political reasons, or because they did not understand it and therefore assumed it to have great artistic merit. Myers also focuses on what he calls "the cult of the sentence", criticizing critics for pulling single sentences out of novels in order to praise their brilliance, while ignoring shortcomings in the novel as a whole.
Myers' article attracted heated criticism from aficionados of American literary fiction, especially of the authors Myers mentioned by name. Some critics charged Myers with being selective in his choice of targets, and of cherry picking particularly unreadable passages from the authors' works to make his point. However, Myers used only previously quoted and critically praised passages in an attempt to avoid that criticism.
Myers suggests there are only three possible responses when a critic is asked to review a work of literature:
- "Praise the novel and novelist."
- "Lament that novel is unworthy of novelist’s huge talent [but still praise it]."
- "Review someone else's novel instead."
In Myers' view, critics have created a system of self-serving criticism which protects, embraces, and aids certain authors.
For many critics, Myers was continuing the popular comments on postmodernism, of which John Gardner (On Moral Fiction) was the most recent proponent.
Myers explains and critiques the following five prose styles.
Myers' central complaint regarding Proulx is her use of nonsensical images, mixed metaphors, and poor word choice, to create a disjointed "slideshow" effect. Myers says Proulx writes to "startle or impress the reader." Myers asserts that this sort of writing must be read quickly, because if read slowly the meaning of the sentences falls apart. "With good Mandarin prose the opposite is true," Myers says, comparing Proulx's writing unfavourably with that of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Myers criticizes Proulx for being "too egocentric" to put herself in the place of her characters when deciding what is important and what is unnecessary. He also mentions that maybe Proulx writes one thing but means something else, therefore emphasizing the importance of polishing. Myers writes, "Someone needs to tell her that half of good writing is knowing what to leave out."
Myers asks how DeLillo's theme of "Life in Consumerland" can still be considered edgy after it has been explored in literature for fifty years. He points out that much of DeLillo's writing consists of long "shopping lists" of brand name consumer items. Myers also criticizes DeLillo's development of characters who "routinely talk and act like visitors from another planet." Myers asserts that DeLillo's characters serve primarily as vessels for DeLillo's thoughts, rather than as discrete characters. DeLillo, according to Myers, attempts to persuade his readers that if something does not make sense it is "over their heads," or that "something as inadequate as language can never do justice to the complexity of what they're trying to say." But Myers also points out that DeLillo uses a slippery sense of irony in his writing: "As so often with DeLillo's musings, the 'conclusion' is phrased as a rhetorical question. 'If this works for you, take it,' he is saying, 'but if you think it's silly, hey – maybe I do too.'"
Myers criticizes McCarthy for filling his sentences with bulky words that contain no real detail or meaning. He uses the following as an example from The Crossing: "He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her." Myers follows: "This is a good example of what I call the andelope: a breathless string of simple declarative statements linked by the conjunction "and". Like the "evocative" slide-show and the Consumerland shopping-list, the andelope encourages skim-reading while keeping up the appearance of 'literary' length and complexity. But like the slide-show (and unlike the shopping-list), the andelope often clashes with the subject matter, and the unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the methodical meal that is being described."
McCarthy's prose, Myers quips, "is unspeakable in every sense of the word," implying that it is both awful and frequently difficult to imagine a person saying. McCarthy's use of archaisms is also brought under scrutiny.
Myers's critique of Auster suggests he over-describes situations, especially mentioning numerous details that are particularly mundane and obvious. By making a description too long, as Auster does, Myers says that an author encourages a reader to "feel emboldened to ask why it needed to be said at all." Myers accuses Auster of "simply wasting our time" with his wordiness. Myers states that dragging on a point too long might cause it to go stale, as it did in Auster's passage from Timbuktu. With an example from Auster's Moon Palace, Myers describes how too many big and fancy words, used incorrectly, can discredit the speaker's intelligence. Myers also criticizes Auster for saying the same thing too many times; he states: "Swing the hammer often enough, and you're bound to hit the nail on the head sometime — or so Auster seems to think."
Myers critiques Guterson's novel Snow Falling on Cedars mainly for its "sluggishness" of words and "echoic" thought process. Myers concludes that Snow Falling on Cedars is no more than "flat, stereotypical descriptions" of characters in a given context, and, were its pace not slow, it would be considered a genre novel. Myers criticizes Guterson's average descriptions of predictable characters that have often been explored in literature, and complains that Guterson brings nothing new to the characters or story.
Myers devotes a section of the book-length text to describing the response the shorter version published in the Atlantic Monthly received upon its publication. This portion of the book is an analysis of the criticisms of his original critique, and while it is written with Myers' characteristic "humor," it is the place in the book where he most aggressively defends his views. Here are the general areas of criticism Myers describes, and his own responses to them; the titles are Myers' titles.
Myers' critics call him a philistine and an advocate for low-brow literature, and suggest that his criteria for good literature implicitly define it as writing that is simple enough to require little effort to read.
Myers responds that books may also be difficult to read because of poor writing style, and he recommends other authors as examples of a complex style executed with skill.
Some critics feel that it was Myers' presentation of the short passages (particularly in the case of Annie Proulx) that caused the writing to seem "overwrought." Bob Pohl of The Buffalo News said, "[Myers] pulls a number of short passages out of context and attempts to parse them for sense."
Myers responds that he limited his examples to passages already used as positive examples by literary critics. He also says that the passages are actually worse in context than they are out of context. He says: "I wasn't the one who took these things out of context. Nor am I the one who insists on regarding prose in terms of individual sentences instead of as a whole."
Several of Myers' critics claim the authors Myers featured were already discounted by the literary establishment.
Myers was unable to find any evidence backing this claim, and responds to this argument with the absence of criticism for the authors and several examples of praise.
Critics suggest that the very illogic and ambiguity Myers criticizes contains the value of the works: "consoling riddles," as one critic calls them.
Myers states “Literature need not answer every question it raises, but questions themselves should be clear.” “Difficult lucidity” in Myers' opinion is what is missing from Contemporary Prose – the kind of writing that, as he says, "rewards the use of a dictionary instead of punishing it."
Myers responds to criticism that his complaints "evinced faulty judgment". Myers points out that the critics made no attempt to argue that the defamed excerpts deserved the praise originally lavished on them. Instead the critics based their arguments on a matter of perspective.
Myers responds to the critics who say that he is too harsh and negative in his reviews, and he looks at the substandard rather than the good sections of a literary work. Myers refutes these criticisms by stating that he uses the same excerpts that were previously praised by other critics.
He also explains that some good parts do not qualify a work of literary prose as being worth the money and time it costs to purchase and read. Myers claims that the writer has become more important than the writing and any failings "only makes them more lovable" in the eyes of the modern critic.
Critics charge Myers with living in an "imagined past," in which all the authors were more talented.
Myers agrees to a point, but gives the example of the National Book Award winners between 1990 and 2001 compared to those of 1950 through 1961 winners.
1950 Nelson Algren.........1990 Charles R. Johnson
1951 William Faulkner......1991 Norman Rush
1952 James Jones...........1992 Cormac McCarthy
1953 Ralph Ellison.........1993 E. Annie Proulx
1954 Saul Bellow...........1994 William Gaddis
1955 William Faulkner......1995 Philip Roth
1956 John O'Hara...........1996 Andrea Barrett
1957 Wright Morris.........1997 Charles Frazier
1958 John Cheever..........1998 Alice McDermott
1959 Bernard Malamud.......1999 Ha Jin
1960 Philip Roth...........2000 Susan Sontag
1961 Conrad Richter........2001 Jonathan Franzen
Myers says, "Prize committees have always been unreliable judges of quality...still, it's worth noting that there was too much good writing around in the 1950s for even the prize committees to miss."
Myers' critics accuse him of putting too much emphasis on reality.
Myers responds that "I love it when Bulgakov makes a cat talk, and when Gogol dresses a nose in a civil servant's uniform, and – if I may jerk the chain again – when Stephen King gives a car a mind of its own." He says that he instead, "points out how absurd it is for the narrator of DeLillo's The Names, the usual "elliptical" windbag, to claim that lying about one's destination creates a grave disparity in the listener's brain between the real and the false destination. In making this point I was merely judging The Names—as I judge every novel—by its own standards, in this case as a novel of serious ideas. (DeLillo himself has said that it represents 'a deeper level of seriousness.')"
Myers received many attacks on his history and character for his essay. For example, Judith Shulevitz criticized Myers for being a foreigner (he was an Army brat; see B. R. Myers), unacquainted with the literary establishment he is criticizing.
Myers responds, claiming that in these literary circles, social identity is more important than writing. Myers believes instead that a reader should trust his/her reason and intelligence to judge the writing, without necessarily being swayed by the "reputation" of the author.
The Appendix: Ten Rules for "Serious" Writers at the end of the book is an ironic set of guidelines for writing, each of which refers to a previous violation of successful prose that he has criticized. Myers implies that following these rules will lead to literary success.
The rules are as follows:
- Be Writerly: If your writing is too natural, then there is no way it is scholarly.
- Sprawl: Content doesn't matter, it's all about size. Critics are impressed by big books, so brevity should be dismissed.
- Equivocate: If it doesn't make sense, there can always be a good excuse. Truth can always be distorted as long as it makes the writer sound good. For example, the plot isn't important because the lack of plot is what's important.
- Mystify: If people think that your writing is smarter than their writing, then they will respect your writing. If you sound smart (and definitely if you are published) then you must possess a brilliant mind.
- Keep Sentences Long: If the sentence is not long and boring, then it is definitely not literature.
- Repeat yourself: Repetition of words is important. If you don't mention your subject enough times, then the reader may not know what you are talking about. You may also use synonyms to show that you know how to use a thesaurus, and thus, must be an intelligent writer.
- Pile on the Imagery: Your writerly credentials will bloom to greatness if your ability to tie together multiple similes and metaphors like the wooden pieces of a Lincoln log set, never disintegrate from the fiery visage of the sun. The more literary devices that you can throw together, the better the writing.
- Archaize: If thine style of writing reflects an age long gone, and a world unfamiliar to the modern reader, then thou art indeed a master of the quill and the ink. This is very similar to rule number four, except you must write as if you are stuck in the past, rather than stuck in a dictionary.
- Bore: The word boring may as well be a synonym to the word scholarly. Along the lines of rule number one, you cannot write naturally, or make your words interesting. It is simply not scholarly. People are not supposed to be able to understand your writing, they are only supposed to realize that your writing is brilliant, because it just might be the cure for insomnia.
- Play the part: Remember to be as you write, scholarly, literate, practically a god. You must understand that when you seem smart, when you seem to believe in yourself, others will do the same, because, how could someone that is so smart and so pompous be wrong?
Other authors unflatteringly referred to in A Reader's Manifesto
The main authors criticized in A Readers Manifesto are Proulx, DeLillo, McCarthy, Auster, and Guterson. However, B. R. Myers also criticizes the following authors. He states pretentiousness can also be found in their prose.Thomas Wolfe, for Look Homeward, Angel.
Rick Moody, for Demonology.
Lee Abbott, Walter Kendrick, Richard Eder, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, Jayne Anne Phillips, Michiko Kakutani, Vince Passaro, Robert Hass, Richard B. Woodward, Madison Smartt Bell, Jim Shepard, Janet Burroway, Susan Kenney, and Bill Goldstein, critics for The New York Times.
Herbert Gold, critic for Reviewmanship.
John Skow, critic for Time.
Carolyn See, K. Francis Tanabe, and Linton Weeks, critics for The Washington Post.
Dan Cryer, critic for Newsday.
Cornel Bonca, Paul Maltby, and Mark Osteen, writers from White Noise: Text and Criticism.
Jay McInerney, Shelby Foote, Dennis Drabelle, A.M. Homes, James Marcus, and A.J.A. Symons, editors.
Rob Swigart, critic for The San Francisco Chronicle.
The New Republic, magazine.
John Leonard, editor for The New York Review of Books.
Martin Amis, writer for The War Against Cliché.
Michael J. Agivino, critic for Newsweek.
The Village Voice, newspaper.
Kirkus Reviews, journal.
The Sunday Telegraph, newspaper.
In A Reader's Manifesto, Myers presents these novels as examples of clear, concise literary style:To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.
Those Barren Leaves, by Aldous Huxley.
The Adventures of Augie March and The Victim, by Saul Bellow.
The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil.
Le Père Goriot, Illusions perdues, and La Comédie humaine by Honoré de Balzac.
The Orchard Keeper, by Cormac McCarthy.
The Key to Rebecca, by Ken Follett.
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville.
Hondo, by Louis L'Amour.
Malone Dies, by Samuel Beckett.
Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston
A Dark Night's Passing and At Kinosaki, by Naoya Shiga.
What Makes Sammy Run?, by Budd Schulberg.
Appointment in Samarra, by John O'Hara.
Hangover Square, by Patrick Hamilton.
The Second Curtain, by Roy Fuller.
Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake.
Things as They Are or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, by William Godwin.
The Waiting Years, by Fumiko Enchi.
The Wild Geese, by Mori Ōgai.