B. R. Myers caused an eruption in the literary cosmos a few years back when attacked the brightest lights in the High Brow Firmament in an article in the Atlantic, later published as a short essay of the same name entitled A Reader’s Manifesto. He offered copious examples that allegedly exposed as pretentious gibberish the purple prose of Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy and others.
But he didn’t stop there. He also accused literary critics of aiding and abetting a general purpling of literary prose among young writers by uncritically heaping praise upon what he thought was largely meaningless verbiage. It was, he implied, a vicious circle that threatened to drag American literature into a new dark age.
Naturally, Myers’ piece caused an intemperate backlash from the establishment and especially from those imitators seeking a place within it. Nonetheless, the defenders of contemporary prose did not so much rebut Myers’ criticism as deride him as a philistine incapable of appreciating the subtle sophistication of their luminaries.
Now, I don’t want to rehash this debate, much less bring upon my head the wrath of these writers and their acolytes. But I do want to propose a minor experiment that might shed some light on the sociological side of the question: is Cormac McCarthy’s style really affectively good, or is it, as Myers suggests, a bitter flavor that elite opinion has decreed sweet in order to divide itself off from the herd? Put more simply: is the emperor wearing any clothes?
Notice that I’m not following Myers’ formalist aesthetic approach to the question in proposing a literary analysis of McCarthy’s prose. I’m asking whether McCarthy’s prose could find an audience among the great unwashed masses without McCarthy’s name and the literary establishment’s endorsement.
Interesting hypothesis, you say, but wholly impossible to test. One would have to find an audience untouched by McCarthy’s style and the endorsement of that style, which requires the prior existence of a parallel universe where no one had heard of him, his style or his admirers. A second best alternative would require a book by McCarthy published under a pseudonym by some small publishing house that was off the radar of the establishment—again, an unlikely scenario for a whole host of reasons.
There is, however, a third alternative: someone could take advantage of the new age of e-publishing to produce and offer for sale a McCarthyesque novel. Leaving aside the labour involved for the moment, it is not so moot an endeavour as it seems. Sure, there’s no good reason to suppose that even the best impersonator would be identical to the genuine article; thus, the success or (more likely) the failure of Pseudo-McCarthy’s novel would prove nothing either way.
Yet I can’t help but think it would be interesting to see what would happen in the e-publishing context when reader reviews are instantaneous and unselected. Would readers be moved by the particular cadences and obscurities of McCarthy’s prose? Again, this assumes that the style and depth (if deep it be) is reproducible, which is not a foregone conclusion.
At any rate, I’ve been asking myself this question for some time, debating whether I’d craft a few short stories in the style of McCarthy—at least a style that apes some of the more imitable features of McCarthy—and publish them to see what happens. In fact, I wrote some McCathyesque prose in a comment over at JK Konrath’s blog, a mostly parodic example for my own entertainment.
Time, of course, is the perennial impediment to such grand enterprises. It’s not like I have an abundance of it to expend on unprofitable literary experiments that many would likely find utterly irrelevant and even vaguely offensive.
Still, I’m captivated by the philosophical implications. What happens if some people actually enjoy it (assuming I attempt to avoid parody this time)? Would it reveal anything other than the fact that someone, somewhere can be found to enjoy anything? I don’t know — and I guess that’s what’s so intriguing about it.