Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Undue Deference

Two seemingly unrelated books I read this month address a common problem: what happens when enough people defer to some perceived authority and stop thinking critically.

In John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience (2006), he examines the leadership of the conservative movement in American politics and how they have pushed conservatism to what Dean calls a "radical" and "revolutionary" movement, "co-opted by authoritarians." Dean, a self-described Goldwater conservative, makes extensive reference to psychological studies of authoritarian-follower personalities and social dominators by Professor Bob Altemeyer, comparing Altemeyer's findings to the evolution of the conservatism since the Nixon presidency. He also cites other psychological research, including the famous Milgram experiment.

In a republic whose populace thinks critically, one might expect social dominators of the machinating, dishonest, and unremorseful type to have a harder time achieving power. In theory, the voters serve a critical function as a check on their progress. Of course, in practice, voters are people with personalities - and a great many people are authoritarian-follower types, who will defer to social dominators and authority figures. If an authoritarian wears a suit and says the right things, many voters will ignore behavior that ought to be troubling.

They will even believe transparent lies. For instance, between 2004 and 2006, a depressing majority of participants in a poll believed that Saddam Hussein had strong links to Al Qaeda - 62-4% according to a Harris poll (the year this book was published), despite such a link being discredited long ago. Moreover, according to the same poll, the number of Americans believing Saddam had the imaginary weapons of mass destruction rose to 50%.

A similar play of deference and authority goes on in the realm of American letters, according to B.R. Myers. He argued this first in a 2001 article in The Atlantic, which he expanded into book form with A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack On The Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose (2002).

The authorities in this case, Myers argues, are the prominent book critics and panelists who award prestigious literary prizes. To put it almost as bluntly as Myers himself, it is argued that bad novels are being presented as good literature to a public who looks to literary prizes and critical praise for choosing what to read. Myers sees enormous injustice in this, as books with exciting stories are derided as mere "genre fiction" whereas boring books that exhibit trends fashionable with "literary critics" are dressed in the raiment of intellectual respectability.

Results? Myers argues the result is that people who defer to such authorities, but cannot slog through All The Pretty Horses (1993) (check out this passage, actually excerpted on the publisher's website to show you how good the writing is - eccccch), may well blame themselves for the book's faults. "It's too challenging," we might conclude, "I don't have a head for literature. I'm not smart enough to converse with this writer's work."

Myers suggests that this may be exactly what the literary elite wants people to think, and to maintain the cult, they have (1) elevated prose over content, and (2) learned to celebrate prose that is actually bad.

The conspiracy theory cannot be proven, and Myers treats this with a tongue-in-cheek crankish tone. The second point, however, Myers demonstrates by examing passages from the works of Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, and David Guterson. To blunt charges that the prose looks worse out of context, Myers preferred excepts that had been singled out for praise by the high-status book critics. Myers identifies trends such as excessive archaism, kitschy syntax, "shopping lists," overloaded and contradictory imagery, and examines some exalted passages only to show the emperor is naked. He also provides contrasting examples of good prose, stating more than once that writing which would never be tolerated by a mere "genre" writer is exulted when presented by an established Guterson or McCarthy.

This is not, however, an assault on the writers' worth or their fans - the books are simply not to Myers's taste, a point lost among the outraged detractors of this mild-mannered polemic. In Myers's estimation, books are more important than the writers themselves. Good writers can write bad books, and Myers actually praises one of McCarthy's novels.

But who was this B.R. Myers, critics argued, this American literature professor living in South Korea for heaven's sake, to write from abroad and criticize these American writers? Who indeed! A reader, that's who. Myers never argues that other readers should emulate his taste. He merely questions the authority of the elite that defines "good literature" and thus influences the market of new books, urging readers to trust their own analysis and their own taste. One needn't wait for Oprah Winfrey or the New York Times to recommend a book and assume it must be good even when it isn't.

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