Maud Newton astutely considered the legacy of David Foster Wallace in the New York Times Magazine last weekend. I thought it was an exhilarating read. She begins with a quote from “Tense Present” and then uses it as a mirror from which to consider him and then the rest of us, as well as the way he lives on now after death. She describes him hidden in our language and syntax, as if he were coded into it like something out of science fiction, a ghost in the machine of the internet, performed by millions:
Of course, Wallace’s slangy approachability was part of his appeal, and these quirks are more than compensated for by his roving intelligence and the tireless force of his writing. The trouble is that his style is also, as Dyer says, “catching, highly infectious.” And if, even from Wallace, the aw-shucks, I-could-be-wrong-here, I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach grates, it is vastly more exasperating in the hands of lesser thinkers. In the Internet era, Wallace’s moves have been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument.
Visit some blogs — personal blogs, academic blogs, blogs associated with some of our most esteemed periodicals — to see these tendencies writ large. My own archives, dating back to 2002, are no exception.
Misperformed, then: DFW manqués.
I remember the first time I came across what seemed to me to be an overly overt Wallace imitator among my students, someone who was imprisoning their own style and chance to be original inside a performance of Wallace’s style. It’s not something peculiar to Wallace–after some time in the trenches of teaching creative writing, I can point out from a mile away the many imitators, of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Jack Kerouac, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop. And of more recent vintage, Lydia Davis, for example. Or in the case of one season as a reader for NYFA’s fiction panel, it seemed to me like half of New York State’s applicants had decided to try to be Jonathan Safran Foer.
The student I speak of, he earnestly was doing what he was doing because he felt summoned out of himself by Wallace’s work, called to write himself. But I knew about this mistake. I’d tried to do it myself in college, with Marguerite Duras and Christa Wolf. I wanted to not be myself, to be someone else, because I couldn’t believe I could succeed as me. The sad part was the imitations were where it all fell apart for this student, something else I knew from experience. I worked with him as patiently as I could, because I knew he thought he was honoring a hero, when to really honor the hero, he’d have to depart the hero’s style. But he really fought me, believing the best of his work was his most successful imitation of Wallace, and unable to see his own work’s qualities.
What I told him is, You can’t really imitate someone, something a fellow writer said to me once, and the person who said it is lost in time to me, but it’s true–you can’t, not really. You can try. In the end you end up doing something that belongs to you. The question is, do you understand it? The problem with borrowing too much, with trying too hard to be another writer instead of yourself, comes when you end up like the apes on Planet of the Apes, pounding the glass panels of the spaceship, not knowing how to make it fly because you didn’t make it and so you don’t know what it’s for. The reason any of these much-imitated writers’ works succeed is because they felt the force of what they were doing–and your attempt to copy them, that does not touch that same place, even if you’re sure it does. And I don’t think it can, not intentionally.
I was out to beers with Andrew Altschul and Joshua Furst the other night and the many modernist imitators busy even now trying to defamiliarize the familiar came up. We talked about how out of step they are. It’s not the job of our age anymore. Our age is unfamiliar enough—every day, lately, our world shows us we don’t know what it is. The Modernist imitators, any imitators, run the risk of performing what my Broadway actor friends call “museum theater”, the literary equivalent of the touring company for “Hello Dolly!”, with more in common with hymn singing at church than literary production.
What Maud then nails is how a DFW imitation became what I call the “house style of the internet”, something I remember speaking about at a panel I was on with Emily Gould, Marie Mockette and Ed Park, at the New School years ago. We couldn’t put our finger on where it had come from, we all just knew it existed. And that we had all done it. We also all wanted out of it. Maud points out the resemblance between it and DFW’s style:
I suppose it made sense, when blogging was new, that there was some confusion about voice. Was a blog more like writing or more like speech? Soon it became a contrived and shambling hybrid of the two. The “sort ofs” and “reallys” and “ums” and “you knows” that we use in conversation were codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon. We weren’t just mad, we were sort of enraged; no one was merely confused, but kind of totally mystified. That music blog we liked was really pretty much the only one that, um, you know, got it. Never before had “folks” been used so relentlessly and enthusiastically as a term of general address outside church suppers, chain restaurants and family reunions. It’s fascinating and dreadful in hindsight to realize how quickly these conventions took hold and how widely they spread. And! They have sort of mutated since to liberal and often sarcastic use of question marks? And exclamation points! “Oh, hi,” people say at the start of sentences on blogs, Twitter and Tumblr these days, both acknowledging and jokily feigning surprise at the presence of the readers who have turned up there.
Blogging is something that bothered me almost immediately once I began doing it, for the way it was both informal and permanent. It was supposed to be casual, because who could spend a ton of time on their blog? But it would also be how you were judged, maybe more than by what you spent your actual time on—your books. The things you published on the internet were there for a very long time when compared to print. Part of why I have published as much as I have on the internet comes from an acknowledgement that a hiring committee for a school is definitely going to Google me–you’re naive if you think otherwise–and read what I’ve written on the internet. They’d never take the time to go through the libraries looking for my journal and magazine publications the same way–those are just too hard to find. I understood I needed solidly written material on the web, and material that wasn’t my blog, even though I also knew this same group would read my blog. I started blogging in 2004 fully aware that my readers who knew my fiction and essays knew me as a writer with an intensely compressed, poetical style from that first novel. I knew that a blog that was too casual would fail them, even though I also knew, the narrators of that first novel are not me. I couldn’t write a blog in that style. And soon, this other, increasingly omnipresent style, crept in. And it was faux-naive, it was a “What, are you here?” sort of tone, because it seemed too egotistical on the one hand to believe anyone would read it, and on the other, too naive to think no one would. So you pitched to the middle, whether you knew it or not. Or, at least, I did, and many others. You tried to be funny, and likable.
To be Wallace, perhaps. I’ll admit this right now–I didn’t reach much of him back in the day. It wasn’t until his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” that I paid attention, and then eventually read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men sometime in 2007. But I didn’t need to read him to be influenced by him. So much of what I read was people reading him and taking on the style.
Blogs came of age at a strange time. Language had become uncertain, even treacherous. It was the time of George W. Bush, of feeling like our president was a weird hologram of his father, snide and leering where the other had been prim and smug, and yet speaking with the same malaprops and syntax, as if the whole family was made to speak in misunderstandings in order to be understood. And it was a time when I saw malaprops spread, as if we all had to use them if we were going to agree that George W. Bush was the president. Faux-naivete was a perfect shield, I think, in a very general way. Our country had become something terrible and strange, or it always had been and now we knew. It seems to me we are still in the process of discovering what our country really is. And Wallace, well, he was a writer whose work gave back a vision of the world that pierced the scrim of the fear we were all feeling. If we imitated him, or imitated each other imitating him, really, I think we did it because of how we all wanted to find our way through. But it became like a game of telephone, but with style, and what had once been able to clarify something soon obscured them.
Maud introduced a beautiful quote from Wallace over at her blog, by way of explaining what she meant by his need to please. Which is to say, he knew of it himself, and worked at removing it–she didn’t just make it up. Wallace here is writing about his fiction:
I have a problem sometimes with concision, communicating only what needs to be said in a brisk efficient way that doesn’t call attention to itself. It’d be pathetic for me to blame the exterior for my own deficiencies, but it still seems to me that both of these problems are traceable to this schizogenic experience I had growing up, being bookish and reading a lot, on the one hand, watching grotesque amounts of TV, on the other. Because I liked to read, I probably didn’t watch quite as much TV as my friends, but I still got my daily megadose, believe me. And I think it’s impossible to spend that many slack-jawed, spittle-chinned, formative hours in front of commercial art without internalizing the idea that one of the main goals of art is simply to “entertain,” give people sheer pleasure. Except to what end, this pleasure-giving? Because, of course, TV’s “real” agenda is to be “liked,” because if you like what you’re seeing, you’ll stay tuned. TV is completely unabashed about this; it’s its sole raison. And sometimes when I look at my own stuff I feel like I absorbed too much of this raison. I’ll catch myself thinking up gags or trying formal stunt-pilotry and see that none of this stuff is really in the service of the story itself; it’s serving the rather darker purpose of communicating to the reader “Hey! Look at me! Have a look at what a good writer I am! Like me!”
Now, to an extent there’s no way to escape this altogether, because an author needs to demonstrate some sort of skill or merit so that the reader will trust her. There’s some weird, delicate, I-trust-you-not-to fuck-up-on-me relationship between the reader and writer, and both have to sustain it. But there’s an unignorable line between demonstrating skill and charm to gain trust for the story vs. simple showing off. It can become an exercise in trying to get the reader to like and admire you instead of an exercise in creative art…
Of course, that last line is exactly how I’ve felt about blogging. What I fight every time I do it. More on that soon.
This was a great compliment to Newton’s article. Thanks for this.
I wonder, though, do you really think it’s our generation’s (I’m speaking broadly here, possibly) job to familiarize rather than defamiliarize?
You said something like, ‘every day the world shows us something new’ and I guess my line of sight just returns irreducible sameness clothed in somewhat diverse garments. That is, a story about Hindu’s tossing a newborn from a third story window (I’ve seen it in person!) is really a story about desperation and maybe the zaniness of religious practice or faith. Which, of course, are not entirely unfamiliar to most people.
I absolutely agree with Newton – and I believe you echo the sentiment – that so many of us who continue looking up to Wallace sometimes forget that behind the literary fireworks and nonchalance was a strong and almost always logically valid argument.
Again, thanks for this post.
Thanks. Broadly speaking, yes. It’s arguable, yes, but then, I also think dystopian fiction is the new social realism. I’ll think about what I mean some more—it is, to be sure, a quick take, not my actual subject here. It was what we said that night in passing, though, and we all understood it. Every day the world shows us some new horror or loneliness, I think is closer to what I mean, and alienation of the kind modernism meant to provoke is now just happening all the time. The stresses in the culture fall differently, and other things need expression, description, more than any orthodox adherence to a particular school.
I don’t have a lot to add to what you wrote. I’ll just say that Newton’s article annoyed me while your largely laudatory response to it did not. You made her point better and less abrasively (for a Wallace fan like me) than she did.