(Image courtesy The Onion.)
I had a visceral reaction to Maud Newton's New York Times Magazine short essay, "Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace" -- yet another in a growing number of backlash pieces against the late author.
On a stylistic-attack level, Newton's piece (or "riff," as the NYT labels it) hurts. When Newton tries to expand that into a larger condemnation, it annoys. My reasoning after the jump.
The opening salvo is an attention-grabber. Newton skillfully breaks down the "schtick" in David Foster Wallace's nonfiction -- and I'm forced to admit she has a point, despite being a huge fan of that nonfiction, collected in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" and "Consider the Lobster."
Newton identifies Wallace's tics with a clarity I hadn't seen before -- his mix of high/low and academic/casual/slangy language, his tendency to raise all possible objections to the arguments he's pondering while falling down a rabbit's hole of philosophical dithering, his overuse of casual qualifiers like "sort of." She argues that "Wallace’s rhetoric is mannered and limited in its own way, as manipulative in its recursive self-second-guessing as any more straightforward effort to persuade."
Newton uses this as a springboard to make two big arguments. The first hits hard. The second is irksome.
(1) The one that hurts involves Newton pointing out how the blogosphere and McSweeney's and lesser writers have adopted DFW's nonfiction techniques to far lesser effect. "In the Internet era," she writes, "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."
It hurts because good Lord I've been guilty of this particular brand of glibness, particularly when I was figuring out my own voice in the early 2000s. Of course, every writer tries on the syntax of their heroes at some point early on. But I think Newton reveals a certain tunneled-in perspective here when she suggests that "the stylized mess that is Gen-X-and-Y Internet syntax" -- all of it? -- can be traced back to the sins of one David Foster Wallace.
"The devices can be traced back to him, though, if indirectly," she writes; "they were filtered through and popularized by Dave Eggers’s literary magazine and publishing empire, McSweeney’s, and Eggers’s own novels and memoirs, all of which borrowed not only Wallace’s tics but also his championing of post-ironic sincerity and his attempts to ward off criticism by embedding all possible criticisms within the writing itself."
Newton also nails certain New York blog-writing tics that bug the shit out of me. Like the "ironic" use of exclamation points! And, um, improperly applied question marks on sites like Gawker? (Though, as Matt Pearce points out, beyond Mr. Eggers, Newton mostly fails to name her living targets.) However -- and this is where the "riff" starts breaking down for me -- Newton further suggests that you can draw a line from Wallace to these bloggy tics. In Gawker's case, at least, I'd argue the line can be drawn more accurately to the following:
(a) Spy Magazine. Spy's investigative snark, like Wallace's neurotic digressiveness, is often stylistically imitated without any of the original's intellectual rigor. And
(b) I actually think the ironically applied question marks are a stylistic device that a certain brand of New York blogger has adopted to capture how they speak their sentences (listen for example to the way young writers always lilt up uncertainly when talking on Emily Gould's "Cooking the Books").
(2) If Newton had stopped here, I think the piece would be devastating. It certainly got me thinking about my own stylistic crutches. But she loses me when she further argues that Wallace's style (and especially the style of his imitators) is somehow UNDERMINING ARGUMENT ITSELF -- that the abundance of qualifiers and second-guesses in online writing lacks directness and conviction, that it results in prose that's too eager to please and be liked (which she argues presages the Facebook "like me" culture), that Wallace's call for sincerity in an irony-choked culture is nothing new, and that plain directness is preferable to DFW's my-mind-is-working-all-angles-of-this-argument nonfiction style.
For me, point (2) breaks down for the following reasons:
(a) God forbid David Foster Wallace try to make philosophical deconstruction of a topic entertaining.
(b) I can direct Ms. Newton to several websites where blunt argument has miraculously survived the omnipresent scorge of David Foster Wallace.
(c) Just so we're clear, it's cable-news punditry that's undermining argument itself.
(d) I think Wallace's entire point was to try and capture on the page how the complex human mind (or at least how his complex human mind) was pondering his non-fiction/essay subjects. Turning the argument over and over and finding footnoted comedy in the resulting neurosis was David Foster Wallace's stock in trade -- he intellectually prodded as much as he argued. You might as well get upset at John Grisham for not writing science fiction.
One of Wallace's final essays, "Consider the Lobster," is maybe the perfect example of him using this device to disturb the reader. He starts out visiting a Maine lobster festival and very self-consciously indulges the very reportage "schtick" Newton decries -- but then turns that schtick on its ear by suddenly tumbling further and further into the dilemma of whether lobsters feel pain, and whether the entire festival is a fiesta of cruelty. This first appeared in Gourmet, and for my money it's one of the most subversive bits of reportage journalism of the last decade.
(e) The NYT essay closes with a three-paragraph left turn into defending direct speech that can be summed up as follows: "People want to be liked and use all those qualifiers and stylistic tics to be liked. I used to be like that. Then I went to law school. Now I like direct argument. It is not soothing." I appreciate directness myself. Here is a direct statement: The philosophical pondering Wallace was trying to accomplish in his essays and the practical legal solutions Maud Newton was trying to find in law school have almost nothing in common.
(f) Finally, after calling Wallace "inarguably one of the most interesting thinkers and distinctive stylists of the generation raised on Jacques Derrida, Strunk and White and Scooby-Doo" (a glib and condescending breakdown of Wallace's style and concerns), I think Newton proceeds to play down for the sake of her argument how much of a New Journalism atom-bomb Wallace's non-fiction was when it started showing up in magazines in the mid-'90s -- how hilarious and refreshing and subversive it was, and still is.
This is where it gets personal for me.
When I first stumbled on Wallace, he seemed to open up new possibilities for the magazine-journalism and essay form, and it wasn't just me. His "style" was a big part of that. As one of his memorialists put it after he committed suicide, that style (which Newton dismisses as "flattering") seemed unprecedented for capturing on a mainstream magazine page a certain brand of looping thought process that was instantly recognizable and relatable despite seeming several IQ points distant. I'd been playing with footnotes and other devices in my correspondence in college and just after, but it wasn't until 1996, when I first encountered him writing about tennis in Esquire, that it occurred to me to really start taking any real writing risks in public. I had no interest in tennis or a low-ranked player in that sport, but Wallace made Michael Joyce's career feel like a festival of physics and life-sacrifice. I could probably draw a line between finding that magazine article and creating my endnote-addled non-fiction comics (or, at least, I could draw a line from that magazine article to the DFW comics adaptation I once drew as a column pitch).
So yeah, I'm a DFW fanboy, and I'm biased, and I've been part of the problem, and I appreciate Maud Newton for calling out any writer who uses a stylistic crutch that makes them precious. But for Maud Newton to also join a parade of lesser writers staking out lit-cred for themselves by throwing the freshly dead Wallace under the bus -- and then to passive-aggressively blame him for all sorts of not-his-fault jackassery -- is for me to sort of politely tell Maud Newton to piss off.
'Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace' (The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 19, 2011)