By Maud Newton
Ten years ago, David Foster Wallace admitted in “Tense Present,” one of his best and most charming essays, to being a “SNOOT,” which he defined as a “really extreme usage fanatic, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to look for mistakes in Safire’s column’s prose itself.” He outed himself while writing in Harper’s on Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a book, he says, that serves to confirm its author’s “SNOOTitude while undercutting it in tone.”
Ultimately, though, “Tense Present” is as much about Wallace’s own rhetorical postures as about Garner’s, so much so that Wallace might as well be talking about himself. Garner’s book is “so good and so sneaky,” Wallace contends, because it relies on a “subtle rhetorical strategy.” Its “Ethical Appeal” amounts to “a complex and sophisticated ‘Trust me,’ ” one that “requires the rhetor to convince us not just of his intellectual acuity or technical competence, but of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s own hopes and fears.”
Wallace, too, strived to make ethical arguments while soothing and flattering his readers and distracting them from the fact that arguments were being made. He was inarguably one of the most interesting thinkers and distinctive stylists of the generation raised on Jacques Derrida, Strunk and White and Scooby-Doo, and his nonfiction writings, on subjects as diverse as cruises, porn, tennis and eating lobster, are a compelling, often dizzying mix of arguments and asides, of reportage and personal anecdotes, of high diction (“pleonasm”), childlike speech (“plus, worse”), slacker lingo (“totally hosed”) and legalese (“what this article hereby terms a ‘Democratic Spirit’ ”), often within the course of a single paragraph. As John Jeremiah Sullivan astutely observed in GQ, Wallace repudiated the demands of “the well-tempered magazine feature,” which “seeks to make you forget its problems, half-truths and arbitrary decisions.” Yet 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.
Geoff Dyer, an essayist as idiosyncratic and perceptive as Wallace but far more economical, confessed recently in Prospect magazine that he “break[s] out in a mental rash” when forced to read Wallace. “It’s not that I dislike the extravagance, the excess, the beanie-baroque, the phat loquacity,” Dyer wrote. “They just bug the crap out of me. ” Wallace’s nonfiction abounds with qualifiers like “sort of” and “pretty much” and sincerity-infusers like “really.” An icon of porn publishing described in the essay “Big Red Son,” for example, is “hard not to sort of almost actually like.” Within a brief excerpt from that piece in The New York Times Book Review, Wallace speaks of “the whole cynical postmodern deal” and “the whole mainstream celebrity culture,” and concludes that “the whole thing sucks.” Nor is this an unrepresentative sample; “whole” appears 20 times in the essay, so frequently that it begins to seem not just sloppy and imprecise but argumentatively, even aggressively, disingenuous. At their worst these verbal tics make it impossible to evaluate his analysis; I’m constantly wishing he would either choose a more straightforward way to limit his contentions or fully commit to one of them.
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.
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.
Wallace isn’t responsible for his imitators, much less for the stylized mess that is Gen-X-and-Y Internet syntax. The devices can be traced back to him, though, if indirectly; 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. “There is no overwhelming need to read the preface,” Eggers wrote in “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”; in fact, after “the first three or four chapters” the book “is kind of uneven.”
The ur-text of this movement, though, is Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” written in 1993. It’s a call for writing that transcends irony and detachment but, itself, comes drenched in both. The essay bemoans what Wallace saw as the near-impossibility of writing inventive, self-aware fiction in a television culture. He concludes by imagining some future group of “literary ‘rebels’ ” who would be “willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs . . . [and] accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.”
In its soaring romanticism, its Orwellian fears, its I’m-just-riffing-here backtracking and its infuriating absence of question marks following interrogatories, this essay prefigures many of the worst tendencies of the Internet. As the Times critic A. O. Scott has observed, Wallace “wants to be at once earnest and ironical, sensitive and cerebral, lisible andscriptible, R&D and R&R, straight man and clown, grifter and mark.” Every assertion, consequently, comes wrapped in qualifications, if not partial refutations; a later essay, appearing in “Consider the Lobster,” is titled, “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think.”
In a 2000 essay for Feed, Keith Gessen applauds Wallace for “trying, at last, to destroy” the oppositions between “irony and sincerity, self-consciousness and artifice.” He chastises those critics who in effect suggest that at “this late date, we might unlearn the postmodern vocabulary and recapture some pre-ironic way of being.” What we need, Gessen posits, in fiction writing at least, is someone to work “a sort of Barthelmeic magic” and “transform our language of apathy into a cri de coeur.”
How we arrived at the notion that the postmodern era is the first ever to confront the tension between sincerity and irony despite millennia of evidence to the contrary is no mystery: every generation believes its insights are unprecedented, its struggles uniquely formidable, its solutions the balm for all that ails the world. Why so many of our critics are still, after all these years, making their arguments in this inherently self-undermining voice — still trying to ward off every possible rejoinder and pre-emptively rebut every possible criticism by mixing a weird rhetorical stew of equivocation, pessimism and Elysian prophecy — is another question entirely. Perhaps even now some Wallacites would argue that we simply have yet to reach that idyllic moment at which our discourse will naturally transform into a sincere yet knowing cry from the heart. I would put it differently.
In “Generation Why?” a social-networking jeremiad published in The New York Review of Books last year, Zadie Smith reduces the motivations of the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to one: he wants to be liked. She writes, “For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment.” Even if you reject, as I do, the universality of her diagnosis, Smith has pinpointed the reason so much of what passes for intellectual debate nowadays is obscured behind a veneer of folksiness and sincerity and is characterized by an unwillingness to be pinned down. Where the craving for admiration and approval predominates, intellectual rigor cannot thrive, if it survives at all.
At 20 I congratulated myself on my awareness of the subjectivity of aesthetic judgments, the arbitrariness of critical proclamations, the folly of received wisdom. I pored over the Deconstructionists and the French feminists and advocated, in complete seriousness, the overthrow of language. (Also, the patriarchy.) Then I went to law school and was forced to confront serious practical and ethical questions — Brown v. Board of Education, for instance, and Roe v. Wade — that managed not to be resolved by the insights of Derrida. Now, having entered and abandoned the practice of law and spent roughly a decade straddling legal publishing and the blogosphere, I’m increasingly drawn to directness, which precludes neither nuance nor irony. (For details, see the essays of Mark Twain, who believed that “plain question and plain answer make the shortest road out of most perplexities.”)
Qualifications are necessary sometimes. Anticipating and defusing opposing arguments has been a vital rhetorical strategy since at least the days of Aristotle. Satire and ridicule, when done well, are high art. But the idea is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe. And the best way to make an argument is to make it, straightforwardly, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward.