David Foster Wallace is completely to blame for all that sucks on the internet (but not entirely)
A really interesting piece was published online by the New York Times the other day about the literary legacy of David Foster Wallace. I’ve never actually read anything by David Foster Wallace. He’s one of those authors, along with Mark Danielewski, that I’ve always felt that I’d need to be in a certain mood to appriciate; but it’s a mood in which I’ve never found myself.
The author of the piece, Maud Newton, makes the case that Wallace’s particular style of writing is responsible, at least in part, for the tendency of writers on the internet to be decidedly non-committal about all manner of arguments they attempt to make:
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.
I kind of agree with her (see what I did there?), although it would be disingenuous of me to heft the lion share of the blame for all this on Wallace considering I’m often equally as guilty of this inclination towards non-argument in my own writing and I’ve never read a word of Wallace’s work. One could point out, of course, that I’ve likely been influenced by Wallace even without having read him, simply due to the fact that so many writers that I’ve been influenced by have read him. It’s a fair point, and I won’t dispute it.
However, the nature of language – even when beautiful and compelling – is imperfection. It is literally impossible to take our entire thought process on a given issue and perfectly translate it into words. There really isn’t a way to capture every particular thought or feeling we have and distill it down into what we say or write without omitting at least some of the less important parts. We can’t even tell a story about our day unless we remove details like I got out of bed and set my right foot on the floor first and then my left foot, and then I stood up and began to walk, and then blah, blah, blah, etc.
All language is necessarily editorial. We try our best to express the complex positions we hold in our thoughts using simplified words that are generally not up to the task. It’s like trying to funnel a heard of cats through one particular toll booth on the highway when all the rest are open as well – or maybe it’s nothing like that. And besides, when it comes down to it, even well constructed and succinctly delivered arguments can turn out to be totally wrong. They often are.
While David Foster Wallace has taken a large part in giving a generation of writers permission to write compellingly weak arguments, it is the weakness of language itself that is to blame in the end. All we can do to remedy this is to read as many of the imperfect things that are out there as we can, and then try to figure out which ones are the best of them.
Hmmm…. maybe it’s time I read some David Foster Wallace after all.