David Foster Wallace’s literary contribution has principally been his ability to capture the voice of contemporary America, previously thought insurmountable given the plurality of voices in contemporary America. Central to this endeavor is his mastery of the explosion of marketingspeak, recursive (or isolationist) aesthetics, and defensiveness dressed up as self-awareness. As media literacy becomes a standardized high school requirement in more and more states, Wallace strikes me as our graduate-level lecturer in media literacy. Our generation’s Marshall McLuhan, with jokes. (And spectacular fiction.)
In short, Wallace is not merely attuned to the voice but the rhetoric, the “how,” of modern life. Essays like “Host” make visible his wrestling with these multifarious voices and arguments, his threading together of fine silks with rougher wools and filigreed synthetics.
So, yes, there’s something of a loophole in writing critically about David Foster Wallace: what’s made him so successful is his philosopher’s ability to anticipate our every move. The question is, can one operate outside of this? And if so, how to ensure one’s critics operate outside of this as well? The recent discussion around Maud Newton’s piece in the New York Times Magazine is instructive.
First, we should note Newton is writing in a format familiar to DFW, the magazine thinkpiece. He never wrote a paragraph that didn’t contend with its own rhetoric, and Newton knows this. Her article reflects her law school training, at least to me: she puts forth assertions, calls up case studies, anticipates arguments and counterarguments. (This is also why lawyers make great thriller writers.) There may be a rejoinder on the way from the New York Review of Books or Harper’s, but we already have plenty of response in the blogosphere. Some of which is food for thought, some of which suffers from a misunderstanding of form.
The blog is built on a framework of iteration and 1:1 community interaction, whereas magazine articles are based in the traditional print culture of finality. Newton’s article is online, of course, with comment threads and space for her to respond to readers instantly. But her piece was written with print and digital in mind; bloggers of course need only think of digital. And this is crucial, even moreso when discussing writers like DFW. (Aside: I can’t even conceive of DFW blogging, but that’s because he’s brilliant and likely would’ve found a great way to push the format and make it his own.)
Which leads us back to the central (and vexing) question with DFW: can we operate outside of his rhetorical gamesmanship in the blog format? There’s a clue in its iterative nature: the format is not just the post, but the comments, updates, and reposts. It’s unending–whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know. To me it’s simply different, and should be weighed and investigated on its own terms.