On the sloppiness of sort of pinning things on people

On Maud Newton article on Foster Wallace in the New York Times and how easy it is to pick fights with the dead.

On the sloppiness of sort of pinning things on people 

There is always a perverse sort of pleasure in revealing the inner workings of other people’s argumentative rhetoric –“see, its not necessarily true, it just sounds convincing”. 

This, I’m inclined to think, motivated by her love of directness, is the main reason behind Maud Newton’s Another thing to sort of pin on David Foster Wallace

This piece ostensibly tries to “pin” on Wallace the widespread adoption by slackers and opinion-mongers of a sloppy, imprecise, slangy, self-qualifying style whose major fault would be that it refuses to make a straightforward argument on the topics it deals with. This pinning attempt, though, fails to dig up any evidence to support itself and therefore becomes a piece on Newton’s opinion on Wallace’s style, rather than an argument on how, because sloppy blog posting is somewhat similar, although vastly inferior, to DFW style, the former must be a descendant of the latter.

It also fails to account for the fact that, of all writers, DFW would be the one expected to be hyperconscious about the style he was using on his own non-fiction pieces, as he usually was about any subject he broached and in particular about his own writing. I would argue that there is nothing sloppy or imprecise in DFW writing and that the slanginess, the “aw-shucks, I-could-be-wrong-here” approach is a deliberate attempt at not sounding superior while fully “unpacking the argument”, in Wallace’s own words. This style makes his hyper cerebral, omniscient prose approachable to most readers who, if confronted with these ideas on a colder more authoritative style, would probably refuse to read past the first paragraph. 

Whereas the typical style of a blog post sounds sloppy because it is sloppy, DFW style sounds casual while at the same time dealing with multiple aspects of an argument and the possible contentions against it. Similarity does not breed kinship. Failing to see the distance here is not the problem -Newton sees how distant one’s writing is from the other- the problem is claiming that the casualness or sloppiness of blogs can somehow be pinned on a writer like DFW. Analogies come to mind so silly that I refuse to write them down.

I suspect Newton knew DFW was deliberate in his style because she opens her piece citing DFW essay on usage, Tense Present, on his definition of Ethical Appeal: “a complex and sophisticated ‘Trust me,’ [...] 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.” She knows this is exactly what accounts for DFW style, and therefore embeds this possible answer to her own argument at the top to get it out of the way –which is amusing if you consider this is one of the things being pinned on Wallace in the Newton piece.

The soothing, chummy style, as acutely observed by Newton, also has to do with DFW concern with being liked, something that is clear to anyone who has read enough of his work, and understandable as much as it is explicit in many places. Being liked, finding a closeness with the reader, somehow bridging the impossible gap and making friends with the person on the other side of the page is what drives Wallace to sincerity. This is not a defect; this is a central point of Wallace’s reasons for writing and probably his own most influential contribution to literature. Some writers, like her, can try to make a point while risking being disliked, others cannot. It makes no sense to expect that from Wallace unless you really haven’t read him enough.

Now, to the heart of the matter: Newton just doesn’t like Wallace’s style. Had she argued that from the start and then given all the reasons she did, I would have respected this as an honest opinion piece, instead, it tries, somewhat embarrassingly, to explain blog writing style by attacking DFW style, so that he can be accused of a major sin (ruining the style of a whole generation) and making her piece both worthwhile and publishable and newsworthy. 

To her credit, though, she hints, albeit indirectly, that this is just her opinion, by bringing up a legal background that has taught her that directness is a virtue, but finally has no bearing on the point she is trying to make about Wallace's own style.  Deploying the "argument from authority" stance is a rhetorical move not unlike Wallace’s ethical appeal.  We need, when we write, to convince people of what we say, otherwise why write. I don’t like her move, but hey, that’s just my opinion.


Asterión said...

En un principio no recibí lo dicho por Newton como una forma de rebajar el estilo de DFW, quizá por no ser un gran lector de su obra. Me había concentrado en la idea de que el estilo de DFW había influenciado a una horda de imitadores, y que esto no era su culpa.

Ahora que lo planteás de este modo, noto con más fuerza que el argumento de Newton apela al "estilo directo" (en contraposición a los deconstruccionistas franceses, por ejemplo), lo cual es la típica crítica que muchos hacen cuando les toca enrentarse con ideas complejas, y ante el esfuerzo que avizoran, prefieren decir que eso es "esnobismo","pseudintelectualidad", retórica hueca", etc. Para cerrar con esa clásica "son opiniones", jeje.

En fin, lo que comentábamos el otro dia y la razón por la que te mandé el link del artículo.


Juan Murillo said...

Lo más grave es no reconocer lo motivos profundos de lo que uno escribe. Esa nota no es un lamento por el horror del estilo bloguero sino una puya en contra de un autor que Newton no le gusta. No era más fácil simplemente decir eso en vez de tratar de achacarle las pestilencias que son producto natural de internet. No sé, me pareció muy bajo, especialmente porque el mae esta muerto. A ver si se atrevería a metersele al tren si el mae estuviera vivo.

Gustavo Adolfo Chaves said...

I think you make some excellent points here. I just wonder though, where would civilization be if it didn't pick up fights with the dead. I for one wouldn't be able to leave the house...

Also, for a writer of DFW's caliber, you have to admit that he chose the sloppy way of expressing his self-awareness. YOUR contention here that "if confronted with these ideas on a colder more authoritative style, (the reader) would probably refuse to read past the first paragraph" is, to say the least, condescending--and I happen to think that there was condescension in some of DFW's writing.

Yes, Newton's association of DFW with blogger prose is weak, but DFW is quite "pinnable" in many other ways. Though I may be wrong here :-)

Juan Murillo said...

Disputes among the living are usually fraught with emotions of the painful type. It is not unusual for the lesser opponent to get verbally thrashed in some unseemly manner, and so, sometimes people will wait to pick a fight with an author once he is safely underground. Nothing wrong with that, though, some people like Newton need all the help they can get before grappling with someone like DFW.

I still don't think there is anything sloppy about DFW's prose. It may be a faux sloppy, as a stylistic flair of which he was fully conscious (the bandana is clearly part of a that persona), but i don´t think he ever published the first thing that crossed his mind.

I'll grant you that my "won't read past the first paragraph" line is condescending, but that is mostly due to my own sloppy, hyperbolic writing. The fact is that DFW's prose is dense enough as it is and making it colder or more distant would not have helped his usual public get through what he wrote. His non-fiction pieces were normally printed in Rolling Stone, Gourmet Magazine, Premiere, etc. and he usually had to choose between quoting and explaining Derrida at length, for example, before dissecting some other minor point that required a Derridian concept or simply telling the reader that all he needed was this and that idea and the the reader should trust him about his interpretation of Derrida. I find this more considerate than condescending, but yes, I guess it is also condescending. The real question about this is whether this condescension was merited or not.

Finally, yes, he is "pinnable" in a whole set of ways. He is one of the most transparent writers out there, the motives for his chosen style, the way he circled around his topics, his need to befriend his reader, are all closely related to the actual topics of his writing and to the details of his biography. The point is not to pretend that nothing can be pinned on him, but to prevent that 3am-god-i'm-stoned-eureka ideas like "DFW=blogspeak" stick when someone is shameless enough to set them down in print.

Juan Murillo said...

Other replies to Maud Newton's piece: http://www.thehowlingfantods.com/dfw/news/general-updates/responses-to-maud-newtons-dfw-article.html

Gustavo Adolfo Chaves said...

By the way, I was just writing in English to tail you in your credits for writing this piece. You should have sent it somewhere, mate! It's that good.

Juan Murillo said...

You´re too kind, but actually its really a bit sloppy and from the gut (as opposed to from the brain), as blog posts tend to be (through no fault of Wallace, mind you). I fail to fathom why I feel protective of DFW, as if my ridiculous little bouts of shadow boxing could shield him any better than his own work could from his detractors.

Mine was in English in the hopes Newton would read it. It´s more of a jibe than an essay, but I suspect the essay will become necessary at some point to try to explain my own fanaticism, and that one shall be written in Spanish, so i can make a fool of myself in my own native language and thus dispel any doubts that the language barrier has anything to do with my lopsided reasoning.