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.