Monday, September 12, 2016

David Foster Wallace Skewers the Current State of American Literature

"Some writers specialize in the away- from-home experience. They’ve safaried, eaten across Italy, covered a war. Wallace offered his alive self... cutting through our sleepy aquariums, our standard T.V., stores, political campaigns. Writers who can do this, like Salinger and Fitzgerald, forge an unbreakable bond with readers..."*

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The aim of this blog post is to get writers interested in reading David Foster Wallace's essay Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young. It's an indictment of the (American) writing scene in the late 1980s, though the trends he skewers seem as relevant today if not more so. Naturally anyone who writes this kind of scathing commentary might get accused of sour grapes. Here's the opening salvo:

THE METRONOME OF literary fashion looks to be set on presto. Beginning with the high-profile appearances of David Leavitt’s Family Dancing, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Bret Ellis’s Less Than Zero, the last three-odd years saw a veritable explosion of good-willed critical and commercial interest in literary fiction by Conspicuously Young writers. During this interval, certain honored traditions of starvation and apprenticeship were inverted: writers’ proximity to their own puberties seemed now an asset; rumors had agents haunting prestigious writing workshops like pro scouts at Bowl games; publishers and critics jockeyed for position to proclaim their own beardless favorite “The first voice of a new generation.”

I remember when these books came out. I writing stories with the aim of becoming the next Hemingway (fat chance) at the time, and included these then-contemporary books in my reading alongside my continued study of the classics. I thought Bright Lights was an interesting experiment in producing a work in second person. (You walk into a room. You see a man with a gun, or is it a mop? You reach for your cell phone and notice your reflection out of the corner of your eye. You turn, see that look in your eyes...) It's a short novel, and McInerny got away with it. Less Than Zero soon followed, and hmmm.

I remember when Tom Wolfe proclaimed that the novel would soon be dead, that reality-based New Journalism would crowd it out like Capote's In Cold Blood and his own The Right Stuff. There have sure been a lot of novels written since that bit of bravado, including his own Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man In Full. It's human nature to make pronouncements, I suppose.

Wallace's commentary on the literary scene was written maybe fifteen years further down the road and it's got some barbs in it. Here are excerpts from page eight:

Today’s journeyman fiction writer finds himself both a lover of serious narrative and an ineluctably conditioned part of a pop-dominated culture in which the social stock of his own enterprise is falling. What we are inside of—what comprises us—is killing what we love...

And, even on a charitable account, television is a pretty low type of narrative art. It’s a narrative art that strives not to change or enlighten or broaden or reorient—not necessarily even to “entertain”—but merely and always to engage, to appeal to. Its one end— openly acknowledged—is to ensure continued watching. And (I claim) the metastatic efficiency with which it’s done so has, as cost, inevitable and dire consequences for the level of people’s tastes in narrative art. For the very expectations of readers in virtue of which narrative art is art.

A half paragraph later he's stirred this dish to a simmering boil:

Trash fiction is, by design and appeal, most like televised narrative: engaging without being demanding. But trash, in terms of both quality and popularity, is a much more sinister phenomenon. For while television has from its beginnings been openly motivated by—has been about—considerations of mass appeal and L.C.D. and profit, our own history is chock full of evidence that readers and societies may properly expect important, lasting contributions from a narrative art that understands itself as being about considerations more important than popularity and balance sheets. Entertainers can divert and engage and maybe even console; only artists can transfigure. Today’s trash writers are entertainers working artists’ turf. This in itself is nothing new. But television aesthetics, and television-like economics, have clearly made their unprecedented popularity and reward possible. And there seems to me to be a real danger that not only the forms but the norms of televised art will begin to supplant the standards of all narrative art. This would be a disaster.

There are so many thought-provoking points Wallace makes from this point on that I just wish for you to read the essay itself. (Here's the link again.) The next paragraph, at the end of this page begins...

I’m worried lest I sound too much like B. Tuchman here, because my complaints about trash are different from hers, and less sophisticated. My complaint against trash fiction is not that it’s plebeian, and as for its rise I don’t care at all whether post- 8 industrial liberalism squats in history as the culprit that made it inevitable. My complaint against trash isn’t that it’s vulgar art, or irritatingly dumb art, but that, given what makes fiction art at all, trash is simply unreal, empty—and that (aided by mores of and by TV) it seduces the market writers need and the culture that needs writers away from what is real, full, meaningful.

In the next section he fillets Sidney Sheldon, writers programs, the poetry scene -- "more people in this country write poetry than read it" -- and Creative Writing Programs among other things. Of this last item he states, "a lot of Creative Writing Programs are an unfunny joke. Few require of applicants any significant preparation in history, literature, criticism, composition, foreign languages, art or philosophy; fewer still make attempts to provide it in curricula or require it as a criterion for graduation. 

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I guess I've gotten a temporary itch for more DFW. Have been reading The Last Interview and Other Conversations this past week. It also has some keen insights for writers.

Here's another quote, and after this I'll let go.

"I think if there is sort of a sadness for people under forty-five or something, it has to do with pleasure and achievement and entertainment. And a kind of emptiness at heart of what they thought was going on, that maybe I can hope that parts of the book will speak to their nerve endings a little bit."

You can find the essay I've been encouraging you to read here at

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Meantime, life goes on all around you. Get into it.

* I copied this quote from somewhere, intending to use it. I now seem unable to find where it was taken from. I will cite it here if you come across it somewhere.

1 comment:

StoryHat said...

A quick google search brought me the source of your opening quote.
It's from David Lipsky's NPR Books article "Wallace Invented 'New Style, New Comedy'"

First aired on
September 15, 2008 12:28 PM ET
Heard on All Things Considered


After my daughter moved to Duluth at the end of summer to start a new job, I searched online for info about arts and culture in the area. One source I found was your blog. I subscribed and have been delighted to get it regularly in my email inbox. Thank you for your intelligent and enlightened commentary! I have forwarded your writing frequently to friends and family.