Race to the Bottom

Look out, Maud Newton! The competition for dumbest thing said or written about David Foster Wallace in 2011 is heating up!

Never one to be outdone in the foot-in-mouth category, DFW’s serial frenemy Jonathan Franzen entered the fray with a passive-aggressive zinger, alleging that Wallace’s “Shipping Out” was more fiction than non-. Hat-tip to The Awl’s Michelle Dean for doing God’s work and transcribing the exchange, which took place at the New Yorker festival in early October.

Remnick: Well, I was, I was fascinated to hear… that there are some people in this world who feel that it’s o— that to have a kind of hyper-postmodern view of nonfiction/fiction questions, that it’s all writing, and that questions of fact, facticity and, well, that’s kind of square and old-fashioned, and it’s okay that Kapuscinski does what Kapuscinski does and kind of makes this up because it’s really just a metaphor fo Poland itself. And other writers that one could name who have a different view of fact and fiction… You’re pretty strict about the dividing line. You see, you think that somebody who’s—
Franzen (interjecting): [unintelligible]
Remnick: — allegedly writing nonfiction and cheats it—
Franzen: Yeah.
Remnick: —is cheating the reader, is somehow in a way that should be kind of like admitting a false —
Franzen: David and I disagreed on that.
Remnick: David?
Franzen: Dave Wallace, yeah.
Remnick: So Wallace felt well—
Franzen: Yeah, cause he—
Remnick: He said it was okay to make up dialogue on a cruise ship?
Franzen: For instance, yeah. Uhhmmm…
Remnick: I’m heartbroken to hear it.
Franzen: I know, I know. No, those things didn’t actually happen. You notice he never published any nonfiction in your magazine.
Remnick: Not for want of trying but that’s another matter, but but…
Franzen: He would have had to, maybe he…
Remnick: He would have fell before the fact-checkers.
Franzen: I think the fact-checkers… and, to me, the fact-checkers, we, uh, I’m so afraid of fact checkers.
Remnick: Good. [laughs]
Franzen: But that’s, you know, that’s kind of like the boundary lines in tennis. That was a great shot, only problem was it was two feet behind the baseline. I will have crushed…
Remnick: But David called it in.
Franzen: Well, yeah, I mean… I love that cruise ship piece of Dave’s, so I’m not, I’m not… it was, yeah, two somewhat different approaches.

Before we really dive headfirst into Franzen’s appallingly weak and cowardly accusation that was, I guess, inflammatory, let’s look at his main competition: Maud Newton!

So many good deconstructions of Maud Newton’s lazy “Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace” have been written that it feels pointless to even bring it up. It was published in August, praised or lampooned in the week following, and for most people who don’t give much consideration to controversial “riffs” (New York Times Magazine’s terminology, not mine) written by literary also-rans meant to tear down paragons of the medium, it was soon forgotten.

But Newton’s words have stuck with me. Not only because the piece seemed so petty and intellectually masturbatory at the time of publication but also because of where it was published: New York Times Magazine. Any DFW fanboy worth his salt should remember who published one of his last and most meaningful works, Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” PLAY, the New York Times Sports Magazine. While not the same awning, on the same block, at least.

And that’s annoying. Joe the Plumber can write a takedown of Alexis De Tocqueville if he pleases, but one wouldn’t expect a very influential and serious periodical to elevate its stature with publication.

But, for whatever reason, Newton’s piece found its way into the magazine.

It starts out inoffensive enough. Cliff’s Notes: Newton finds herself increasingly at odds with Wallace’s nonfiction, preferring a more straightforward argumentative style.

At their worst these verbal tics make it impossible to evaluate his analysis; I’m constantly wishing he would either choose a more straightforward way to limit his contentions or fully commit to one of them.

I would argue that evaluating analysis in this respect is foolhardy. Part of the pleasure in reading Wallace’s nonfiction is understanding that though it’s imperfect in its argumentative framing, it’s beautiful to watch him unpack his thoughts in a language and style only his own. It’s the scenic route. If the editors at Harper’s and Premiere had used their red pens to turn Wallace’s work into pointed arguments, would they have been nearly as entertaining?

In other words, who the hell is reading David Foster Wallace for the sake of analysis evaluation? But I digress. Newton then shifts the argument away from Wallace, now focusing on those who have been infected by his style; the slower-minded DFW-wannabes, if you will.

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 guess this is a fair point. Though it strikes me as rather unimportant in the Greater Scheme. Trivial. Really, quite beside any point. I’d imagine I could write a rollicking good piece about YouTube comments representing a sort of mass intellectual decline in America. Then again, at the end of the day, who cares?

Newton goes on to largely absolve Wallace of most of these things, pausing only to flay “E Unibus Pluram” (an essay we recommended as part of #fridayreads a few days back!) Wallace’s grand piece on television’s effect on American fiction. Newton, again, takes issue with Wallace’s art of equivocation, his willingness to backtrack and jump around and qualify and straddle the fence. Or, to at times express a willingness to just sort of say, “I kind of don’t really know what it is I’m saying about all of this.” Since, you know, literature is not a court of law.

So, Newton has issues with Wallace for some half-legitimate, mostly subjective reasons. She doesn’t really like his nonfiction. Fine. Fair. Many people don’t.

Where Newton really steps in a pile of shit, however, is her ending. Behold:

At 20 I congratulated myself on my awareness of the subjectivity of aesthetic judgments, the arbitrariness of critical proclamations, the folly of received wisdom. I pored over the Deconstructionists and the French feminists and advocated, in complete seriousness, the overthrow of language. (Also, the patriarchy.)

Well, okay. Newton was, at one time, the archetype for overly intellectual college sophomore assholes. Most English students who attended a small liberal arts college can relate to this. (And, most of us can find an article from The Onion that pretty well nails our embarrassment over this period of intellectual mirror-gazing.)

But she goes on:

Then I went to law school and was forced to confront serious practical and ethical questions — Brown v. Board of Education, for instance, and Roe v. Wade — that managed not to be resolved by the insights of Derrida.

Hey, there it is! There is so much wrong with these thirty-eight words, I don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with the implication that law school, not real life, forces people to “confront practical and ethical questions.” If it took Maud Newton until law school to consider the importance of practical and ethical questions, “Brown v. Board of Education, for instance, and Roe v. Wade,” she may well have been the dumbest high school social studies student in American history.

Also, congratulations on attending law school! I’m glad she found a way to work that little tidbit into this essay! And, yeah, fuck Derrida!

Now, having entered and abandoned the practice of law and spent roughly a decade straddling legal publishing and the blogosphere, I’m increasingly drawn to directness, which precludes neither nuance nor irony. (For details, see the essays of Mark Twain, who believed that “plain question and plain answer make the shortest road out of most perplexities.”)

That Wallace was able to skillfully and gracefully take both sides of an argument (see his thoughts on pro-choice/pro-life in “Tense Present”), really has nothing to do with Newton’s being drawn to directness. It has everything to do with his skill for a sort of democratic thoughtfulness that Newton is not really down with. And that’s fine.

Qualifications are necessary sometimes. Anticipating and defusing opposing arguments has been a vital rhetorical strategy since at least the days of Aristotle. Satire and ridicule, when done well, are high art. But the idea is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe. And the best way to make an argument is to make it, straightforwardly, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward.

Well, the boat’s been missed. Asserting that Wallace’s writing suffers because he doesn’t take a clear, straightforward, honest, and passionate position all the time is as dumb as saying that Babe Ruth’s hitting suffered because he wasn’t a switch hitter. Let strengths be strengths.

In other words, she is drawn to direct writing because it’s become her forte; she has been immersed in the cold, sterile world of legal writing so long that it’s something she’s attracted to. Wallace’s writing is antithetical to all of this. So in order to take it down (in a way that’s not a totally subjective dismissal of his lexical style), she moves the goalposts. He should have made a clearer argument. Or, he shouldn’t have tried to be so damn likable! (Which, had Newton actually immersed herself in the Wallace catalog—as has been pointed out elsewhere—she may have come to realize that he wasn’t always trying to soothe the reader. Take his essay on John McCain, “Up Simba,” as an example: writing for the uber-liberal periodical Rolling Stone, Wallace did not choose the easy takedown of an old, doddering elephant. Rather, he considered the possibility, while acknowledging the man’s naked conservatism, that McCain was cut from a different political cloth; hardly a crying-out for love, there.)

And it’s worth noting, of course, how strange and unfunny and crass it is to accuse a (dead) (from suicide) manic-depressive writer of caring too much about being likable. Not that Wallace is teflon because he hung himself, but come on.

Enter: Franzen! Now I’m on the Maud Newton trolley! If Franzen wanted to cite Wallace’s work as an example that sometimes the line between nonfiction and fiction is blurred—and that blurring isn’t really always at the expense of the piece, in other words, who cares if parts of “Shipping Out” would have been excised by fact-checkers?—he could have been rather straightforward about the fact that not everything in “Shipping Out” happened as he described. Certainly some moments were exaggerated or reconstructed from Wallace’s (unreliable) memory. But, instead, Franzen meekly dropped his dead friend’s name, noted for no good reason that Wallace’s nonfiction was never in the New Yorker, and then half-backtracked without really recanting what was originally said. In sum, a feathery punch that brought Wallace’s name up and raised questions about the late writer’s legitimacy.  If anything, Franzen sparked a debate about truth and nonfiction that is usually dealt with and disposed of in introductory college writing courses.

What’s remarkable about Newton’s essay and Franzen’s name drop is what it means for Wallace’s legacy: he’s still incredibly relevant. When an overly serious, remarkably unaccomplished writer wants some shoulders to stand on, she chooses Wallace. When one of America’s most well known writers speaks at a (somewhat insular) magazine festival, it only makes waves when he brings up Wallace and (perhaps) his most famous essay.

So what does that really mean? I don’t know. It’s just sad to see such an inoffensively great writer get flayed in the press by a tinny casket-pisser and a supposed rival-slash-friend.

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