starlady: A typewriter.  (tool of the trade)
[personal profile] starlady
David Foster Wallace took his own life a little more than a year ago, in November 2008. Quite aside from the private tragedy of every suicide, Wallace's death was a great blow to American letters (NB: I'm using this phrase more or less self-consciously, meaning "literary fiction, its adherents, acolytes and apologists," amongst whose numbers I sometimes count myself), as reading one his books of collected essays, Consider the Lobster, makes heart-breakingly clear. Though probably the best-known fact about Wallace's magnum opus Infinite Jest is that it's more than 1500 pages long, the pretension of which elicited a certain amount of derisory mocking after hours in my high school English classroom, Consider the Lobster reveals on nearly every page that Wallace was in fact the exact opposite of pretentious--he was a deeply ethical, deeply engaged humanist in the fullest sense of the term, whose desire for an American letters that is unafraid to wrestle with the big questions of life is made clear in several pieces, and which stands out in incandescent contrast to the lazy, small-minded self-absorption of supposedly 'great writers' like John Updike (whose Toward the End of Time Wallace skewers mercilessly and accurately in this book).

Given Wallace's eventual fate, it's admittedly slightly chilling to come across, in some of the essays, interpolative passages on suicide: the propensity of suicides to happen in hotels in "Up, Simba," the propensity of porn stars to suicide in "Big Red Son." I'm sure these were cut for publication (just as the paragraph talking about suicide was cut from the book form of the commencement speech Wallace delivered in spring 2008), but hindsight is perfect, and perfectly sad. Ave atque vale, DFW.

It's hard to pick a favorite among these pieces, but I think "Up, Simba," written for Rolling Stone during John McCain's 2000 nomination dogfight with the Shrub (as Bush II is usually referred to in the essay), is a standout. Like most of the earlier pieces, it offers a weird window back onto the ephemera of daily life in our near-past that only an eyeblink later have disappeared (computers with diskettes! cell phones with antennas! no one has crackBerries!), but it's also wrenching because of later events, only bruited about on the Trail, that later came to pass in real life, both during the Bush presidency and the McCain presidential campaign (random example: it's striking that Wallace uses forms of "brittle" to describe Cindy McCain multiple times when that word cropped up repeatedly w/r/t to her in coverage eight years later). But what really makes it worthwhile is that it's a strikingly candid look into the mechanics of a modern political campaign, as well as a strikingly candid discussion of campaign strategy. Wallace's cold-eyed cynicism, combined with his deciding to hang around with the network news techs rather than with his fellow reporters, produces exactly the sort of honest report that a regular journalist would never produce. (In some ways it's also just bizarre. Monica Lewinsky!? I lived through it, and it's still incomprehensible. In retrospect all the scandals of the 90s seem like chump change compared to what came later in the Naughts.) Anyway, here follows quotation of an excellent point Wallace makes:

       "If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don't bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don't bullshit yourself that you're not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote."

The next one I'm going to quote in full just because I reread it three times for the sheer virtuoso joy of it:

       "That's what these pros call it, the Trail, the same way musicians talk about the Road. The schedule is fascist: wake-up call and backup alarm at 0600h, express check-out, Baggage Call at 0700 to throw bags and techs' gear under the bus, haul ass to McCain's first THM at 0800, then another, then another; maybe an hour off to F&F someplace if ODTs permit, then usually two big evening events, plus hours of dead highway DT between functions, finally getting into that night's Marriott or Hampton Inn at like 2300 just when room service closes so that you're begging rides from FoxNews to find a restaurant still open, then an hour at the hotel bar to try to shut your head off so you can hit the rack at 0130 and get up at 0600 and do it all again. Usually it's four to six days for the average pencil and then you go off home on a gurney and your editor rotates in fresh meat. The network techs, who are old hands at the Trail, stay on for months at a time. The McCain2000 staff have all been doing this full-time since Labor Day, and even the young ones look like the walking dead. Only McCain seems to thrive. He's 63 and practically Rockette-kicks onto the Express every morning. It's either inspirational or frightening."

The title piece felt strangely apropos to me, since I had just been listening to a discussion of The Foie Gras Wars on Radio Times: Wallace, on assignment from Gourmet magazine, attended the Maine Lobster Festival and, confronted with spectacles such as the World's Largest Lobster Cooker, took his article for a complete left-turn into the question of whether or not lobsters feel pain (A: difficult to say, but they do scramble like mad to escape when they're being boiled alive, which would seem to indicate something significant) and whether it's ethical to eat them and any animals, as well as whether, even if eating lobsters is ethical, boiling them while still alive is ethical. I never thought I'd feel sorry for a lobster, but DFW made me feel sorry for the lobsters. Poor giant sea insects. In DFW's words:

       "Still, after all the abstract intellection, there remains the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience. To my lay mind, the lobster's behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference; and it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering."

And finally, from Wallace's review of Joseph Frank's multi-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky, on what's wrong with American literature and the American intelligentsia:

       "It's actually not true that our literary culture is nihilistic, at least not in the radical sense of Turgenev's Bazarov. For there are certain tendencies we believe are bad, qualities we hate and fear. Among these are sentimentality, naivete, archaism, fanaticism. It would probably be better to call our own art's culture now one of congenital skepticism. Our intelligentsia distrust strong belief, open conviction. Material passion is one thing, but ideological passion disgusts us on some deep level. We believe that ideology is now the province of the rival SIGs and PACs all trying to get their slice of the big green pie...and, looking around us, we see that indeed it is so. But Frank's Dostoevsky would point out (or more like hop up and down and shake his fist and fly at us and shout) that if this is so, it's at least partly because we have abandoned the field. That we've abandoned it to fundamentalists whose pitiless rigidity and eagerness to judge show that they're clueless about the 'Christian values' they would impose on others. To rightist militias and conspiracy theorists whose paranoia about the government supposes the government to be just way more organized and efficient than it really is. And, in academia and the arts, to the increasingly absurd and dogmatic Political Correctness movement, whose obsession with the mere forms of utterance and discourse show too well how effete and aestheticized our best liberal instincts have become, how removed from what's really important--motive, feeling, belief."

I think Wallace nails what's wrong with literature and the left pretty well in this (though Cory Doctorow' book Little Brother certainly shows that it's not just the right wing who are prone to delusions of efficacy w/r/t the government), and I wonder what it will take to dig both out of the hole into which they've fallen. At this point it almost seems like a cliche to cite Obama, but cliche or no I can't help but feel that if anyone can incite people--especially and most importantly, younger people--to reinvent the democratic spirit, by which I mean the spirit of a functioning Republic, as well as to reinvigorate liberalism, it's Barack Obama. I think the situation in literature is more complex--I think that there are some younger novelists not afraid to wrestle with the important questions, and I also think that literary fiction needs to de-ghettoize itself. I'm wary of coming out and saying "sff fiction is where the progressive movement has gone" because a) people like John C. Wright are an incarnate contradiction to that idea and b) it's the same sort of "media fandom isn't racist!" fallacy that media fans were saying during RaceFail (and continue to say, in some cases) and it just isn't true. But I do think a good number of sff authors and their fans are progressive and at least potentially politically committed, and I think that literary fiction could do a lot worse than to take a few pages out of sff's books, particularly in terms of idealism and conviction. Sff, meanwhile, could learn a few things about style, in many cases, from literary fiction.

Postscript: Dear Little, Brown & Company: Philadelphia's 180-year old major news daily is the Philadelphia Inquirer, not the Philadelphia Enquirer. Fire your copy editor.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-09 20:58 (UTC)
aquaeri: My nose is being washed by my cat (Default)
From: [personal profile] aquaeri
I'm sitting here nodding and agreeing with everything you and Wallace write, until I hit this point of cognitive dissonance
absurd and dogmatic Political Correctness movement, whose obsession with the mere forms of utterance and discourse show too well how effete and aestheticized our best liberal instincts have become, how removed from what's really important--motive, feeling, belief.
This sounds far too much like the privileging of white intent, which I at least am no longer a fan of.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-10 23:18 (UTC)
aquaeri: My nose is being washed by my cat (Default)
From: [personal profile] aquaeri
I completely agree that form shouldn't win over content, of course.

However, as part of my own learning experience around racism the last half-year at least (and I think longer), I've noticed some interesting things about PC. In groups that are actually down on the ground, dealing with the issues up close, PC vocab is rarely an issue. The underprivileged (whether due to race, class, poverty, disabilities, ethnicity, gender...) make it perfectly clear how they would like to be referred to, and everyone else does so, out of respect and ordinary humanity.

It's at the level of white middle-class liberalism that the problem starts. These people (and I include myself to some extent in this, although I'm at least starting to Get It) have wonderful ideals but not all that much actual practical experience dealing with people who aren't white middle-class (or liberal, sometimes). They know that PC language is an issue, but to some extent they're trying to imagine what the less privileged want, and they're not terribly good at that because they're privileged.

There's another level which personally fascinates me, which is the white middle-class "PC is bosh" or "proudly not PC" level (and which I'm afraid Wallace's opinions make me suspect he belongs to). The specific examples I've definitely seen give me the very strong impression of the kids in the playground who can tell the other kids have some sort of game going, but they don't really understand the rules and they respond by declaring very, very loudly that it's a stupid game they don't want to play anyway (which is because they're feeling hurt and rejected).

This is of course the space where endless arguments about PC language happen. The problem is that the other white middle-class kids are trying to teach the rules to a game (PC language) they don't really understand themselves (on top of the privilege everyone has and is oblivious to) so they fail to be persuasive.

So in one sense, Wallace is right - use of (or insistence on) PC language is by no means a guarantee that good work is being done. On the other hand, when good work is being done, I believe the language used will in fact be PC. In fact, there'll be the actual understanding that goes with the vocab and language use. And I get the impression that the difference between a white middle-class liberal who's "trying to be PC" and a white middle-class liberal who actually Gets It is very, very obvious to (say) a PoC. In fact I suspect (but don't really know enough yet) that there are all kinds of levels and layers and we (white middle-class liberals) can be classified very quickly and easily as soon as we open our mouths. (is that the correct plural of mouth?)

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-13 23:37 (UTC)
aquaeri: My nose is being washed by my cat (Default)
From: [personal profile] aquaeri
I don't think you can derail a conversation in your own "home". Or at least, given it's just us two, you can decide what the conversation is really about. Since we're both white women, you're certainly not under any obligation to provide me with a safe space.

It's perhaps worth me talking briefly about my own background for context - I began life as Danish, and certainly with the European view of the US. I'm now Australian, but probably retaining more of the European view, although there's a lot of overlap. I've lived in the US for a few years total (I've been there three different times, all before 9/11/01) so I feel perhaps more informed than I actually am.

So, from the European point of view, US culture is young, and suffers from some "teenage" traits. The liberal detachment/skepticism and hipster irony sort of looks like a "normal part of growing up" and I think has parallels with the European enlightenment (I'm not saying the US didn't benefit from the enlightenment, but that process sits at a different point in the development of US cultural identity). The difficulty is that this is co-occuring within the same country as the fervent religious right. In general, the US has some interesting issues all its own from the sheer size both geographically and population-wise, with the individual states not rising to the level of individual countries, but nevertheless more significant than subdivisions in European countries.

So from my perspective, yes, the US has some stuff to wrestle with, and I can understand what Wallace sees and is bothered by, but I'm not persuaded it's a problem the way he thinks it's a problem. I think it would take a lot of text to try to expand on that, unfortunately. But some of it is this sense I get of wanting a single, absolute, fixed answer when I think successful nations/cultures are a process, not an end.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-14 23:43 (UTC)
aquaeri: My nose is being washed by my cat (Default)
From: [personal profile] aquaeri
I think it's easier to remember that nationality is a process when you're Danish - we've been thinking about this for at least 2000 years :-). And I do think the US is something different than happened in Europe, and I guess Canada, Australia and New Zealand are in the same rough category (time and cultural-background wise) but our population sizes are so different to the US it's not surprising Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders all find closer similarities among each other than to the US. So the US might be a teenager, but it's an unusual teenager - it's doing something that hasn't been tried before (which is why it's a teenager).

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-10 23:30 (UTC)
aquaeri: white cat, one yellow and one blue eye (white)
From: [personal profile] aquaeri
The point I really wanted to make and managed to miss in all that (sigh): "motive, intent, belief" is not enough when you are a white middle-class liberal because your privilege means that your motives, intents and beliefs are, well, soaked in privilege. And I believe that if you do the work and learn about your privilege, the way you then talk about your motives, intents and beliefs may change so much that it looks "effete and aestheticized" to some people. He's certainly not saying anything (that you're quoting) that sounds like he's done any work on his privilege (and I admit the fact that he's a he and I am a she adds an extra layer of caution for me).

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-13 23:51 (UTC)
aquaeri: My nose is being washed by my cat (Default)
From: [personal profile] aquaeri
I think privilege and language use are vitally intertwined, or at least background worth being aware of, when discussing Greatness in [any] Literature.

As for the Nobel, I wouldn't get too hung up on it. The committee is, after all, Swedish, and has its own privilege issues. I got particularly cynical about the prize after I actually read a big-fuss Nobel prize winner (Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain) and finding it, to be honest, disturbing in its sexism, and coincidentally a female workmate was also reading it and had the exact same reaction. And we decided that the Nobel citation
"for an Ĺ“uvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama" was clearly thought up by a bunch of men whose definition of "universal validity" didn't actually include women. (and yes, I think there was a grand total of one woman on that Nobel committee.)

So it is possible that Americans don't win Nobel prizes because what they're doing isn't recognisable as great literature to the committee. Or perhaps that American letters is trying too self-consciously to be the equivalent of [European] letters, and can only be a pale imitation, when the real strength of American writing is elsewhere (and yes, SFF is not a bad place to go looking). In that sense, South American literature is actually ahead of US American literature, having internationally recognised new forms like magical realism.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-14 23:52 (UTC)
aquaeri: My nose is being washed by my cat (Default)
From: [personal profile] aquaeri
I both sympathise with the urge for the present to be doing better in comparison to the past, and also wonder if it isn't because it's the past - it's easier for us to get perspective on what and where the worthwhile things were happening. (Or, the worthwhile things that were remembered. The filtering does include privilege.)

For the rest, you sound much better informed than me.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-07 10:43 (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Dunno, I would say a platform of protecting the poor and sick and marginalized is very Christian, its just the dems don't have any interest in advertising as such.

Whereas the one common trait I think the currently republican strategy has is selfishness. None of their tent poles have any common ground except 'protecting what's mine, and screw the rest.'

Which is not to say individuals and policies on either side don't vary from that; it just seems to be what the party leaders/advertising are projecting.

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