Thursday, September 1, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking About Things

Here's a very long discussion/dialogue/co-essay I wrote with personal heroine Maria Bustillos at Nieman Lab about whether or not David Foster Wallace is the reason why the internet sounds the way it does. I am very proud of it, and not just because it's a way for me to prove to everyone that I know Maria Bustillos. This is something that's much on my mind, and Maud Newton's fine/flawed essay on the topic was something I've thought a lot about. It was bracing and great fun and a bunch of other good things to get to talk about it with someone I love so well, at a venue I respect so much. Here is some of what it looks like:

Bustillos: (snort.) What this kind of writing comes from, really, is a deep frustration with the establishment. You have this person who can’t be contained in establishment methods or institutions, a status quo that is not speaking to him. Hang the blessed DJ. Nothing more complicated than that.

Wallace tailored his language very exactly to his meaning. The language may have been sprawling, but for a reason; it was an exact representation of both his thought and his desire for delivering that thought to you, the reader. This is a deliberate strategy. What I think Newton missed is that grabbing all these words and voices and ways of expressing what you want to say from legalese, from advertising, from television, there is a laser-keen purpose to that, which is to make yourself understood outside of the conventional parameters. Not liked, but understood.

Roth: Right: it’s a fireworks show, but it’s also mimetic insofar as he’s turning all these something-from-everything thoughts he’s trying to express into sentences that are more or less as complicated, and comprised of the same weird parts. The thing with the Newton essay that falls short for me — and there’s a kind of funny internal self-critique in this — is the argument itself. Or the idea that there’s an argument like in the sense of a thing-to-dispute. I’m not an editor at the Times, of course, but just identifying the source of The Way The Internet Writes — and I am, and you are, and plenty of other people are borrowing from that voice — is cool to me. I’d want to read about that and I really dug the parts where she wrote about that.

But the idea that somehow everyone is so awash in their own qualifiers and voice-iness that they can’t make an argument anymore…I don’t know that that’s somehow more true for someone in that voice than anyone writing any other way. And I don’t get the sense even that she was feeling that particular angle as hard. I guess that’s the editorial influence, maybe, the find-a-problem-and-then-solve-it bit. But it’s not inherently a problem that people are trying to get their thoughts out in something more or less approximating those thoughts’ own syntax, and I don’t know that appending all those qualifiers is in some way a weakness. Unless it’s done weakly, but obviously on that.

It's long enough, for sure, but it covers a lot of ground and I really hope you'll read it. Also there are some pictures, don't worry.

"Your blog needs to be more visual." -- You. It's cool, you're totally right. Be patient. God.

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