Monday, September 29, 2008

Sunday Re-reading: David Foster Wallace

It’s hard to say anything smart or insightful about a writer’s work right after they die, especially when the death is tragic and unexpected and too soon. And even more especially when the writer is as inventive and hard-to-classify as David Foster Wallace. You can see this lack of focus in the public statements that have been appearing across the media, mainstream and otherwise. Here is one eulogy in the NYT's. Here are a bunch of remembrances among the McSweeny's crew. Most of them focus on the journalism and generic rubrics like “post-modern" or just what a surprisingly modest and nice guy Wallace was. I do remember one review awhile back that I’ll never find now which said that Wallace developed a colloquial--both apparently casual and erudite--digressive style which defined first-person journalism style of the generation. It’s how everyone writes now, especially in personal, digressive forms like blogs. I think that’s probably true. Whatever his flaws—which were mainly of excess—he definitely carved out new territory. You don’t have to look far to see how breathtakingly wide his range is.

Someone, maybe A.O. Scott, compared Infinite Jest to Pound’s Cantos, another great work of excess and experimentation, which is and will be more influential (on future writers) than much read in the future. I think that’s probably true too, judging by the success of his followers like Dave Eggers.

Whenever I’ve made a similar case for Wallace, I tend to compare him to Gertrude Stein, who carved out Modernist territory made more accessible and popular by those who followed in her wake, Hemingway chief among them. But the world of artistic production is full of such examples. Wallace wrote about David Lynch in these very same terms (in an essay which originally appeared in Premier and was collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) as a truly original imagination, pretty much a brilliant freak, who was going to follow his imagination wherever it led him. It was up to, in Wallace's account, crude popularizers like Tarantino to bring his dark inventions to the masses.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to any one who knows me or reads any of these posts that I’m on the side of the messy innovators here too. Not (just) because I’m a snob, but because I don’t really read for entertainment. Not that’s there's anything wrong with it. as the saying goes, but for me, reading is too hard to waste on entertainment. I’d rather watch all the great TV we have now and I watch a lot: Mad Men and Project Runway and Shameless among many others. If going to bother reading, I want feel a real, weird imagination at work, moving stuff around inside my head. Though I'm probably the exception here.

That’s about all l’ve got to add to the subject right now, spoken about by so many others so recently. My writing friends and I who knew him in various degrees can’t seem to come up with a proper tribute. A moment of silence seems all wrong. One friend suggested a moment of:


But for lack of anything better, I’ll return to my moment of discovery, which happened to be Girl with Curious Hair, which I picked up in Prarie Lights in Iowa City in 1990. I read the opening lines of a few of the stories and that was all it took. I knew there was something special going on. Here, as my tribute, are the opening lines of the 10 stories in that first collection. Hope it inspires a few more readers. It’s all we’ve got now.

It’s 1976

An account representative, newly divorced, finished another late evening of work at his office, in Accounts.

Gimlet dreamed that if she did not see a concert last night she would become a type of liquid, therefore my friends Mr. Wonderful, Big, Gimlet and I went to see Keith Jarrett play a piano concert at the Irvine concert Hall in Irvine last night.

My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nun Junior wronged the man that wronged him and fled to parts unguessed.

Her photograph tastes bitter to me.

I am a woman who appeared in public on “late Night with David Letterman” on March 22, 1989.

A thing that is no fun? Stomach trouble.

She says I do not care if you believe me or not, it is the truth, go on, and believe what you want to.

Though Drew-Lynn Eberhardt produced much, and Mark Nechtr did not, Mark was loved by us all in the East Chesapeake Tradeschool Writing Program that first year, and D. L. was not.

Friday, September 26, 2008

5 ways of looking at morality

No matter what side you’re on, we’ve all been getting an overdose of election coverage and anxiety-generating punditry. Most of it is pure speculation, usually driving toward a pre-determined conclusion, but I recently came across an article, cited somewhere I can’t even remember (probably slate or wsj or nyt’s or who knows) which brought a fresh structural perspective, mainly to challenge liberal enlightenment assumptions about what makes a good society (or at least makes people feel like they are living in one).

It’s by Jonathan Haidt, a cultural anthropologist at UVA, who works on morality and emotion across cultures. His opening salvo also functions as a summary of the article, reminding us that while liberals tend to privilege individual rights, conservatives tend to privilege forces (like authority and hierarchy and rules) which tend to build strong social bounds.

...the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer.

He then goes on to map the moral dimensions that support these two world-views--the Dem’s enlightenment-individualist world view and G.O.P’s interest in social cohesion—across five dimensions: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity.

It’s probably not a huge surprise that liberals tend to be pretty dismissive of the last two dimensions. Purity? More surprising, according to Haidt’s research, who is himself a self-described liberal, is that people who are more likely to vote Republican tend to be interested more well-rounded in their moral concerns, equally invested in all these dimensions. Liberals, on the other hand, care about a more a more narrow definition of morality, one that privileges just the first two dimensions.

He then goes on to suggest some interesting and provocative strategic angles: including questioning the value of “diversity” as a moral virtue (because it tends to weaken social cohesion). The article leaves a lot of unanswered questions, not least how Liberals and Conservations position economic (vs. social) policy in relation to these dimensions, but it’s still an intriguing and useful perspective. Check it out here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The end of the world as we know it

Been really busy draining my mutual funds and pouring capital into some French-bulldog breeding and Sea-salt farming ventures, so haven’t gotten around to comment on the many exciting events impacting all our daily lives.

But couldn’t wait any longer, now that New York has been declared a great place to be in advertising, at least compared to finance, at least according to The Observer, which is here to tell us that we may not need 750k bonuses to afford that apartment in Brooklyn anymore.

Here’s the gist, thanks to one of my new colleagues:
The median entry wage for an advertising and promotions manager in New York City was $63,780 in 2007, not far off from the $76,230 entry-level wage for a financial manager in the same period, according to State Labor Department figures. At $166,400, the median wage for an experienced marketing manager is identical to the median salary of an experienced financial manager, and far better than the $114,120 median wage earned by an experienced financial analyst.

The article then goes on to contrast the massive lay-offs at various financial firms now defunct or sold to taxpayers to the active hiring going on at Avenue A/Razorfish. Find it all here. Maybe now I can get Dick Fuld to run some focus groups for me.

Oh, New York, I do love it.