Rom Com Cliches, David Foster Wallace and the Fine Art of the (Over-)Qualification

It’s time for everybody’s favorite new innovation in criticism deflection: self-awareness! I’m referring to the […]

David Zahl / 8.25.11

It’s time for everybody’s favorite new innovation in criticism deflection: self-awareness! I’m referring to the idea that if you surface the possible criticisms of what you’re creating/doing/saying, they no longer apply – that you are justified, in other words, either artistically, rhetorically or intellectually by the awareness of your faults. And while it’s certainly commendable for filmmakers and writers to be able to laugh at themselves, as the articles point out, oftentimes the winking is a way of masking despair and/or insecurity. In the Atlantic, Chloe Angyal articulates how the trend played itself out in the romantic comedy arena this past summer:

One of the most amusing parts of Friends With Benefits is its mockery of its own genre. Mila Kunis’s Jamie and Justin Timberlake’s Dylan are at their funniest and most likeable when they’re making fun of the conventions of the romantic comedy. “Shut up, Katherine Heigl, you big liar!” Jamie shouts as she passes an ad for a rom com. She and Dylan sit on the couch drinking beer and jeering at a fictional romantic comedy starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, complaining about the genre’s emotionally manipulative music and unrealistically happy endings. When Dylan asks why it is that women think the only way to get men to do something is to manipulate them, Jamie blames “history, past experience, and romantic comedies.” Secretly, though, Jamie loves romantic comedies. She knows every frame of Pretty Woman and every line of the fictional rom com she and Dylan so gleefully mock. She even adopts the “five-date rule” espoused by the fake movie’s heroine (somewhere, in Hollywood, someone just greenlit a romantic comedy called Five Date Rule, I’m willing to bet). Her mockery of the genre is just a cover for her desire to have her real life turn out like a rom com. Which, because Friends With Benefits is a rom com, it does. Which leads us to the second lesson…

Once you’ve mocked romantic comedy clichés, you are free to indulge in them.

All of them: the grand gestures, the emotionally manipulative music, that thing where one person magically knows where the other person is and manages to find them in a giant bustling city of over twenty million people, and, of course, the unrealistically happy ending. You can commit all these clichéd sins as long as you make fun of them first, and Friends With Benefits certainly does.

In The New York Times Magazine, Maud Newton takes our beloved David Foster Wallace posthumously to task for the intellectual cheapness that his self-conscious approach has allegedly inspired, claiming in the article “Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace” that he introduced the vernacular that has come to, well, um, you know, dominate the blogosphere.

I make no apologies for ripping off the man’s style (in my considerably less sophisticated way) – his colloquialisms were not only radically creative, they were always rooted in an empathetic attempt to short circuit his own/our propensity to “sound smart,” i.e. impress people, i.e. prove/justify himself, i.e. twist the writing until it becomes more an exercise in narcissism than communication. All the dashes and “um’s” and “well’s” and “let’s-face-it’s” that signal the I-know-this-may-sound-weird-but-just-bear-with-me DFW style may initially appear to draw attention to the writer, but they in fact represent the fruit of focusing on the reader. At least, that’s commonly why people say they love David Foster Wallace – not that they feel he’s trying to win them over (out of insecurity, as the Newton suggests) but that he’s talking just to them. His style intentionally circumvents the self-seriousness and -satisfaction that was so off-putting and ineffective in the previous generation. That some of us would borrow his moves and use them for cross purposes – to sound smart or superior – is simply more grist for the mill of human absurdity and reactivity. Here’s what the NY Times Magazine had to say:

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.

Wallace isn’t responsible for his imitators, much less for the stylized mess that is Gen-X-and-Y Internet syntax. The devices can be traced back to him, though, if indirectly; they were filtered through and popularized by Dave Eggers’s literary magazine and publishing empire, McSweeney’s, and Eggers’s own novels and memoirs, all of which borrowed not only Wallace’s tics but also his championing of post-ironic sincerity and his attempts to ward off criticism by embedding all possible criticisms within the writing itself.

How we arrived at the notion that the postmodern era is the first ever to confront the tension between sincerity and irony despite millennia of evidence to the contrary is no mystery: every generation believes its insights are unprecedented, its struggles uniquely formidable, its solutions the balm for all that ails the world. Why so many of our critics are still, after all these years, making their arguments in this inherently self-undermining voice — still trying to ward off every possible rejoinder and pre-emptively rebut every possible criticism by mixing a weird rhetorical stew of equivocation, pessimism and Elysian prophecy — is another question entirely. Perhaps even now some Wallacites would argue that we simply have yet to reach that idyllic moment at which our discourse will naturally transform into a sincere yet knowing cry from the heart.

In “Generation Why?” a social-networking jeremiad published in The New York Review of Books last year, Zadie Smith reduces the motivations of the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to one: he wants to be liked. She writes, “For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment.” Even if you reject, as I do, the universality of her diagnosis, Smith has pinpointed the reason so much of what passes for intellectual debate nowadays is obscured behind a veneer of folksiness and sincerity and is characterized by an unwillingness to be pinned down. Where the craving for admiration and approval predominates, intellectual rigor cannot thrive, if it survives at all.

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.

It’s hard not to concur with that last point. The fear of criticism – or condemnation, as the case may be (and often is) – certainly produces a loquaciousness that is hard to take in people that are not David Foster Wallace. Or maybe it’s just that the insecurity can be painfully transparent. Or maybe it’s exhausting having to pretend that self-consciously humble language isn’t, by definition, unconsciously self-absorbed. Or maybe it’s something else. Or nothing… It could be anything, you know?

All this to say, as much as I love him, I’m glad David Foster Wallace did not write the Bible.