the contextual life

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On the Shelf: David Foster Wallace’s Wishy-Washy Legacy and Noir Galore

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In her recent essay in the New York Times, “Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace”, blogger, critic, essayist, and all-around book flogger Maud Newton talks about the link between the deceased writer’s loquacious writing style and the rise of wishy-washy criticism today.

Referencing another essayist, Geoff Dyer, in his piece on Wallace’s writing, “My Literary Allergy,” in Prospect magazine where he says “I react against the variously contrived sloppinesses of all those ‘sort ofs’ and ‘kind ofs’ in tandem with, sometimes followed by, the magisterial flamboyant (‘Existentiovoyeuristic conundra notwithstanding’). Or the grunge affectation of the double ‘though’ in: ‘There are big differences between Agassi’s and Joyce’s games, though. Though Joyce…’,” Maud voices her own feelings about David’s (over)use of qualifiers: sort of, pretty much, really. “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,” she says.

Dyer laments that DFW’s style is “catching, highly infectious” and Maud poses that Wallace’s “slangy appeal,” in the Internet age has “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.”

Newton says that when blogging was first coming up in the world, the confusion about style was understandable: “Was a blog more like writing or more like speech?” But after all these years, she wonders (and I’m condensing her essay horribly right now but you should read the whole thing after this) why today’s critics are still “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”.

“Increasingly drawn to directness, which precludes neither nuance nor irony,” Maud concludes, “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.”

Read Maud Newton’s Blog and then, if you missed it, you can check out my essay on three grammar books to help you write more economically.

If you’ve ever read David Foster Wallace, have you noticed this tendency to use qualifiers? Did it bother you? Do you notice this trend in reviewing and commentary?

And now, what on the shelf . . .

This week it’s all about noir. It occurred to me the other day that I have a gaping hole in my library—mental and physical. As many of you know, I’m on a sci-fi kick. What I noticed about the stories is that many of them have a mystery element to them—and I like that. So, I figured it was time to dive head first into the stripped down genre—minus the the fantasy and spacecraft. Noir, for those like me who are first coming to this, is also called “hardboiled”. It’s crime fiction, detective stories, “distinguished by the unsentimental portrayal of sex and violence.” Sounds like some good reading for the tail end of summer.When I asked for help on Twitter, Paul, the co-host of the arts & entertainment podcast Fuzzy Typewriter, recommended the first book on this list. Some other helpful people chimed in with a few others and some I found through my own searching.

A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane
Description from IndieBound: A cabal of powerful Boston politicians is willing to pay Kenzie and Gennaro big money for a seemingly small job: to find a missing cleaning woman who stole some secret documents. As Kenzie and Gennaro learn, however, this crime is no ordinary theft. It’s about justice, about right and wrong. But in Boston, finding the truth isn’t just a dirty business . . . it’s deadly.

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Mildred Pierce is a book I’ve heard about from a number of people. It got a boost from HBO when they created a mini-series starring Kate Winslet. Here’s a brief description: Mildred Pierce had gorgeous legs, a way with a skillet, and a bone-deep core of toughness. She used those attributes to survive a divorce and poverty and to claw her way out of the lower middle class. But Mildred also had two weaknesses: a yen for shiftless men, and an unreasoning devotion to a monstrous daughter.

Sin City: Volume 1 by Frank Miller
For some reason I never realized Frank Miller’s Sin City was considered neo-noir. If you’re looking for something other than a straight prose but are curious about this genre, check out the graphic novel. Here’s a brief description: It’s a lousy room in a lousy part of a lousy town. But Marv doesn’t care. There’s an angel in the room. She says her name is Goldie. A few hours later, Goldie’s dead without a mark on her perfect body, and the cops are coming before anyone but Marv could know she’s been killed. Somebody paid good money for this frame. . .

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Arguably, no noir collection is complete without Raymond Chandler and his popular protagonist, Philip Marlowe. Farewell, My Lovely is considered one of his best. The Little Sister and The Long Goodbye being the other two that are often mentioned.

Tart Noir edited by Lauren Henderson
Another recommendation was the author Lauren Henderson, a crime writer with a feminist edge. While Tart Noir is a collection of female crime writers edited by her, with a story of hers included, she has seven novels in her Sam Jones mystery series. Henderson’s website’s about page says that she’s “been described in the press as both the Dorothy Parker and the Betty Boop of the British crime novel.” Sold!

Brooklyn Noir edited by Tim McLoughlin
As a Brooklyn girl, I’m tempted to pick up this little collection, especially since it’s published by the local indie press Akashic Books. Contributors include Pete Hamill, Nelson George, Maggie Estep, Adam Mansbach, and others.

Black Orchid Blues by Persia Walker
Speaking of Akashic Books, I recently went to a party for them at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn and had the pleasure of hearing Persia Walker read from her book, Black Orchid Blues. After just 5 minutes, I added this mystery set in 1920s Harlem to my mental “to be read” pile. I’m including it here so you can add it to your as well.

What’s on your shelf?

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Written by Gabrielle

August 25, 2011 at 5:46 am

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