I recently joined a book club. I think there’s something wrong with our book club, because instead of doing what normal book clubs do, which as I understand it entails being women over 50, drinking mimosas and bad-mouthing our husbands, we actually read books and then discuss them. Certainly the discussions get off-topic or only touch tangentially on the books themselves, but at least we get publicly shamed if we haven’t finished the book by the time the meeting rolls around, and the books that we’ve chosen have been fairly high-quality and outside the mainstream — rather than Twilight or The Hunger Games, the club has read House of Leaves, Pulitzer Prize nominee Swamplandia!, and On Such a Full Sea, among others. Most recently we’ve tackled the David Foster Wallace essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
Now, I’m an intelligent guy; I’m curious, I read nonfiction for fun. I’m young enough and just-not-quite-jaded enough to subscribe to the view that the world is a wondrous place full of more incredible stuff than I could ever hope to experience, much less truly understand, yet old enough to know that a wealth of forethougt went into the hidden complexity in the subset of things I will experience. I (obviously) have an inflated sense of self-importance. I’m in my mid-to-late-20’s. I have an above-average group-of-words-I-know-the-meaning-of.
In short, I’m in the prime of my hipster years. And David Foster Wallace is kinda the patron saint of hipsters; the “hipster lit flowchart” literally (ha) starts off with “Have you read Infinite Jest?” (IJ of course being his magnum opus), and this article about his biography from the LA Times, which I self-servingly dug up just to make this point (by googling “David Foster Wallace hipster”), specifically refers to him as a “hipster sage” in the headline (which at the very least means I didn’t have to dig far to prove my point).
Full disclosure, I’m still only about halfway through the essays, but I thoroughly enjoyed the title essay, and the first essay wasn’t that bad either. (Don’t worry, I was publicly shamed at the last meeting.) Maybe I’m just not close enough to 30, maybe it’s because I shave my beard (the source of true hipster power), or maybe I’m the vanguard of a new, no-BS literary generation, but I found the second essay, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, borderline unreadable.
It wasn’t that I disagreed with (all of) what he was saying — it was that I had a whole lot of trouble figuring out what he was trying to say because it took him 42 pages and 27 uses of the phrase “postmodern” to say it. What I got from it is that TV is a pervasive medium that has altered the way his generation interacts with media, and that it is difficult for his particular literary group to react to this new medium (as literary groups are wont to do with pervasive media), because the standard reaction, which is to ironically parody the medium, is already being done by the medium itself. That took one sentence. It was a long sentence — perhaps it even should have been 2 sentences — but it was one sentence. I did not require 42 pages or any 100-dollar words to make the point. Admittedly, I’m probably missing a whole lot of the subtlety and context, and perhaps even some of the main concepts, that he so eloquently put forth on (so, so many sheets of) paper, but I’m not sure that the world is poorer for not having read something that was so, in a word, over-written. His treatment of the material was so far above the material itself, both in terms of length and reading-level, that it did him disservice as an author; at various point he describes Married, with Children (yes, that Married, with Children) as “novel,” “irreverant,” “bitingly witty,” and “the ultimate sitcom parody of sitcoms.”
It was actually somewhat reassuring to see that this problem has been around for so long. (The essay was written in 1993.) I had assumed it was a result of the overeducated, underemployed masses practicing the fine art of spewing mindless content into the insatiable gaping maw of the internet, because that’s where I first encountered the phenomenon of overly-written hipster dross — the kind of stuff that’s about nothing, but you just know the author is referring to as a “piece” to his overeducated, underemployed hipster friends. (To be fair, the author I just linked does not fall into this category, he’s just the first overeducated person I could think of. I actually really enjoy his work.) It seemed easy enough to blame this on the oversupply of college graduates with expansive vocabularies and four years honing the luridness of their prose as English majors and time to kill in their parents’ basements after their shift “ironically” making lattes at Starbucks having run out of interesting ideas to write about and deciding to write really, really well about the utterly mundane, but now that I know there’s a Literary System to rail against, I feel a bit more justified, like I’m the harbinger of a new generation of people who just say what they mean and treat the material at the level it deserves to be treated.
I don’t mean to say there’s not a time or a place for this sort of thing; a well-crafted over-writing can be nothing short of hilarious, but it takes an honest effort to get the tone right so that the irony shines through. Going into exquisite detail about, for instance, one’s balls effectively contrasts the seriousness of the subject (zero) with the earnestness of the treatise on said subject (very). The key to success in this situation is the irony that is established by the author and recognized by the reader; absent the irony, you end up with an incredibly sad portrait of a guy who buffs his balls “with a hand-held electric orbital polisher.”
And that’s the problem with the overly-written nonsense I see today: it’s written free of irony. I love my dear brother very much, and he is an excellent writer (much better than I will ever be), but he does himself a disservice by, for example, spending 6 paragraphs denouncing the writing in a review of Fast 6**, including the phrase “erstwhile McCarthys Cormac.” I won’t even go into this one about Cosmopolis, which has the benefit of being about a pretty artsy movie but the detriment of being about a pretty bad artsy movie that stars Robert Pattinson. (To be fair to my brother, I found his reviews of World War Z and Taken 2 to be absolutely spot-on with respect to their subjects, and if his review of Lincoln was perhaps a bit hammy, at least it was earnest.)
However, (and I feel bad about saying this because I am not blood related to the author and, to the best of my knowledge, he is still alive,) the absolute, without-a-doubt worst offender in this regard that I have seen has to be an article from The Atlantic called “The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird,” posted in February (you remember, when Flappy Bird was relevant?). It literally starts off with “Games are grotesque.” As an entire paragraph. ¡Que literary! He then goes on to defend his choice of “grotesque” for games in general with my new favorite sentence, “Games are encounters with squalor,” in which he evokes some sort of alternate definition of “squalor” that has nothing to do with being a dirty, downtrodden, destitute wreck and has everything to do with … that feeling you get when you fix something that should work on its own but isn’t, and it takes, like… way too long? But you keep going for it? He then goes on to contextualize the game as part of (or is it not part of?) the “masocore” school of gaming, which he describes as “more of an aesthetic community than it is a material aesthetic,” and goes (further) on to compare said school to “the poetry and painting that emerged from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” He’s talking about MegaMan. This is a game where a robot jumps between platforms and uses his arm, which turns into a totally rad laser gun, to shoot other robots who also have totally rad laser arm guns, so that he can absorb their powers.
He then goes on to who cares what, because he’s been going on for way, way too long, and I’ve lost interest, so I’ve stopped reading. If you want to make the point that these games fill an unexplored emotional desire to fix broken things, rather than create enjoyment on their own, then say that. If you want to contextualize Flappy Bird’s design by comparing it to other games and point out the elegance of its design’s simplicity, then do that. But don’t tell me that it’s “unapologetic—stoic, aloof. Impervious. Like a meteorite that crashed through a desert motel lobby, hot and small and unaware.” It’s a game about a bird.
As the self-proclaimed leader of this new literary school (more like literary special ed, amiright?), I proclaim it time that we, as a group, stop wasting our time with this overly-written trash. Let’s give our subjects the treatment they deserve — Flappy Bird is an immensely popular game seemingly in spite of, but actually because of, its difficulty and core simplicity. The TV culture is difficult for authors to rebel against, because its self-awareness allowed it to beat literature to the punch and rebel against itself. These are interesting premises and excellent points; they deserve to be explored. But let’s not waste our readers’ time by spending 42 meandering pages on them, and let’ not call Flappy Bird “squalid.”
* There’s a Harbinger soundboard!
** This is a movie best described as “THEY BRING A TANK TO A CAR CHASE AND CARS TO A PLANE CHASE!” And yes, it is best described in all caps.