I’m not entirely sure what Maud Newton’s New York Times column, “Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace,” is about, but I think she might be (sort of) blaming David Foster Wallace for the fact that lots of people on the Internet, where she lives, use more qualifiers in their writing than she would like them to. Newton says she learned, at law school, where she discussed “serious practical and ethical questions,” like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, that it was not necessary—and might even be immoral—to use so many qualifiers. And she learned from Zadie Smith, in her essay Generation Why?, that the reason people today use so many qualifiers, herself—or at least her young self—included (she wouldn’t want to exclude herself), is that they want to be liked. Her current self now realizes that it is better to make arguments directly, “without regard to whether people will like you afterward.” Notwithstanding all this, Newton’s column basically screams for us to like her (she is so mature, and well-read, and she doesn’t care what anybody thinks!), which might come across as a criticism of the column, although I don’t mean it to be. One of the things David Foster Wallace taught me, with his indirect, self-conscious style, was that everyone, everywhere, wants to be liked, and then also that we all worry about this desire to be liked. Wallace himself worried about it constantly. He tried very hard, in interviews and also in his fiction, not to come across as the kind of person who is “just performing in some highly self-conscious and manipulative way”—i.e. a “pseudopomo Bullshit artist.” But he also knew that there is no way, in what purports to be an act of communication between two people—say a writer and a reader—to guarantee that what one says will be taken as sincere, or serious, just as there is no way for anyone really to keep from communicating their desire to be liked. The best we can do, he thought, is to try to communicate something besides this desire, which is not always easy, in life or in writing, although great artists like Wallace are able to do it, sometimes, when they’re on.


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