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Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury
July 12, 2012 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year. Michael Cunningham on what it was like to serve on the fiction jury for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, when no prize was awarded. Part 2. (Previously.)
posted by OmieWise (63 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating stuff, although the opening line that Mr. Cunningham quotes from “The Pale King” makes me sure I will never, ever pick it up.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:21 AM on July 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Can these guys talk to the Oscars people?
posted by Rykey at 7:34 AM on July 12, 2012


That's an interesting account of a puzzling thing. Cunningham certainly does love his overwrought prose.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 7:42 AM on July 12, 2012


That David Foster Wallace quote first pleased me by reminding me of Walt Whitman's endless lists, which I am fond of (though they need to be read aloud, I think, to keep your eyes from glazing over and your brain from skipping ahead to something that feels like real content). And then I slowed down and re-read it a couple of times, and it seems to me like a mess of mixed metaphors: the untilled fields are "shrill" but once the flowers have been listed they are heads that "nod gently in a morning breeze." They also nod "like a mother's soft hand on your cheek," which not only also contradicts the "shrill" simmer at the beginning of that sentence, but makes no sense on its own. I cannot parse a mother's hand that nods. A mother's hand on a child's cheek, it seems to me, is usually still for a gentle, affecitonate moment. It does not in any way "nod."

It reminds me of Orwell's criticism of writers who clearly aren't actually thinking about what they're writing. The level of detail included in this sentence suggests the opposite, that DFW is thinking deeply, carefully, and visually about the scene he's describing, and yet when I try to slow down, read the passage carefully, and picture what he's describing, I can't make sense of it.

Perhaps this is some form of genius I am unable to appreciate.

Now back to read the rest of this very interesting article.
posted by not that girl at 7:43 AM on July 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


Consider, as a contrast, the description from "Train Dreams" he quotes later in that same piece, which is coherent and which has metaphorical content that rises beautifully and organically from the detailed description:

All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utter still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.

(Is "utter" a typo for "utterly"?)

That passage makes me actually want to read the book, although "contemporary literary fiction" is not one of my usual genres.
posted by not that girl at 7:48 AM on July 12, 2012


It does seem as if the one common theme that ties the three nominees together is extreme overwriting. I gave up on Swamplandia! on page 60 because I couldn't swallow the notion that a young girl--or, for that matter, any human being--would actually narrate like that.
posted by IjonTichy at 7:49 AM on July 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


This piece contains such a wonderful passage, not from any of the three writers under condsieration but from Michael Cunningham, the essay's author:

Yes, you can provide, if asked, a list of your loved one’s lovable qualities: he’s kind and funny and smart and generous and he knows the names of trees. But he’s also more than amalgamation of qualities. You love him, the entirety of him, which can’t be wholly explained by even the most exhaustive explication of his virtues. And you love him no less for his failings. O.K., he’s bad with money, he can be moody sometimes, and he snores. His marvels so outshine the little complaints as to render them ridiculous.

I don't know why that resonated so deeply with me - perhaps because only last night, I was trying to explain to my husband why the best things about him are not the things I love best.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:54 AM on July 12, 2012 [26 favorites]


not that girl: Perhaps this is some form of genius I am unable to appreciate.

Almost certainly the case, considering you're talking about David Foster Wallace, certified genius writer of my generation.
posted by gilrain at 7:59 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks, that was an interesting read. But I agree with IjonTichy: Cunningham, at least, is a sucker for overwriting, which he confuses with fine sentences. That DFW thing was way over the top and, as not that girl says, falls apart when you look too closely.
posted by languagehat at 8:01 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Almost certainly the case, considering you're talking about David Foster Wallace, certified genius writer of my generation.

Sometimes the emperor has no clothes.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:01 AM on July 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


On non-preview:

> certified genius writer of my generation

Hahahahaha!
posted by languagehat at 8:02 AM on July 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Hahahahaha!

Careful, this is MetaFilter!
posted by OmieWise at 8:07 AM on July 12, 2012


(That was sarcasm on my part, in case there was doubt. I assumed the hyperbole gave it away, but I forgot many actually claim that title for him.)
posted by gilrain at 8:18 AM on July 12, 2012


although the opening line that Mr. Cunningham quotes from “The Pale King” makes me sure I will never, ever pick it up

Through the paintfaded rustred wooden door and across cracked concrete steps, the front yard: dandelion, common blue violet, Swedish ivy, quackgrass, cocklebur, witchgrass, shattercane, wooly cupgrass, purslane, velvetleaf, common ragweed, giant ragweed, lambsquarter, mustard, kochia, buffalobur, eastern black nightshade, redroot pigweed, Pennsylvania smartweed, crabgrass, foxtail, nutsedge, black medic, purple loosestrife, common burdock, yellowgrass, bellflower, white clover, leafy spurge, birdsfoot trefoil, common mallow, plumeless thistle, wild parsnip, yellow woodsorrel, henbit, musk thistle, oxeye daisy, prostrate knotweed, mouse-ear chickweed, Canada thistle, tansy, stinging nettle, hoary alyssum, sowthistle, bull thistle, barnyardgrass, longspine sandbur, creeping bentgrass, tall fescue, field bindweed, wild buckwheat, broadleaf plantain, rough bluegrass, dodder, reed canarygrass, wild cucumber, garlic mustard, virginia creeper, wild grape, spotted knapweed, common buckthorn. I really let the lawn go to hell this year.
posted by nanojath at 8:26 AM on July 12, 2012 [22 favorites]


(Is "utter" a typo for "utterly"?)

Nope. 'Still' as a noun, as in "In the still of the night."

Denis Johnson makes no typos. Except for that 'n' missing in his first name.
posted by TheRedArmy at 8:28 AM on July 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


I know DFW is something of an untouchable here*, but, my god, that opening line of The Pale King was tedious. I like his short stories and articles quite a bit, but his books, well...

They insist upon themselves.

(Yes, I realize the self-implication in the clip.)

*Please let me know where I should turn in my MetaFilter membership card and tote bag...
posted by ssmug at 8:29 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think the metaphor in "weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them" is ripped off from "On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins." from the end of the "Nestor" section of the Ulysses

The list of plants is a little silly but "volunteer" is a lovely adjective, it just means "weed" but has a kind of endearing cheeriness

The passage as a whole is kind of an overweight mess, though
posted by theodolite at 8:29 AM on July 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


not that girl: A mother's hand on a child's cheek, it seems to me, is usually still for a gentle, affecitonate moment. It does not in any way "nod."

The breeze is like the gentle hand, not the nodding.
posted by Casuistry at 8:31 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm at the tail end of Infinite Jest (finally...) and my speaking and writing style is permanently altered. I now intersperse the word "like" in my sentences more often than ever before despite learning a lot already about, like, correct writing.

Thankfully I don't think I'm smart enough to do that thing with the subject of a sentence where the sentence is so long, long-winded, and long-in-the-tooth you need another short sentence at the end of it to remind the reader what it was. The sentence's original subject.

I don't know if I'll grow out of it or if it's a permanent blemish on my very own personal map.
posted by sixohsix at 8:35 AM on July 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


With whatever respect is merited — what the hell, I'll throw in some unmerited respect just for the whatever of it — Mr. Cunningham no doubt has a peculiar aesthetic quite different from yours, languagehat, and, for the sake of argument, let's say many a curious tic, but confusion about the qualities and subtleties of the English sentence is not one of them.

My own powers in the art of the overwritten sentence, on the other hand, are inestimable, as you can see, and perhaps I will demonstrate them more fully for you at a later point. But now, I am tired.

Clearly, Wallace's work isn't a crowd-pleaser, even among the too-small crowd of book-readers, but I have to say, when I read that first page I was not only delighted to take the ride but thrilled, to the point of goosebumps, and surprised to be reminded that one can DO something like that, evoke the feelings I felt, with something as ordinary as paper and ink.

I should say "Horses for courses" here, in the time-honored tradition of internet glibonics, but I never understood it, really, not really. Perhaps someone will be moved to enlighten me.

No doubt on a number of points.
posted by Empty Planet at 8:39 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


It does seem as if the one common theme that ties the three nominees together is extreme overwriting

That's an interesting comment, and I wonder if it doesn't explain why they never asked for a fourth possibility. If the first three all share a common flaw -- if on that windswept day in the shimmering cool of the committee room, all were were found to be similarly florid, lavender, prolix, blameworthy -- I don't know that I'd go back and ask for a fourth either.
posted by tyllwin at 8:40 AM on July 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


Or in short, the voting committee recognized that two of the three finalists were stunt nominees (and old magazine story finally seeing print as a book, an unfinished novel stitched together by an editor) and chose not to even ask for Cunningham & co.'s backup books, because then they might feel obligated to actually choose from a tainted pool.

Knowing more about how the Pulitzer sausage is made now, I'm less impressed by the prize. Only three readers? Was it always done this way? If it was, then all I can think is that maybe in an earlier time, when the winnowers would read the nominees quietly on their own and could only communicate via letter, expensive phone call or travel to the same city, it might have been a more effective system. This seems in the internet age to have become mere committee work, with all the unfortunate compromise embedded within.

Personally, I love overwritten prose. When it's great, like in Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, or Maldoror, it feels like the words were meant to be together in just that way and the reader is just a conduit for expressing the message. But never in a single short paragraph plucked out of the whole. Then it just sounds silly.
posted by Scram at 8:46 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Empty Planet, not that girl explained some obvious flaws in that particular passage, above. I presume you don't agree, and that's respectable, but you make it sound like no critic has ever presented an actual case against Wallace.
posted by gilrain at 8:48 AM on July 12, 2012


The whole opening bit of The Pale King is a cast-off-- it's just a scene setting, no characters in the first chapter. I sort of doubt Wallace would have actually used it as the beginning of the novel if he'd kept any of it at all.

Re: Swamplandia!, I read through the whole thing but was constantly irritated by the author's insistence that she never use an adjective when she could think of a simile. It got to be too much (and also the whole thing with the Bird Man just made me angry in plot structury ways).
posted by shakespeherian at 8:51 AM on July 12, 2012


Are people really judging books by a single sentence here? I mean, I get it if you've read Wallace or Swamplandia! and don't like them, but judging them by a single sentence specifically selected by a guy who admits he like big long sentences with florid prose seems a bit quick.

I mean, Pale King also contains "'Sometimes what's important is dull. Sometimes it's work." By the logic here, that means the whole book must be Hemingway-esque terseness, right?
posted by kyrademon at 8:56 AM on July 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


Are people really judging books by a single sentence here?

I don't think it's fair to judge Pale King at all, really, since it's really an unfinished work. But there's a difference in an opening line and a random line from the book.
posted by tyllwin at 9:01 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, if you think you know what a novel has to offer based on the first paragraph alone you must not enjoy reading all that much.

And 'Train Dreams' is so sparse and short I don't know how it could be called 'overwritten.'
posted by TheRedArmy at 9:02 AM on July 12, 2012


(These are not research papers, the first paragraph does not contain the thesis.)
posted by TheRedArmy at 9:03 AM on July 12, 2012


To clarify, then, tyllwin, that's not a random line. It's an oft-quoted and well-known line from the book, which a lot of people think encapsulates the essence of it.
posted by kyrademon at 9:03 AM on July 12, 2012


Empty Planet, not that girl explained some obvious flaws in that particular passage, above. I presume you don't agree, and that's respectable, but you make it sound like no critic has ever presented an actual case against Wallace.


Oh oh oh, wait wait! You cats are on a far higher plane than I, no irony intended! I'm not talking literary criticism, not in the fancy sense anyway, I was just speaking of my personal impressions on Pale King. No attempt to sway the opinion of the inhabitants of larger, more erudite worlds of which I'm pretty much unaware. Dammit, Jim, I'm a musician, not a book critic. There might be a number of utterly valid reasons why Wallace is not whatever, I have zero problem with that, but my first reading of that page still reminds me just a bit of the first time I heard Sgt Pepper's. Wallace's text is not Dada, I'm familiar with that, and I personally don't think it's just shallow, wanked-off bs, as some seem to imply, I think it's something else. And I like whatever that is. These out-of-context quotes seem unfair to me. Ah well. Tough business.
posted by Empty Planet at 9:09 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ugh. Gigantic, public italics disaster.

(Btw, Gilrain, thanks for courteous clarification.)
posted by Empty Planet at 9:13 AM on July 12, 2012


Very fair enough, Empty Planet: literature is, as always, subjective. My brother, whose taste I generally admire greatly, is the one who prevailed upon me to read a bunch of Wallace. He loves the man and would come close to agreeing with my exaggerated statement upthread. For myself, some of his work I've liked very much, but I also have serious reservations.

Incidentally, us haters are in the minority position, generally... you're in good company to find his work transcendent.
posted by gilrain at 9:37 AM on July 12, 2012


You know, it seems to me that the outcome this year points pretty clearly to a problem with the process. If the final-judgers and the 300-readers are such disjunct groups that the final three books are literally thrown over a wall, without any kind of rationalizing (I mean this in the best way) the choices or the goals or the expectations, well, the Pulitzer gets what it deserves. And I do think this clearly reflects poorly on the award itself.

On the other hand, this outcome has really drawn attention to three books - here we are contrasting them, quoting from them - when we otherwise only would be gabbling on about the one. So there's that. But I doubt the names of these three almost-Pulitzers will be remembered and discussed into perpetuity quite the way an actual winner would be.
posted by newdaddy at 9:40 AM on July 12, 2012


Hmm, I see the Wallace backlash is in full bloom. Sprung up a bit early this year, I reckon. Must be that whole global warming thing.
The night-noises of the metro night: harbor-wind skirling on angled cement, the shush and sheen of overpass traffic, TPs' laughter in interior rooms, the yowl of unresolved cat-life.
Pulled down my copy of Infinite Jest, opened at random to page 556, started reading. Landed on this. Wallace didn't attract the "genius" tag by accident. For me, no other novel's so fully redefined what a novel can be. It'll be familiar to our grandkids.
posted by gompa at 9:49 AM on July 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


harbor-wind skirling on angled cement

I'll admit I had to look this up. Does harbor wind striking angled cement really sound like someone playing the bagpipes?
posted by IjonTichy at 9:56 AM on July 12, 2012


FWIW I'm not backlashing against Wallace, I'm addressing the excerpted bit from The Pale King-- a book which is tremendously incomplete and feels from a structural standpoint like its 500-odd pages constitute perhaps 25% of what the finished product would be. I enjoyed what was there, admired the hell out of the work Pietsch obviously put into editing it, and felt a palpable loss at both the missing remainder of the book and the greater loss when I closed the back cover of never having any more new Wallace to read (I even tracked down a copy of Signifying Rappers a few years ago). But my affection for the writer and the man isn't going to gloss over the occasional weakness of the prose that's there because there was never any back-and-forth between writer and editor or even, in places, between writer and himself. A lot of the book is first-draft quality, because it's first-draft material. I think it's a remarkable document to have published, a sort of partial skeleton of a novel still being born, and I'm glad we have it.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:58 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll admit I had to look this up. Does harbor wind striking angled cement really sound like someone playing the bagpipes?

I'm reasonably sure he was going with the alternate usage, listed second in my OED. "Sweep; whirl." Wallace being Wallace, it's also possible he liked the idea that for some there might be that slight resonance of the other meaning, that the motion of the wind might be thought to look a bit like a bagpipe sounds.
posted by gompa at 10:02 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


We would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature. We preferred visionary explorers to modest gardeners...

pretty much sums up why I don't tend to seek out Pulitzer winning books. Modest gardens can be the most wonderful, and I prefer an exquisitely crafted miniature over a grand dick-measuring doorstop.
posted by latkes at 10:18 AM on July 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm reasonably sure he was going with the alternate usage, listed second in my OED. "Sweep; whirl."

Curse you and your fancy dictionary!
posted by IjonTichy at 10:37 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


One night, while the kid was scanning the shelves, Amalfitano asked him what books he liked and what book he was reading, just to make conversation. Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol. And then he said that he was reading Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Leaving aside the fact that A Simple Heart and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
{Roberto Bolaño, 2666}
posted by shakespeherian at 10:48 AM on July 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


As Casuistry said, it's the breeze that is like your mother's hand, not the nodding. Which, based on his other work is a casual mistake he might have intended to allow to happen. Similarly with the abrupt "your" in that sentence being a little jarring when one doesn't expect to be directly addressed like that.
posted by shmegegge at 10:49 AM on July 12, 2012


For the record, shakespherian, I agree with you about The Pale King. Haven't picked it up yet because much as I wish there was another Wallace novel in the world, I'm not yet ready to settle for a work-in-progress. By backlash, I was referring more to the naked-emperor/genius-in-sarcastic-quotes stuff further up the thread.

I mean, I'd probably prefer to read back issues of the National Review rather than force-march my way through all of an Updike novel, but I recognize that the guy's talented. He just uses his talents in ways that produce stories I find completely unengaging. Chacun a son gout and all that.
posted by gompa at 12:27 PM on July 12, 2012


The "language crank" quotes himself as saying:

“Please don’t make me read you a dozen limp, lifeless sentences taken from the book. I don’t want to be that guy.”

I don't want to be that guy? Some language crank. No wonder his picks were squashed.
posted by GentleReader at 12:28 PM on July 12, 2012


I'm not yet ready to settle for a work-in-progress

I mean it is definitely that, but there are also sections that are extremely polished and compelling and one particular scene that maybe ranks up with anything from Oblivion so definitely make sure you get around to reading it at some point.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:33 PM on July 12, 2012


(caveat: Except that 'Good Old Neon' is the best thing from Oblivion and maybe incomparable)
posted by shakespeherian at 12:33 PM on July 12, 2012


Some language crank. No wonder his picks were squashed. -- posted by GentleReader

Eponysterical.

Anyway, it basically all boils down to: decisions have to be made. When the process and decisions favour the horse you're backing, the system is deemed to work perfectly - or if not perfectly, at least within acceptable tolerances. When another horse wins, or all the horses fall in a tragic heap short of the finish line, it's a bad, broken system and the race has always been bullshit anyway.

Momentous decisions are routinely made by a small handful of people, who individually may be capable or immensely outclassed by the task at hand. I'm sorry people are not enjoying this tour of the sausage factory but there's nothing new here. The world is vastly more arbitrary than people seem to expect it be.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:42 PM on July 12, 2012


Well and so but anyway it is perfectly fair to shred the intro to Pale King (I didn't like it either), but it's pretty much unfair to use it as evidence that DFW was a bad writer or overrated or what have you. Pale King doesn't read like a novel, it reads like an unfinished loose bag of short stories — likely because that's the point the project was at when he went and killed himself. There are nonetheless parts of the thing that are hauntingly, worldview-changingly beautiful, sometimes not despite but because of the weird overwriting and mixed metaphors. I'm thinking especially of the long sequence narrated by a fantastically self-involved college student who has a deep revelation about the directionlessness of his life while thinking about how many times he had heard the phrase "You're watching As The World Turns." Basically, DFW had a tremendous talent for finding observations about conditions of life in contemporary America, and possibly even at tracing out the details of the the human condition, full stop, through intense (and frequently very, very wordy) observation of things that seem too boring or embarrassing to even mention. And that is a hell of a skill.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:49 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Jury members also, naturally, know that they’re carrying on a long-established, impossible project: the attempt to name a “best” book, as if books were cucumbers at a county fair. "

Somebody's never tried to judge cucumbers!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:31 PM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


The list of plants is a little silly but "volunteer" is a lovely adjective, it just means "weed" but has a kind of endearing cheeriness

Not where I'm from. "Volunteer" in this context means to me a plant (often a vegetable) that unexpectedly comes up from last years seed. It's the lone cucumber vine that popped up in a bed converted to carrots or the one stalk of corn in with the peas. We always left them to grow. Perhaps that's only a local thing, but "volunteer" never meant "weed" to me; quite the opposite.
posted by kjs3 at 1:46 PM on July 12, 2012


Huh, I've never really understood the common tack in some literary criticism (especially in the educational setting) that treats images as mathematical elements that can "cancel each other out". It makes sense to me that something could be shrill and simultaneously still. Or that a rested hand could somehow, impressionistically, nod. I certainly wouldn't disagree with anyone saying that those contradictions have no resonance for them personally -- how could I? But it seems to me that some of the best, most evocative literature probes the extrasensical aspects of perception that are so hard for most of us to express.
posted by threeants at 1:58 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's more the problem of the mixed metaphor or, as a teacher of mine once said, you've got to step up to the plate or you'll fall in the tank and you won't be able to dig your way out.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:04 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know a bunch of people who've worked on literary judging panels. It completely eats your life. All of your time is spent reading, and some of the books are going to be terrible. I can understand how going through all that and then have the people who hired you go "meh" would be ridiculously galling.

As for Wallace, I really like his shorter and non-fiction work (aside from his writing and language advice) but I decided to stop reading Infinite Jest about half-way through. Bit by bit his view of how human beings functioned clashed more and more with mine until I couldn't see his characters as people anymore and they just became pieces being moved on game board by the author. I decided that rather than force myself to finish, which would have led me to hate the book, I decided to stop and come back to it later, when I had changed as a person. Maybe then I would appreciate Infinite Jest.
posted by Kattullus at 3:53 PM on July 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I recognize that Cunningham was working within space limitations here, so it makes sense that he'd only include brief snippets of the three nominated books, but goddamn, if there's one thing that turns off 99% of readers from ever picking up 'Real Literature' it's folks like Cunningham talking about sentences instead of stories -- or even experiences, worlds. An easy trap for a 'literary' writer to fall into, when he's boosted by passive-aggressive/envious/nepotist colleagues on back of his own goddamn sentences.

Not a terribly important story in the long run. Cunningham got a byline out of it. Yay for him I guess.

But your Mom is still reading Fifty Shades of Grey instead, and she's not thinking about Dad while she does.
posted by waxbanks at 5:26 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh and @theodolite -- I thought exactly the same thing when I saw the word 'coins' in the Wallace passage. The pull from Joyce is maybe my favourite single sentence. Just music.
posted by waxbanks at 5:27 PM on July 12, 2012


"The infant's face, as I experienced it, was mostly eyes and lower lip, its nose a mere pinch, its forehead milky and domed, its whorl of red hair wispy, no eyebrows or lashes or ever even eyelids that I could see. I never once saw it blink. Its features seemed suggestions only. It had roughly as much face as a whale does."

Feel free not to read The Pale King -- it's a mess, to be sure, and in no way is it the novel that it presumably would eventually have become, but some of the finished pieces are among the best things Wallace has ever done. Certainly, like Cunningham, I'm reading this and feeling like it makes a lot of the other books I've read lately seem flimsy and tossed-off. (But not all, because Peter Carey.)
posted by escabeche at 7:08 PM on July 12, 2012


I'm at the tail end of Infinite Jest (finally...) and my speaking and writing style is permanently altered. I now intersperse the word "like" in my sentences more often than ever before despite learning a lot already about, like, correct writing.

See, the lesson I took away from Infinite Jest was that "like" is a genuinely useful word. If you want to flag something as slightly imprecise, or as metaphorical rather than literal, or as a slight exaggeration for rhetorical effect — but you don't want to break the momentum of a sentence by actually throwing in a parenthetical comment that says "yes yes I know this isn't technically correct" — then "like" is a fantastic way to do it. We use it that way all the time in speech (even people who you think of as old-fashioned careful "correct" speakers do this) and it's sort of silly to insist on avoiding it in informal writing.

Same goes for those sentence-initial heaps of conjunctions. "But so yeah." "And but so." They're really great for marking a boundary between thoughts that's bigger than a sentence break but smaller than a paragraph break. (I think they're especially good if you're returning from a long digression and you want to be like "Hold on, let's catch our breath — but now pay attention here, I'm not starting a new thought, I'm returning to an old one." And this is often what DFW uses them for.) Once I started paying attention to them I realized that skillful speakers use them all the time to make clear the structure of a convoluted paragraph. So hey, we've got them, they're useful, why not use them?

Basically I ended up finding that shit really eloquent. People use those expressions in really subtle and complicated ways in actual conversation, and DFW managed to mirror that usage in a way that was to my ear totally accurate, and I found a lot of the time it made his prose much clearer and easier to follow.

(I still never did finish the damn book. It's unbelievably frustrating and messy and uneven. But man, the good scenes are really good. And that sort of pitch-perfect mimicking of plain conversational English ended up being my absolute favorite thing about it.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:34 PM on July 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Almost certainly the case, considering you're talking about David Foster Wallace, certified genius writer of my generation.
I trace my rebirth into adulthood to the moment that I realized I no longer wanted to write like David Foster Wallace.

(I'm almost two years old.)
posted by deathpanels at 9:03 PM on July 12, 2012


Have there been guesses about the two books Chabon alludes to here? Both of them sound like books I'd want to read.
A ravishingly beautiful, original novel went down when one of us pointed out that, lovely as the book was, Toni Morrison had already told a version of that particular story, to similarly powerful effect, in a single chapter of “Beloved.” . . .

A third fell under the wheel (and this one was particularly heartbreaking to all of us) when we reluctantly acknowledged that although it was wonderfully written and fabulously inventive, its central love story, while moving, was insufficiently complicated and a bit sentimental; that it failed to depict the body of darker emotions that are integral to love: moments of rage, disappointment, pettiness, and greed, to name a few. All three of us wished love to be as simple as the author imagined it to be, but we acknowledged that love, as far as we could tell, is not only not simple, but that part of its glory is its ability to survive incidents of rage, disappointment, and etc.
posted by gladly at 8:07 AM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Have there been guesses about the two books Chabon alludes to here?

Oh my god, someone else makes the same mistake as me! I adore both Chabon & Cunningham's work, but cannot for the life of me remember which is which when talking about either, to the point where I've actually considered asking metafilter for some kind of mnemonic device.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:46 PM on July 13, 2012


Oh, jeez, worse than that, I read that whole piece thinking it was Chabon in spite of the byline! Poor Michael Cunningham. He's been subsumed by Chabon in my head.
posted by gladly at 5:35 PM on July 13, 2012


Chabon is the one in love with genre writing. Cunningham is the one who wrote The Hours.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:40 PM on July 13, 2012


I loved The Hours.
posted by latkes at 7:16 PM on July 13, 2012


Chabon is the one in love with genre writing. Cunningham is the one who wrote The Hours.

But, see, Flesh and Blood had the whole light-SF ending and then he did that book with the lizard alien and I get so confuuuuused.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:43 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


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