A blistering dissection
October 19, 2001 6:03 PM   Subscribe

A blistering dissection of David Foster Wallace and Simon Winchester's previously published essays on English usage, by Mark Halpern. Though I like some of Wallace's writing, I admit it's nice to see the scalpel taken to Wallace's "style for style's sake".
posted by Big Fat Tycoon (29 comments total)
For reference: DFW's essay in Harper's, Winchester's essay in The Atlantic Monthly, and a previous article written by Halpern and published by Vocabula. Also, a related thread in MeFi.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 6:07 PM on October 19, 2001

I really liked Wallace's original essay, although I'm used to his style of writing. And but so [1], I think Halpern's dissection was more like a drive-by-shooting.

[1] Ha, little DFW in-joke there [a].

[a] Much like this one.

posted by icathing at 6:24 PM on October 19, 2001

And I thought I was a grammar nazi! To be honest, I found it hard to concentrate on what the author was saying because I kept getting distracted by all of his frothing at the mouth. In my own experience, people who feel this strongly about anything are not to be trusted.
posted by rks404 at 6:31 PM on October 19, 2001

This is a thread about a link to a review of a review of a book (or 2 books).

How much more meta can you get?
posted by signal at 7:01 PM on October 19, 2001

The references to the Garner book are indeed overwroght but it is important to distinguisy Wallace as fiction writer from Wallace as writer on language (non-fiction).
posted by Postroad at 7:07 PM on October 19, 2001

I'm about to the start reading Broom of the System (recommended to me by two huge fans of Infinite Jest who both advised me to "Start with the book that's not a thousand pages long.) Think I'll enjoy it?
posted by tweebiscuit at 7:12 PM on October 19, 2001

Re DFW: That's not writing, that's word-processing.... But I like how Halpern twice mentions "De Quincy" in the article linked at the end of this one while whooping it up over DFW's Gower/Gowers mistake.
posted by EngineBeak at 7:22 PM on October 19, 2001

EngineBeak wins.
posted by aramaic at 7:30 PM on October 19, 2001

I HATE that DFW essay! God, that guy burns me up. Girl With Curious Hair sucked, too.
posted by jeb at 7:53 PM on October 19, 2001

Harper's is "high middlebrow?" What the hell does that mean, anyway? Is that the written equivalent of a (or an uncalled for) sniff?
posted by raysmj at 8:17 PM on October 19, 2001

How much more meta can you get?

Well -- this is a comment about a comment about a thread about a link to a review of a review of a book. This sort of thing looks like it could continue indefinitely, if you ask me.
posted by webmutant at 8:28 PM on October 19, 2001

I really enjoyed Wallace's article. His style is certainly unique, and he used a bunch of words I didn't know, but I found them fun, and had no general difficulty with following his arguments. I also thought he made some interesting points which I hadn't considered before. It's what I consider to be the first reasonable and balanced treatment of the descriptivist-prescriptivist wars. Certainly moreso than Halpern's article here, which makes a couple points, but nothing I didn't take away already from Wallace's article. I haven't read Winchester's article.
posted by caveday at 9:10 PM on October 19, 2001

Well -- this is a comment about a comment about a thread about a link to a review of a review of a book. This sort of thing looks like it could continue indefinitely, if you ask me.

Everything does -- in both directions. The book was a guide to a language spoken by a people evolved from a primate. Everything is everything.
posted by tweebiscuit at 9:51 PM on October 19, 2001

Tangentially, for what it's worth, I think Mark Halpern's novels micturate copiously all over DFW's amusing but contrived stuff.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:07 PM on October 19, 2001

Weird ... from Halpern's article (second page):

...the sort of notion that you hear from those who claim they are controlled by the CIA via messages received on the fillings in their teeth.

From the Dan Rather thread, kenneth link:

Tager was convinced the media had him under surveillance and were beaming hostile messages to him, and he demanded that Rather tell him the frequency being used ...

Two links about govt. agencies beaming secret messages. Creepy.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:42 PM on October 19, 2001

Is that article (the main link) supposed to be well written? It's a mess of brackets, semi-colons and dashes. It's not that they're used incorrectly, but that it reads like someone has taken a decent article, selected various chunks, and then moved them randomly around....
posted by andrew cooke at 11:46 PM on October 19, 2001

A "blistering dissection" sounds like a dissection done improperly or with bad tools. A dissector should neither get nor give blisters.
posted by pracowity at 3:39 AM on October 20, 2001

I had a feeling that there'd be someone who'd "cleverly" take exception to that phrase. Good on ya, pracowity!
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 5:05 AM on October 20, 2001

Halpern nails it. I'm sick and tired of people calling that David Foster Wallace piece anything good, recommending it to me as if there are lessons to be learned there, or unique knowledge, or life force to be imparted.

My review of the David Foster Wallace article: He makes the same, predictable errors that all non-linguists make when writing about language and linguistics.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:58 AM on October 20, 2001 [1 favorite]

Someone wrote:

for what it's worth, I think Mark Halpern's novels micturate copiously all over DFW's amusing but contrived stuff.

I agree, but I think you mean Mark Helprin, not Mark Halpern, who is a different person and as far as I know has not written (or at least published) any novels, though he is the author of the Vocabula Review article under discussion.
posted by myl at 6:16 AM on October 20, 2001

Mo: I'm a linguistics major, and I read the article because one of my professors, a DFW fan, enjoyed it. He didn't say it had any deep and useful knowledge buried in it -- but maybe he thinks it does, who knows -- just said it was amusing. At any rate, I found it both amusing and useful.
posted by caveday at 7:46 AM on October 20, 2001

How much more meta can you get?

you could try alasdair gray's book of prefaces.

he's also an excellent fiction writer.
posted by lescour at 8:03 AM on October 20, 2001

Criticizing a David Foster Wallace article for being "self-indulgent, narcissistic ... parading erudition ... nauseatingly cute and condescending ... and intrud[ing] much purely personal and otherwise irrelevant matter" is akin to criticizing a National Review article for being "too conservative".

The piece in Harper's was a masterpiece — of DFW-style writing. If you like his work, chances are good that you relished every clever turn of phrase and brilliant non-sequitur. If you can't stand the guy, it must have been sheer masochistic ecstasy to read page after bloated page of self-referential nonsense.

Halpern complains:

The piece is written for an impossible reader — one who is intelligent and cultivated enough to be ready to read a long piece on English language usage, but who at the same time is unaware of the long-standing war between the Prescriptivists and the Descriptivists ... in short, a reader who does not and could not exist; an intellectual chimera.

But that's where he's way off base. The piece was written for fans of David Foster Wallace ... and commissioned by Harper's in order to sell magazines.

And I'll bet that it worked, too. I'm not a subscriber, but when I saw the cover at BookPeople and noticed that it contained a DFW(!) article on English usage(!!), I let out a small whoop and ran to the checkout. As did many others, I'm sure. (well, maybe not the 'whoop' part, but you know what I mean.)

Incidentally, the piece is fantastic, a really enjoyable read. Which is where Halpern completely missed the point. The article is only nominally a book review; really it's just an excuse to watch DFW do his thing. Nobody bought the magazine just to find out more about the new edition of Modern English Usage; they bought it 'cause they knew there'd be footnotes inside.
posted by gassire at 9:10 AM on October 20, 2001

myl - You're right, I'm a moron. But at least I got to use the phrase 'micturate copiuously', something I've been looking to do for a while...
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:26 AM on October 20, 2001

Did that DFW article ever end?
posted by dagnyscott at 10:15 AM on October 20, 2001

I once tried to get out of a speeding ticket with the argument, "Your Honor, just as fear lends wings to the feet, so does micturition lend lead."

I used it in the root sense, that is the desire to urinate.

Didn't work.
posted by Hexaemeron at 2:00 AM on October 21, 2001


You said exactly what I feel. Your comment was right on the nuts. DFW, to me, is nothing if not an amusing, fun ride. I agree that Halpern completely misses the point. BTW, when I saw the cover, I whooped as well on my way to the checkout.


Infinite Jest was the first DFW book I read. My advice would be to read some of his great short essays to break yourself in, or maybe just read a few pages of endnotes from Infinite Jest before you commit yourself to it. I highly recommend DFW's essays on Tennis, of which he has a passion for. One was printed in Esquire magazine a couple years ago, it was about a B-level professional US player named Michael Joyce.

posted by vito90 at 10:49 AM on October 21, 2001


(if you're still reading this tread)

i second vito's opinion re: starting with essays. the tennis essay vito writes about is included in an excellent collection, a supposedly fun thing i'll never do again (amazon), along with an outstanding piece on watching television and the title essay, which is about taking a carnival cruise (yes, that's almost too easy a target, but dfw does a fine job with it.).

the pieces are all outstanding, though relatively straightforward, and i think they provide a great introduction to the author.

after that, i say move straight on to infinite jest. yes it's long; yes it's maddening; but, yes, it's also unsurpassably brilliant. an unquestionable masterpiece; one of the great novels of our time. my only complaint after reading it is that dfw wrote it before i did (bastard!).

broom of the system, girl with curious hair, and brief interviews with hideous men are all good in their own ways, but none can compare to the essays or infinite jest.

but that's just the opinion of an unqualified man on the street.
posted by gassire at 6:11 PM on October 21, 2001

I'll weigh in with my own opinion. DFW as an essayist in A Supposedly Fun Thing... was in his element, which is essentially the cultural consumption and analysis. He's very good at that, and I really enjoyed that collection.

As a novelist, I think he fails utterly -- his characters aren't so much characters as collections of idiosyncracies on which he hangs various ideas. He's an amateur (as Mo Nickels noted) in areas where he pretends expertise -- linguistics may be one, mathematics is definitely another, and he has this really annoying tendency to write slang or jargon badly. In Infinite Jest, his attempt at a Quebecois' English speech was terrible and grating and just plain off. His attempt at street jargon was just as bad. There are plenty of these inaccuracies in his work that one might attribute to his style, but personally I find it hard going trying to ignore all that. Some people can pull off writing about areas in which they have no special knowledge, but not DFW.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 7:03 PM on October 21, 2001

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