Fewer Words

I read something recently (I forget where, though I suspect either a comment to a blog post or perhaps even a tweet, which, this latter, would be pretty fitting) about how Wallace could be saying a lot of what he says with a whole lot fewer words. The idea, I guess, is that the sort of prose Wallace gives us in Infinite Jest is in a way masturbatory and hostile to the reader. I remember feeling this way about books I was forced to read in high school. It’s related to the “I’ll never use this algebra stuff again anyway” attitude I also had in high school. It arises out of a sort of pragmatism, I guess: For the person wanting simply to say that he read the book, all those words do rather hinder progress.

The thing about literary fiction is that it has mannerisms, and these mannerisms are often what make it worth reading. A Dan Brown book and a John Grisham book are more or less interchangeable in terms of the prose framework across which the often riveting (I’m not throwing stones here) plots are strung. It’s the style, the tics and quirks and fluidity or herky-jerkiness of the prose (and a thousand other things) that make literary fiction fun to read. It’s not about efficiency.

Saying that an author like Wallace is using too many words is like saying that — well, let’s just go with a big obvious but simple example here — DaVinci should have rendered the Mona Lisa as a stick figure. Surely no one will doubt that that modified painting I’m imagining would in a general sense convey the idea “woman” (or “person,” at least), but all of the nuance, all of what makes the picture art rather than just a picture would be leached out of it.

10 thoughts on “Fewer Words

  1. pzosa July 3, 2009 / 11:51 am

    well put..the Mona Lisa analogy is spot on

  2. Kirsten July 3, 2009 / 12:48 pm

    Ah ha! “Mannerisms” was exactly the word I was looking for the other day when trying to explain my fascination with DFW’s writing a few days ago. Wish I’d thought of it then…cest la vie.

  3. Gabe July 4, 2009 / 12:06 pm

    After hearing the opera, the emperor said ‘That’s too fine for my ears- there are too many notes.’ Mozart replied, ‘There are just as many notes as there should be.’

  4. Dan Summers July 5, 2009 / 2:58 pm

    Gabe, that was exactly the reference I was going to make.

    Over at Infinite Summer, they’ve quoted the editor of Infinite Jest discussing the editing process for the book. I hardly think I am alone in wishing I could read everything that was cut. For some of us, there weren’t words enough.

  5. James Martin July 6, 2009 / 9:21 am

    Literary entertainment–much of it, at least–is challenging and that’s okay. Some people like a challenge.

    I have opinions about the style of authors I’ve read; there are some canonical works of literature that I don’t like. But I read them first, giving them the benefit of the doubt, trusting that there’s probably reason to their madness, before I feel entitled to some sort of judgement, especially a dismissive one.

    Some ideas can’t be expressed, in all their nuance, in a concise manner. And, in the case of a stylist like DFW, the manner in which the idea is expressed is as much a part of the attraction as the ideas themselves.

  6. Zach July 10, 2009 / 3:05 pm

    My thoughts about the writing w/r/t the style and references and acronyms and all the shit you gets caught up on if you’re not CLOSELY reading is that that this reflects the sum total of DFW’s knowledge at the time. Most novels will allow you to make assumptions about the world so that the novelist doesn’t have to give you every detail about the reality you’re reading, regardless of how relevant it is to ‘plot’. Well, DFW does give you every detail about the reality your reading, and is throwing out plot for setting/mood/ideas, and their evolution. Now, I’m commenting from 250 and I have such a foggy memory of my previous, surfacial reading that I cannot comment, but the plot, or the purpose of the novel, rather, aside from some bit about an ‘entertainment’ that can kill you, but the purpose is how do you live in the world. And in order to give us that, he has to give us all the information he has.

    At times I do find the writing masturbatory, or ineffective, the same way as I don’t enjoy reading about Mario as much as I enjoy reading about Hal; it’s preference. If every sentence, every word, were as mind-blowingly satisfying as the first chapter, or the exchange between Orin and Hal re: Himself’s demise then the book would serve the fuction of its eponymous cartridge, and we would die from ‘too much fun’.

  7. John I July 12, 2009 / 10:11 am

    The “extra” stuff in IJ – long bits about the details of various pharmaceuticals, etc – remind me a lot of the long bits on whale physiology and nineteenth century whaling technology. Without them, Moby Dick wouldn’t be Moby Dick, a book I also thoroughly enjoyed because of, not in spite of all the extra stuff.

  8. Daryl Houston July 12, 2009 / 9:55 pm

    That’s a neat tie-in, John I. Wallace’s work is at times informed by Moby Dick (Pip comes up in the cruise ship essay, at least, and I think there’s at least one more explicit reference somewhere in his work). It’s been years since I’ve read MD (it’s another of my favorites), but I think I remember the occasional POV change in it, too, and I think I remember something Shakespearean/dramatic about some of the chapters, another probably not intentional but at least noteworthy parallel with IJ.

  9. wheat July 13, 2009 / 8:40 am

    Good point, John I. A book like this is strong because of it’s weirdness and digressions, not in spite of them. (And I’m a Moby-Dick fan as well.)

  10. joe tyron August 26, 2009 / 3:25 pm

    One word to that:

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