But I don’t want to sound like David Foster Wallace….

Over at Koreanish, Alexander Chee writes about Maud Newton’s New York Times article on David Foster Wallace and how his prose style has been imitated and internalized by numerous writing students and has become the de facto tone on the Internet. You recognize what they mean at once: the qualifier-laden arguments that appear to undercut themselves at the same time they make their point, laden with irony, slang, and hipster-ish winks and self-consciousness.

Alex mentions that he’s come across numerous instances in his teaching of students who imitate another’s style to the detriment of their own, particularly of DFW, and how that imitation really does no honor to the one being imitated and no help to the student. The ubiquity of this DFW tone online caused me to pause and, self-centeredly, wonder, Is he in me?

(That sounds filthy, doesn’t it?)

This points to a glaring gap in my own reading: apart from one essay on cruises, I’ve never read anything by David Foster Wallace. This past week, while I was at Left Bank Books, I nearly picked up a copy of Infinite Jest, thinking it was finally time to tackle that monster—I think it’s longer than Anna Karenina, which is the longest book I’ve ever read, and that took me three attempts. Eventually, I set it down and picked up a young-adult novel by Brian Farrey and a books of short stories by Vestal McIntyre, which together weighed less than Infinite Jest. My wrist thanked me.

I’ve been blogging since around 2000 or 2001 in various places. As soon as it was mentioned in Alex’s blog post and Newton’s article, I recognized the style, but I am reluctant to go back through my own writing online to see if there are signs of it there. I suspect there are. I find this particularly disturbing because I never set out to imitate that tone. It’s easy to see how it might have trickled into my own language: I’ve read David Eggers and any number of other young hip Foster Wallace-ish authors, and as Alex and Maud point out, his style is practically the house style of the Internet. It seems impossible to avoid.

I’m egotistical enough to think I should sound like myself, but it’s worrisome to me that I might have picked up any of his style by osmosis. That’s not to say he isn’t worthy of imitation, just that I don’t want to. At the same time, it’s hard to know for certain without having read more of his work, but that might further the problem, right? So the reason I might not read David Foster Wallace is because I don’t want to sound like I’m imitating David Foster Wallace.

Does anyone else worry about things like this? Tell me if you do. Or if you don’t.

2 thoughts on “But I don’t want to sound like David Foster Wallace….

  1. I’m not a “working” writer, so I’m not sure that my opinion matters here, but it did occur to me while reading your two most recent entries that this is really something that I’ve never really given much thought to. I either like a writer’s style, or I do not. I don’t recall ever thinking whilst enraptured in a book I love; “Ooo..this writer writes like __________.” Or; “Hey, this guy is copying ______________.” I’m not sure if that makes me seem uneducated in writing styles or if it just means that I like what I like and I don’t like what I don’t like. I do know that because I like what I like, some writers out there are benefitting because I buy their books. In that way, I guess my opinion matters a little. Not that it answers your question in in way.

  2. I have never thought about this, I will be exploring the Idea a little further. I think Wallace does have a certain style, but what you describe are only elements of it, and which are also elements of other “post-modern” writers, especcialy from the mid to late 20th century. moreover, how can you be sure that it is not an effect of internet, rather than being an influence of Wallace’s? I did delibratley try to copy his style in one of my short storys, but that was just to see if I could; I find that if I don’t eneage with my favourite author’s style it ends up emerging in my own, this was what happened in my teens with Iain Banks, I’m still fighting against that impulse. I agree with you that we should try our best to cultivate a style, rather than unconciously borrow one, but one has to absorb the the style of others to do so.

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