Monday, January 26, 2009

One Reason Why David Foster Wallace Has Forever Earned My Trust As a Reader

I think a recurring feature of book reviews in New York Magazine is a purchase recommendation. Available options include some variations of buy, wait for the paperback, and don't buy. I've only read that magazine once (Hillary Clinton was on the cover. I brought it with me to Europe; that magazine has visited four countries) and I can't seem to find evidence of this feature on the magazine's truly excellent website. That is why I'm uncertain if this feature is recurring. For all I know, they might do something similar with recently released movies. I'm not sure, though. I do know that both the conception and execution of this type of literal book review is inherently shticky. The reviews were each comprised of one moderately long paragraph. The whole meat of the review was the one line recommendation to purchase or not to purchase.

Compare this to David Foster Wallace's article "Authority and American Usage," collected in Consider the Lobster, which was originally published in Harper's Magazine with the title "Present Tense." The third paragraph of the article is this:
The occasion for this article is Oxford University Press's recent release of Mr. Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a book that Oxford is marketing aggressively and that it is my assigned function to review. It turns out to be a complicated assignment. In today's US, a typical book review is driven by market logic and implicitly casts the reader in the role of consumer. Rhetorically, its whole project is informed by a question that's too crass ever to mention up front: "Should you buy this book?" And because Bryan A. Garner's usage dictionary belongs to a particular subgenre of a reference genre that is itself highly specialized and particular, and because at least a dozen major usage guides have been published in the last couple years and some of them have been quite good indeed, the central unmentionable question here appends the prepositional comparative "...rather than that book?" to the main clause and so entails a discussion of whether and how ADMAU is different from other recent specialty-products of its kind.
I write often inside this blog about how artists create their best art when they respect the audience. A paragraph like the previous one exhibits just about as much audience-respect as there can get. DFW is being incredibly upfront about the purpose of his article.

Is this a ploy to gain credibility with the reader? Perhaps. But I think it is significant that most of this paragraph (including every word which hints to this kind of honesty with the reader) was removed from the version which ran in Harper's Magazine. I realize that this does not conclusively prove anything and may, in fact, be an indication that my gut feeling on this is dead wrong, at least according to the editors at Harper's. But so few authors even attempt a gesture like this that I find it refreshing and believable.

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