Zack Friedman

Aspiring Writers


ISSUE 11 | BEHIND THE CAMERA | DEC 2011

A Yale senior, Marina Keegan, wasn't sure what to think about why so many of her classmates were going into consulting or finance, so she wrote an article about it. Around 25% of employed graduates, according to the Yale Office of Institutional Research, were entering these lucrative but perhaps ethically compromised professions. Keegan was modest, admitting she was no authority on careers or other people's lives. Yet this statistic clearly troubled her. She talked about the experience of being around talented, creative people and the fear that the tug of these jobs threatened their ability to accomplish something. There were a couple nods toward the issue of whether such professions contribute anything to society, if they do anything to help anyone besides those who work in them. More space was given to what this choice meant for those making it: what kinds of thoughts and pressures went into the decision to take such jobs, whether the motivations weren't rationalizations, and if there wasn't something terribly sad about this being the compromise people make.

I’ve deliberately given a neutral, quote-free summary of the piece. This is because, after the article was sent out to my group of friends, many of them seriously objected to the way it was written. They said things like “I very much wish that the style of this piece didn't call so much attention to itself” and “I'm quite turned off by all this ‘I don't know anything about this BUT LET ME TELL YOU MY OBVIOUS THOUGHTS THAT YOU HAVE TOO oh and can you tell from how I write that I'm a little bit—but not totally—hipster?’” Take a look at some of Keegan's verbiage:

“This is a big deal. This is a huge deal. This is so many people! This is one-fourth of our people!”
“(According to the Internet, a consultant is ‘someone who consults someone or something.’)”
“Maybe I perused their websites, WHO KNOWS?”
“One senior I spoke with (whom we’ll refer to as Shloe Carbib for the sake of Google anonymity)...”
“angsty quotes about Their Doubts and Their Hopes.”
“In terms of OTHER IMPORTANT PEOPLE, University President Richard Levin believes...”
“That’s super depressing!”

You can see why someone might doubt that this writer should be, well, consulted on something serious.

*              *              *

Over the summer, the critic Maud Newton wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine called “Another Thing To Sort Of Pin On David Foster Wallace.” In it, she discussed Wallace as accidental originator of the prevailing style of online intellectualish writing:

In the Internet era, Wallace’s moves have been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers... I suppose it made sense, when blogging was new, that there was some confusion about voice. Was a blog more like writing or more like speech? Soon it became a contrived and shambling hybrid of the two. The “sort ofs” and “reallys” and “ums” and “you knows” that we use in conversation were codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon.

One might question whether it’s fair to see Wallace as the source of this style rather than the most eloquent example of a broader trend. Still, there's no denying that a vaguely Wallace-like idiom has become increasingly common. While reading the quotes from the Keegan piece above, you may have had a flash of recognition, or thought “This looks like something I’ve encountered before.” Marina Keegan, I think, uses just about every tic of Newton's “blogger lexicon”; one could say her analysis is “obscured behind a veneer of folksiness and sincerity and is characterized by an unwillingness to be pinned down,” as Newton writes. This style pops up on Tumblr, on lousy websites like Thought Catalog and good ones like The Awl. (Though it’s a necessary disclaimer that this is only one corner of the Internet and a small percentage of its users.) It has become increasingly ubiquitous, reaching its tendrils out into less bloggy outlets, creating a sense that this is a natural way to write. While working on this essay, despite feeling acutely aware of phraseology, I kept finding loose-hanging ‘pretty much’s and ‘really’s slipping in1. All this makes it, at the very least, a thing to be reckoned with for writers. Wallace's essay “E Unibus Pluram” argues that television’s use of irony cribbed from postmodern writers presents a challenge, but not necessarily a blockade, for his generation. In much the same way, the “This is something I think is pretty okay! But we should, like, talk about it!” voice deserves at least a friendly wrestle.

While Newton argues that the ascent of this style reflects a “deep confusion” about audience and voice, I think it’s actually come out of or come to stand in for a fairly coherent, but largely unarticulated rhetorical stance. That is, it isn’t just a slapdash grab-bag of tics and techniques, the twee Tourette’s of youthful yearners, but an expression of an actual position or worldview that, even if you dislike it or find it irritating, is responding to some genuine problems that just about anyone trying to write critically has to deal with in one way or another. A quick definition of this style might be that it's what you get when you really, really don't want to assert any kind of rhetorical authority. Any pretensions of expertise, experience, professionalism, most of the traditional markers of ‘good’ writing have to go by the wayside. The aesthetic is one of deliberate sloppiness, including meandering, conjunction-heavy sentences and excessively punctuated, typographically ostentatious writing, as well as an insistently informal tone and familiarity in the many direct addresses to the audience. When there’s the risk of making a definitive statement, the style emphasizes the alternate values of openness, desire for nuance, self-expression, including process, in order to not dishonestly exclude what went into the making of the more definitive claims. Its rhetorical hallmarks typically emerge in attempts to flatten the relationship between writer and reader, ironizing of the role of the critic or journalist, and a concern—perhaps self-defeating—with demonstrating the sincerity of the writer. A close reading of Keegan’s article, which I take to be an accidental exemplar of this style and the broader trends that give rise to its appeal, will bring out the concerns that give rise to this style, and why it might not be the most productive way of addressing them.

To figure out what he was up to, Newton quoted Wallace on the “Ethical Appeal”: it’s “a complex and sophisticated ‘Trust me,’” one that “requires the rhetor to convince us not just of his intellectual acuity or technical competence, but of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s own hopes and fears.” Wallace’s point, which Newton spells out more clearly, is that the ethical appeal is premised on the sincerity of the speaker, and sincerity, which claims to be free of the messy trappings of performance, is itself performed, mediated, in a subtler but more suspicious way than other rhetorical devices, and this leads down recursive pathways that bring Newton to call for straightforwardness (and led Wallace in a whole bunch of different directions including AA). Keegan and many online writers are also making an ethical appeal, but an unusual one, quite different from a dictionary editor’s “Trust me.” Trust me because I’m flawed, confused, still working things out for myself—but most of all, trust me because I write like you.

One of the key elements of this style is its informality. It’s how you talk to your friends online, or perhaps how the writer imagines you talk to your friends. To some of my friends, the familiarity of the Keegan piece felt necessarily false. It’s a cause for suspicion if someone who is not your friend talks to you as if they are—usually they’re trying to sell you something. Newton argues there is something sneaky about this, that it's an attempt to win readers' confidence without actually earning it. It's worth asking why this familiarity is something writers reach for. The friendliness, rather than being disrespectful or a sign of a con, strikes me as aspirational. Its argument is that if you write or behave in a certain way, put up the trappings of friendliness, of “community,” that you can help a conversational community to exist, or at least nudge the discourse toward the practices of one that would take place in such a community. Rather than the agonistic model of pugilistic debate, this aims to be more like direct democracy, standing up to speak at a general assembly, with authority deriving from membership in the community, from sharing its values and concerns.

In Keegan’s article these stylistic tics are repeatedly associated with traditional journalistic activities—interviewing people, citing sources, etc. “Kevin Hicks ’89, former dean of Berkeley College, thinks it’s a load of crap,” she writes to introduce one section; “I conducted a credible and scientific study in L-Dub courtyard earlier this week — asking freshman after freshman what they thought they might be doing upon graduation” somewhere else. It’s like an intrusive narrator reminding the reader that a work of fiction is mediated. One way to read this is that calling attention to the ritualized, mockable aspects of journalism actually reinforces her authority to comment. It’s ironic journalism or criticism: the writer is in fact writing a piece of journalism or criticism, but emphasizes all the ways in which she isn’t a journalist or critic and flouts the behavior expected of these, and this is supposed to, although this isn't acknowledged, make the actual journalistic or critical work more legitimate and trustworthy. Alternately, it’s as if she keeps feeling the need to say “I’m not like that! I’m one of you!” whenever something that might be read as an assertion of authority comes up. A more formal style, with the trappings of journalistic objectivity and authority, distances the writer from the reader and from the community and burdens the writer into doing things she doesn't want to do.

The writing asserts its own naturalness, as if to say this is how people in the community would talk, and that what's natural is truer and more honest. There’s a long history of writers trying to adopt the vernacular or the rhythms of spoken language in an effort to achieve just that. Here, the vernacular isn’t oral, but written—the language of commenting and chatting. But to suggest that this voice is just a reaction to norms of objectivity in favor of community misses some of the details. It often isn’t exactly friendly—instead, it’s sort of petulant, aggressively childish, arch but bratty, almost tweeny2. It's a commonplace that people today are engaged in the production of text at a higher rate than ever before. Part of this is the simultaneous use of informal and formal registers, as in posting Facebook comments while writing a paper or Gchatting in the office. It's hard to not think that most people are highly conscious of voice. The trouble isn’t that online writing isn’t expressive enough, as is often suggested to explain the proliferation of slang, but that it’s too expressive, too semantically loaded with the linguistic detritus of rapidly bursting microcultures. The internet has given us many things, prominent among them textually marked gestures of refusal to participate in conversation. There are so many ways of expressing frustration or contempt, acting above or below things, and this rhetoric quickly diffuses to people more intellectually developed than the 14-year-old in the YouTube comments. Its availability allows people to perform an ironic childishness, one that says something like, “I could be reasonable, argue in your mature adult way, but I don’t want to.” Here’s us kids playing, none of the grownups around, it says with a wink. We’re all in on the joke. Newton harps on the faux-Midwestern use of the address “folks,” but how about “kids”? This ironic childishness, used by people fully capable of being more articulate, can bind together an in-group but also define an out-group, people turned off by it or unable to understand why people would do this. I think this is a key part of this voice’s appeal—it allows readers and writers to feel like they’re sharing an inside joke, but whatever the joke is, it’s also public and lots of people get it.

The blurring of public and private communication is not purely a stylistic question. Especially since it’s foregrounded in Keegan’s article, it's worth asking how these ideas about writing relate to capitalism. Many of Keegan’s objections to what the finance industry does are easily transposed to certain types of writing. It's homogenous, erodes individuality, creates groupthink and conformity, has no room for creativity or individual development—sounds like a newsroom. Certain stylistic criticisms strongly resemble economic discourse. If Marina Keegan were to choose to take a consulting job, she would likely be preparing reports arguing for efficiency, calling for trimming the fat and toughening up businesses in much the same way that critics ask for clearer writing. So it might seem like a small gesture of resistance to write in this way. Yet at the same time this idea of narrowing the gap between speaker and audience has been wholly taken up by advertising, which also attempts to talk directly to you, insinuates itself as your cool friend. Advertising advertises itself as the hip, creative counterpart to capitalism, and the rise of the internet has led to the uncomfortable realization that lots and lots of people are willing to essentially do marketing for free on behalf of brands. More than that, people interact with each other as brands, creating problematic discourses of sincerity and authenticity in response that perhaps only accelerate the movement toward commodification of the self.

Where to turn? Note how the Keegan essay aspires to suggest something is a problem, or gesture toward a space in which issues can be raised and problems can be acknowledged, but nowhere presents anything recognizable as a program or solution. The idea is more to register the sense that something is off, and in communal recognition of this find some kind of understanding. This style almost seems like a precursor to Occupy Wall Street, which has received attention for refusing to make demands. The desire to step back and think about process, to be more concerned with the conditions under which different voices can speak and be heard, to negotiate the boundaries of discursive space, is in many respects laudable. At the same time, I can’t shake the fear that we’re simply trying to exchange one form of self-absorption for another.

*              *              *

Critics of purported stylistic excess from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” to Newton often make a connection between succinct expression and clarity of thought. An overblown or overly self-involved style suggests intellectual laziness, confusion, or impedes argument and expression of ideas. I’d like to turn this around and suggest that many of the elements under attack here represent alternative values which many writers might reasonably prefer. One person’s straightforwardness might be another’s reductiveness, one’s clarity another’s rigidity. One might legitimately prefer a subjective, experiential account of the writer’s thought process and personal background to an argument presented as a pure exercise in abstract logic. Yet not every departure from the bland style of the op-ed is created equal, or equally appealing, and it’s flawed pieces like Keegan’s that show what’s at stake.

What I see in this aspirational communal style is a discomfort with journalistic objectivity, critical pretentiousness or bombast, academic rigidity—perhaps, given the apparent age of many of its users, the formalized style of paper-writing. There’s a healthy suspicion embedded here, I think, of overly formalized writing. Who made the rules that govern the way you're supposed to write? What if these rules are insufficient for what we want to express, or inhibit us from expressing what’s more important or more interesting than what they permit? Beyond that, there’s a sense that (as editor Michael Kinnucan put it to me) “our intelligence has disappointed us,” and we need to find another way of doing things. The way that's been come up with is trying to unlearn things. Getting away from overly formalized writing and intellectualized thinking also means leaving behind a problematic way of (as a somewhat frustrating phrase has it) being in the world. Suspicion of the mind leads to looking for something external to the self found in other human beings.

In some ways the primary Wallace text for this mindset isn’t the more complex and erudite reportage and critical essays, but his commencement address at Kenyon College—an earnest and sometimes powerful speech, quite good by the standards of such things, but a preachier, less nuanced Wallace than the one many people admire. The speech perhaps makes the most sense in the context of Wallace’s interest in self-help books. Wallace warned against solipsism and self-absorption—how we all end up worshipping things, and none of these help. In the part of the speech that perhaps rang truest for many aspiring writers, he cautioned, “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” “It is not the least bit coincidental,” he said (in a sentence excised from the version published after his suicide as This Is Water), “that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head.”

In an essay in The Point, Jon Baskin gave the best analysis I’ve seen of the tension between irony and sincerity in Wallace’s writing. Baskin argues that there is a programmatic element to Wallace’s use of irony and self-criticism. Wallace deploys these tropes as a way to gradually lead readers away from solipsism. “The maze of contemporary thinking would have to be dismantled from within,” Baskin writes, but Wallace’s writing is about the constant fear of failure to do so. In Baskin’s view:

The full radicality—or conservatism, depending on your point of view—of the stance expressed by Jest can be stated as follows: a good theory does not amount to a good life; self-examination should take place only within rigorous limits; true therapy helps the subject escape from his head... Wallace was often accused of fashionable postmodern pretension, which inverts his potential vulnerability. Critics could more accurately fault Wallace for the kind of reactionary dogmatism associated with the late Tolstoy, whose turn to folk Christianity had a similar structure and motivation as Wallace’s valorization of AA.

Newton’s criticism of a desire to be liked, I think, falls short of this, but gets in some ways to the same point. Before trying to escape from our heads, discovering humanity in clichés and AA, it might be worth trying to go a little farther. There’s a real anti-intellectual current hiding in plain sight behind a lot of this stuff, often expressed with the word “community,” and just because Wallace could often walk that balance beam doesn't mean everyone can.

1 You can be sure that every “sort of” in this article appears solely because it is the most precise and rhetorically effective way to express a particular point.

2 Now for some serious equivocation. While working on this piece, I worried a lot about the gender dynamics of this style. I had the nagging suspicion that it was gendered as female, and this was a problem for me. Yes, Maud Newton, a woman, was making what might be the traditional masculine argument, in favor of tough prose and chiseled, whittled arguments, and David Foster Wallace, a man, represents the more traditionally feminine stereotype of indecision, interest in other people, and emotional underpinnings (albeit while also being cast in the very masculine role of progenitor.) Still, I’m picking on a woman’s writing here. I wonder if a lot of those Tumblrs and blog posts that left an impression of this style in the hazy, generalizing portion of my mind weren’t written disproportionately by women—or, recursively, if I only think this because these same gendered stereotypes about how people write are leading me to this worry. I wonder if I hear a neutral journalistic voice as masculine, and so if I’m right about it or if that’s the problem. If I’m in some way calling out how other people are writing, am I just being a male voice of authority telling other people what they’re doing is wrong, and that it’s wrong because a man says so? I’m going to follow the lead of my subject and leave some tough questions unresolved in a footnote.

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