Kind of Sort of Riffing on Maud Newton’s Riff

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Maud Newton has an interesting riff—that’s actually a capital-R Riff, one of their many new categories to keep us all reading. In it, she posits that David Foster Wallace’s casual, slangy rhetoric is the precursor of blogging’s conversational style. By her reckoning, it’s the written equivalent of a friendly arm slung over someone’s shoulder while making a point: “Wallace’s nonfiction abounds with qualifiers like ‘sort of’ and ‘pretty much’ and sincerity-infusers like ‘really.'”

It’s a good point, pegging both what I like about much of Foster Wallace’s essay writing—his command of tone, and high and low style mixed together, can be a beautiful thing—and also what gets tiring after a while when encountered everywhere. I’ll cop to being as prone to “really” and the dreaded “folks” as the next conversational online essayist (in the absence of any synonym whatsoever for “blogger”), but blog writing still comes down to style choices, authorial control of voice and pitch, and the best any of us can hope for is to strike the right balance.

What fogs the glass in this case is that so much Web writing you run into is about the personality behind the words. The rhetoric of likeability that Newton talks about is definitely one aspect of blogging style; the subtext is as much “please like me” as “please like what I’ve written.” Bloggers are, to some extent, the Sally Fields of the written word. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the extent of Foster Wallace’s legacy. Blogging leans heavily on variations of dismantling the fourth wall, and that, I think, turns out to be even more of a mandate. Blogs are the bastard child of gonzo journalism—I know, talk about damning with really, really faint praise—and the bricking up or tearing down of that wall is a delicate enterprise. Some bloggers do away with it altogether, some maintain chest-high office-type partitions, some want to make sure you know you’re looking at the perp in question through a one-way mirror. It’s a lot of choice to sustain, whether conscious or not. The pieces I write for Like Fire are certainly more casual than something I’d hand in as a printed piece, the only real difference being that awareness of being seen through the window of a computer monitor. Odd that it should influence tone so much, but there you go. It’s both distancer and magnifier, a weird spot at both ends of the telescope simultaneously. As Newton points out (and would I refer to her as Maud if this were a post on her blog and not a Times article? I actually spent some time pondering this):

How we arrived at the notion that the postmodern era is the first ever to confront the tension between sincerity and irony despite millennia of evidence to the contrary is no mystery: every generation believes its insights are unprecedented, its struggles uniquely formidable, its solutions the balm for all that ails the world. Why so many of our critics are still, after all these years, making their arguments in this inherently self-undermining voice—still trying to ward off every possible rejoinder and pre-emptively rebut every possible criticism by mixing a weird rhetorical stew of equivocation, pessimism and Elysian prophecy—is another question entirely.

That interface of sincerity and irony can be truly ingenuous, or it can be a cringing thing. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only person left on earth who reads smileys as a kind of wince. But no matter; as with all the other minute choices I make as a writer, that’s my business. Thinking about the distinctions of tone, when you’re on a roll with a good rant (or a good Riff) can feel like looking at your feet while you’re dancing. But making the effort to resist that kind of middle-school-girl language tic—“Oh, this is probably gonna sound so dumb”—is worthwhile. Even David Foster Wallace couldn’t get away with it all the time, and if he can’t, the rest of us really kind of ought to watch ourselves. I think.

(Image via Nippertown.)


3 Comments to Kind of Sort of Riffing on Maud Newton’s Riff

  1. August 23, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    a weird spot at both ends of the telescope simultaneously.

    I love this.

  2. August 24, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m as guilty as anyone of that equivocating, qualifying voice. But I use it consciously, with the idea that, in an essay, my goal is to raise questions and not answer them. If I ever feel I have an actual answer to something that is worth sharing, maybe my tone would be stronger. I suppose that makes me distinctly post-modern, i.e. it’s hard to even imagine thinking/believing – let alone writing – something that stakes such a decisive claim.

  3. August 26, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    I feel like blogs were established directly in opposition to the “serious” writing that Newton espouses, which doesn’t actually make it less serious. In fact, I find stream-of-consciousness blogging to generally be more sincere and more revelatory about the writer than the sort of “opinions” you get in the NY Times.

    I couldn’t resist wading into this debate.

    On Maud Newton vs. David Foster Wallace and “folksiness.”

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