In Defense of Standards

I had not read anything by David Foster Wallace until, following his premature death by suicide late last year, I could not open a paper or magazine without encountering another of the dozens of anguished and adulatory tributes calling him the greatest writer of his (my) generation. My curiosity piqued (the more so after learning that, like me, DFW had been a competitive tennis player), I bought his 1,000-plus-page novel Infinite Jest and a slimmer collection of essays, Consider the Lobster. (A three-pound paperback edition of the former waits patiently in my bedside stack until someone invents a contraption that will suspend and hold it open so that I can read it in bed without injuring myself. I recommend the essays to DFW novices — those who can countenance never eating lobster again and the withering criticism of Tracy Austin’s vapidness in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.”)

Where EBW lived and wrote by his Cornell composition professor William Strunk’s dictum to “omit needless words,” DFW had so much to say (on so many topics!) and such an overactive mind that he could deem no word “needless” — omitting anything was not his strong suit. His essays overflow with footnotes, clarifications, asides and digressions that in sheer words outnumber and ultimately overwhelm the original text. His hyperlinked intellect cannot be contained by mere page margins.

Yet despite their opposite tendencies, EBW and DFW both did their part to defend Standard Written English against incursions by linguistic liberals, the destructive “descriptivists” who challenge SWE as elitist, anti-democratic and, worst of all, politically incorrect.

DFW’s “Authority and American Usage” (1999), spanning over 60 pages and including 80 footnotes (some set in a font so tiny as to be barely legible), is an impassioned and rigorously researched and argued defense of why a shared set of rules for grammar and usage are necessary in a diverse and democratic society.

DFW came of age in the linguistically permissive 1970s, but EBW belonged to a generation that respected authority. Thus, in updating and reissuing Professor Strunk’s “little book” of rules as The Elements of Style, EBW was unapologetic for its patently prescriptive purpose:

Unless someone is willing to entertain notions of superiority, the English language disintegrates, just as a home disintegrates unless someone in the family sets standards of good taste, good conduct, and simple justice.

For EBW, as for Strunk before him, the purpose of rules was to help readers and writers, not to tie their hands or rap their knuckles, and both were quick to acknowledge that the best writers (and, here, DFW is a prime example) may violate them in service of their art. (Think of the young Picasso studying and practicing the rules of perspective only to spend his later years breaking and reinventing them, changing forever the way we see the world.)

Practicing what he was taught and later preached, EBW humorously summed up Will Strunk’s purpose and the value of prescriptivism:

Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in the swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.

Personal Reflections

My mother was what DFW called a “SNOOT” (his family’s term for a “usage fanatic,” one for whom “listening to most people’s public English feels like watching somebody else use a Stradivarius to pound nails.”) I remember Mom complaining about an ad jingle that was inescapable during my childhood: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” It wasn’t the idea of selling an unhealthful product as good-tasting or of running the ad on TV shows like “The Flintstones” that got under her skin, it was the reckless misuse of the conjunction “like” — “Winston tastes good AS a cigarette should,” she would sniff each time she heard the tag line.

When Winston revived the ad in the 1970s, the company mocked SNOOTs like Mom by adding this sassy retort, “What do you want, good grammar or good taste?”

My mother would have insisted that good grammar is good taste. No surprise that all three of her children majored in English!

Hunting online for an image to accompany this reflection, I found a series of old cartoon ads using the Flintstones as Winston spokesmen. I must have seen them many times as a child, but I’m pleased to say that they never made a smoker out of me!

4 Responses to “In Defense of Standards”

  1. 1 ERD April 11, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Jan – You’ve been sneaking these wonderful literary memory online without telling me — do I need to tweeter? (looked for the website just now, but no can find – ?).

    Very nice memories of Mom and reflections on snoots. Love th Flintstone ad – nice find.


  2. 2 Steve Blumberg April 11, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    There is much to appreciate about your personal reflections.
    As a DFW fan, I especially liked the concise handle you coined for him….”hyperlinked intellect.”

    I owned a copy of “Infinite Jest” soon after it was published.
    I realized soon enough I wasn’t going to get through it and “loaned” it to a friend with far greater intellect and more intellectual stamina than me.

    Another friend loaned me a copy of “Consider The Lobster,” which I found far more accessible.
    If it’s not a violation of “standards” or bad punditry I would add that it was “Infinitely” more accessible.

    Recently, after reading a lengthy New Yorker piece on DFW, I became re-inspired to read Infinite Jest and and even more inspired to entertain the notion of making it a book club selection.

    I humbly suggest that you, your brothers, myself, and a select few others commit to reading it and commit to convening a soire to discuss and share reactions to it. For me, this undertaking will be Herculean but I expect the total experience promises much reward.

    Perhaps, if it hasn’t yet been done, we could then write the first set of Cliff Notes to Infinite Jest.

    First, I look forward to accessing more of your writing.

  3. 3 jandev April 12, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    I agree that “Consider the Lobster” is an easier entree into DFW. I think I’ll buy the Kindle version of “Infinite Jest” so it’s weightless and I can carry it around and consume little bits at a time. I’ll re-purpose the 5 lb paperback copy to a doorstop or a free weight.

  4. 4 Steve Blumberg April 12, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    RE: The Reader

    In the interests of full disclosure, I haven’t really read DFW.

    I forgot to mention that my entree into DFW was the audio version of “Consider the Lobster,” narrated by the late DFW.

    Unlike Kate Winslet in “The Reader,” I don’t have any other major crimes to hide, other than the occasional mulligan and a propensity to sandbag my NTRP rating in the pursuit of USTA league tennis glory.


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