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Brief thoughts regarding house recitals and David Foster Wallace's lack of conviction

August 23, 2011

Two topics to air this morning:

1) House concerts can be tricky to do well. Either the hosts are super rich and hold the recitals in some purpose-built hall or barn which lacks the warmth of a true home. Or the concerts take place in someone's poky living room where everyone's squeezed onto the sagging couch and the acoustics are overwhelming or muffled. Last night's recital of songs by Brahms (including the composer's lovely "Two Songs with Viola") featuring mezzo soprano Kindra Scharich, pianist John Boyajy and violist Paul Yarbrough at the home of Tom Driscoll and Nancy Quinn in San Francisco was wonderful because it struck the perfect balance between intimacy and roominess. The performance space occupies a generous nook at the end of the Quinn-Driscoll's living room. The grand piano is surrounded by windows with a huge view over the city (though last night we were socked in by fog so it couldn't fully be appreciated.) The sight-lines and the acoustics are both good. The vaulted ceilings and curvacious lines of the room make it feel like a nest. It is the perfect spot for an intimate evening of music-making. The space seemed particularly well-made for middle-voiced instruments. The viola and mezzo timbres washed over me, bathing me in warmth and emotion.

2) The New York Times Magazine published a piece by Maude Newton about the ill effects of David Foster Wallace's prose on an entire generation of writers. I agree with Newton's observation about the "undecisive" nature of Wallace's prose (with its myriad clauses, constant use of qualifiers and talkative quality.) Newton writes, "so much of what passes for intellectual debate nowadays is obscured behind a veneer of folksiness and sincerity and is characterized by an unwillingness to be pinned down. Where the craving for admiration and approval predominates, intellectual rigor cannot thrive, if it survives at all." But what I don't buy is her reasons for pinning this flip-floppy, loosy-goosiness on Wallace: "Wallace isn’t responsible for his imitators, much less for the stylized mess that is Gen-X-and-Y Internet syntax. The devices can be traced back to him, though, if indirectly; they were filtered through and popularized by Dave Eggers’s literary magazine and publishing empire, McSweeney’s, and Eggers’s own novels and memoirs, all of which borrowed not only Wallace’s tics but also his championing of post-ironic sincerity and his attempts to ward off criticism by embedding all possible criticisms within the writing itself." Did Eggers really borrow Wallace's ticks? I doubt it. He arrived at his ticks all on his own, simply by being in the world we live in, I suspect. Wallace may be an exponent of a style that is onerous to Newton, but the journalist goes too far in tracing its roots to Wallace. I feel like my entire high school class was writing in this fashion in the late 80s and early 90s. It's been prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems to me, for a good while longer than Newton admits. What about Proust? Isn't he a master of wishy-washy syntax?


  • It seems to me that piece also misses the fact that Wallace's essays-- even as they contain a multiplicity of viewpoints and double back on each other-- have very clear arguments, and are in fact performances of the thought process that leads to his conclusion. Which is actually a very old fashioned form of essay that dates back to Montaigne.

    By Blogger isaac butler, At August 23, 2011 at 10:58 AM  

  • As a person who has been known to host a house concert in my fairly largish (for the standards of the city in which I live) living room, I'm curious as to how big the living room you were in actually was, and how many people were in attendance.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At September 26, 2011 at 7:44 AM  

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