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David Foster Wallace vs. Dave Barry: What is good writing?

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The kind of writing David Foster Wallace did; sprawling, enigmatic, serious, in a word, "literary"; lets the writer get away with murder. The kind of Dave Barry does, which must both sweep the reader effortlessly along and deliver a minimum of three jokes per paragraph, is much harder to pull off.

Here are the opening lines of Infinite Jest:

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.

I am in here.

This is mannered, wordy, circular, and full of puzzles (isn't a reception area exactly where "Administrative sounds" are made?). But who can say it's actually bad? That DFW is hard to get through is held up as one of his virtues. Of course Infinite Jest is difficult, goes the argument, it would be shallow to expect otherwise. No one can access the kind of next-level shit the book promises; the redefinition of literature and possibly of consciousness itself; without some effort. The idea of the novel as popular entertainment has been left so far behind that it's impossible to judge the book by any conventional notion of readability. If you're bored or confused, it's your own fault. Buck up and read harder.

Dave Barry does not have this luxury. He's exposed in a way no "literary" writer is. His readers expect to be amused. Immediately. Not everyone will be, but the criterion is clear: If you're laughing, he's successful; if you're not, he's not.

Here are the opening lines of Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up:

People often say to me: "Dave, you are a leading journalism professional and not as short as I expected. What is your secret of success?"

The answer is that, throughout my career, I have always kept one vital journalistic principle foremost in my mind: Try not to leave the house. A journalist who leaves his or her house can run into all kinds of obstacles, including:

  • Editors.
  • Members of the public.
  • News events involving actual facts.

All of these obstacles can seriously interfere with the basic work of journalism, which is sitting around and thinking stuff up. This is what I mainly do, which is why I have been able to achieve a level of high-quality journalistic productivity, as measured in booger jokes, that a guy like David Broder can only dream about.

Even if you don't think this is funny, it has a certain rhythm to it. A snappiness, an easy, engaging quality. And this rhythm is something Dave Barry has to sustain for the WHOLE book. If the book drags and the reader puts it down, he will not be able to blame this on the reader's inability to grasp the book's "lopsided Sierpinski Gasket" structure.

A clear benchmark of success is something that all genre writers have. If you don't feel suspense while reading a suspense novel or romantic while reading a romance, the author has patently failed. Creating effects that are instantly intelligible to a broad audience may not bring critical respectability, but in fact takes far more discipline than writing sentences like this one, which occurs a little farther down on that first page of Infinite Jest: "My fingers are mated into a mirrored series of what manifests, to me, as the letter X." You will not find writing like that by Dave Barry, Stephen King, or Elmore Leonard, who once said, "if it sounds like writing, cross it out." But describing folded hands in a way that doesn't require so much reader effort isn't necessary when you're David Foster Wallace. (Is it in bad taste to criticize a writer who met such a tragic end? Given DFW's aversion to sentimentality, I feel sure he himself would not think so.)

I can't pretend this point about literary writers vs. genre writers is an original one. B.R. Myers makes it much more forcefully in his brilliant and hilarious polemic A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose. But as you consider your options for so-called beach reading (i.e., books that you actually want to read as opposed to books you're supposed to read), it's worth remembering there's no such thing as a guilty pleasure. And if the pages keep turning, it means a writer has done his or her job.

David W. Stoesz is the author of A Sensitive Liberal's Guide to Life.

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