Writing to please or writing to persuade?
By Matt Pearce
“Where the craving for admiration and approval predominates, intellectual rigor cannot thrive, if it survives at all.”
So spake Maud Newton in the New York Times Magazine this weekend, launching an attack against deceased literary folk-superhero David Foster Wallace for his audience-conscious “aw-shucks, I-could-be-wrong-here, I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach” to nonfiction. Her essay is the most nuanced and uncurmudgeonly critique I’ve seen of Wallace, who seems as to be much of an untouchable as you can get in the literary world. She harpoons Wallace’s stylistic affectations, some of which have migrated their way into broader audience; she then pivots to attack the blogosphere’s worst habits of fake folksiness and argumentative gutlessness, which she thinks have descended from Wallace and undermined our ability to argue. “(T)he idea is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe,” Newton concludes. “And the best way to make an argument is to make it, straightforwardly, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward.”
Here’s an argument: There are worse things than pleasing your audience, even if you have to click your heels every now and then to do it. Bill O’Reilly is straightforward, passionate, provocative, and doesn’t give a damn what you think. He also boasts a jacket of priors on Politifact, and his style makes across-the-aisle alienation a foregone conclusion. But he’s hardly alone; when it comes to “provoke and persuade,” Fox News already leads the way, leaving a trail of scorched earth behind it. Was Wallace really so bad? Shouldn’t we promote more self-doubt, not less?