DeLillo v. Wallace

From the New Yorker a couple weeks ago, in an article about University of Texas literary archivist Tom Staley: 

…in a 1997 letter to David Foster Wallace, [Don DeLillo] wrote that his prose is characterized by “a sensitivity to the actual appearance of words on a page, to letter-shapes and letter-combinations.” (DeLillo saved a copy of the letter.) He goes on, “At some point (in my writing life) I realized that precision can be a kind of poetry, and the more precise you try to be, or I try to be, the more simply and correctly responsive to what the world looks like—then the better my chances of creating a deeper and more beautiful language.” (In his response, Wallace wrote, “I found your comments on the physical architecture of clauses and words and letters real interesting and yet identified with them not one whit. I think I’m maybe 100% aural. My eyesight’s really bad anyway.”)

I find this exchange fascinating, not least because it helps explain why, despite admiring both writers, I have long felt more drawn to DeLillo aesthetically: most of the poetry I have written in the past ten years has operated out of a similar concern for the visual properties of letters and words, a desire to turn a block of text into abstract art. (It is entirely possible that this is a chicken-egg situation and that my poetic predilections were in fact directly inspired by having read DeLillo in college, starting with Underworld in 1997, but suffice it to say this is the first time that I have read such a straight-forward explication of his approach, apart from the oft-cited fact that he’s a typewriter man.)

The “aural” style of David Foster Wallace, on the other hand, sometimes grates on me precisely because it’s so indifferent to the elegance of language. To be fair, there’s a part of me that gets a kick out of the hyperactive impulse to just throw a bunch of words on paper, an exciting mish-mash of slang and jargon and literary prose, rife with digressions, and I get that same fizzy sensation from George Saunders’s fiction as well. But a lot of the time it seems so arbitary, like what’s the point, really, of abbreviating “with respect to” as “w/r/t” except to create this stylish busy-intellectual air, and it often longs to be edited, smoothed out. (For a while, after reading Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, my standard line was that the jokey casualness of the prose was both the best and worst thing about it: one minute it felt refreshing and rule-breaking [“Hey, he’s just writing whatever he feels like!”] and the next clumsy and bloated [“Ugh, he’s just writing whatever he feels like”].)

I don’t mean to suggest that DeLillo and Wallace are polar opposites, though. For one, it’s not as though the former isn’t attuned to the rhythms of colloquial American speech (in fact, it’s something I like about both writers), it’s that he integrates it so evenly into the rest of his prose that it becomes entrancing, not jarring. (Although this often has the effect of making his dialogue sound artificial, with everyone speaking in the same clipped, philosophical manner of the novelist himself.) But it’s amusing to note that even Wallace’s three-sentence response itself is characteristic, from the ungrammatical “real interesting” to the vernacular “not one whit” and the technical shorthand “100%.”

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4 thoughts on “DeLillo v. Wallace

  1. puddlehead

    I agree with your last paragraph, when you write about DeLillo’s dialogue. Though it doesn’t make for a disruptive read, I have heard people complain that his characters are trumpets for his own musing and therefore lacking differentiation. And the characters are somehow sharing a collective navel-gaze.

    Do you think Wallace’s response was flippant for its inattention to grammatical convention? Or is that just colloquial and more true to language?

  2. seaworthyset

    “True to language” is a tough nut to crack, since there are a multitude of languages within English: literary prose, technical lingo, street slang, etc. And I don’t know that aping spoken English is always desirable; the only reason that dialogue so often requires good mimicry is for credulity’s sake.

    I definitely think, though, that Wallace was consciously playing up his unelegant style in that response. He’s a skilled enough writer that he can probably write in a more polished style if he wants, but I get the sense he wanted to poke a hole in DeLillo’s pretentiousness by affecting this “Aw shucks, I’m just a fella from central Illinois who writes what I hear” routine.

  3. puddlehead

    Fair enough, I suppose “true to language” is pretty vague and perhaps a little exclusive, considering the English languages spoken. I more or less meant, I think, true to the cadence and style of Wallace’s own speech.

    Yes, that was my impression as well, that Wallace was sort of undermining DeLillo’s style. Though, I must say, Wallace’s “clauses and words and letters” has a certain Cormac McCarthy grace and rhyme that I can get behind.

    Take care,
    Puddlehead

  4. buggeryville

    most of the poetry I have written in the past ten years has operated out of a similar concern for the visual properties of letters and words, a desire to turn a block of text into abstract art.

    Do you read much vizpo? The best blog on it is Geof Huth’s, whose archive is worth strolling through. (And you’ll find his review of my chapbook there too, as a bonus.) Anyway, just a thought.

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