from mariecalloway:“I got a little tired of this idea of an authorial voice of complete knowledge or perfect wisdom. I got really tired of being in readings and having people much older than myself saying ‘Oh, you’re so wise, you’re so full of wisdom.’ But I don’t know anything! What you’re reading is an imitation of what wisdom sounds like. And so I got very tired of that voice, because it really is just a voice. There are other ways to demonstrate the fact that you’re pretty much put down midstream. It’s like you’re being thrown and you have to make it up as you go along. I read a lot of existentialism when I was writing this book, but it doesn’t have to be high theory. You know it yourself. You’re so profoundly inconsistent from one moment to another. The shock of your life, for instance, is to be shown a letter you wrote from five years ago. You usually can’t even recognize the voice. I wanted to express that feeling of self-alienation or the sense of not really having a self at all. For so many novels, it’s like they’ve taken characters and got them on a pin. The point is to make them squirm, to ridicule them, to judge them, and pronounce this final conclusion, which is usually a faux liberal ‘Ahh…But no one knows anything in the end.’ Full of judgement, full of opinion, full of certainty, and I just found it quite suffocating.”
Zadie Smith interview forInterview about her latest novel NW (viaanotheriteration)
I find this quote interesting mostly for the end bit: I feel like there are styles of writing that are just appropriative or violent or oppressive, that reproduce fucked up dynamics of perception, and it’s really hard to talk about it when it’s a matter of style rather than content.
But I don’t know that the alternative necessarily has to do with self-alienation, or that a self-alienated voice is the clear answer…
Like David Foster Wallace’s writing voice: the pleasure of it, for me, comes from the way he brings together verbal tics and gestures and a neurotic conversational voice all the while showcasing an immense brilliance (in his own words: “sort of like a smart person is sitting right there talking to you”), and so much of the fascination of the voice is watching the performance of an affective schizophrenia surrounding his own thought: sometimes he’s obviously amused by his own brain, sometimes he’s annoyed with it, sometimes he’s embarrassed by it, always he is extremely careful to apologize for it… when I first read it I felt like my experience of self-consciousness had never been so literalized.
And no one is more articulate about the faults of David Foster Wallace’s voice than David Foster Wallace’s voice — I wish I had my copies of his texts so I could show you, these truly dazzling performances of self-reflexivity — so smart about its own limitations.
But, at least in this one essay he writes, it’s a voice that doesn’t shut up and listen. It doesn’t decenter.*
Is it ridiculous to ask for the creation of an authorial voice that can shut up and listen?
(It doesn’t matter if you’ve shut up and listened in the past. This is part of the seduction of this voice: it performs having listened A LOT and experienced A LOT, and so that’s why it has A LOT TO SAY.)
What do I mean by shutting up and listening? I don’t mean budging under the weight of a more forceful or brilliant authority. I feel like many people are capable of that. And perhaps this is also what the dfw voice performs: it’s a voice that’s obviously been subjected to a ton of brutal self-punishing. It’s totally capable of being like: “That’s so right. You’re so right,” as long as the “right” words are being said.
What I mean is really trying to take in other perspectives as authorities, too, no matter how“well” or “poorly” they articulate themselves: even if they are angry and discomposed, even if they offend you while they say it and even if you are ultimately right to be offended by some of the things they say. I mean decentering yourself. I mean: I know that you are having a complicated and subtle reaction right now to what I am saying, but I don’t care how brilliant you are, or think you are, or want to make me think you are (is it helpful to suggest that there is probably a castration complex lurking at the bottom of all this): I don’t want to hear about your self-awareness right now! Or your self-alienation! Or your self-anything!
I’m wondering if there isn’t some relationship between this David Foster Wallace voice and liberal white Americanness: first speak, then apologize. Apologize for speaking, even. But then, keep talking.
Ella’s complaint: Whenever I have been present in a conversation about race, and there’s a white man in the room, it somehow always becomes about his feelings about race or about being called a racist.
This is a post celebrating my conversation with Jane about queer and race. I feel like we really decentered ourselves. A dfw voice might make a joke about self-congratulation right now, but I am post-that, I am post-dfw voice.
* This post is the baby of my own very complicated relationship with David Foster Wallace’s essay about Standard American English.
I think it’s in A Supposedly Fun Thing but I’m not sure. Anyways, he relates a story about being a professor of writing at the University of Illinois and having a black female student. She writes in some kind of non-standard English, I forget how he racializes it: basically she’s not writing in Educated White English. He recounts his very complicated and distraught reaction to her writing, maybe he even praises it, and he recounts a conversation he had with her in which he explained that her writing would never be seen as legitimate unless she wrote in, and he capitalizes it, Standard American English. He analyzes the whole thing with great compassion. Maybe he even goes into the economics of it, the class analysis of it. He’s really sad about the whole thing.
But, like, fuck man, couldn’t you have at least quoted her writing in the essay? Instead of shielding it from our supposedly delegitimizing eyes? And also: is this what has made your writing the way it is, is that why you are so good at what you do, because you are afraid of the delegitimizing eyes of white people? Because you are really good at giving the punishing eyes of white people* what they want, because you are one?
* lol maybe I should call my best-selling woman of color memoir “the punishing eyes of white people” – really I am just riffing on this Eve Sedgwick quote – towards an anti-oedipal writing?
Update: I found the original essay and made a post about it here.