April 15, 2011

A little joke: Yahoo Answers disparages the first page of Infinite Jest


This has been going around the web.

Earlier this year, some anonymous wag posted the first page of David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest on Yahoo Answers with the question “First page of my book. what do you think?” The results were less than complimentary. The chosen best answer was “You know your story needs more work, so you don’t need anyone to tell you what you already know” and things got worse from there:

No discernible voice/tone in this writing. Rambling descriptions. I, frankly, do not care where each and every person is seated. I don’t care what shoe you’re wearing. If you take out all the unnecessary details, you’d be left with about seven words….

Honestly, my first thought was, “There are so dang many HYPHENS!” and I couldn’t concentrate until I didn’t see any more.

Faces do not “resolve” into place… resolving means solving, or finishing. Do you mean, materialize…?

“My fingers are mated into a mirrored series of what manifests, to me, as the letter X.”…? What…!?

“a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material”…I understand what you’re tying to say, but you really need to work on your phrasing…

I recommend checking out “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B White… that should help to clear a few things up.

The joke, of course, is that the Yahoo commenters are, as the Badass Nerd blog puts it, “a hive of morons” for not recognizing “a landmark in modern literature.” And certainly there is a certain self-satisfied all-knowing smugness to the suggestions. However many of the suggestions are fairly standard bits of stylistic advice: use clearer language, don’t waste space with unnecessary details, don’t describe every character’s shoe, etc. For many writers, these would be valuable lessons to learn. If a would-be artist presented a Cubist painting and asked for help, it would seem fairly normal to explain the rules of perspective, body proportion, etc. In the end, I feel that the Yahoo commenters walked into a nasty trap. Not “in” on the joke, they provided standardized answers and looked like fools. However, I think the “Badass Nerd” is giving an equally standardized response with his too-easy mocking of the ignorant masses.

I tend to agree with the blogger Allyson Rudolph‘s response to the joke:

…if you’re not immersing yourself in his writing, David Foster Wallace’s command of grammar and syntax and usage comes off as very, very weird.

All of which is to say: I have a lot of feelings about Infinite Jest, but if I were reading just the first page, out of context, on the internet? Meh.