New White Guys
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The desire to characterize or, better still, to name generational clusters of literary authors is inevitably in part a canon-forming bent, a desire to label both the major trajectory of contemporary literature and the major players within that trajectory. Such naming can be seen in the second-order postmodernist debates, the continuing wrangle about what it means to be a postmodern novelist–Is a postmodern novelist necessarily pro-postmodernism, or rather a critical chronicler of the postmodern condition?–about the distinction between high modernism and postmodernism (and, indeed, whether such a distinction can be supported), and about who falls in which category, when viewed from what angle. As I suggested in the first chapter, the canon-forming lists of postmodern novelists developed and debated by Barth, Hassan, and numerous other critics set the stage for the debate to follow, in no small part because of these lists’ stellar uniformity. With the rare exception of a Kathy Acker or an Ishmael Reed, these lists of the postmodern canon are a roll call of white male novelists: Barth, Burroughs, Coover, DeLillo, Gaddis, Gass, McElroy, Pynchon, et cetera. This insularity, as Molly Hite suggests in introducing her revised list in the Columbia History of the American Novel, has made a lasting mark on perceptions of the genre: “the American novel is widely perceived–and criticized–as a white male genre” (698). Hite works, in her entry, to debunk this notion with regard to the postmodern novel, exploring the work of a number of nonwhite and/or nonmale authors whose work is aesthetically in keeping with the interests of postmodernism, and who should thus be included in an opened, revised canon. That such an argument has to be made, however, suggests both the power of early adopters to define generational terms and the political realities that underlie all such ostensibly disinterested descriptions of cultural phenomena.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 For this reason, recent characterizations of the second wave of postmodernist writers are revealing, particularly as they have spread memelike through popular considerations of the contemporary literary scene. Consider, for instance, the following lines from the Orange County Weekly‘s review of Rick Moody’s collection of short stories Demonology: “Moody’s not alone here [in the difficulties he’s faced locating his literary ambitions as more properly Updikean or Pynchonesque]: the other New White Guys–as [David Foster] Wallace has dubbed the group that includes him, Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Donald Antrim, and for good measure, let’s throw in that upstart Dave Eggers–have almost had the same trouble” (Bonca). The multiple suggestions in this quote–that there is a group, that it has been named, that it has been named by one of its own members–are readily adopted in this review as evidence of these writers’ importance: Antrim, Eugenides, Franzen, Moody, and Wallace (and one might add others who’ve been suggested for membership, such as Eggers, Jonathan Lethem, and William T. Vollmann) are the new canon because everybody says so.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This reading of the “New White Guys” misses two key points, however: first, that the term itself, as attributed to Wallace, is a reduction of a more complex (and more complexly expressed) thought both about the group and about its existence as a group; and second, that this thought is doubly conscious, that it both is and is not meant to be taken seriously, that it is at its root aware of the contested nature of the terms it invokes.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The first point first: after exhaustive searches among the myriad databases of the new information economy, after reading dozens of author interviews and profiles and transcripts of nonprint interviews and profiles, after querying the fantastically obsessive readers of the Wallace-l listserv and the caretakers of the Howling Fantods Web site, and, finally, after asking the author himself, I can find no evidence anywhere that Wallace ever uttered the now oft-cited words “New White Guys,” least of all with canon-forming intent. He has commented in several places on the newness and whiteness and guyness of these particular writers, but less as a means of declaring them a group than of pointing out the superficiality of the criteria by which they might be considered a group. Consider, for instance, the following comment published in a Time Magazine article that attempts to capture the faces of today’s fiction writers by characterizing them as “The New Fab Four”: ” ‘I think we’re all white males between 30 and 40, as far as I know,’ is how Wallace coyly describes the group” (Sheppard 90). The article’s author goes on to find affinities of influence and ofÂ subject matter, and even more personal ties–Antrim and Franzen talk sometimes! Wallace and Moody have the same editor!–as a means of defusing the suggestion that the “group” is a fabrication produced by critics who are seeking the new canon. Similarly, in response to a question about the group from Salon‘s Laura Miller, Wallace demurs: “There’s the whole ‘great white male’ deal. I think there are about five of us under 40 who are white and over 6 feet and wear glasses” (Miller). In the transition to “New White Guys” from these comments that ostensibly intend to point out the meaninglessness of such labels, the potential complexity of Wallace’s commentary has been reduced to a sound bite, an uncritically applied label.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Second, and more importantly: Wallace’s original comments, both of which not only acknowledge the whiteness and maleness of the “group” but also suggest that these are superficial criteria for claiming its existence (as would be a description of literary schools based around height or eyesight), attempt to defuse the canon-building impulse by pointing directly to the social intent behind such groupings. By suggesting that the group’s particular groupness is not only based on characteristics over which its members had no control, characteristics that have nothing to do with their writing, but also based on characteristics that in U.S. culture are the very absences that define the locus of power–to be white is to have no race; to be male is to have no gender; to be unraced and ungendered is to be the universal–Wallace attempts to undermine the critical determination to center the literary future in these few individuals. Transforming the ” ‘great white male’ deal” into the “New White Guys” shifts Wallace’s evident discomfort with canonization, and above all with the privilege that allows for canonization, into a hip irony, a cool suggestion that “white guys” can become, in their newness, not the center of power but a marginalized special-interest group. In claiming such marginality for the center, in marking the unmarked white male for both race and gender, this reduction of Wallace’s thought enacts precisely the centering I believe Wallace sought to avoid.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 That said, the argument that Wallace is seeking to avoid the recentering of the white male viewpoint by defusing the claims of marginality that the “New White Guys” moniker effects must be complicated by acknowledging a rather difficult comment of Wallace’s quoted in Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Perhaps to Dream.” In an unspecified missive to Franzen, Wallace writes:
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Just about everybody with any sensitivity feels like there’s a party going on that they haven’t been invited to–we’re all alienated. I think the guys who write directly about and at the present culture tend to be writers who find their artistic invalidation especially painful. . . . And it’s not an accident thatÂ so many of the writers in the shadows are straight white males. Tribal writers can feel the loneliness and anger and identify themselves with their subculture and can write to and for their subculture about how the mainstream culture’s alienated them. White males are the mainstream culture. So why shouldn’t we be angry, confused, lonely white males who write at and against the culture? (51).
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The difficulties with this statement, even beyond the questionable labeling of nonwhite, nonmale writers as “tribal,” are painfully obvious. First, equating white straight male “loneliness and anger” at not being invited to the party with the harassments and exclusions perpetuated by the dominant culture against the marginalized has the effect, whether intentionally or not, of invalidating the political claims of oppressed groups. Second, Wallace’s statement lends itself to the same kinds of misappropriation that resulted in the “New White Guys” label, giving Franzen the freedom to claim, in the very next paragraph, that “[w]hite men are a tribe, too” (52). That this passage falls within an extended essay in which Franzen relates his own writerly struggles with his cultural irrelevance, at one moment in which he confesses to having begun, and “abandoned . . . in midsentence” (41), writing an essay called “My Obsolescence,” should not come as a surprise. It is to the point, then, that this generation’s writerly anxiety about exclusion from “the culture” seems to circulate around their whiteness and maleness; in their unmarkedness, in finding themselves the New White Guys, these writers feel themselves excluded from a culture of exclusion, marginalized by a culture that is finally paying attention to the voices originating on the margins.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The main difference between this perception of exclusion and that demonstrated by the novelists of obsolescence, however, is that these concerns are not masked by anxieties that declare themselves to be about medial shifts in contemporary culture. Thus, to read a bit further: among the problems presented by the ironizing of Wallace’s rather complex, conflicted position into “the New White Guys” lies the deep contradiction between this hip knowingness and his own perhaps futile attempts to deactivate irony as the primary mode of work done by the contemporary U.S. novel. In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Wallace argues that irony, while originally a rhetorical stance that challenged the status quo through its refusal to be taken at face value, or to take the status quo with a straight face, has in the late age of television become one with the status quo as the primary mode of consumer discourse (i.e., advertising) and popular entertainment (i.e., the sitcom). In this shift, irony loses its politically critical edge and instead becomes reactionary, a means of avoiding change through avoiding the serious and painful exploration of sensitive human issues. “[I]rony and ridicule,” Wallace suggests, “are entertaining and effective, and . . . at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture”; moreover, because of this stasis and despair, irony poses “especially terrible problems” for young novelists, who must escape stasis in order to challenge the culture within which they write (49). Irony is, in its effects, dehumanizing, in no small part because its refusal to take contemporary problems seriously makes their amelioration and the formation of solutions impossible. In the ironic mode of discourse, the political status quo is held up to ridicule, not without justification; but by extension, all political problems–and actions–become ridiculous.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 It is of course important to note that, for Wallace, irony’s debilitating transformation into a U.S. cultural norm is connected to television not simply in the sense that television is the prime locus of such mainstreamed, commercialized irony but in the sense that television made irony possible in the first place. As he argues: “by offering young, overeducated fiction writers a comprehensive view of how hypocritically the U.S.A. saw itself circa 1960, early television helped legitimate absurdism and irony as not just literary devices but sensible responses to a ridiculous world” (“Pluram” 65). Television, in its whole-hearted early embrace of the traditional U.S. values embodied by such programs as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best–values both hypocritical and oppressive in their assumptions of universal whiteness and middle-classness, in their support for the patriarchal nuclear family, and in the shield they form between that family and the rest of the world–set the stage for the rise to prominence of irony as a mode of critical reading. But according to Wallace, and as any viewer of the intensive media soul-searching surrounding scandals like the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky revelations can agree, television is a ruthless incorporator and defuser of the criticism leveled at it. In this case, television absorbed ironic readings of its hypocrisies and, instead of altering the values that it espoused, altered the tone in which they were delivered, preemptively ironizing its own representations. In this manner, irony was both transformed into the dominant cultural mode of discourse and rendered useless as a critical tool; as Wallace suggests, irony is in the contemporary scene “not liberating, but enfeebling” (67), functioning as it does to dismantle old oppressive systems of values without being able–in fact, making it impossible–to build new ones to take their place.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Thus television forms a point of cultural concern for Wallace, as it does for both Pynchon and DeLillo. But with this exploration of the relationship between television and irony, Wallace proposes a different focus for that concern, one perhaps born out of his dramatically different relationship to television.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace does the thing that numerous authors and interviewers have prodded him to do: consider himself and his work in its generational affiliation. Without naming the group of which he may (or may not) be considered a part, and without naming the members of that group, Wallace nonetheless distinguishes it from its predecessors in one crucial regard:
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Pynchon and DeLillo were ahead of their time. Today, the belief that pop images are basically just mimetic devices is one of the attitudes that separates most U.S. fiction writers under c. forty from the writerly generation that precedes us, reviews us, and designs our grad-school curricula. This generation gap in conceptions of realism is, again, TV-dependent. The U.S. generation born after 1950 is the first for whom television was something to be lived with instead of just looked at. Our elders tend to regard the set rather as the flapper did the automobile: a curiosity turned treat turned seduction. For younger writers, TV’s as much a part of reality as Toyotas and gridlock. We literally cannot imagine life without it. (43)
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Younger writers–a term that must be distinguished from the “New White Guys” in both its generality and its refusal to select a canon from the larger group–by this argument bear a substantively different relationship to the medium than do the novelists of obsolescence this study has been concerned with. Despite being “ahead of their time,” Pynchon and DeLillo both treat television with the wariness with which the established approach new entries on the cultural scene; by contrast, younger writers understand television to be both no more and no less than a part of the cultural landscape, the backdrop against which all action and understanding take place.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 But to suggest that the relationship of this new generation of writers to television is different is not necessarily to suggest that it is easy; in fact, as Wallace suggests, these writers born since 1950 bear a particularly challenged relationship to the irony that television has cultivated. Those raised in intimacy with the tube cannot consider life without it, and yet they cannot take it seriously; they view television with knowing skepticism, but that skepticism is itself evidence of television’s deep influence, so incorporated into its modes of representation has such skepticism become. The danger for these younger writers is not that television will make their work obsolete, not that television will dehumanize or distract or deindividualize the potential audience for the novel, making it impossible for them to read with passion or conviction, but rather that proximity to the medium will dehumanize the writer himself, making it impossible for him to look in a sustained fashion at a painful, intractable problem without flinching away with a reflexively ironic joke. This kind of protracted serious attention is of course necessary to writing anything meaningful, and thus, while the novel is still under threat from television in Wallace’s view, the danger is one visited not primarily upon the great unwashed masses who take pleasure in television but upon the writer, who must struggle to escape its influence.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In fact, Wallace’s reading of the dangers of television is at great pains not to suggest that television is inherently bad, or that its programmers operate under some evil intent, or that television viewers are either stupid or gullible. “Though I’m convinced that television lies,” he writes, “with a potency somewhere between symptom and synecdoche, behind a genuine crisis for U.S. culture and literature, I do not agree with reactionaries who regard TV as some malignancy visited on an innocent populace, sapping IQs and compromising SAT scores while we all sit there on ever fatter bottoms with little mesmerized spirals revolving in our eyes” (“Pluram” 36). That television’s role in such a cultural crisis, in the view of the younger generation, rather than being the problem, instead lies between being mere evidence of a problem and being a part of the problem to which the whole is reduced indicates a second distinction to be drawn between the novels of obsolescence with which this study has been concerned and more recent fiction: the problem with television, in this view, is not what it does to us–its powers of dehumanization, derealization, deindividualization–but rather what it signifies, or why we are attracted to it in the first place. For Wallace, television’s power over the contemporary imagination reveals a profound sense of loneliness and disconnection in U.S. life; viewers are drawn to the tube by an unfulfilled desire for human contact, for human understanding. The danger this reliance upon television for such contact presents may be usefully contrasted with the representations of the network discussed in Chapter 4; where the network, in the novel of obsolescence, threatens the destruction of individuality by binding the audience into one mass, here instead television promises interconnection but fails to deliver, and in so doing more fully isolates viewers from the actual human interaction they seek. Television, for Wallace, exacerbates passivity in contemporary culture both by defusing, through irony, the potential of any kind of action and by presenting the fantasy of human contact without effort; however, it is key to note that, both in “E Unibus Pluram” and in his fiction, the root of television’s danger, and thus the crisis that television presents, is created not by the medium itself but by failures in the larger culture, failures that encourage viewers to seek solutions to basic human anguish in representations rather than realities, in things rather than people.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Infinite Jest is the most useful example of Wallace’s own fiction in exploring his representations of television; it is, however, logistically impossible to do the novel justice in one small part of one section of a chapter in a book focused on other writers. I want nonetheless to suggest, however incompletely, a few things about the novel’s uses of television that distinguish it from the work of writers such as Pynchon and DeLillo. By the time of Infinite Jest‘s present, television has long since been replaced by the teleputer, a single appliance that combines the functions of television, VCR, computer, and videophone. This digital device allows for video on demand, as well as for more interpersonal communications, rendering television itself obsolete; nonetheless, some concerns about the teleputer rightly remain. In a long digression in which Hal recreates the argument he’d developed in a paper on the demise of television advertising (for a course entitled “Intro to Entertainment Studies” ), the novel relates the history of this machine’s rise to dominance, beginning with the changes wrought in the television industry by the spread of cable:
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Mounting an aggressive hearts-and-minds campaign that derided the ‘passivity’ of hundreds of millions of viewers forced to choose nightly between only four statistically pussified Network broadcasters, then extolled the “empoweringly American choice” of 500-plus esoteric cable options, the American Council of Disseminators of Cable was attacking the Four right at the ideological root, the psychic matrix where viewers had been conditioned (conditioned, rather deliciously, by the Big Four Networks and their advertisers themselves, Hal notes) to associate the Freedom to Choose and the Right to Be Entertained with all that was U.S. and true. (412)
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Of course, the poverty of this vision of U.S. liberty leads not to genuine activity but to a new kind of passivity, used by a newly reorganized and consolidated Big Four to undermine cable’s popularity:
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 What matter whether your “choices” are 4 or 104, or 504? Veals’s campaign argued. Because here you were–assuming of course you were even cable-ready or dish-equipped and able to afford monthly fees that applied no matter what you “chose” each month–here you were, sitting here accepting only what was pumped by distant A.C.D.C. fiat into your entertainment-ken. Here you were consoling yourself about your dependence and passivity with rapid-fire zapping and surfing that were starting to be suspected to cause rather nasty types of epilepsy over the longish term. The cable kabal’s promise of “empowerment,” the campaign argued, was still just the invitation to choose which of 504 visual spoon-feedings you’d sit there and open wide for. And so but what if, their campaign’s appeal basically ran, what if, instead of sitting still for choosing the least of 504 infantile evils, the vox- and digitus-populi could choose to make its home entertainment literally and essentially adult? I.e. what if–according to InterLace–what if a viewer could more or less 100 percent choose what’s on at any given time . . . ? What if, Veals’s spokeswoman ruminated aloud, what if the viewer could become her/his own programming director; what if s/he could define the very entertainment-happiness it was her/his right to pursue? (IJ 416)
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The result is the replacement of the TV with the TP, a double entendre that suggests the true value this appliance holds for the user’s happiness. The pursuit, after all, is still for greater levels of entertainment, rather than for any higher form of enlightenment or personal satisfaction; moreover, the result is not a reduction in passivity but an increase, as suggested by the specifications of the present-day TP included earlier in the novel:
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment: InterLace Telentertainment, 932/1864 R.I.S.C. power-TPs w/ or w/o console, Pink2, post-Primestar D.S.S. dissemination, menus and icons, pixel-free Internet Fax, tri- and quad-modems w/ adjustable baud, Dissemination-Grids, screens so high-def you might as well be there, cost-effective videophonic conferencing, internal Froxx CD-ROM, electronic couture, all-in-one consoles, Yushityu nanoprocessors, laser chromatography, Virtual-capable media-cards, fiber-optic pulse, digital encoding, killer apps; carpal neuralgia, phosphenic migraine, gluteal hyperadiposity, lumbar stressae. (IJ 60)
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 And thus, despite the ostensible interactivity of the TP and the arguable activity of its user, the teleputer nonetheless results in that future of “ever fatter bottoms” and other damage to the human organism.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 The major interests of Infinite Jest, however, suggest that the viewers themselves are not to be held wholly responsible for the damage these systems inflict on them. Nor is television in this novel, as it is in Vineland, suspected to be one more tool of an oppressive political system designed to keep its subjects passive and benumbed, the better to manipulate them. Rather, as Infinite Jest‘s overall focus is on passivity and addiction in a larger sense, as the result of systemic national failures–the failure to fulfill the promises made of genuine liberty and actual happiness, resulting in extreme human suffering, as well as the crucial failure to provide any mode of escape from that suffering that is not more damaging than the problems it originated in–the teleputer becomes in this novel not a threatening tool of subjection but a symptom of larger cultural and interpersonal damage. This sense of television as symptom surfaces despite the fact that the novel’s title is drawn from the ultimate piece of entertainment (referred to throughout, appropriately, as “The Entertainment”), a filmÂ by Hal’s father made so perfectly entertaining that, having laid eyes upon it, its viewers are incapable of turning it off, becoming glued to the teleputer at the expense of their own physical needs, resulting finally in acute psychosis or even in death. The danger of this particular TP cartridge, it must be noted, does not originate in the technology itself or in the motives of its producer or in the malignancy of the systems of which it is a part or in the mindlessness of its consumers. Rather, its danger arises from the confluence of two circumstances: the desperation of a U.S. public conditioned to believe that entertainment is the highest level of happiness it can achieve, and the desperation of a doubly oppressed minority (the separatist QuebeÃ§ois, marginalized in the novel by the Anglo-Canadian majority and by the dominance of the former United States in the Organization of North American Nations) that seeks to exploit the U.S. desperation in order to alleviate their own.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 The novel thus draws an analogy between television and drugs, two modes of escape from human pain that seem to result not in the promised amelioration of that pain but in its exacerbation, leading to addictions for which the sufferers cannot be wholly held responsible. This comparison of television watching and drug addiction, however, is hardly unique to Wallace; Marie Winn’s 1977 The Plug-in Drug: Television, Children, and the Family popularized the metaphor by arguing that television diminished children’s abilities to function in the “real” world. The tenor of Winn’s critique, however, often strikes the “paranoid” tone of so many “reactionary adults’ vision of TV” that Wallace suggests in “E Unibus Pluram“ he strives to avoid. In fact, one of the key differences between Winn’s and Wallace’s depictions of televisual entertainment is their widely varying responses to the notion that television is like a drug. Wallace does not echo Winn’s “just say no” line but examines in detail the despair that has driven the U.S. populace to crave such forms of escape as television and drugs in the first place. Television, in this view, is not the evil; the evil is that which makes television necessary in the first place.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Wallace is not alone among contemporary fiction writers in this assessment of television. Rick Moody, in The Ice Storm, gives brief consideration to one of its characters’ television-watching habits as evidence not of her degradation but of the loneliness of suburban adolescence: “More about television. From Sunrise Semester to Love, American Style, from Banacek to The New Price Is Right, television served as the structured time, the safe harbor for Wendy Hood” (130). Television’s safety, which allows Wendy to “[give] herself back to her childhood, to some part of herself that had never passed beyond that demographic category” (130), reveals that the locus of the threats to her well-being, to her interactions with “reality,” lies not in the escape provided byÂ the tube but in that which she is escaping from, a world alternately sexually charged and Puritanically repressed, a world that makes impossible genuine human contact other than the physical. What Wendy longs for most is “some association with the people of her town, some sense of community that stuck deeper than the country club stuff” (133), but all her environment will give her is television, and “[m]ostly she watched television alone” (131). Wendy, as an avid watcher of television, is not imagined to have failed but to have been failed by the generation ostensibly raising her.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 What I mean to suggest through these dangerously incomplete readings of two novels among a myriad of contemporary possibilities is not that no younger writers have anxieties about television that are comparable to those expressed by Pynchon and DeLillo, nor even that Wallace and Moody are wholly free from such concerns. In fact, the suggestion that television-watching is evidence of cultural damage implies a hierarchy of media forms in which the novel itself is proposed to be sufficiently edifying to allow its escape from the category of entertainment, thus creating, in a fashion similar to that of the novel of obsolescence, a protected space outside contemporary culture’s corruptions in which the novel can continue to flourish. This same perspective can easily mutate, as can be seen in Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Tale of Staggering Genius, or just as easily in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, into a kind of ironic sneer at mass culture, in which Eggers, for instance, holding television in extreme disdain, nonetheless embarks (though with a knowing affectlessness) on the project of becoming a cast member of the San Francisco edition of MTV’s The Real World, or in which Franzen lumps television together with all the other aspects of life in the Midwest that he viciously caricatures. But even in those writers among the “New White Guys” whose work struggles to avoid the pitfalls of an impotent irony, concerns about television remain–fears, as Wallace suggests, about the problems in contemporary life that transform entertainment into an object of need, and particularly about television’s effect on the writer himself, threatening as it does to trap him and his work in a state of terminal nonseriousness in which there are no problems that can’t be treated with sarcastic detachment.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Insofar as there is a solution to such writerly anxieties, it is not, as it was for John Barth, simply to write a novel about them but, as Wallace suggests, a risky return to affect, in which problems–and not necessarily just the prob- lems of the novelist, but the problems that alternately bind and divide contemporary U.S. culture at large–are taken seriously: “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country,” Wallace argues, “might well emerge as some weird bunch ofÂ anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue” (“Pluram” 81). In this kind of honest and in-depth confrontation of the range of human problems–which could easily be mistaken for a reactionary return to liberal humanism–the contemporary novel might genuinely stake its claim to territory that television either cannot or will not explore.
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