David Foster Wallace and Bryan A. Garner. Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing. Dallas: RosePen Books, 2013. 137 pages. $24.95 hardcover. $18.95 paper.
When it comes to language and usage and writing, there are two kinds of people: those who care, and those who could care less.
Yes, could care less is an infelicity. And here, a joke. As Bryan A. Garner explains in Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009), couldn’t care less is “the correct and logical phrasing.” Garner’s entry for this phrase gives an example of could care less in print (from George Will), addresses the dubious claim that the infelicity is a matter of purposeful sarcasm, and cites two scholarly articles in support of a likelier explanation: that the two dentals of couldn’t have blurred into the one of could.¹ That kind of patient, thoughtful attention to language is evident on every page of GMAU. Garner, you see, is the first kind of person. So was David Foster Wallace. This book is for their kind.
Quack This Way is the transcript of a sixty-seven-minute interview recorded in a Los Angeles hotel room in February 2006, the last lengthy interview that Wallace gave. Garner and Wallace might best be described as friends in the art of writing: they met in person just twice (the first meeting followed Wallace’s 2001 Harper’s essay “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage”); they appeared together as guests on a Boston radio show, phoning in from separate locations; they kept in touch through the mail, e- and real, before Wallace slipped into silence.²
We now know that at the time of this interview, Wallace was in difficulty with The Pale King: as he says here, without further explanation, “I have no idea what to do. Most of what I want to do seems to me like I’ve done it before. It seems stupid.” It is easy to sense his inveterate unease with the prospect of an interview, as he deprecates his responses and checks for Garner’s approval (“Is that an example of what you want?”). Garner strikes just the right note, responding with enthusiasm (“That’s great,” “I love this”) feeding question after question, and (mostly) hanging back. And it works, as Wallace becomes increasingly expansive and animated. By my estimate, he speaks four-fifths of the words in these pages.
And what words. The model of good writing that Wallace expounds is founded on clarity and concision: “the fewest words, each of which is the smallest and plainest possible.”³ Such writing calls for attention, to one’s habits of language and to the person on “the end of the line”: writing as communication, not self-expression; an act of regard for another, for whom the content of the writer’s mind is not just given. Anyone who has read Wallace’s Kenyon commencement address will hear its overtones in this interview.
Along the way, there are glimpses of Wallace’s snoot childhood (“Mom’s brainwashing”), remarks on the advantages of writing by hand, a description of work habits (“time and drafts and noodling”), and good-natured dissings of airport language, ungainly nominalizations, and “crummy, turgid, verbose, abstruse, abstract, solecism-ridden prose.” Wallace casts in homely and appealing terms his advice for becoming a better writer:
[W]e’re training the same part of us that knows how to swing a golf club or shift a standard transmission, things we want to be able to do automatically. So we have to pay attention and learn how to do them so we can quit thinking about them and just do them automatically.Improvement, on Wallace’s terms, is a matter not so much of intellect or verbal skill as of spirit:
And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.What I didn’t expect to find in Quack This Way: so many exchanges relevant to academic life and teaching. Wallace suggests why so many academics write badly (because they are preoccupied with showing that they know the ways of a professional community), and he diagnoses a problem endemic to writing classrooms: responses to a text that leave the text behind for a reader’s autobiographical revery. (How exasperated he must have become in such circumstances.) Wallace offers a clear-eyed but compassionate appraisal of teachers who enforce unfounded rules of writing, and he gives good advice about writing for an academic audience: write well and trust that the reader will recognize and appreciate good writing, even if he or she is unable to produce it.
Garner’s introduction is an affectionate account of a friendship that never had the chance to flourish. The book’s unlikely index — slang, snoot, snuff-dipping, social climbing — would no doubt have delighted Wallace. It too is a fitting memorial to a friend. All royalties from Quack This Way go to the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas at Austin) to aid in the preservation and further collection of Wallace’s work.
¹ Steven Pinker offers the sarcasm hypothesis about could care less (without evidence) in The Language Instinct (1994): “The point of sarcasm is that by making an assertion that is manifestly false or accompanied by ostentatiously mannered intonation, one deliberately implies its opposite.” A dental is a consonant “pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the upper front teeth (as th) or the alveolar ridge (as n, d, t)” (New Oxford American Dictionary).
² The essay, a review of Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998), is available online from Harper’s. The essay appears in much longer form as “Authority and American Usage” in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2006). Wallace praises Garner for recognizing that in our time a work on usage can no longer be assumed to carry authority. Such a work must be persuasive, attaining authority by establishing its author’s credibility.
³ Wallace describes this model as a default. It certainly doesn’t fit the semantic and syntactic extravagances of his fiction. And what would a review of a Wallace book be without a few footnotes? HTML codes limit me to three.
An excerpt from the taped interview
Wallace on prior to
[Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of the book.]