". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why Contemporary Written Rhetoric so Often Fails

The above use of fail is a Webster's definition, not urban / internet dictionary meaning --

"To lose strength, to weaken; to stop functioning normally; to become absent or inadequate; to become unsuccessful in a venture such as marriage or passing a test." Synonyms include 'breaking down.'

These days many a genre novel, particularly one hopeful of appeal to that expanding YA market, is narrated by the protagonist in a sort of ... what? hipster? style? This, in order to give an impression of contemporary, up-to-the-minute, I-live-in-your-world, I'm-one-of-you veneer that will urge the reader to suspend her disbelief. Secondary characters when in dialog with other the Primary and other Secondaries may resort to this tone and style to a greater degree.

We also encounter this with increasing frequence in non-fiction.

There are readers who, thus, are finding the reading experience less rewarding, their suspension of disbelief canceled to large degree by this style of writing. When it's non-fiction writing, intended to impart important information, this style and tone interferes with taking the writer seriously.

Why are writers resorting to such a degree to urban dictionary speak?

Maud Newton breaks it down here: "Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace," which itself refers back to Wallace's own influential essay that she describes as the "The ur-text of this movement ...." "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" (1993 -- full text available in pdf several places online).

[ "Of course, Wallace’s slangy approachability was part of his appeal, and these quirks are more than compensated for by his roving intelligence and the tireless force of his writing. The trouble is that his style is also, as Dyer says, “catching, highly infectious.” And if, even from Wallace, the aw-shucks, I-could-be-wrong-here, I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach grates, it is vastly more exasperating in the hands of lesser thinkers. In the Internet era, Wallace’s moves have been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument. 

Visit some blogs — personal blogs, academic blogs, blogs associated with some of our most esteemed periodicals — to see these tendencies writ large. My own archives, dating back to 2002, are no exception." ]

All this by way of now understanding why the latest works of several writers I have always liked and admired aren't working. Now these are works of entertainment. We're not supposed to take them seriously. However within the world of the novel you must take the characters seriously in order to suspend your disbelief, because the characters take themselves seriously. But this veneer of sort-of hipster, sort-of intimate, sort-of slacker has become another barrier to disbelief's suspension.

In fiction, as it is entertainment, perhaps that doesn't matter. These styles come and go, particularly in genre. But in non-fiction, when it is supposed to be journalism, this style is detrimental to our national ability to assess, analyse and understand what is happening to us all, why it is happening, and impossible to work out an approach to change it. Oooops, I just turned political. 

ETA: When it comes to genre, the influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on tone, style and presentation cannot be over-estimated, in my estimation .... However, what will work on a stage or a screen, with all the other resources available to the writers, such as actors, camera angles, scene editing -- may very well come across very differently in a page of text.

No comments: