This is bad to admit, but are times in my professional life when, facing some crisis about commas or contributors or other journalistic things, I turn for comfort to Ann Friedman’s now-defunct gif blog “#Realtalk From Your Editor.” And the post I most cherish is this one:
WHEN I READ A DRAFT BY A WRITER WHO THINKS HE’S ON SOME NEXT LEVEL, DFW SHIT
“DFW” is David Foster Wallace, and I feel okay laughing like Ryan Gosling at people who try to write like the Infinite Jest author because it wasn’t long ago that I was one of them. (Sometimes, as when inserting a comically self-scrutinizing and ostentatiously detailed parenthetical, I become one again.)
When I was 17, my aunt got me a subscription to The Atlantic, and the first issue to arrive was the one whose cover featured Wallace’s profile of conservative Los Angeles talk-radio host John Ziegler. The piece exploded my little high-school-newspaper editor brain. Here was journalism’s potential not only as literature, but as form-breaking, highly entertaining art. Growing up as I did in Orange County at the height of the Bush era, KFI AM 640, the radio station featured in the story, felt inescapable. Even a John Kerry supporter couldn't help but be sucked in whenever within earshot. In winding sentences and novelistic footnotes, Wallace deconstructed KFI's appeal, using exhaustive fact-giving and brutal observations to expose the false sense of certainty that Ziegler and his kind used to keep audiences hooked. (Note: The footnotes looked a lot cooler in print.)
Wallace's rhythms and quirks are easy to imitate; his scruples, his point of view, and his sense of proportion are not. I learned that fact the first time I filed a magazine-style feature to a professional editor, who then introduced me to the phrase "gild the lily." What an important lesson: The only writer on some next-level DFW shit was DFW himself.