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March 14, 2007



I've noticed this tendency, in musicians with a lot of "indie cred," that when asked what they are listening to, they often name a lot of things that their fans would not be caught dead admitting to listing as a favorite. For example, I one time read a list by the members of the Flaming Lips, and the list was full of things like "Stevie Nicks," "Elton John," etc. It seemed to be less than sincere, and almost a way of thumbing their nose at their fanbase, by distancing themselves from their fans who crave everything "cool" and "current." (I'm not saying Stevie Nicks and Elton John didn't make great music, but you wouldn't expect them to rate highly with experimental pop rockers.)

Similarly, when I read or hear interviews with really good, gourmet chefs, they will often profess to like things that the rest of us consider gross; one such interview that pops to mind was a guy who was saying he likes his Pho noodles with a lot of gristle mixed in. This is almost a kind of reverse-snobbery; by liking what the rest of us consider offal, the artist/writer/chef gets credit for especially rarefied taste, taste that knows no boundaries, is democratically discriminating, and is impossible to disgust.

My guess, then, is that David Wallace is either lampooning the tendency of serious artists to distance themselves from what their fans would expect them to like -- thus demonstrating they are not prey to the herd mentality of their fans -- or he is seriously indulging in this distancing maneuver himself. I have read Tom Clancy before, and I do not think it is possible for a serious novelist of Wallace's stature to take Clancy's work seriously ... it's simply too bad. I think David Foster Wallace meant to make his list almost all "gristle," and whether he did it out of a mischievous desire to lampoon snobbery, or out of real snobbery, is up to us to guess.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."