30 May 2010

Brief Review of Brief Interviews

I've written a fair bit on this blog about one of my top two or three favorite authors, David Foster Wallace. I'm hoping to use this summer's respite from required reading to finally finish slogging through his rather daunting catalogue. Of the three books that remained for me, I decided to start with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I think the requisite "acclaim for" pages in the softcover version nail it pretty well, especially the blurb from Time's R. Z. Sheppard:

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is meant to interrogate the reader, to elicit fresh responses to horrors that have lost their edge in the age of information overload . . . It displays a range of intellect and talent that is unseemly for any one writer to have, let alone show off.

My only quibble with Sheppard's assessment is his implication that Wallace is showing off. I mean, maybe. But I think the truth is probably more innocent and more tragic. I think he's simply trying as hard as his prodigious talents will allow him. I think more than just about anywhere else in the Wallace canon (at least the 85% or so that I've encountered), Brief Interviews is where Wallace fesses up to what seems to account for some or perhaps most of why he writes. Things come to a head in Pop Quiz 9 of "Octet," which begins, "You* are, unfortunately, a fiction writer" (145).

Ironically, there's no fiction to be found in PQ9, because it's where Wallace lays out, in agonizingly self-conscious detail, what he's up in "Octet" and--as Sheppard points out--in pretty much the entire book. The piece isn't working as he intended, he comes out and tells us, and so urgent is his desire to quote-unquote bare his soul** regarding the apparently undefinable thematic backbone of the Pop Quizzes that he decides to "address the reader directly and ask her straight out whether she's feeling anything like what you feel" (154).

I frequently get the impression that Wallace haters think all his formal acrobatics are just some tiring attempt to be cute. I think they couldn't be more wrong. As I said, I think he's concentrating really, really hard. And, to borrow from Dave Marsh's characterization of Aretha Franklin in "Respect": "[Wallace] when [he's] concentrating is as good as it gets" (Heart of Rock and Soul, 10). Here's his description of his own desperation in resorting to this fourth-wall-breaking ploy, "which in the late 1990s, when even Wes Craven is cashing in on metafictional self-reference, might come off lame and tired and facile, and also runs the risk of compromising the queer urgency about whatever it is you feel you want the pieces to interrogate in whoever's reading them" (146, emphasis his):

The trick to this solution is that you'd have to be 100% honest. Meaning not just sincere but almost naked. Worse than naked -- more like unarmed. Defenseless. 'This thing I feel, I can't name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?' -- this sort of direct question is not for the squeamish. For one thing, it's perilously close to 'Do you like me? Please like me,' which you know quite well that 99% of all the interhuman manipulation and bullshit gamesmanship that goes on goes on precisely because the idea of saying this sort of thing straight out is regarded as somehow obscene. In fact one of the very last few interpersonal taboos we have is this kind of obscenely naked direct interrogation of somebody else [Ten years later we have an abbreviation for the self-revelation that rhetorically must accompany such prying: TMI. ~KMO]. It looks pathetic and desperate. That's how it'll look to the reader. And it will have to. There's no way around it. If you step out and ask her what and whether she's feeling, there can't be anything coy or performative or sham-honest-so-she'll-like-you about it. That'd kill it outright. Do you see? Anything less than completely naked helpless pathetic sincerity and you're right back in the pernicious conundrum. You'll have to come to her 100% hat in hand. (154)

This is the sentiment at the heart of all the material I've found most compelling and heartbreaking--but also the most deeply reassuring--about Wallace's work. For more of what I mean, see the painfully self-conscious Dean or President or Provost or whoever in Infinite Jest (my copy is currently missing or I'd name him for you). Or see that scene in IJ where he's talking about all the things you learn in AA or the halfway house and there's like four or five pages of semicoloned subclauses that just make me want to weep because they so thoroughly finger the jagged grain of each of our darkest secrets and most relentless insecurities. Or see, for the closest thing to PQ9's direct and explicit desperation, the "intertextual quotation[s]" that contain "the really urgent stuff" as part of the "multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit" in "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky" (Consider the Lobster, 271).

The reason Sheppard's show off misses the mark is that Wallace's decision is ultimately a move of deep humility:

[I]t's not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers usually want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they're reading is when they sit down to try to escape the insoluble flux of themselves and enter a world of prearranged meaning. Rather it's going to make you look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened and unsure about whether to trust even your most fundamental intuitions about urgency and sameness and whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the same way you do . . . more like a reader, in other words, down here quivering in the mud of the trench with the rest of us, instead of a Writer, whom we imagine to be clean and dry and radiant of command presence and unwavering conviction as he coordinates the whole campaign from ack at some gleaming abstract Olympian HQ.*** (159-160)

In the end, Wallace knows all he can do is ask us to think about it: "So decide" he concludes (160). I will be forever puzzled by the people who decide he's simply putting up a front.


* In all of these pop quizzes, we're asked to make an ethical judgement or some other decision about one or more of the characters or situations in a short sketch. The sketch of PQ9 is of a writer writing an octet of quizzes (this "Octet" of quizzes, as it were), and so the implicit quiz question is something like "What would you do in my situation?" Thus, it's important to be clear about the pronoun antecedents in these quotations: "you"--the reader of the Pop Quiz--are Wallace himself.

** See B.I. #20 and much of PQ9 on how we all get reduced to such banalities when we really drill down deep into the big-insights-into-the-human-condition layers of personal experience and attempted expression.

*** I wonder if being a good priest/pastor/preacher is perhaps analogous to learning--to use Wallace's terms as he's developed them here--when to be a reader and when to be a Writer, or more appropriately just a writer. I think the great emphasis on cultivating self-knowledge as part of priestly formation is so we can learn to see and get some kind of handle on which of these two impulses is most strongly informing whatever bit of priestly advice bubbles up for us in a particular situation. I.e., "In recommending X, am I actually just responding to the way this situation pokes at my own insecurities, or do I have the kind of critical distance that surely almost all of us need in order to be truly open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit?" Of course, theologically and rhetorically, the ability and desire to relate to fellow human beings as Wallace's reader rather than his Writer is also really important. Most of us know a seemingly 100% Writer-priest or -pastor, and there's a good chance he or she is not very effective.

28 May 2010

Kyle's Blogging Tips (80% of which are too specific to be useful)

I am probably the worst kind of blogger (OK, maybe not the worst kind: see Exhibits A, B, and C). I know a lot about blogs (I used to evaluate them for Newstex) and about blogging best practices (having edited many words on the subject), but I don't put that knowledge to very good use. For better and worse, I primarily write posts that explore rather vague and abstract notions of complementarity and wholeness, because these are ideas that seem central to my life/work/ministry/interests (it's hard to resist the forward slash when your life/work/ministry/interests have something vaguely and abstractly to do with complementarity and wholeness).

Thus, CSC has a theme but no focused topic, except maybe the worst topic any writer can have: him- or herself (e.g., the experiment with video blogging to keep in touch during my first year of seminary, regarding which experiment: thanks for all the good feedback this year, friends). Prompted by a couple of recent incidents (a retweet by David Meerman Scott of my post about BEA and then a very minor burst of secondary exposure on Twitter because David also mentioned in another tweet that I was the one who filmed this video), I took a look at the CSC stats today to try to glean what (silly) tips I might have for bloggers (silly because, for the reasons outlined above [and more], this blog is no example to follow). Here goes:

  1. Name your blog after a snobby Latin expression. Almost all of my traffic from Google comes from people searching for the phrase "Contraria Sunt Complementa," presumably trying to figure out what it means. Sorry, y'all, I'm afraid you'll find only very opaque, inductive help here (I guess with the exception of my first post, which actually does do a decent definitional job and is--probably not coincidentally--my most popular post).
  2. Know some important bloggers. I know two, sorta: David Meerman Scott--whom I rather shamelessly mention here from time to time and who as I said has been very kind with comments, retweets, etc.--and Freakonomics co-author Steven J. Dubner. OK, I don't actually know Steven J. Dubner, but I know (and currently live with) his pirate-obsessed research assistant, Ryan Hagen. And Ryan once saw my post about the Wikipedia article for "real life," which in turn prompted a post about what fantasy is for. The h/t traffic from that post has made freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com my fourth-largest all-time referrer, although I now believe that stat to be skewed because of a rather hideous record-keeping blunder on my part (see No. 4 below).
  3. Have lots of time off and/or periods of isolation and a desperate need for concrete goals during same. As the last two weeks have reminded me, I am--like Sports Night's Dana Whitaker--terrible at having "unstructured time on my hands." Blogging has typical been for me a great way to manufacture some structure. I first got into blogging during a summer when I lived with my aunt and uncle in Cold Spring, NY, worked a pretty mindless job as a totally unqualified assistant to a medical equipment company field engineer, and had pretty much no friends and nothing to do. I started this blog during a Christmas break from grad school, by which time most of the high school friends I still kept in touch with had stopped coming home for more than a couple of days at the holidays, and anyway my parents now live pretty far from "home," or at least where home used to be. Point being: I do my most productive blogging during long school breaks. I recommend getting some of those.
  4. Keep your counter's URL information up to date. This one is only silly because it's sad, though it's also only a problem if you care about your visit stats. When I bought my own domain name about a year and a half ago, I went ahead and moved http://contrariasuntcomplementa.blogspot.com over to http://blog.kyleoliver.net. However, I failed to enter this piece of information into my profile over at Blog Counter. Thus, I have like sixteen months' worth of statistics wherein the only recorded visits are via an outdated URL. I only discovered this blunder when I checked to see how many people had visited the site after David's recent retweet of my post, only to discover that only one person had. David currently has 40,558 followers on Twitter, so that number seemed pretty unlikely. (If only tinyurl.com, which I use for all my tweeted links, offered statistics the way tiny.cc does. Perhaps I should switch my allegiance.)
  5. Write about your adventures wrangling household bats. What can I say? My most popular post not about physics (or about BookExpo America, but see Nos. 2 and 4 above) is about my adventures trying to usher bats out of St. Francis House while working as the House Fellow there. I guess it was funny.
So there you have it, my probably-not-at-all-helpful blogging tips. By the way, in other news of blog traffic suddenly and rapidly expanded, the secret is now out (thanks to the enthusiastic and tech-savvy clergy and parishioners of New York's St. Luke in the Fields [the former parish of my favorite VTS professor, incidentally]) that my smart, observant, and unusual-adventure-having girlfriend, Kristin Saylor, blogs about life as a port chaplain, St. Luke's parishioner, Wisconsin transplant, and amateur urban anthropologist at Wisconsin meets NYC. Since the cat's out of the bag, I can now offer a whole-hearted recommendation. It's a highly entertaining read, and she's got lots of interesting insight on the challenges of port ministry.

(P.S.: Apologies to any cat bloggers, cat lovers, or cat blog lovers reading this. You all can and should continue to blog or read about whatever you want.)

26 May 2010

A Lesson and Some Highlights from BookExpo America

My friend David Meerman Scott was at the Wiley booth today at BookExpo America, signing copies of his new book, Real-Time Marketing & PR: How to Engage Your Market, Connect with Customers, and Create Products that Grow Your Business Now. Since I now live in New York but haven't started working yet, I was able to attend. (David scored me a free pass. I was a John Wiley & Sons "Exhibitor Author," which made for a couple of initially awkward clarifications at other publishers' booths, since no conversation began without a subtle name-tag check.)

One thing I learned today: You really can come to know somebody pretty well without ever meeting him or her. I've been doing early-manuscript editorial work for David since the first edition ("1E," if I'm successfully extrapolating from an abbreviation I heard thrown around today to describe later editions) of his popular but "underrated" The New Rules of Marketing & PR. That's four years of reading "every word of every book that [he's] written for Wiley," he noted today. But because we got introduced via email by a mutual colleague (EContent's Michelle Manafy, who I've also worked for but never met), and because until now I've never lived in a city that's especially well trafficked by business speaker-authors, we've never had the chance to meet. And yet, after reading and deeply engaging with so much of his prose, it really did feel like I already knew him. I was highly encouraged by this realization, since I don't expect the trend of increasing numbers of "e-colleagues" to ever reverse itself.

Anyway, David, if you're reading this (and if you doubt that he is, I can only assume you've never read any of his books), thanks for getting me in to a really fun event. It was great to finally meet you.

What kind of loot did I come away with? Well, the highlight might be an autographed copy of Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters's Android Karenina, from the publisher who brought us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as well as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. I confess that I've heard about but never (yet!) read one of these remixes, but I was pumped nevertheless. I also procured a signed copy of Colette Brooks's Lost in Wonder: Imagining Science and Other Mysteries, the 2010 Frommer's guide for D.C., an unsigned copy of Richard Miller's Fighting Words: Persuasive Strategies for War and Politics, a half-dozen less promising titles (some signed, some not), and--of course--a galley of David's new book.

All in all, not a bad way to spend an afternoon! That's it for now. Stay tuned for thoughts on why I love Minneapolis-St. Paul, even though the Brewers always more-or-less collapse when I go there.

20 May 2010

My Favorite Preacher Unexpectedly Reminds Me Why I Miss Him

[First, a guarantee: I will post something about my life and not about church very soon. Probably when I get back from the Brewers-Twins series this weekend!]

I remember reading at the beginning of the school year some article in which the author claimed, "Good preaching changes lives." I know that statement is true when it comes to my life, and no one has changed it in that way more than Alan Jones, whom I'm profoundly lucky to have been introduced to during my discernment year.

I listened in Central Park today to an old sermon of his, one I'd never heard before. The text, I presume, is from Jeremiah 18 (the potter's house), but from the sound of his voice you've got to assume he was riled up enough about some personal or news-reported incident that it wouldn't have really mattered what the text was. His subject is authority, in particular the challenge of interpreting scripture and the peril of bringing it to bear on our lives without proper care, perspective, and--most of all--humility.

The sermon got me thinking back to one of the last late-night patio theology sessions that I was a part of before I headed north (yes, this is what seminarians do in their free time, which I'd despair of if I didn't have a record of how I spent my free time as an engineer). I said a lot that night about why I think the Anglican ethos gives us answers to how to be a functioning church without resorting to sola scriptura disengagement from the world's present realities or to a reliance on theological witch hunts to defend orthodoxy. Unsurprisingly, Jones sums up what I was trying to get at rather gracefully:

We are not without resources. We're not floundering around. We look to the cross; we share in this Eucharist; and surely we see a trajectory in scripture and history, the trajectory of inclusion and justice. That's our pilgrimage together.

Anyway, I highly recommend this gem from the "master of the serpentine sermon" (thanks, Gary). It has greatly lifted this exhausted liberal-centrist seminarian's spirits. I can't find a direct link anymore, but you want the 9/10/07 sermon that seems to be available here.

In other news, I watched the VTS commencement ceremony today. Brian McLaren, who I've never read but had assumed I would dislike, gave a great address (full disclosure, though: I missed the last few minutes to take a phone call and haven't had a chance to catch up yet). You can check it out here.

18 May 2010

Spring Update

Well, that's a wrap for the first year of seminary. Man, did it go fast. If you want the short version, it was a challenging but formative and faith-deepening experience. On the whole, very positive, very blessed. Click below for some more details and information about my new gig in New York for the summer.