Bill Wasik‘s new book, a study of online viral culture titled And Then There’s This, has a brief digression about the changing nature of literary celebrity. The launchpad for his discussion is the New York Times‘ much-maligned 2006 effort to name the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years, which was mainly a surprise-free celebration of old hands like DeLillo, Morrison, Updike, and so on. The flaw with the project, Wasik argues, wasn’t strictly fuddy-duddyism at the Times or the peculiarities of the people who were polled. The real issue has to do with what Wasik calls the rise of “niche sensationalism”—the creation, roughly in the past two decades, of a culture that celebrates young authors not for how talented they are but for how well they capture the zeitgeist. Which means that young authors now, even the very good ones, have no hope of being canonized, since they’re useful only for defining a moment that has since passed. (“Marisha Pessl? Wasn’t she somebody a couple of years ago?”)
Exhibit A for Wasik’s argument is “The Grunge American Novel,” a 1996 profile of David Foster Wallace published just as Infinite Jest was cementing his place as a major talent. The article is new to me, and it’s just as bad as Wasik says it is; Frank Bruni gives us Wallace coated with a goo of distrust and flameout-in-the-making, as if Wallace’s every motion were a canny pose designed to attract the interest of a New York Times reporter—as if following up a couple of admired but relatively obscure Pynchonesque books with a tricky thousand-page-plus novel was all some kind of prank the guy was pulling. (“He often wears a bandanna wrapped tightly around his head, as if to avoid combing his shoulder-length hair and to coddle his febrile mind,” Bruni writes. Maybe, one’s tempted to say, he just likes bandannas. And yet, Bruni writes, this bandanna thing has got to be some sort of act, because, as his investigations have uncovered, Wallace works out and uses toothpaste. The piece is truly something.)
Wallace eventually transcended such skepticism—by the time of his death last year, no reasonable person could argue that he was just some guy who got the cool kids excited back in 1996. But Wasik figures that now the media can behave no other way when it comes to covering writers: “Literature has become such a niche obsession that the only way to publish stories about it is through niche sensationalism; a new writer who can speak to some lost demographic (usually the young) is the only thing in the little world of American letters that can be called big news…. The media mind is about parasitism. And the paradigmatic act of media parasitism, one should always remember, is to sup vampirically at the neck of young, doomed fame.”
Wasik’s point is well-taken. But I still wonder if the hot-new-thing argument that he makes is all that new. From Bruni’s piece: “A decade ago, it was McInerney. Decades earlier, Mailer.” The theme of a young author rising up to speak the truth about how we really are goes back at least to the Beats. Indeed, the Times‘ famously breathless review of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road in 1957 calls out the same problem back then that Wasik argues plagues us today: Kerouac’s novel arrives “in an age in which the attention is fragmented and the sensibilities are blunted by the superlatives of fashion (multiplied a millionfold by the speed and pound of communications).” Was the way that Wallace’s intentions were manipulated and misinterpreted any different than the way that Kerouac’s was? The speed with which young authors are digested by the media maw is certainly faster now, but I suspect the appetite for them hasn’t much changed.