The new issue of the Quarterly Conversation includes an interesting essay by Barrett Hathcock proposing that Nicholson Baker is a kind of missing link between John Updike and David Foster Wallace. Baker, Hathcock argues, fetishized Updike’s concern with exacting detail, made that detail a fictional destination in itself, and Wallace in turn took that hyperprecision even further. Hathcock admits it’s a bit contrived to try to set the three authors up in a row, and the idea of chronological progression among the three is a bit off—Wallace’s first novel came out a year before Baker’s first novel, so who’s influencing whom here? But there’s some value in knocking the three guys against each other. A little surprisingly, Hathcock finds the clearest distinctions among the three in their nonfiction:
Updike is the great Professional of postwar letters; the man wrote everything with a postal regularity. The lesson of his career seems to be that one ought to be able to do everything all the time. Post-Baker, Wallace also writes nonfiction but does so in a way that dramatizes his unsuitability for the task at hand. Think of Wallace in “Up, Simba,” slowly scanning the political tour bus and positioning himself as anything but a professional journalist. This is the unique quality of his journalism: it offers a behind-the-scenes view of its own reportage; it dramatizes its own wrong turns, its own attempts at coherence. Where Baker sews in his own mistakes in U and I, Wallace adopts this mistaken identity as his very authorial persona.
I do think Baker and Wallace had more in common as nonfiction writers than the essay suggests, though. Both were clearly influenced by the New Journalism, which allowed the writer to step into the narrative, question the idea of narrative, and pursue unlikely angles. Both could take a topic and research it into the ground—think of Baker’s investigation of the word “lumber” or Wallace’s essay on what usage manuals might say about democracy. As stylists, both are adherents of the fussy, footnote-y school—though Hathcock suggests Wallace was a moralist in a way Baker never has been. Even so, it’s surprising Hathcock can’t dig up much evidence of one having read the other, though I don’t doubt a Baker novel or two was in Wallace’s library.