The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things.
- David Foster Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction
Everything is ironic nowadays. Hipsters, as everyone knows, dress ironically. People like Justin Bieber – but, you know, only ironically. You can figure out what that means for yourself, if you decide that the word “irony” actually means anything anymore. But hey, you can’t deny idealists stick out. People who don’t regard our culture with weary cynicism, and actually feel there’s a message worth getting out there.
David Foster Wallace wrote the above quote (and essay) back in 1993, and he was talking about television. The essay is basically about how television relies on irony to keep people watching, despite humanity’s sneaking feeling they might be not making the best use of their time doing so. And because so many writers are raised by television, this ironic attitude carries over into fiction. Some of which is beneficial for fiction, to point out when it takes itself too seriously. But you can’t just keep using irony to tear down fiction – and the culture surrounding us – forever.
Basically, this essay blew my mind. I’ll put a link to the full thing here, even if it’s forty-four pages and I know most of you won’t read it – but, you know, just in case you do want to. I long for an update that takes into account the way the internet has changed things – in some ways people are less passive about their entertainment, but in other ways everything is still the same. We still waste endless hours living life through “more exciting,” imaginary people’s eyes. And irony still rules – if anything, the default mode of the internet is to look at everything ironically.
It does take bravery to stand up and decide to treat the world’s problems honestly, and dare to suggest ways of coping. It’s easy to be cynical and tear down facades endless. Because we know so much – we know millions of ways to poke holes in solutions, view things from a different angle and point out why it’s invalid from a certain perspective.
But, even though I myself am cynical all the time, I know Wallace is right when he says irony is only useful for deconstruction. It’s good to tear things down sometimes, but at some point we have to start building things up again. Give people something to believe in. Believe there’s truth out there.
It’s about finding the right words to start putting those “single-entendre,” earnest values out there. And then finding the nerve to do so.