Modern Culture17 Nov 2008 09:55 am
When novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace committed suicide earlier this year, The Onion responded with one of their characteristically brilliant headlines. They claimed that, in honor of the author of Infinite Jest, a 1079-page-long novel (with footnotes) about a film so entertaining that everyone who watches it becomes enraptured and cannot do anything but watch it endlessly for the rest of their lives, “NASCAR Cancels Remainder Of Season Following David Foster Wallace’s Death.” Not likely, but, then again, mentioning Wallace in the same breath as Rush Limbaugh isn’t so likely either.
As it happens, Wallace had extremely Catholic tastes, and, despite a nearly complete difference in temperament and political outlook, he could appreciate Limbaugh’s accomplishments. In face, he referred to Limbaugh as “a host of extraordinary, once-in-a-generation talent and charisma—bright, loquacious, witty, complexly authoritative—whose show’s blend of news, entertainment, and partisan analysis became the model for legions of imitators.” This isn’t the list of adjectives that would occur to the workaday liberal when considering the person and phenomenon that is Rush Limbaugh, but Wallace could appreciate something unique when he saw it. Could you do what Limbaugh does? Here’s how Wallace describes the job:
To appreciate these skills and some of the difficulties involved, you might wish to do an experiment. Try sitting alone in a room with a clock, turning on a tape recorder, and starting to speak into it. Speak about anything you want—with the proviso that your topic, and your opinions on it, must be of interest to some group of strangers who you imagine will be listening to the tape. Naturally, in order to be even minimally interesting, your remarks should be intelligible and their reasoning sequential—a listener will have to be able to follow the logic of what you’re saying—which means that you will have to know enough about your topic to organize your statements in a coherent way. (But you cannot do much of this organizing beforehand; it has to occur at the same time you’re speaking.) Plus, ideally, what you’re saying should be not just comprehensible and interesting but compelling, stimulating, which means that your remarks have to provoke and sustain some kind of emotional reaction in the listeners, which in turn will require you to construct some kind of identifiable persona for yourself—your comments will need to strike the listener as coming from an actual human being, someone with a real personality and real feelings about whatever it is you’re discussing. And it gets even trickier…
This passage occurs in a remarkable 2005 article that Wallace published in The Atlantic magazine about talk radio, and republished, in expanded form, in his essay collection Consider the Lobster. It’s entitled “Host,” and it’s one of his great essays, showcasing his particular talent remarkably well: following a thought that may occur to most of us as a fleeting consideration with unbelievable tenacity, teasing out every nuance. Read the whole thing here.
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