The Conspicuously Young are Having Too Much Fun

In “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” (published in 1988, his first nonfiction piece), David Foster Wallace criticizes an movement of writers called the Conspicuously Young (C.Y.),1 twenty-something authors who published novels around the 1980’s. To say that DFW criticizes these authors puts it too kindly, though – he rips them apart.

The C.Y. includes Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, and others who comprised a brat pack of authors whom DFW despised. He places this generation into three main groups:

  1. Neiman-Marcus Nihilism – these novels whine about how unfulfilling it is to get everything you want, especially money, sex, and drugs. These stories make for fun, trashy novels, but atrocious literature. The aforementioned authors fit into this camp.
  2. Catatonic Realism – also called Ultraminimalism, this genre contains novels that use heavy-handed techniques to describe stale ideas. In an attempt to be deeply artistic, these authors wax poetic about suburban malaise like it’s never been done before.2
  3. Workshop Hermeticism – these works are born from the academic Creative Writing Programs that boomed in the 1980’s. These are amateur stories that are grammatically perfect yet lacking in soul. Wallace describes them as “nice, cautious, boring Workshop Stories, stories as tough to find technical fault with as they are to remember after putting them down. Here are the rouged corpses for Dr. Gass’s graveyard … And corpses, whatever their other faults, never ever screw up” (11-12).

DFW argues that various cultural factors influence these movements, but he considers three to be the most significant:

  1. The cultural impact of television, making novels more entertaining and less intellectual.
  2. The literary impact of academic Creative Writing Programs, which yield stale writing.
  3. The new way that educated readers understand literary narratives, no longer contextualizing them in the greater tradition of literature. DFW argues that today’s fiction “admits neither passion for the future nor curiosity about the past” (13).

But, according to DFW, there’s hope. He predicts that out of this chaos will emerge a movement of true artists. In due time, they will create works of genius that epitomize the weird complexity of our generation.

It’s fascinating to see that without exception,3 DFW put his argument into practice in his own works. He rejected all of the C.Y. movements, especially in his masterwork, Infinite Jest. In “Fictional Futures,” DFW explains that the popularity of television influences C.Y. writing to accommodate readers’ short attention spans: shorter sentences, paragraphs, and chapters; clearer transitions; and simpler vocabulary. Infinite Jest had none of these qualities – it was as complex as could be.

Although I found DFW’s argument in “Fictional Futures” to be sound, I hated his tone. As this was one of his first publications, he had not yet mastered his signature writing style, with its nuance and wit. In this essay, he sounds consistently arrogant. His verbose sentences and linguistic tricks don’t serve a purpose like they do in his later work – here, he’s just showing off. He writes filler sentences like, “Nor, please, is this stuff a matter of mere taste or idiosyncrasy” (4).

The arrogant tone aside,4 DFW’s intellect strikes again in “Fictional Futures.” He analyzes his generation with stunning accuracy. His analysis was so spot-on that 20 years later, Bret Easton Ellis still won’t forgive him. Even Ellis knew that Wallace spoke the truth.

  1. Other critics call them the Y.A.W.N.S.: Young Anomic White Novelists.
  2. Ever since the American suburbs gained popularity in the 1950’s, critics have spoken against them. So, these C.Y. authors are about 30 years too late if they’re trying to say something new.
  3. In my opinion, DFW consistently follows his own advice. Here’s a discussion question: can you find anything in Infinite Jest that contradicts his advice in “Fictional Futures” (according to my description of the C.Y. movements, for instance)?
  4. Another annoying moment: he lumps all major female C.Y. authors into a group characterized by “bitchy humor” (3).
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5 Responses to The Conspicuously Young are Having Too Much Fun

  1. Argyle8, this is a solid discussion, but I’m surprised you didn’t mention the parts near the end of the essay where Wallace says that (paraphrasing) if contemporary fiction is to inhale rather than die, it must learn from such weird aliens as Bakhtin, Husserl, Gadamer, de Man, etc. Do you know what he’s talking about and why he might be suggesting that US fiction needs to learn from continental philosophy, theory, and criticism?

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  2. leficorn93 says:

    David Foster Wallace discusses a topic that is indisputably relevant to today’s society. Everyone (the stereotyped American) wants instant gratification and constant “entertainment” (hence Infinite Jest’s original title, A Failed Entertainment). In a sense, a vast expanse of modern literature is failed entertainment. Online articles are written in lists, so that people can quickly skim them, hit the bullet points, and “X” out before spending too much time or intellectual energy.
    I agree that Wallace made Infinite Jest the exact opposite of popular media which is intended to keep up with people’s short attention spans. He created a work of incomputable size and length, that is literally grueling to get through, with page-long sentences, endless endnotes, and that requires the reader to carry around, not only the monstrosity of the book itself, but a dictionary as well. By creating Infinite Jest, he essentially gave the middle finger to contemporary literature. While modern entertainment is more interested in captivating short attention spans, than arousing intellectual stimulation, Infinite Jest does the exact opposite.
    I believe Wallace mentions these great thinkers (Bakhtin, Husserl, Gadamer, and de Man) to exemplify the sorts of minds that authors should be aspiring to learn from. Literary critics and theorists, philosophers of hermeneutics and phenomenology, scholars of literary theories, ethics, and language—these are the people the literary community should be looking to for inspiration. Wallace even says, “the contemporary artist can simply no longer afford to regard the work of critics or theorists or philosophers—no matter how stratospheric—as divorced from his own concerns.” Wallace is concerned with the lack of intellectual curiosity shown in media and literary works today. The “blend of academic stasis and intellectual disinterest” is the bullet with which contemporary authors are shooting themselves.

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  3. epiratequeen says:

    This is definitely interesting to put in conversation with Infinite Jest. I’ll admit that I’m not too familiar with literary trends of the eighties and nineties, but it’s hard to imagine Infinite Jest to be in line with any typical or expected structure based on current trends.

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  4. argyle8 says:

    When DFW cites European philosophers and literary theorists, he explains that contemporary American writers are behind the times. European philosophers have complicated the notion that writing is a neutral transmission of information from writer to reader. Yet American writers don’t consider the theory behind their own works; they’re concerned more with entertainment than the philosophy of communication.

    In sum, DFW argues that the Conspicuously Young are remarkably outdated. Today’s writers need to engage with philosophy in order to write creative works that ponder our contemporary times and have staying power in the canon of literature.

    In Infinite Jest, DFW achieves both the Conspicuously Young’s goals (to be entertaining) and his own criticism (to engage with contemporary philosophy). He understands that writing is no longer a Victorian one-way telephone, a Romantic mirror, or any other old-school symbol of the writer-reader relationship. Thanks to DFW’s rejection of C.Y. trends, Infinite Jest is as much about European philosophy as it is about tennis.

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