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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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:
- The cultural impact of television, making novels more entertaining and less intellectual.
- The literary impact of academic Creative Writing Programs, which yield stale writing.
- 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.
- Other critics call them the Y.A.W.N.S.: Young Anomic White Novelists.
- 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.
- 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)?
- Another annoying moment: he lumps all major female C.Y. authors into a group characterized by “bitchy humor” (3).