Monday, September 22, 2008

Writing Whuffie

In the wake of David Foster Wallace's suicide, there has been an outpouring of reminiscences and grief, as one might expect in the wake of a celebrated writer's precipitous exit. In the mainstream media, most of it has been from men about his age who found in him a kindred spirit, although I have to admit it's kind of depressing that for all the loosening of the cannon, according to these writers it's still mostly white and mostly male writers who are perceived as being "the best of their generation" (as defined by mostly white male writers).

What's a woman got to write to get some whuffie? My whuffie's going to go down simply for mentioning it, but then I just came from a department meeting which tends to make a dent in my whuffie anyway. I have to admit the current climate in gender politics has made me lose any optimism I might have once held. It reminds me of being back at Harvard Med where male candidates were hired over female candidates in a smokescreen of vague terminology, and where the Joint Committee on the Status of Women at Harvard Medical and Dental Schools met in the grim conference room at Countway, surrounded by paintings of the school's patriarchs and wondered why the climate was so hostile to women.

It's true that writing is a slippery thing at the best of times: trends come and go, writers fall out of favor, or get romanticized out of all proportion according to seemingly random coincidences. Once that happens, everyone follows that new model -- which means it's already too late for that model (maybe DFW's death will mean an end to the overly-precious footnote-laden fiction and essays, but I doubt it).

There is that tendency to want to emulate such romantic figures, leading to the problems which Dent writes about in the piece linked above: "It really worries me when mental ill health is equated with artistic and literary genius." The film class I taught last spring, Writers in Motion, highlighted this tendency. I suppose in part it's a distancing effect -- people can eschew pursuing creativity if it has such a cost. Who wants to risk their life, relationships and sanity just for a few words on the page?

The truth is that all writing requires is not a wild sex life, drunken oblivion, or a larger than life personality, but writing, simply writing words down, sending them out to risk rejection, and then writing some more.

But why would you believe me? My whuffie is too low.


Anonymous said...

I love this concept (whuffie, that is, not the other). I'm a big fan of DFW, as I am of a bunch of the writers that Scott puts in the pantheon, but I hear you sister, where's the love? I wish someone would give it up for Heidi Julavits and Jennifer Egan.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick does some lovely analysis of the post-68 white boys' club, and the values that hold them together. You know, when you're looking for some light reading.

C. Margery Kempe said...

Glad you like it -- I've been toying with the idea of using in the grad class next spring, i.e. making the wiki a whuffie counter that the students can change as they see fit. I'd be fascinated to see how it works and how they assess whuffie. On the other hand, I can't keep from worrying that it could lead to abuses, but I am leaning toward giving it a whirl.

I have looked in vain for a whuffie widget. I should have thought the geeks would be all over this one, but the only ones I have found are either non-functional (like the one on Facebook) or still in pre-release.