I was recently asked some questions in regards to what I have put forth in my discussion of radical literalism that I think might help to push the conversation forward. I was asked, “How does radical literalism operate to be constructive?” and “What is the difference between postmodern metanarrative and inner metanarrative?” and “What does it mean to say that, ‘we can not escape irony’?” These are important questions, but I am not sure that I have an easy answer for each individually. What I can and will do is to have a larger conversation that I hope will address the general nature of these questions and hopefully provide answers that are if not succinct then at least not overly ambiguous.
I have already covered some of the ways in which I think radical literalism operates, but I suppose that I haven’t talked specifically how I think that it offers something constructive.
Since this entire venture is predicated on the work of David Foster Wallace, I think it best to turn again to his writing. The first feature of radical literalism is the ‘single entendre’, the expression of sentiment without irony (or postmodern irony at least) and with sincere intent. In a word: honesty.
For starters let us take a look at Wallace’s article (later bookified) titled: “McCain’s Promise.” In the very beginning of the book (I should say that for anybody looking to cross reference what I write here with what Wallace has written that I will be drawing from and citing from the book version of the original article which was written for Rolling Stone) Wallace has what he calls the “Optional Preface” (3). The very title is radically literal in that he is attempting to honestly and without duplicity tell the reader that the introduction is optional, that while it has information, it is not integral to the understanding of the article in any way. So, radical literalism is an attempt at all times to be honest. The preface itself is riddled with this same brand of honest dialogues. He says of the article that it is, “just meant to be the truth as one person saw it” (4). He understands that the word ‘truth’ is loaded, or that it can only convey so much and that non-fiction can only be truth as filtered through perception – in this case Wallace’s.
Another facet of Wallace’s writing that I see really getting at the idea of honesty are his asides in footnote form. These footnotes are often moments where he is taking great pains to provide a level of honesty to and for his readers as well as his subjects. In the Optional Preface he includes one of these footnotes dedicated to the Rolling Stone editor letting readers know that while the editing process was tough, the editor was fair under some pretty tough constrictions (6). We can see through this footnote that Wallace is concerned with honesty, the whole picture of events, the reader’s understanding of those events, and the people involved with those events.
He operates in almost the exact same way in his introduction to the 2007 The Best American Essays anthology of which he was the guest editor. The first line of the introduction reads, “I think it’s unlikely that anyone is reading this as an introduction. Most of the people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman Samplers. They skip around, pick and choose…The editor’s intro is last, if at all” (xii). We see the same attention to the reader, to audience. He is attempting to identify the audience as well as identify with the audience. Also, he again has a footnote dedicated to the series editor, Robert Atwan, which attempts to provide an honest depiction of the overall process of deciding what to include in the anthology and just how much of that choice is up to the guest editor. Wallace is going through pains to give equal and fair representation to all involved. So, I would say that honesty is part of radical literalism and specifically honesty in the form of inner metanarrative that operates to expose rather than ironically contradict one’s self. Also, I think that honesty can be seen as constructive.
Honesty can be constructive in criticism for instance. Criticism often involves brands of honesty that can operate to bolster an argument or strengthen a piece of writing, even if the criticism looks to disassemble what the creator has created. So when I talk of honesty and radical literalism’s brand of single entendre honesty, it is this that I am getting at – honesty as constructive language that looks to add to content, meaning, or purpose to a given message or work.
As for the question of how we are to escape irony, or whether that is possible, I am not sure how to proceed. I think that it is safe to suggest that Wallace suggests that irony is “tyranny” in “E Unibus Pluram”, but what does this mean exactly to radical literalism? When I say that we ‘can not escape irony’, something I put forth in my November post: D.F.W. and Radical Literalism, what I am really getting at is the ways in which the media operates. We are surrounded by television, the televisual, movies, advertisements of all kinds and the list goes on. It is this we cannot escape. But I don’t want to sound fatalistic, which is why I provided a sort of Hebdigian reading of Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram”, because I think that the individual can find space for revolt from hegemony in that we can simply mean what we say on a one-to-one basis. In our inner lives there is room for honesty, for the treatment of emotions, ideas, and conceptual thought as authentic and it is here that postmodern irony has run its course.
 There is a double irony here with the name in that it could mean that McCain is making a promise or that he has promise, which makes me wonder if Wallace provided the title of the article himself, or if the editors, as is usually the case, provided that for him. Following the title is the statement: “Aboard the Straight Talk Express With John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope.” This sounds much more “Wallacey” in that he is basically telling his possible readers that this article is not written by a reporter and that instead it is written by D.F.W., a well known and respected fiction and essay writer and that the ways in which he goes about writing are vastly different from the standard reporters. Also, I should mention that there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that Wallace is aboard the “Straight Talk Express” in that is what Wallace is known for and politicians are not. At any rate, not all irony is postmodern and deconstructive, and not all irony is dodgeable. Maybe I will talk about that at some point, but I will leave it for now.