Excessive Innovation and the Anxiety of Influence

Language is born of imitation. Imitation is how we learn to speak in the first place, and it’s how we find our place in the various groups and subcultures which draw us into adulthood. Most people have an ear for the best new bits of language they come across – a better or richer or more efficient or just smarter-sounding way of expressing ideas which are anyway always slightly beyond language’s grasp1 – and are able to absorb these into their own personal dialect.2 This selective imitation is how languages originally developed (I assume, not having studied linguistics in any depth),3 and how they continue to develop today.

It follows, then, that literature functions in the same way; that writers have always imitated and reworked the best innovations of other writers, and that by doing so they’ve kept literary culture rich and inventive and in a state of constant development.4 I’m not the only writer, surely, whose first thought on reading a great piece of work is to wish I could have written that?5 Nor whose second thought6 is to wonder just how it was done?

Some examples of literary innovations I’ve recently been tempted to incorporate into my own work: the sonorous yet oddly inarticulate voice of Peter Hobbs’ excellent first novel, The Short Day Dying, achieved in part by simply doing away with commas; George Saunders’ narrators’ sense of slightly overreaching their own understanding, which he evokes by having them ever-so-slightly misarticulate a few key words or phrases, usually drawn from the jargon-heavy worlds of self-help and business management, in a way which is funny and sad and nuanced and very difficult to imitate7; Raymond Carver’s radical concision;8 Alice Munro’s importing of novelistic temporal leaps into the short story; James Kelman’s clipping of dialogue to signify stunted speech patterns.

But sometimes, problematically, a literary development is such an innovative leap that the thing becomes inextricably linked with that writer in such a way as to constitute a virtual moratorium on that thing. Take, for example, B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, in which the chapters are presented loose in a box and the reader invited to shuffle them before reading, which is both a great solution to the problem of sequencing an essentially non-linear narrative and a brilliant evocation of that non-linearity9. (And which also happens to be a moving and quite brilliant piece of English post-war writing, a fact which is usually overshadowed by loud cries of ‘Look! Loose chapters in a box!’) But who would now get away with presenting a novel in the same way, no matter how appropriate it might be?10

And take for further example Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, whose central idea, that post-apocalyptic language would resemble in its shattered grammar and lost understandings a kind of pre-modern language, has been impossible to reuse without provoking recollections of Hoban’s original work.11 Although in this instance other writers haven’t been entirely inhibited from making use of the innovation, just as neither have they been inhibited from following W.G. Sebald’s use of found images set within text. Which I think supports the notion I’m grasping towards: that it’s okay to make use of innovations, even radical and apparently one-off innovations, and that doing so shouldn’t detract from the work of the innovator nor reflect badly on the innovation-user. (Unless of course the innovation is made use of in a sloppy or unnecessary or weakly constructed way, in which case let the usual modes of literary criticism apply.)12

Which brings us, circuitously, to David Foster Wallace’s innovative use of footnotes.13

Personal note: when writing non-fiction, I often find myself bogged down in a proliferation of complicated multi-clause sentences which attempt to contain too many ideas – as well as asides separated by dashes, some of which are themselves multi-clause – and a general excess of juggled information, and end up being unwieldy and basically just difficult or unsatisfactory to read.14 And since I can see that other writers are able to tackle this problem – are able to order their thoughts in a clearer and more linear fashion, or are able to craft lengthy multi-clause sentences which are a joy to read15 – I realize that the problem is mostly one of my having certain shortcomings as a writer. But I think there’s something else, and it’s a something-else which David Foster Wallace had worked out how to tackle before I’d even learnt how to type.

My non-fiction writing has usually ended up so multiply claused because I’m trying to convey a lot of information at once: the story, the background to the story, the historical and geographical context, my personal reflections, some sense of the greater narrative, etc. Partly this everything-at-once hurtle is because I’ve been offered less space for the piece than the story ideally requires, as well as because of the shortcomings mentioned above; but often it’s also because I think that’s just the way my brain works, and – here comes the point – the way a lot of our brains work now16 that we’re so used to getting our information from computing networks rather than from individual sources.

For example, if I want to read up on the work of research scientists in Antarctica, I might go to a government science website, browse a few blogs and Flickr streams from the scientists themselves, zoom around on Google Earth, check the terms I don’t recognize on Wikipedia, look at any archive materials which might be available online and find some video which has been shot on research trips; and I’ll do all this with the browser tabs open simultaneously, flicking between them as I need to.17 So if it happens that I then go on a field trip to Antarctica,18 and see some of these things for myself, and want to tell a story about that experience, the flow of my narrative is instinctively going to be rather fragmentary and broad-ranging and have something of the this-and-this-and-this-at-once quality which my own prior reading – and lived experience – has had.

So what’s the best way of capturing that this-and-this-and-this-at-once quality?19 Footnotes.20 And not just the terse footnotes to which we were accustomed before David Foster Wallace got going, as in mostly citations or glossary-type definitions, but footnotes which serve as the written equivalent of a split-screen or second tab, with whole supplementary paragraphs and parallel thought-streams and additional context, and even, where needed, footnotes to the footnotes.21

The most notable feature about the way David Foster Wallace used footnotes is that the reader is given a choice as to how to deal with the supplementary text – to read it in full at the exact moment the footnote occurs, to come back to it at the end of the sentence or the end of the paragraph or some arbitrarily later moment,22 or even to ignore it entirely23 – and that this element of choice enables a sense of this-and-this-at-onceness which fits so well with the way in which we’re now accustomed to taking on information and ideas and which is one of the many reasons why I personally find David Foster Wallace’s non-fiction so approachable and yet so exhilaratingly24 dense.25 And also why I find it so inspirational; it makes me wonder, as with all great innovations, whether I could make use of that technique as well.26

The trouble is, David Foster Wallace’s use of footnotes was such a big innovative leap27 that it became almost a trademarked feature of his writing, and took on a kind of protected status which was only amplified by his death, a protected status which has evolved into a kind of undocumented yet widely supported Footnote Moratorium.28 But the innovative leap seems to me to be such a good one – such a useful technique for both writers and readers, and such a successful reflection and utilization of the this-and-this-and-this-at-onceness which I’ve outlined above as being very much of our time – that to let the Moratorium continue indefinitely would be something of a travesty.29

So my proposal is this: A Footnote Moratorium Cessation Treaty (Proposed),30 in which those who sign up to it would acknowledge that David Foster Wallace was more or less the first to use footnotes in such an extensive and parallel-textual way,31 and that, while anyone who uses footnotes in a similar way might be seen to be imitating his innovation (and, almost inevitably, doing so less successfully), the innovation is of too great a use to our written culture to allow it to be left behind. This Treaty will of necessity retain a (Proposed) status until the use of footnotes reaches a certain critical mass; by which time, of course, there’s likely to be a Footnote Moratorium Cessation Treaty backlash, whereby footnotes will be considered to be overused and possibly rather tiresome. But that will come later. For the time being, the early adopters of the FMCT (Proposed) will be innovation-imitation innovators, and will be making use of a device which, I can now testify, is quite apart from anything else a whole lot of fun.

And. Now I feel like a distant cousin at a family gathering who has unexpectedly started singing some old and possibly even inappropriate folk song in the hope that others will join in.32 The rest of the family are looking at one another awkwardly. This distant cousin has about half a verse to go before he either peters out in embarrassed silence or hears the rest of the family singing up33 alongside him. Here comes the chorus.

Oh my days.


1.^ See Wittgenstein, Foucault, et al.

2.^ For example, my daughter, who is not a black teenager from south London but a white five-year-old from Nottingham, has recently started saying ‘Oh my days!’ to express a kind of exasperated surprise. I have no idea where she got this from,a nor why she even needs to express exasperated surprise, but I think it’s a lovely and almost song-like or biblical-sounding expression which I’m tempted to start using myself.

a. The top deck of a bus in south London, possibly.

3^. And you thought I’d actually read Wittgenstein, Foucault, et al?

4.^ This is, you know, some of the writers some of the time. Not all of the writers all of the time. Not by a long stretch.

5.^ My second, third and fourth thoughts, obviously, are: Don’t kid yourself; I bet other writers don’t think like this; and Why don’t you get a proper job?

6.^ Well, fifth; see footnote 5.

7.^ Which hasn’t stopped a whole generation of North American writers attempting to do so, I’ve noticed. Which given that this whole essay is about not being inhibited from imitating innovative leaps in literature is not an attempt I’m criticizing here, just an attempt I’m pointing out is much harder to pull off than it appears

8.^ Or was it Gordon Lish’s radical concision? Or Carver’s radical acceptance of Lish’s radical concision which itself was a radical projection of Carver’s instinct towards a radical concision? Or was it? Etc, etc, ad infinitum.

9.^ And pretty much an ideal solution to the problem Philip Larkin was highlighting when he described the novels he’d read in his role as a Booker Prize judge as having ‘a beginning, a muddle and an end’.

10.^ And which publisher’s production department would even reply to an email suggesting such a thing?

11.^ The central section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for example.

12.^ You may, for example, feel that I’m using too many footnotes here, even given the fact that I’m deliberately and tentatively-humorously overusing them to underline the central point of this essay. Which is fine. I’m new to this, and excited about it; I’ve only just discovered the ‘Insert: Footnote’ function on my computer.a

a. I wonder, how did writers manage footnotes on manual typewriters?

13.^ Which were only one small part of the cluster of linguistic and structural innovations which he brought to his writing, and in particular to his non-fiction writing: a gleeful verbosity would be another, as would rigorously grammatical sentence construction, as would the utterly unafraid juxtaposition of what used to be called low and high cultures, as would the sort of humanely demanding tone which I’m tempted to compare to a trekking guide who urges you to keep up while at the same time solicitously making sure you’re able to do so. But I’m assuming, for the purposes of this essay, unless the editor directs otherwise, that you know DFW’s work and recognize these aspects of it. Since otherwise your reading of this essay is basically redundant.a

a. Since how would you be inhibited from imitating an innovation of which you were ignorant?b

b. Alliteration deliberately gratuitous.

14.^ The sentence construction here is deliberately awkward and unwieldy and just basically difficult or unsatisfactory to read, for the purposes of a joke.

15.^ W.G. Sebald, obviously. Except technically that’s fiction. Although, come on.

16.^ ‘Zeitgeist’ alert: proceed with caution.

17.^ Take as implicit here that I’ll also be checking email, news, football scores and popular social networking sites, as well as changing my mind about what music to listen to given the near-universal choice offered by services such as Spotify. This kind of fidgety inefficiency is a given, isn’t it?

18.^ Which I did, in 2004, courtesy of the British Antarctic Survey and Arts Council England, both of whom are still waiting ever so patiently for anything substantial to result, and to both of whom I remain grateful. When something of substance does emerge, as I still maintain it eventually will, it’s likely to utilize – you may surmise from the drift of this entire essay – footnotes.

19.^ Footnotes?

20.^ Ta-dah!

21.^ And this was a further innovation which was often commented on and seen as somehow a humorous device but which I think was more of a genuine working-through of the way DFW ’s narrative brain functioned and the way in which he wanted us to read his work.a

a. With the quality of this-and-this-and-this-at-once which I’m attempting to describe.


22.^ Or even, apparently, in the smartphone ‘app’a edition of Infinite Jest, to touch the footnoted word and see the footnote hover over the text as something like a speech bubble, which I’m just discovering now is also the way footnotes appear within the OpenOffice.org Writer software and I imagine also within Microsoft Word, and which presumably is how DFW viewed his own footnotes whilst working on his own writing, and which I’d like to imagine he would have enjoyed – whilst having well-constructed arguments for the primacy of the printed book – seeing demonstrated on someone’s phone.

a. Is it just me who thinks it sinister that this jaunty abbreviation of ‘software application’ just happens by sheer coincidence also to be an abbreviation of ‘Apple’, the name of the computing hardware/software company whose supporters spent years banging on about the monopolistic tendencies of Microsoft but now keep quiet about how relentlessly closed and monopolistic is the system their beloved overlords are apparently intent on creating?

23.^ Although what sort of an idiot would do this while still claiming an interest in reading DFW’s work is somewhat difficult to imagine. But it does take all sorts. And the openness of the option is one of DFW’s generosities as a writer, I think.

24.^ And which, I’m guessing is probably a version of the way he was in conversation when in a position to hold forth on a given topic or, more likely, cluster of topics.a

a. Not that I’d know. I never met him. And the peculiar wistfulness I feel on knowing I now never will makes me feel bad for all the mockery/disbelief I’ve previously directed towards those who claim any sense of loss or sadness whatsoever when someone to whom they have no actual personal connection dies, e.g., Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, et al. Because knowing that there will be no more work from DFWb is a genuine loss. Not to mention knowing that his family and friends must miss him desperately, and the feeling of potential-associated-sadness by projection which that kind of knowledge also always triggers. Not to mention also the whole other level of recognizing the experience of attempting to support someone living through anything like the appalling depression which d f w was apparently subject to, the consideration of which gives rise to another more pointed dose of potential-associated-sadness by projection; this being something else which people feeling sad about Jacko and Diana also cite, and therefore I again feel bad for any previous mockery/disbelief directed their way.

b. Publication of The Pale King notwithstanding; leaving the question of its brilliance or otherwise aside, it’s demonstrably not a finished piece of work.

25.^ ‘Dense’ here being a good thing, pretty obviously I hope. And note that ‘dense’ used as a critical insult often reflects badly on the critic and/or the culture which has produced that critic, since why should the compressing of several ideas into a single text be considered somehow a bad thing?

26.^ See the top of this essay. See also footnotes 5 and 7.

27.^ He wasn’t alone, I’ll concede. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, published four years after Infinite Jest, made similarly extensive use of footnotes and endnotes. And let’s not forget that Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding both cut loose with footnotes a long way back. Not to mention Joyce, Salinger, Fowles, Barth . . . but it was DFW who attained a reputation or notoriety for his use of them; and it was DFW who as far as I can tell has inhibited most writers from using them since, say, the early noughties.

28.^ I’m excluding academic and technical writing here, of course, and the standard type of footnote which predated DFW’s use of footnotes, as well as the minor and somewhat tentative footnotes seen in literary journals such as the Believer.

29.^ I’m trying not to go so far, here, as to say something mawkish and intrusive like, ‘It does a disservice to his memory’; but I’ll admit I’m coming pretty close, and acknowledge the mawkishness and intrusiveness of doing so. But you can see why I’m coming so close, can’t you?

30.^ I’m not entirely sure of the mechanics of such a thing: while an international conference with biscuits and fizzy water and translation headsets and people saying things like ‘the dialectics of the discourse’ might be fun, it’s difficult to see where the funding would come from. It seems more likely that should this essay find a publication I’ll ask the editor to attach an endnote alluding to a newly created page on a popular social networking site where people can add their names to the FMCT (Proposed) in vast and influential numbers.

31.^ Or, okay, maybe he wasn’t absolutely the first; but see footnote 27.

32.^ See also the first of Robin Williams’s pupils to stand on his desk and say, ‘O Captain, my Captain’. See also ‘I’m Spartacus.’ See also drunk man on bus trying to sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ at 7 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.

33.^ To sign up to the FMCT (Proposed) in vast and influential numbers, find ‘Footnote Moratorium Cessation Treaty (Proposed)’ on Facebook and click both ‘like’ and ‘share’. Or send a suitably endorsed postcard to: Footnote Moratorium Cessation Treaty (Proposed), c/o Five Dials, Hamish Hamilton, xxxx,.