David Foster Wallace Tried to Write About Hip-Hop. It Didn’t Go Well.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 9 2013 11:20 AM

My Metonym for Self-Reference Weighs a Ton

When the “resoundingly and in all ways white” David Foster Wallace tried to write about hip-hop.

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Illustration by Nate Powell

Since 2008, the year that David Foster Wallace committed suicide, there has been a steady stream of posthumous publications, none of which, as a matter of strict biblio-taxonomy, would have any business occupying the same section of your local ink-and-paper bookseller. We’ve had This Is Water (inspirational commencement speech), The Pale King (unfinished novel), Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will (undergraduate philosophy thesis), and Both Flesh and Not (essays and criticism). Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you still bought physical books from that local bookseller: You’d have to do some considerable legwork around the place just to get your hands on all these posthumous Wallace books. There aren’t many figures in the landscape of contemporary literature who as fully embody Susan Sontag’s memorable definition of a writer as “someone interested in everything.” Wallace really was interested in everything: madly, distractedly, encyclopedically interested. (He wrote a book on that topic, too: Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, for which, I suppose, you might want to look in “popular science.”)

Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

And now that Signifying Rappers—the short book about hip-hop he co-authored with his friend Mark Costello in 1990—is back on the shelves in a new edition, you’d also have to make a music section stop-off in that hypothetical bookstore expedition. Wallace made it his business to be the kind of writer for whom no one section of the bookstore could be a natural home. And so a book like this, as minor an entry as it is in the DFW oeuvre, is representative of his work precisely because of how incongruous it seems. He wrote brilliantly about what he knew, of course—tennis, addiction, television, the self-devouring solipsism of a particular kind of heterosexual maleness—but some of his best essay writing and journalism resulted from putting himself in situations in which he was absurdly, perspiringly out of place (porno award ceremonies, luxury cruises, lobster festivals, so forth).

Signifying Rappers is characterized by a similar dislocation of author and subject, but it never achieves the exquisite style or penetrating insight of those later intellectual excursions. Much of this has to do with the fact that the 26-year-old Wallace, in his sections of the book, is plainly not yet the writer he would go on to become in his 30s and 40s. The self-conscious didacticism and performative equivocation are there, as is the uneasy synthesis of sincerity and irony, but the prose seems too often just compulsively wordy, the voice too awkwardly enamored of its own academic-vernacular register. It also feels odd, from the vantage point of 2013, to be reading a critical argument for rap’s worthiness of serious critical consideration.

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And the book is more frustrating than that, as it’s mostly concerned with the difficulties of approaching this “closed, prepositionally black, Other” music. “The fenestrated barriers to any real upscale white appreciation of rap and its Scene looked almost Romanesque-esque,” Wallace writes, “until we hit on the The-Barriers-Are-Part-of-Any-White-Appreciation strategy.” That fussily demotic tone is in itself a little off-putting here, but the sentence is representative of a larger problem with the book: It is interested less in the subject of rap per se than the distance between its authors and that subject. Throughout, Wallace and Costello are just far too engrossed in the apparent incongruity of their own enjoyment—as “two highbrow upscale whites”—of a genre which is “very self-consciously, music by urban blacks about same to and for same.”

Twenty-four years on, rap is still a largely African-American art form, but the presence of white participants in and commentators on rap culture is no longer remarkable. (It was probably never as remarkable as the authors seem to think it was.) And so one of the strangest, most alternately intriguing and frustrating aspects of this book, is the obsessive—which is to say very DFW-ish—way in which it keeps anxiously gesturing toward its own compromised authority to speak about its subject at all. “Please know,” Wallace entreats us early on, “we’re very sensitive to this question: what business have two white yuppies trying to do a sampler on rap?” The first of its three main sections is entitled “Entitlement,” which, obviously, is punningly self-reflexive in a number of ways at once. Before anything’s even been said at all, the whole thing is already contriving to deconstruct itself.

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For a writer so deeply serious about the difficulties and responsibilities of community and citizenship, Wallace had comparatively little to say, elsewhere in his work, about the complexities of race in America. It just wasn’t, generally, an area on which his ethical intelligence shone with any particular brilliance. One of the few really unsuccessful stretches of Infinite Jest comes early on, and is sometimes a deal-breaker for readers who have yet to be convinced that they should keep turning its untold pages. It’s a short detour about the sexual abuse and horrific violence suffered by a girl named Wardine, and it’s narrated in a stilted vernacular that reads like a grim parody of ebonics. (“Wardine be cry. Reginald he down and beg for Wardine tell Reginald momma how Wardine momma treat Wardine.”) It’s hard to believe a writer as sensitive and self-examining as Wallace didn’t know exactly what he was doing here, but it’s equally hard for the reader to figure out what exactly that was. (It’s worth noting that this was one of the first parts of the novel he wrote; it originated in a short story written for a graduate writing program in 1986.)

In his fantastic 1999 essay “Authority and American Usage”—which itself contains a diversion about a speech Wallace gave as a teacher to black students on the importance of learning to write in Standard Written (or “Standard White”) English—Wallace describes himself as “resoundingly and in all ways white.” It’s this resounding whiteness that is the dominant note in Signifying Rappers. There’s an odd conflict at the heart of the whole project: Wallace and Costello set out, as two white guys, to offer an explanation and defense of rap music to their readers, while also focusing relentlessly on the fact that, as two white guys, they can never really get close to that subject in the first place. There’s a scrupulous, sometimes comic self-consciousness to the Us and Them divide that runs through the book, but this doesn’t mitigate its failure to transcend that divide. (This problem is sometimes aggravated by a tendency to view rap as speaking for urban black communities as a whole—as “synecdochic,” in Wallace’s term.)