Back to Wallace’s nonfiction! I always struggle to explain why his nonfiction is my favorite of all his work until I am in the process of reading it; then I stumble upon all the “Wallace-isms” and the personal anecdotes that make me love his work in the first place. So far, Consider the Lobster has not been an exception.
One section that I think is particularly telling about Wallace himself comes in the essay “Authority and American Usage.” In footnote six (page 70), Wallace explains his rather fanatical thoughts about grammar: “but I am so pathologically obsessed with usage that every semester the same thing happens: once I’ve had to read my students’ first set of papers, we immediately abandon the regular Lit syllabus and have a three-week Emergency Remedial Usage and Grammar Unit, during which my demeanor is basically that of somebody teaching HIV prevention to intravenous-drug users” (70). I think that what I enjoy the most about this passage (besides the mental image of him flying into a grammar-induced rage) is that we know this is true. In the New Yorker article, there was a quote from a woman who had him as a professor; he wrote “I hate you” in the margins of her paper after she made the same grammatical mistake for the umpteenth time. It makes me appreciate Wallace’s stories all the more when I know they have at least some truth in themâ€”Wallace seems even more human than usual when he gives us a tiny insight into his life through an anecdote.
The notion of snobbishness that Wallace discusses in “Authority and American Usage” is particularly interesting because Wallace, despite seeming like the opposite of a snob, claims to have some “embarrassing” snobbish tendencies: “every August I vow silently to chill about usage this year, and then by Labor Day there’s foam on my chin. I can’t seem to help it. The truth is that I’m not even an especially good or dedicated teacher; I don’t have this kind of fervor in class about anything else, and I know it’s not a very productive fervor, nor a healthy oneâ€”it’s got elements of fanaticism and rage to it, plus a snobbishness that I know I’d be mortified to display about anything else” (70). As Wallace states, “a SNOOT can be loosely defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it” (70). One interesting point is that Wallace, while claiming to be a snob, doesn’t let the reader know what “dysphemism” means; perhaps this indicates some sort of difference between a snob and a SNOOT, or perhaps it serves to refute his claim that he is, in fact, a snob. Although this, in turn, is refuted by his mention of the “chilling little family song that Mom and we little SNOOTlets would sing in the car on long trips,” of which Wallace was himself the author (71). So is Wallace a snob? A SNOOT? None of the above?
I also greatly enjoyed the song that he wrote as a child, reproduced on page 71. The little family anecdotes and Wallace’s childhood writings remind give the reader a bit more information about his background, whichâ€”aside from his tennis-playing storiesâ€”is usually pretty rare. How could he have grown up any differently given his mother’s pretend coughing fits if “one of us children made a usage error” (71)?