Excerpted from an essay by David Foster Wallace
Television’s greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding. One can rest while undergoing stimulation. Receive without giving. It’s the same in all low art that has as goal continued attention and patronage: it’s appealing precisely because it’s at once fun and easy. And the entrenchment of a culture built on Appeal helps explain a dark and curious thing: at a time when there are more decent and good and very good serious ﬁction writers at work in America than ever before, an American public enjoying unprecedented literacy and disposable income spends the vast bulk of its reading time and book dollar on ﬁction that is, by any fair standard, trash. Trash ﬁction is, by design and appeal, most like televised narrative: engaging without being demanding. But trash, in terms of both quality and popularity, is a much more sinister phenomenon. For while television has from its beginnings been openly motivated by—has been about—considerations of mass appeal and L.C.D. and proﬁt, our own history is chock full of evidence that readers and societies may properly expect important, lasting contributions from a narrative art that under- stands itself as being about considerations more important than popularity and balance sheets. Entertainers can divert and engage and maybe even console; only artists can transﬁgure. Today’s trash writers are entertainers working artists’ turf. This in itself is nothing new. But television aesthetics, and television-like economics, have clearly made their unprecedented popularity and reward possible. And there seems to me to be a real danger that not only the forms but the norms of televised art will begin to supplant the standards of all narrative art. This would be a disaster.
No technique works if it isn’t used. If that sounds simplistic, look at some specifics: Telling friends about your diet won’t make you thin. Buying a diet cookbook won’t either. Even reading the recipes won’t do it. Knowing about Alcoholics Anonymous, looking up the phone number, even jotting it on real paper, won’t make you sober. Buying weights doesn’t give you muscles. Signing a piece of paper won’t make missiles disappear, even if you make lots of copies and tell every anchorperson on earth. Endlessly studying designs for spacecraft won’t put anything into orbit. And so forth. But you surely know someone who tried it that way, and maybe you’re one yourself.
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