The content of Wallace’s essay “Host” is as usual quite intriguing but, as is also often true, the formatting was a little tough to read through. I understand when he uses experimental formatting in his fiction, especially his short stories, because often the resulting emotions/awareness caused by the formatting are similar to those that curse the narrator (like the inability to exactly convey thoughts because they do not translate well to English). But it’s difficult for me to believe that Wallace uses the same reasoning for his non-fiction, especially when the topic of the essay seems to have little to do with these anxieties.
In “Host,” after all, Wallace shadows a radio talk-show host and his station cohorts, and describes (with some editorializing) them and what they do. It seems like a straightforward issue; as a reader initially I did not at all see that, because on the first page is some crazy stuff that I had to figure out. By now, as Wallace-readers we are used to footnotes and sometimes other similar structures, but in-text blocks that look more like parts of a flow chart than paragraphs in an essay completely threw me off. At first it was difficult to navigate these blocks, because they do not always appear near the point in the main text to which they refer. I would read them too early, not understanding the context; or I’d realize that I already read past their relevance. And then the blocks themselves could have other blocks extending from them into other, again seemingly random, locations on the page.
Like all of Wallace’s writing oddities, I hoped that I would get used to this one over time so I could actually pay attention to the content of his essay–which, for a non-fiction piece, seems appropriate. And I did eventually get used to it, at least a little bit; a sort of rhythm emerged, where I’d make sure to finish sentences and then go back and read any relevant text blocks, reading them in full before going on to their own sub-blocks. It just required some organization. But I have to wonder why Wallace would put the reader through this in the first place. I don’t remember much of the beginning of the essay, when I was still coming up with a system of reading. Why would he want to obscure meaning in this way? Perhaps he knew this would happen and made sure the beginning stuff wasn’t very important (and, looking back at it, it doesn’t seem crucial to understanding the rest of the essay, since a lot of it comes up again)–but that doesn’t answer the above question. . . .
Let’s look at some of the things Wallace says in “Host.”
“The fact of the matter is that it is not John Ziegler’s job to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible” (281).
“These ads, which are KFI’s most powerful device for exploiting the intimacy and trust of the listener-host relationship . . .” (298).
“[In talk-show radio, there is] the near total conflation of news and entertainment” (310).
Most of this essay appears to be about the interesting job of John Ziegler, but there are some tidbits like those above that draw attention to some of Wallace’s own possible issues. First, we have discussed Wallace’s authority in his writing, and how we basically believe everything he says. Is it his job, then, to be “responsible, or nuanced” in what he says? After all, like Ziegler, he is not actually a journalist, he is simply a writer who easily shares with us his own opinions on the subjects he covers. Unlike on the radio, Wallace’s writing is not interspersed with ads, but one does have to keep in mind that it is always an interested third party (i.e. Atlantic Monthly) who pays Wallace for this writing, and one has to wonder how much this affects the “reporting” and possible bias (which, on the other hand, we know exists in some form anyway). Finally, while Wallace’s writing is not “news,” it is informative of the world around us, especially of those aspects we aren’t completely familiar with, and is simultaneously (at least, usually) entertaining. The most interesting sentence to examine here could be, “Sometimes Mr. Z. calls endorsements ‘disgusting’ and says ‘The majority of talk show hosts in this country are complete and total whores’ ” (298).
Is it possible that, because of the similarities previously noted between his job and Mr. Z.’s, Wallace might consider himself a writing “whore”? Could this be why he makes it so difficult, through the formatting, for the reader to really get past a surface glimpse of content, because this realization is too personal and unflattering and frightening?