“This is Water” [Larson]

Biography, romance, and science fiction are some of the more common ideas that come to mind when thinking about genres, but according to Kerry Dirk, genres can be much more. Genres come with their own expectations, which allows authors to take advantage of these expectations to get their point across to readers.

Graduation speeches are their own genre. From a content standpoint, college graduation speeches are commonly known to have a speaker impose wisdom to the graduating class. However, the speeches themselves are there mainly to entertain the audience. Nobody wants to sit for hours while names are being called to a stage, and with this in mind, let’s look at an example.

In 2005, David Foster Wallace, an esteemed American author, gave a commencement speech to Kenyon College, titled “This is Water.” Wallace emphasizes that people need to be less selfish and start taking control of their own lives, and he argues a liberal arts education allows one to do just that. For Wallace, an integral part of liberal arts is being “conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience” (Wallace 54). This message of his is somewhat standard for a graduation speech, but the delivery does not follow the traditional genre.

His speech begins with an anecdote about two fish. One fish asks the other “what the hell is water?”, which Foster follows up with, “I am not the wise old fish” (5-7). From the beginning, the audience picks up that this is no ordinary graduation speech, with the “foul’ language and the idea that Foster admits he is not telling the students what to think or what to do. With his unusual style, Wallace captures the attention of the audience by challenging the graduation speech genre expectations, while still ultimately giving advice and wisdom to the graduating class.

“This is Water” does not fit Dirk’s description of a typical genre, but the impact of Wallace’s speech shows that genres are subject to change, it just takes someone to bend the rules and expectations.

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