Why I hate David Foster Wallace and all he stands for

by CarlD

I don’t actually hate DFW. In fact if you just look at the big biographical generalities – son of philosophy professor, tennis player, professor in turn, smartass – and leave out the brilliance, the voice-of-a-generation fame and the suicidal depression (I’m not brilliant or famous enough to be suicidally depressed, so I just get mopey sometimes) we’re pretty much the same guy. Well, I also don’t use my middle name, which always strikes me as just a little desperate, if you know what I mean, although I am periodically aware that there are perfectly good reasons for doing so.

But anyhow, to keep circling around the point without quite getting to it as I gather DFW often did, until recently DFW was in that place in the dusty warehouses of my attention economy occupied by the things people have been a little too insistent I should check out, a place also occupied by Hemingway, Khalil Gibran, “E.T.,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and for reasons that would take a lot of tedious explaining, Cointreau. Things perhaps of substantial intrinsic merit, but already shown by the form of the recommendation, even in their absence, to lend themselves to conversations of awkward and unpleasant intensity, not to mention unearned intimacy. The sort of conversations I imagine a more-brilliant-and-famous-than-me and eventually-suicidally-depressed DFW being cornered into often by great needy masses of folks who thought he owed them a little piece of himself because he had gotten them all excited and they took it personally.

So, I reluctantly broke the seal on DFW because links to his writings on tennis turned up in the last post (thanks a bunch, Glasperlenspiel and Duncan). They are brilliant in analysis and arguably form; the form being arguable because even in short format he does all the meandering some people didn’t like about Dyke the Elder’s Deacon piece. And as far as I can tell for the same reason – because the simple thing he’s writing about turns out to be quite complex, and rather than try to linearize that complexity he walks around checking it out and remarking on it from various angles. Which means that although there are various things to be taken away from his pieces, ‘the point’ is not among them.

In his piece on Federer DFW says what I wanted to say in my Federer post, only more wittily, elegantly and comprehensively. It’s an exemplary case study of constraint causation, and if I’d known about his piece before I wrote mine I’d be a bad plagiarizer. In his piece on Michael Joyce he oddly enough says more wittily, elegantly and comprehensively what I wanted to say in my Anne-Marie Slaughter post. I’ll pause on this one for a second because DFW does something specifically interesting and encouraging to me here, which is talk about Joyce’s tennis game, and life, using the metaphor of ‘compression’:

Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a paradox. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and sense of himself have allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art — something few of us get to be.

The resonance for me is that this is exactly the metaphor I chose in my dissertation to talk about early 20thC Marxist revolutionary theories. And furthermore, DFW and I seem to be getting at a similar thing, which is that a kind of strategic narrowing focus at all sorts of good things’ expense seems to be necessary to get exceptional things done, whether that be winning tennis shots or smashing the state. Or running America’s foreign affairs, or growing good coffee. Marx’s theory itself is rich with analytical complexity, much too much in fact to get you cleanly to any particular practice – so folks like Lenin figured out soon enough that you had to cut some knots to make a revolution. And to get the theory sharp enough to do that job you had to compress the complexities out and then grind what was left to a hard edge; which of course is where your Stalins and Pol Pots and so on step in – not to say professional athletes are mass murderers, but just that the means of achieving that degree of efficacy seem to be analogous, and the worth-it-ness of it in human terms similarly questionable.

So anyway, I now personally see the appeal of DFW, who I officially give the CED-2 Seal of All-That Approval ™. But I must admit that by the end of the second piece I was finding some of his more personal digressions a little precious (what, you see an irony?), and then I made the mistake of reading his thing on the Maine Lobster Festival, which apart from a couple good one-liners is almost unbearably precious and obtuse, creating in my mind a concern that one might encounter more of this DFW-at-his-worst if one read further into the part of his oeuvre unanchored to non-fiction cases about which he knew and cared a whole bunch. So if a copy of Infinite Jest falls in my lap somehow I may well give it a try, but otherwise it’s back to the warehouse with him.

22 Comments to “Why I hate David Foster Wallace and all he stands for”

  1. I sent an email to DFW once. Having cited a portion of his E Unibus Pluram essay in something I’d written, I wanted to let him know. In my email I gave him the excerpt in which I’d referenced him as well as a brief summary of my overall thesis. His response, conveyed via his assistant, was prompt: “I read it, with interest, and will very likely buy his book (if not his argument) when it comes out.” That likelihood has diminished significantly since then.

  2. Having just read the first three pages of the Lobster Festival piece to which you provide the link, I find myself wondering how John McPhee would have written about it. The thought that pops into my head is that DFW’s writing displays to perfection the flat, affectless stance that Frederic Jameson attributes to postmodernism (which, come to think of it might have something to do with the depression that finally kills DFW). McPhee is manifestly engaged and having fun, whatever he writes about.

  3. When we were planning our wedding I told the preacher, a Southern Baptist with Buddhist leanings, that he could say anything he wanted during the ceremony as long as he didn’t quote Kahlil Gibran. Guess what?

  4. I’ve heard a lot of people refer to DFW as both precious and obtuse, but I’ve never seen anyone back up the assertion with analysis. It’s what I call a “just seemed so” critique.

  5. I almost spit my wine out when I read the post title. I post one little link, and… oh my.

    I like Wallace, quite a bit. His nonfiction (Big Red Son, Authority & American Usage, the stuff on Kafka & Dostoevsky), while admittedly streaming off in divergent and maybe-showy ways, always tends to show an impressive degree of research into the random topics he picks up. The guy did his homework, and it showed – not only in his own pet topics (tennis), but across the board.

    Re: the fiction, all I’ve read was Infinite Jest – a good two months of fairly consistent reading, after two false-starts. Read the whole damn thing. Every last footnote. And frankly, I loved it. Re: John’s comment, his relationship to po-mo litature is a funny one – he hates it, but also embodies it in lots of ways (mostly style and prose – the constant digressions – rather than content). In lots of ways, he was looking for a way to move past classic postmodern distance & irony, but without rewinding the historical tape. Yes, he wants to break up his narrative voice, to experiment with time & perspective, but he also still wants to fill in the details, build real characters, and tell a real story rather than get stuck in meta-play. I think Infinite Jest succeeds at that immeasurably, in ways that other po-mo lit doesn’t (I’m thinking here of Pynchon or Calvino); he wanted to make it back into a real story, with real characters. He wants to make you care. And for better or worse, I definitely cared, and had a weird and beautiful vertigo the night I finished it.

    All that said, I can see lots of your arguments, Carl – e.g. the preciousness – and I have little doubt they were things he hated about his own writing. If you read some of his essays on literature, you start to get this sense. But you also start to get an outline of how he wanted to move beyond it – something he seemed to think he failed in the attempt, but that I really appreciated in Infinite Jest. That said, if the writing style grates you, you won’t get more than thirty pages in.

  6. JohnD, ha.

    Sorry Asher, are you saying that at last I’ve backed up the assertion with analysis, or that I’m another iteration of the failure to do so? I could be a lot more specific if I need to be, but neither ‘precious’ nor ‘obtuse’ are the kinds of judgments that lend themselves to proof.

    Glasperlenspiel, both tennis pieces are magnificent, so I am in your debt. My sense (have I mentioned that my sample is small?) is that you’re right, DFW cared in a way not consistent with pomo, thought important things were at stake and such, but also knew how quickly and thoroughly the discourses of care can be subverted and dissolved. What makes the lobster piece so precious and obtuse is that he doesn’t actually much care about the lobsters, they’re just in that domain of things he feels a need to perform care about; so he does just enough research to get the hand-wringing properly vocabulated, gestures peremptorily at where both the ethics and the ethnography get fiddly enough to collapse the care metanarrative, then trails off into impotent navel-gazing. Whereas he actually does care about the tennis stuff, and therefore takes the interest and trouble to get it gloriously right, while also doing back flips of self-positioning in excruciating awareness that tennis is a weird and precious thing to care about.

    Since that’s pretty much my m.o. at a much lower level of performance and output, this should not be read as a critique, although it could be a projection.

  7. “neither ‘precious’ nor ‘obtuse’ are the kinds of judgments that lend themselves to proof.”

    No, but I think they do lend themselves to analysis. The kind of judgements that don’t lend themselves to analysis are things like, “I found the style grating” or “It wasn’t my cup of tea”.

    To me, there’s a difference between saying, “this wasn’t to my taste” and saying, “there is something wrong with this”. Glasperlenspiel seems to interpret you as saying the former, which I think is totally valid. DFW definitely isn’t for everyone. And many people (myself included) don’t like everything he’s written.

    If you’re considering reading his fiction, Infinite Jest is probably not the best way to get a taste. I’d recommend Oblivion, a collection of short stories.

    As a writer, I’m still sorting through ideas about authenticity, earnestness and preciousness in “pomo” fiction. There does seem to be a lot of self-consciousness, and it’s interesting to think about where that might be coming from.

  8. Another thought about the pomo thing:

    I think writers in this period are facing something almost adolescent in nature. Being earnest makes you vulnerable. Trying to be authentic leads to circular self-consciousness (“Is it authentic if I’m *trying* to be authentic? To be truly authentic, shouldn’t I also represent my questioning of whether it’s authentic? And the questioning of whether questioning the authenticity is itself authentic?”)

    In essence, it almost feels like a worry about being “cool”. Take this quote from Jonathan Franzen:

    But then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.

  9. I’m with Glasperlenspiel on Infinite Jest.

    It’s easy to read the tennis essays as performatively self-reflexive, with tennis serving not just as itself but as a metaphor for fiction writing. What’s my ranking? gainst whom do I pit myself competitively in order to know where I stand? What skills must I perform repeatedly, obsessively, dispassionately until they become second nature? Does this mechanical mastery of the requisite skills ever transcend into art? What happens when I start slipping down the board? How much do I have to deform myself in order to keep winning? And so on. The navel-gazing part at the end is integral, I think.

    So now I consider the lobster. Having read some of his other stuff about state fairs and cruises I know that he’s sure to hate any kitschy populist event like a Maine Lobster Fest. And I also know that he’s been chronically depressed for most of his life and that he takes heavy doses of medication, prescribed and otherwise, to keep it in check. He probably has a hard time making it out of bed in the morning, let alone making himself go to the Lobster Fest. But he’s a smart and curious guy, able to engage practically anything intellectually. But to become passionate about it? Maybe that requires a level of emotional self-exposure that’s nearly too much for him to bear. So he’s at this festival he hates thinking about lobsters. They’re boiled alive: do they feel pain? Are the cooks who inflict the pain on the creature just rationalizing their cruelty for the sake of money and self-indulgence and spectacle? What might it be like not to feel pain, if via some chemical or surgical alteration I could become lobster-like? Would I be able to perform better? Even if I happen to be reduced thereby to a big crustacean, would it be worth it? So what you get is this intellectual yet dispassionate essay as another variant on performative self-reflexivity. You say you don’t like it as much as the passionate tennis piece? Well there you go, says DFW: boil me alive; I won’t feel a thing.

  10. Right, I find all this plausible. Especially since I keep signaling that I think I’m in the same game as DFW, only I’m a mere quality pro vs. his world-class chops. What would you expect Julian Knowle to say about Andre Agassi? How much of your life can you spend being really good at something other people are great at and not develop some workarounds? I feel like I know who DFW was and what he was up to. I feel like I do pretty much exactly that, just not nearly as well. I also feel like I can tell what the holes in his game are, and when he’s off it.

    The lobster piece is explainable just as you explain it, but its overlaps with the tennis pieces are diagnostic of both the strengths and weaknesses of DFW’s game. As you say, he’s smart and curious, and can intellectualize anything. As Glasp says he does his research. So what’s interesting about the lobster piece is how little of that there is there. You’re right, he’s got a thing about popular kitsch. It’s an area where his curiosity breaks down. In the tennis pieces he tells us a whole bunch about Federererer and Joyce; he’s taken the trouble to figure them out, and thereby purchases his self-referentiality honestly. They’re not just screens he’s projecting his own junk onto, although they’re integrally that too, as you say. And because he’s so smart, when he figures something out it stays figured out.

    But he doesn’t give a feck about tourists, or Mainers. They’re just opportunities for one-liners. I don’t like tourists either and I love his one-liners about them, but my wife’s a Mainer so I instantly detect the lacuna there and it reflects back on the rest. I know how complicated the local ethnography of lobstering is, and I know how actually superficial and stereotyped his take on the lobster experience is, how shallow and perfunctory and tarted up in plausible verbiage the whole piece is. And since I know the contrast with the tennis pieces, where he takes the trouble to get it right, I think I see the range of his game here.

    It is no doubt a function of my journeyman status that I focus on DFW’s craft and whether he’s ‘getting it right’, as I keep saying. But for me at least that’s where he earns my interest in his own personal mishegas. If it’s just about personal angst I’ve got plenty to cope with more locally and no particular vocation of voyeurism. I try to pay off here at DV according to this ethic, if we can call it that. So when he doesn’t, and tries to peddle his junk as if it’s something else, he loses a little bit of my interest and respect. Just a little, and just enough to direct my attention elsewhere.

  11. Asher, nice. Here’s my shot from the hip about authenticity. First, I can’t believe the implosion of existentialism didn’t get rid of that whole question, except of course who ever cared about existentialism, especially after it imploded. Second, either authenticity is the fly bottle you describe, in which case so much for authenticity, or it’s just a pseudo-moralized way to name facts about us. So if you’re dithering helplessly about authenticity, you are authentically a helpless ditherer.

  12. Maybe the implosion of existentialism created a black hole ;).

    I do think it’s an existential sort of question — for some writers, at least. It puts me in mind of Sartre’s stuff, where the narrator suddenly sours emotionally on something and his whole reality changes. We’re to ask: What is real? Is the narrator rationalizing reality to match his ephemeral emotional response? Is there really a “reality” apart from the response? Etc., etc.

    I can’t help but think, though, that there’s something about “modernity” that sets it off — particularly the flourishing and availability of narratives, and the presence of such a vast number of people. Things are commented upon and re-commented upon (for example, there were many bloggers who snarked upon Franzen’s piece quoted above, in the same way a teenager might try to make another teenager feel “uncool”). There’s an underlying feeling that everything has been done, which can lead to insecurity. And a feeling of being tiny with respect to the entire human population, or the universe, or whatever.

    Also, for some reason I haven’t figured out, we currently want our writers young and “promising”. That’s got to contribute.

  13. But back to Wallace….

    I have an autographed copy of Infinite Jest (long story), and interestingly, Wallace crossed out his printed name and signed above it — as if to say that most people’s copies of Infinite Jest were written by some formal David Foster Wallace with a pre-printed name, but that mine was written by a real, authentic David Foster Wallace whose name is hand-written and includes a little decorative smiley face.

    Or it could mean something totally different.

    The getting it right thing is exactly what puts me in awe of Wallace, sometimes — his ability to capture something like addiction or depression so beautifully. For me, fiction is all about capturing emotions, personalities, moments, and meanings.

    I agree that there’s a big difference between the Lobster piece and a lot of his other stuff, and I bet that giving a shit has a lot to do with that.

  14. I’m pretty sure Hemingway wouldn’t have written about the Lobster Fest or the lobster’s pain. Tennis maybe.

  15. …of course Hemingway killed himself too, so…

    I haven’t read DFW’s last unfinished novel, but here’s what Kakutani writes about it in her review:

    His posthumous unfinished novel, “The Pale King” — which is set largely in an I.R.S. office in the Midwest — depicts an America so plagued by tedium, monotony and meaningless bureaucratic rules and regulations that its citizens are in danger of dying of boredom. Just as this lumpy but often stirring new novel emerges as a kind of bookend to “Infinite Jest,” so it demonstrates that being amused to death and bored to death are, in Wallace’s view, flip sides of the same coin. Perhaps, he writes, “dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there,” namely the existential knowledge “that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back.”…

    “The Pale King” is in some ways an ode to stasis and perseverance, to the human ability to endure all the slings and arrows of monotony and everyday misfortune. Among those characters is a fictional version of the author himself — he claims that this novel is really a memoir — who says he took a year off from college to work at the I.R.S., “in exile from anything I even remotely cared about or was interested in” and who is mistaken there for a higher ranking employee also named David Wallace. This narrator named David Wallace says he “dreamed of becoming an ‘artist,’ i.e., somebody whose adult job was original and creative instead of tedious and dronelike,” and at times this narrator feels like a might-have-been version of the real author had he not become a writer…

    Not surprisingly, a novel about boredom is, more than occasionally, boring. It’s impossible to know whether Wallace, had he finished the book, might have decided to pare away such passages, or whether he truly wanted to test the reader’s tolerance for tedium — to make us share the misery of his office workers, who come to remind us of the unhappy hero of Joseph Heller’s “Something Happened,” or some of Beckett’s bone-weary characters, stuck in a limbo of never-ending waiting and routine.

    …So pretty clearly DFW was working on some way of being a writer — and a living human being — that didn’t hinge on passionate engagement.

  16. I hate to say it, but this is all pointing to a particularly ornate version of good old-fashioned anomie.

  17. John – I like your take on it better than mine.

    Carl – Are you referring to Wallace or this discussion? ;)

  18. I think our takes are complementary, Asher. Both are plausible inventions — kind of like writing fanfic.

  19. Fwiw, I have succumbed to the lure of reviews suggesting the Kindle version of Infinite Jest is preferable to the print version, because navigable endnotes plus no hauling 1000+ pages around, plus much cheaper. I’m quite a ways in and enjoying it a great deal. I like very much how his writing in each section is a subtle kind of shifting first person that tracks the mental frame of the central character of that section, so that it produces a direct visceral access and reaction to the character without a lot of descriptive gymnastics. E.g. I started out pretty irritated by the treatment of academics in the first section – it was a familiar kind of overwrought caricature, disappointing for an insider like Wallace – but then realized I was getting the perspective of the very smart, observant but inexperienced adolescent who’s in this, to him, really weird situation, at which point it was exactly the right kind of irritation. I can see how this technique would be confusingly kaleidoscopic for some readers, but to me it’s a really neat way to do that thing we were talking about above, walking around situations and looking into them from various angles. Not omniscience so much as assemblage.

    Btw I’ve read reviews suggesting the book is ‘about’ addiction, and that seems wrong to me, or rather, only partly right. If the book is ‘about’ anything, it’s reasons for living, with an interesting contrast space being set up where addiction, obsession, and commitment are the available options and their similarities and differences are being explored. I’m just now getting to the rehab facility, so this read is probably premature.

  20. Wallace had an amazing talent for this kind of perspective-taking. There’s a section in there with the internal voice of an overbearing father that’s just dead on.

    I think you’ve got it right. Addiction is just a piece of a bigger issue in Infinite Jest (though it being “about” addiction makes for more snazzy press). Apparently Wallace was a fan of Camus, and it seems like he took Camus’ “serious philosophical question” very seriously.

    By the way – did you know that this blog post was mentioned in an article about people hating Wallace?

    http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/where-the-internet-hates-david-foster-wallace

  21. Ha. Well, speaking of breezy half-arguments, it would be nice if there were any hint he’d actually read it, rather than just finding the title convenient. #googlein30secondsorless #blogonblogcrime #inattentioneconomy #harrumph

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