The Year in Stuff We Liked: David Foster Wallace’s Continued Relevance

It is a well-known fact that the dregs of semi-computer-literate society congregate daily in one place: the comment forums on newsy Web sites. Be it Huffington Post or The Sporting News, YouTube or your local newspaper, a story about Michelle Obama eating a cheeseburger or Hank Williams saying something stupid about the gays/blacks, the blithering hick denizens come out in full force against the communist-socialist conspiracy du jour, making unveiled threats about power, the media-government industrial complex, and blahblahblah; you know what I mean.

But then there are those folks on the other end of the spectrum who gather in the comment forums on less mainstream Web sites, openly left of center, and seemingly more intellectual places: The Nation, Slate, NPR, etc. This is a very special species of crusty old hippie, semi-computer literate like their right-wing brethren, still insufferably sowing their political seeds in poorly punctuated, simplistic and bitter missives aimed at no one in particular.

I’ve noticed these folks a lot lately in stories about a certain prolific writer’s death. Virulently (and somewhat rightfully) anti-neocon commentators focused with measured intensity on certain aspects of Hitchens’ life: his support of the Iraq War, his disdain for religion, or perhaps his hatred of the former President Clinton. But then there were those commenting who had simply lost the will to give two shits about Hitchens anymore, who didn’t offer an argument about why Hitchens shouldn’t be so lauded, some tired of the 24/7 memorial, those who pleaded for these news outlets to make it stop; enough is enough, they said. We’ve heard enough about him, already.

They were suffering from a sort of Hitch Fatigue; the HF havers more than likely didn’t care for him when he was alive, simply avoided his columns and television appearances, and led happy lives. Hitchens’ death, however, brought mourners out in such full force that there was no avoiding him.  This HF pandemic resulted, as everyone — well, basically everyone — expressed some contrition about his passing, and on every network or in every periodical; there was no avoiding a very public memorial for a man who was a very public figure.

Often, I’m queerly tickled by these sorts of reactions. Relevant people dying means something to society; people care. A great aspect about our Web revolution is that there’s far more choice involved in reading/avoiding stories. But the death of a public figure is now, almost always, met with universal contrition followed by a vocal (but minor) backlash against such contrition.

When Michael Jackson died, there was MJ Fatigue; when Darryl Kile died, there was DK Fatigue (not to be confused with the other DK fatigue); Brittany Murphy, BM Fatigue; Pope John Paul, PJP Fatigue; Heath Ledger, HL; and down the list.

So this is where the rubber meets the road as re: the subject of this piece — “…David Foster Wallace’s Continued Relevance” — and the above meanderings. Wallace, of course, killed himself in September 2008. Still, more than three years later, the praising articles and essays continue to roll in — this having something (but not everything) to do with the posthumous release of The Pale King, of course.

Though it was last year that marked the opening of the DFW Archive at UT-Austin, 2011 saw the publishing of some great essays about the pieces therein: Maria Bustillos’ piece for The Awl on the late writer’s self-help book collection standing out. Elizabeth Lopatto’s recent “Come On, Pilgrim” is also a wonderful result of such research.

More intimate pieces were written as well. Jonathan Franzen turned in a wonderful essay on his late friend, “Farther Away,” an attempt to reason with the unreasonable. Michael Pietsch’s introduction to The Pale King fits in here as well, as does the widowed Karen Green’s interview with The Guardian. But his relevance in 2011 is not all about the fact that young writers — and his still-living loved ones — heap lots of praise on his writing after his death. For every praising essay, there’s someone willing to argue against the idea that Wallace was the writer of his generation.

And some of this manifests itself in the form of DFW Fatigue. Turning back to the commenters, for a moment, let us examine the reactions to Katie Roiphe’s November piece about Wallace’s syllabi. It’s best to examine this by way of a list, the many different strains of DFWF haver.

Sorry-for-your-loss-but-my-intellect-needs-some-showcasing guy

I think David Foster Wallace was probably a very nice man, and I regret his death. He was a dreadful, highly phony writer – there is no “stylistic rococo” to his work, only pseudointellectual, painfully dull masturbation and the overdescriptive prolixity that mark most PoMo writers of his ilk – but I regret that any human being comes to the conclusion that suicide is the only answer.

The best way to tell if someone’s an academic-in-waiting rube is if they, in the same line and without the slightest hint of irony, accuse someone of being a “pseudointellectual” (sic) and subsequently “prolixity.” Were I a more ferocious judge of commentators, I might also note that “overdescriptive (sic) prolixity” is one fiery blaze of a redundancy.

Demands-an-apology-for-reading-your-story-and-expresses-this-by-making-jokes guy

Followed by “David Foster Wallace’s Crumpled ATM Slips: Discarded Paper as The Future of World Literature. Why the random striations in these wadded up pieces of debris may change the whole history of the written word since humankind first started walking upright.”

There were three more of these zingers written by the same fellow. I chose the best one.

Not-even-trying-to-avoid-the-whole-pretentious-thing guy

Pedantic, tedious writer who has reached the upper echelons of Gen Y fame by killing himself. And this syllabus information is typical of a teacher trying to cozy up and be cool with his students. I would have seen through it on page one. I prefer a more serious and intellectual approach to a syllabus that actually speaks up to its readers and respects them, not attempts to be hip or cool.
Ah, the old, If I had been there, I would have done this…thing, huh?
All of this is to say that Wallace is still very much a relevant figure because he’s not some literary halite figure. He still provokes discussion.
But it goes beyond the mouth-breathers trolling Slate, to the pages of some fairly well-respected periodicals. Two essays this year were written in the guise of fairly legitimate literary critiques, but seemed (to this commentator, at least) born out of the same instinct to rebel against someone far too mourned for their own liking.
Maud Newton’s “riff” on Wallace, “Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace,” was covered on DBC earlier this year, but deserves mentioning almost every time Wallace’s name comes up, if only so we might all point and laugh again. Newton, using a very selective bibliography, takes Wallace to task for not being as strong an arguer in his nonfiction as she might like.

The Howling Fantods compiled a tremendous list of reactions to Newton’s piece, a few of which I will quote here, and all of which basically demolish her entire argument. But, as they say, needless provocation disguised as brave provocation is a means to critical ends, or something.

Newton’s spectacular failure to consider these subtleties may have something to do with not steeping herself in Wallace’s complete catalog. The phrases “plus, worse,” “pleonasm,” and “What this article hereby terms a ‘Democratic Spirit’” come from the very essay (“Tense Perfect”) she commends as “one of his best and most charming essays,” yet not from the same paragraph. “Totally hosed” comes from the famous 2005 Kenyon commencement. In other words, the only four Wallace texts that Newton has consulted for her piece are three essays: “E Unibus Pluram” (1993), “Authority and American Usage” (1999), “Big Red Son” (1998), and the Kenyon address. It seems to me that if you’re going to do a David Foster Wallace takedown, you should rely on a good deal more than the usual greatest hits. That’s a bit like writing about the Beach Boys when you’ve only heard “Good Vibrations” once.

Matt Kiebus over at death+taxes

She knew criticizing one of the most beloved writers of our generation would stir up a response and so did New York Times Magazine, but her claims aren’t substantial. Her issue with internet writing doesn’t appear to be in the style, but the fact that anyone can publish anything, which is dangerous and simultaneously diminishes the career choice of a writer.

There is, of course, more one could say about the piece — more bad, and I guess some good or moderate or something. But what’ s really galling about the whole thing is, well, what Champion said: Newton clearly was not very well versed in Wallace’s nonfiction bibliography. And if I’m going to take someone to task for — in goddamn general — not writing a certain way, I might immerse myself in more than, as Champion calls it, the greatest hits.

That’s just me, though. I’m no Maud Newton.

(Rest assured: this blog will continue to poke that article in its metaphorical eye every chance we get in 2012.)

Back in May, Ramon Glazov wrote “David Foster Wallace: Portrait of an Infinitely Limited Mind.” There’s much to say about the piece — little positive — but what stands out, to me, boldfaced, most apparent, is just how much Wallace can enrage readers; not because of his brilliance — I’m not one of those people who claims that all emotional provocation is somehow good or evidence of a thing’s inherent value — but because of how entrenched he is in our literary culture. Glazov’s essential premise, literature-wise, is that Infinite Jest just isn’t very good and has attained its unassailable status by way of promotion coming from a bunch of uncritical fanboys.
But the darker, stranger, and more indefensible argument is that Infinite Jest represents something terrible about Wallace: that he was a bigot re: the human condition and women and blacks and cockroaches, or something. An excerpt, where Glazov examines the beginning of a chapter in Infinite Jest:
The most interesting word here is “you” – this is the chapter where Wallace reveals his ideal reader. And what kind of reader is that? Apparently, someone who finds it “exotic” that “females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males.” Or “that cockroaches can, up to a certain point, be lived with.” Or “that not all U.S. males are circumcised.” Or that “black and Hispanic people can be as big or bigger racists than white people.” So, Wallace pretty much admits that his book is written for pampered yupps who’ve never lived in a house with cockroaches or heard a woman swear before.
Glazov uses this as a springboard to other criticisms of Wallace, hipsters, Alanis Morrisette, the culture at large. This symbiosis Glazov has performed — between Wallace the writer and Wallace the person — is kind of (sorry, Maud) creepy and weird, but still indicative of, again, how relevant Wallace is today. Look at what else Glazov says, his own spin on a weird and ghoulish idea the media pushed in the wake of Wallace’s suicide: that since DFW was a meteoric literary figure, his own demise had to do with either his status or his genius or his failure to live up to his status or his own perceived genius, or that The Pale King wasn’t coming along like he’d hoped — never mind the fact that he was a deeply depressed individual off his meds.

This is where DFW’s suicide has really paid off – without a corpse, it’s harder to convince your audience that insincerity qualifies you for victim status, no matter how much you “struggle” with it. Nowadays Wallace is seen as a brilliant young(ish) author who was tragically tiger-mothered to death, killed by his own voluminous intelligence. None of his buddies fail to relate how friendly and approachable his writing supposedly is, either. In the New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen is tactful enough to deny that Wallace was a saint, only to mention “how recognised and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading [his fiction].” But Franzen paints an unpleasant picture of Wallace’s private life, even suggesting he killed himself to “betray as hideously as possible those who loved him best.” Yet while “David” was all-too-willing to hurt his wife and con his psychiatrists, Franzen wants us to believe he had nothing but frankness and affection for thousands of readers he’d never met.

Again, creepy, and borderline sociopathic — though Newton might applaud such certainty! It’s hard not to be disturbed by someone who possesses so much anger about a book — or a particular writer — that he writes about that writer’s suicide with such poo-flinging contempt, accusing him of being “all-too-willing to hurt his wife and con his psychiatrists,” an accusation nowhere near substantiated by the preceding quote from venerated gasbag Jonathan Franzen.

Of course, hacks like Glazov — and hacky publications like The eXile (especially in the post-Taibbi phase) — thrive off of controversy or overly strong language (odds Maud Newton ever complains about equivocation re: The eXile’s: not high). Let’s look at his final judgment of Infinite Jest:

That’s all Infinite Jest boils down to. An anti-intellectual (yet amazingly pretentious) Calvinist cautionary tale that makes the same death threats about thinking that Requiem for a Dream made about drugs – “Brains: Just Say No!” Plus a few voyeuristic scenes of depraved poor people in a rehab centre. Bum fights, in other words. Cleverish ones. Hobo torture porn for postgraduate smirkers.

I was going to include the last paragraph of the essay, but Glazov actually used — and I’m paraphrasing — some comparison (appearance-wise) between Ned Flanders and hipsters.

One could say that Wallace’s ability to provoke such anger in Glazov and irritation in Newton is evidence of the power of Wallace’s writing; I would argue there are better examples of that. What it seems to indicate, to me (and this is setting aside the fact that Glazov seems to be of the deeply disturbed personality set that enjoys writing 8,000-word attacks on dead people disguised as literary criticism — which, by my admittedly amateur estimation, is two displaced neurons from becoming your average Dylan Klebold), is that when a young writer wants to step on someone’s shoulders for more Web hits, Wallace is a solid choice; and again, there’re much better measures today of Wallace’s enduring relevance. But in the face of such overcooked — and creepily hateful — tripe as Glazov’s article, and the sort of selectively chosen — and surely petty — cultural criticism pushed by Newton, I guess it’s just instinct.

So ends our The Year in Stuff We Liked series. Next week, we’ll run down The Year in Stuff We Didn’t Get list.

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