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March 05, 2009

More on DFW

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Ron Rosenbaum contrasts the fiction of David Foster Wallace, which he doesn't like, to three novels that he does enjoy. All are detective novels. Gil Roth, who pointed Rosenbaum's piece out to me, recalls his own wrestle with DFW. Great line: "It felt as if he really needed an editor, but was stuck with enablers who believed they were publishing genius. They must’ve felt like 'the footnoting thing' was Wallace’s brand or something." Gil is always smart and shrewd about the way the book publishing world thinks and works.



UPDATE: Alias Clio shares some thoughts about depression, depressives, and DFW. Jewish Atheist writes about why DFW was his favorite writer, here and here.

posted by Michael at March 5, 2009


David Foster Wallace was my favorite author.

Yes, DFW wrote in the "literary" genre. That's not your cup of tea. Fine. But the hatred of literary novel because it's literary novel makes no more sense than the hatred of genre novel because it's genre novel. Yeah, it's not for everybody, but I personally spent about a month basically living inside Infinite Jest and no genre novel can ever compete with that.

He killed himself because of depression, which was probably organic in nature. He tried all the antidepressants, underwent ECT several times, and none of it lasted. You want to blame his life in academia, but Hemingway did the same thing and nobody ever accused him of being too academic.

I know you admitted you haven't read Infinite Jest, but the "footnoting thing" worked. It worked because it adds a dimension to the text, which is already convoluted (for good reason.) Wallace's footnotes are digressions. Usually fascinating digressions, which belong neither in the body of the book nor on the editor's floor.

The shortcomings of the academic -- and analytical life -- were a large theme of IJ, by the way. Several of the main characters are intellectual geniuses but completely helpless in the face of their addictions and unhappiness. He knew that excruciating self-analysis wasn't the answer -- he just couldn't help himself.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on March 5, 2009 11:30 AM

It's worth considering whether the academic/lit fic world he lived in hastened his demise or helped him stay alive as long as he did. I certainly agree with you that academic judgments of what is and isn't great lit shouldn't rule the roost. But just because the academic life looks impossibly insular and self-involved to many people (including me) doesn't mean it doesn't work for some whose brains aren't wired for the "real world."

Posted by: Steve on March 5, 2009 12:23 PM

JA -- Nice postings, thanks for pointing them out. Just to iron one thing out ... I have nothing against lit-fict, just against what strikes me as the absurd overemphasis that's put on it in the general cultural conversation. So I try to deflate its pretentions a little bit, and try to point out some of the riches we already have in the non-lit-fict fiction world.

Steve -- Excellent point.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2009 1:20 PM

A friend of mine who was mildly acquainted with Kurt Cobain once told me, "It wasn't the lifestyle. He could've been a plumber, and he still would've offed himself."

Posted by: Gil Roth on March 5, 2009 2:52 PM

I'll say it again: genre fiction won. It's FAR more popular, lucrative and ubiquitous than the lit-fic genre. Your continued campaign to "deflate its pretensions a little bit" come off like the jock who just can't stand the fact that the drama fags enjoy themselves, and so feels the need to beat on them a little bit.

That said, I enjoyed DFW's journalism more than his fiction, although I haven't yet read Infinite Jest.

Posted by: JV on March 5, 2009 3:05 PM

Great posts on DFW and Infinite Jest, JA. Seems to me you've been absent for a while--too long a while--and it's good to see you back.

Went on to read your post critical of AA, with again lots of agreement. I don't want to hijack this thread, but I do want to point out something odd in the quote from Carl Sagan:

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy... Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science?

Science doesn't do prophecy. It makes predictions. Science's prophetic record is as bad as, maybe worse than, religion's.

Not trying to stir up an argument or anything. But science's advances, including in predictive power, have come about precisely because science has focused on that part of the world most predictable in its behaviour.

Just sayin' is all. Not trying to stir stuff up. Love Sagan, but that was a bizarre (and I hope not revealing) choice of word he made there.

But as for Carl and DFW both: de mortuis nil nisi bonum seems like the best course for me to take.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 5, 2009 5:45 PM

From your post, JA, a quote from DFW that I think puts to rest any discussion about his aloofness and detachment from "everyday life" and also explains his writing style and his appeal to a wide swath of Gen X and younger:

"It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that's gutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me, like "It's really important not to lie." OK, check, got it. I nod at that but I really don't feel it. Until I get to be about 30 and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can't trust you. I feel that I'm in pain, I'm nervous, I'm lonely and I can't figure out why. Then I realize, "Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really not to lie." The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel."

I wrote to a friend shortly after DFW's death that I think I appreciate his writing more for it's explanation of a generational sensibility than for anything else. That quote furthers that feeling.

Posted by: JV on March 5, 2009 6:14 PM

"I have nothing against lit-fict, just against what strikes me as the absurd overemphasis that's put on it in the general cultural conversation."

Would that there was a general culural conversation. Where do you locate it, Michael?

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on March 5, 2009 7:35 PM

What a surprise...A liberal has DFW, a guy who was expert in chronicling his mental masturbation, as his favorite writer. He'd better hurry and find someone new and stay ahead of the SWPL curve!

Posted by: anon on March 5, 2009 10:01 PM


Regarding the comments to this post and the other about DFW and IJ: I don't think it's a big mystery or even something that you can intellectualize ... you either like (well, love - there's no middle ground) "Infinite Jest" or you don't. The midwestern vibe, characters, and language speak to your being (as they did to me), or they don't. Myself, I've never laughed so hard over a novel. I found Irving's "Owen Meany" more touching, but IJ comes in with a close second.

It's a genre novel, even. Though I couldn't really name the genre that "Catcher in the Rye" or "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "A Prayer for Owen Meany" - along with IJ - belong to. "Americana Love and Angst" perhaps? (It certainly wouldn't be the genre of literary fiction, a true ghetto, imvho.)

Those novels all fit into the "Hero's Journey" rubric, too; except that the ending for the hero isn't as grand as being presented with a medal from the princess for saving the planet. It's more like "goes nuts", "scarred for life", "killed while saving children", and "goes nuts*", respectively.

*"Infinite Jest" does have an ending that's given away by the title. When you read the last page, it leads right back to the very first where Hal is going insane during an admittance interview. The first three chapters or so are the end of the book.

DFW's favorite books, listed here (scroll past my drivel to the bottom), are pedestrian and kind of sweet. From that list I would guess two things: 1) he apparently loved a good plot or at least a good story, and 2) he was religious to some extent, because while non-believers can enjoy "The Screwtape Letters," I would posit that only believers (even those with large doubts about it) would put it at the very top of their top ten.

I think the quote above about Kurt Cobain really nails it. He'd have found the end of that rope even if he'd ended up handing out Venti's with room for cream at Starbucks. And that really sucks any way you look at it.

Posted by: yahmdallah on March 6, 2009 1:06 AM

Gil - Fun. FWIW, I once spoke to a guy who'd been Nirvana's manager, or biz guy or something (I forget). He was laughing about the press that Cobain had received, all the pieces about how Cobain had never wanted to be a star, it was all about the music, man. This guy (who'd worked with Cobain closely for some years) said it was all bullshit, Cobain desperately wanted to be a star.

JV -- Your idea that genre fiction=the jocks and lit-fict=the dramafags would be a wee bit more accurate if, on that particular campus, the dramafags also happened to run the college administration, set the curriculum, and had the power to isolate the jocks in a ghetto.

Peter -- Hmm, let's see ... The New York Times? The Atlantic? Time? The New York Review? Until recently, the LA Times Book Review? Vanity Fair? The creative writing industry? The literature departments at universities? The prize-giving establishment? The foundations?

Yahmdallah -- Fun ramblings, tks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 6, 2009 2:04 AM


Thanks for the compliments and the links.


Great posts on DFW and Infinite Jest, JA. Seems to me you've been absent for a while--too long a while--and it's good to see you back.

Thanks, man! Re Sagan, I think he was trying to be too cute by using that word. I do think his general point stands.


What a surprise...A liberal has DFW, a guy who was expert in chronicling his mental masturbation, as his favorite writer. He'd better hurry and find someone new and stay ahead of the SWPL curve!

I know, right? Next thing you'll hear I prefer Starbucks to Dunkin Donuts and that I wear birkenstocks! Liberals have funny preferences, amirite??

Posted by: JewishAtheist on March 6, 2009 8:46 AM

Your idea that genre fiction=the jocks and lit-fict=the dramafags would be a wee bit more accurate if, on that particular campus, the dramafags also happened to run the college administration, set the curriculum, and had the power to isolate the jocks in a ghetto.

what an bizarre and unrealistic comment.

Posted by: MQ on March 7, 2009 1:33 PM

I know! In my fantasy I completely forgot to include this element: The dramafags have trust funds or cushy tenured positions and talk only to each other, while the jocks create and sell products that everyday people enjoy and are willing to pay money for.

Apologies for the oversight.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 7, 2009 1:43 PM


Which begs the question, if they're crying all the way to the bank and are the real creative engines of our society, then why do they need such a ferocious defense of their aesthetic tastes?

By their very nature they could give two shits out of a rat's ass about the intellectual accolades accumulated by the self-proclaimed thinkers of our society.

In fact, I would venture that what irks you is just the self-importance of certain aspects of Literary Fiction, but that's hardly unique to the genre. God knows I've read enough science fiction to know how much the authors and critics of that world can think of their stature regardless of the reality.

I mean what would satisfy you? That people who like Literary Fiction enjoy books outside Literary Fiction?

Looking at the life histories of current Literary authors, they seem to be voracious readers who seem quite willing to read and comment on anything. I mean look at the utter minutia The Believer publishes. They'd probably publish an article by Franzen about merits and demerits of the various children's cereal mascots if they haven't already (makes notes for future submission). Even high Lit criticism has backed off the whole elitism angle since the early 90s, "the world is flat" now, isn't it? You can have your Roland Barthes and Roland the Gunslinger at the same time if you so wish (I'll take the gunslinger and leave Barthes, by the way).

Is it the prizes?

So far as I can tell, all the genres have their own prizes awarded to the masters and newcomers alike, determined by the industry insiders. Sure they may not be as much of a pot o' gold as the Litfic prizes, nor get in the New York Times, but who cares? If they're really good, they can write without becoming an academic ward of the state, more than any LitFic person who isn't already loaded can say.

What's the whole point?

Posted by: Spike Gomes on March 7, 2009 6:42 PM

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