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March 03, 2009

The DFW Story

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

D.T. Max's New Yorker article about David Foster Wallace -- the acclaimed literary novelist who committed suicide at the age of 46 last September -- should be of interest not just to fans of DFW's but also to those curious about this weird creature called "contemporary American literary fiction."

Has enough time passed since DFW's death so that I can decently express a few scattershot observations about Wallace's life and work that aren't completely reverent? I hope so. All sympathy extended to his loved ones, of course, and I'm happy to agree that he was a brilliant and talented guy.

  • In case you aren't aware of the legend ... Wallace emerged as a literary-world star in the '80s, while still an undergraduate at Amherst. He published a brash young novel; a lot of inventive short stories; a giant novel called "Infinite Jest" that some consider a masterpiece; and many pieces of journalism. He was known for his twisty sentences, his "maximalist" literary ambitions, and his GenX tone of sophisticated, bored, self-questioning plaintiveness.

  • FWIW, I wasn't a fan. I wasn't even sympathetic, to be honest, though I had no reason to wish him ill either. There was just nothing about his work that hooked me. I found "Broom of the System" to be so much undergraduate showing-off; I liked a couple of his stories pretty well but found the others I tried to be a lot of juvenile grandstanding; I glanced at a couple of pages of "Infinite Jest" and thought "No thanks, I've already read too much Pynchon and DeLillo." I don't think I ever finished any of his journalistic pieces, which seemed to me to express a very peculiar combo of exhaustion and exhilaration, as though Wallace was convinced that the point of writing is to expend your vital forces chasing your thoughts around.

  • As a person, DFW was an anxiety-ridden depressive. He had sweaty anxiety attacks while in high school; he was put on anti-depression meds while still in college; he attempted suicide several times; he was a heavy pot-smoker and drinker who eventually needed to go cold turkey; and he spent a couple of stretches in mental clinics.

  • DFW was a total creature of academia, even so far as his family background went. His father taught philosophy, his mom taught English. Once he finished Amherst he went to Arizona for a creative-writing MFA. In the years following, he lived on book advances and by teaching creative writing at a number of different colleges. At one point, he decided that he'd burned up his interest in fiction. What did he do to try to resolve the dilemma? Why, he went back to school, this time in philosophy. In other words, in his entire life DFW almost never ventured out of academia, except to get treatment for his mental problems, or to recover from those treatments.

  • DFW's writing was a total creature of contempo literary fiction. What was his fiction about? Language. Writing strategies. Meta-meta postmodernism. Capturing the nature of thought itself. Philosophy. Wisdom. (But what are we to make of a suicidal depressive who wants to lay life-advice on us? The question is never explicitly raised in the New Yorker piece, though it certainly hangs in the air.) DFW wanted to illuminate the human condition. He wanted to revive the English language. He wanted to share his vision, and to deliver artistic epiphanies.

  • Despite the achievements and praise, he suffered numerous crises of self-doubt. Perhaps what he was doing was silly, nothing more than juvenile showing-off. Maybe he should work more simply and directly. During a couple of stretches when he was kicking his addictions he encountered some non-academic, non-creative-writing, regular people. He was amazed to learn that everyday people often manage to conduct real lives, and that they sometimes even know a little something about life.

The above are all givens. Here's my little take on it all.

  • Perhaps DFW's problem was that he was stuck in academia; that his writing was stuck in literary fiction; and that he was stuck in a concept of himself as special. Simple fact: Though he wasn't a trust-fund kid, DFW never held what you might call a regular job. He did marry, but it was to another artist. As I read D.T. Max's piece, the phrase "Get a life" did occur to me once or twice.

  • Perhaps DFW is decently understood as a brainy, bizarrely ambitious, tired-overcaffeinated campus hanger-on who stretched his slacker years out to the point where they broke him.

  • Those glimmers of self-doubt that plagued DFW? Perhaps they were intimations that there might be a bigger life out there, beyond the campus, and outside the creative-writing industry and the New York City publishing houses.

  • It struck me as telling that in D.T. Max's article not more than a couple of words appear about the craft and art of narrative fiction. There's zero in the piece about creating a cast of interesting characters and devising piquant situations and hooks.

  • A few words do show up in the piece about plot. But what they reveal is 1) DFW had at best an amateur's idea of what a plot is, and seemed ignorant of the fact that there's a craft to creating a gripping and/or amusing one. 2) DFW saw plot as little more than an excuse to string a lot of writing on, something a book might need so that he could share what was on his brain.

  • It also struck me as telling that -- while NYC publishing characters appear in D.T. Max's article, and authors like DeLillo, Pynchon, and Beattie are mentioned -- not a word appears in the piece about the hundreds of American narrative-prose artists and entertainers who are in the business of creating characters, situations, and stories. DFW may have wanted to work more simply and directly -- but in this piece about him (as in the minds of many in the literary world) "simple" and "direct" remain abstractions. (CORRECTION: Visitor James points out one mention of a narrative-prose-fiction entertainer in the piece: D.T. Max mentions the fact that DFW admired Tom Clancy.)

  • In other words, though he was a celebrated fiction author, Wallace couldn't be said to have been motivated by anything so base as, say, a desire to tell stories and get paid for it. Literary fiction, eh? It often strikes me as "fiction for people who basically don't like fiction."

  • A parallel. If you look into establishment architecture -- the equivalent of "literary fiction" --you'll run into a lot of blah-blah about how current practices express chaos theory and embrace pluralism. (You really will!) In other words, so far as the modernist architecture establishment goes, the modernist architecture establishment is finally -- by dint of effort, genius, and hyper-gleaming self-awareness -- at the point of transcending the well-known shortcomings of academic-modernist architecture.

  • Interesting to learn that DFW was also a proponent of the supposed virtues of hyper self-awareness. Hey, I was once a grad student, and I remember toying with that idea too. (Why are so many bright people with a certain kind of lib-arts education so convinced that hyper-critical mirror-gazing is a worthwhile thing to spend time doing?) Although I'm generally a cheery soul, during my time in grad school even I started having anxiety attacks. I took them as a sign that maybe the time had come to ditch the showing-off-and-hiding-away-in-grad-school thing and move along into real life.

  • The funny thing about the hysteria, self-importance. and claims of the academic-modernist architecture world is that pluralism and chaos theory in architecture have no need to be achieved, let alone at the cost of such a lot of hot air. Once you abandon the love affair with "advanced" architecture and open your eyes and mind to the virtues of traditional architecture, you wake up to the fact that the traditional built environment is positively seething with pluralism and chaos theory. Why strain to achieve what we already have in abundance?

  • Once you lose the infatuation with literary theory and literary fiction you can wake up to the fact that traditional narrative fiction already embodies much of what lit-fict claims to want to achieve. Illuminate the human condition? Revive the language? Well, sure, or at least maybe. But where lit-fict wants to achieve its effects by dint of chic writing strategies, authorial genius and critical will, narrative fiction achieves its effects via the creation of characters and stories. It's a much more modest, human-scale enterprise. It's about servicing the reader's pleasure, and not the egos of the author and the professor. Maybe you experience an epiphany, maybe you don't. But even if you don't, you still get to have the fun of following some made-up characters through some made-up situations and predicaments.

  • Looking at DFW's self-doubts about the worth of his lit-fict efforts ... And, according to friends and family, DFW did indeed want to move in the direction of simple and direct ... Well, why didn't he? Apparently he felt trapped by people's expectations of him. He also got bogged down in a huge lit-fict novel that he couldn't pull together.

  • Reading D.T. Max's piece, I couldn't help but wonder: Had DFW actually gotten around to working in fiction more simply and directly, what might have resulted? Any good work? And what would the experience have been like for DFW? I imagine it would have been very hard on him. After all, as a brash young lit-fict genius he really was a somebody. But as someone attempting to create real-seeming characters and narrative stories, he'd have been a beginner.

  • DFW would also have been taking the chance that, despite his lit-fict experience, maybe as someone going the simple-and-direct route he wouldn't prove to be very special. Maybe he'd have realized -- as many who give up the lit-fict delusion do -- that narrative-fiction giants already walk among us: Elmore Leonard, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Donald Westlake, Elizabeth George, George MacDonald Fraser. (Yes, I'm aware that Westlake and Fraser are no longer with us. But they're so damn great ...)

  • So, my final hunch: For whatever reason, DFW was driven by an overwhelming need to be special. As an academia / lit-fict hothouse flower he actually managed to be special, even though it was at the expense of his well-being. But -- although he thought he wanted to leave the depression behind and experience his share of well-being -- he finally couldn't give up his attachment to being, and feeling, special.

  • Moral of my musings: Literary fiction can be bad for your health.

In case I haven't made it clear enough: These are just musings. I have no special knowledge in this case, and perhaps I'm doing nothing but projecting. I have great sympathy for the people DFW left behind. And if his writing means a lot to you, that's great by me. I'd be very interested to hear what you love about it.

Incidentally, hats off to D. T. Max. Though I've picked at his piece a little bit in this posting, it's an excellent article, as well as one of a number of smart, informed, and tough-minded pieces that Max has written about the literary and publishing worlds.

Related: I wrote back here about the "literary fiction" thing.



posted by Michael at March 3, 2009


"Maybe he'd have realized -- as many who give up the lit-fict delusion do -- that narrative-fiction giants already walk among us: Elmore Leonard, Trey Parker and Matt Stone,...

Trey Parker and Matt Stone???!

You just lost your credibility with me.

Your post is crawling with ad hominem fallacies. DFW was anxious, depressed, addicted; all because, you say, he thought he was special and couldn't withstand the pressures of constantly proving himself by producing newer, greater lit-fic.

There are millions of people riddled with the same constellation of psychological problems that beset DFW who aren't writers or artists in any medium. So, what's eating them? It certainly isn't the tension of maintaining their literary reputations.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on March 4, 2009 4:06 AM

Tangential, but my wife has long argued that Eng Lit as a University discipline is an intellectual adventure that failed. She thinks it could usefully be replaced by a Comparative Literature degree, requiring at least two foreign-language literatures as well as English. Is it perhaps risible to consider yourself as having a literary education if you've not read the great Russkis in the original?

Posted by: dearieme on March 4, 2009 8:43 AM


I'd be interesting in learning about authors who took a trajectory from Lit Fic to General or Genre Fic and vice versa, now that's something pretty interesting.

But if I get your intimations right, and I hope I'm not, are you saying that perhaps DFW's depression could have been less cataclysmic if he had broken out of the genre he was pigeonholed in and wrote, say, some hard-boiled detective stories or a space opera?

If you're saying that, then I think you might need to look into depression a bit more. It's not like a lot of more approachable authors haven't offed themselves directly, or took the more circuitous route there via the bottom of a bottle.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on March 4, 2009 8:47 AM

Non-lit guy that I am, I hadn't even heard of DFW before. But I have known plenty of people who were (and are) in the Kindergarten-to-professor-emeritus zone, never really having been away from a classroom for most of their lives.

I'm okay with that if one's field is Theoretical Physics, various branches of mathematics and other fields that are inherently thought-centered.

It gives me the willies, however, when it comes to Sociology (my degree) and other social "sciences." Sure, those folks do lead lives that involve getting to work, buying food, having the Volvo serviced and all that. But overall, it's a pretty restricted life with a distorted view of the world.

The parts I find scary are (1) they teach and presumably influence students who in general are pretty normal when they enter college. And (2) some get involved with making statements about or even are hired to provide advice on public policies. In each instance, their academic credentials being a credibility-enhancing base for the pontification.

Of course, they have a right to speak their minds. But what they say ought to jibe with human experience before it is taken seriously.

I say all this as an indirect reinforcement of Michael's skepticism regarding the benefits of being deeply rooted in academia. DFW, in the end, simply killed himself. Academics who dabble in policy can harm millions. (Hmm. I'm starting to sound like Friedrich.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 4, 2009 10:26 AM

I was a great admirer of DFW and have read all his published work except for the book on infinity, which was just beyond me. My introduction to his work was the long piece in "Harper's" called "Shipping Out" about his time spent on a cruise ship. It was expanded and retitled "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" for the collection in which it appeared. It remains the funniest single piece of writing I've ever read, and I'm wondering if you've read it.

Posted by: Michael Padgett on March 4, 2009 11:01 AM

Just another dead pomo hack. No loss there...

Posted by: Edumakated on March 4, 2009 11:54 AM

The essay about cruising that Michael Padgett cites above is the only DFW piece I ever unreservedly enjoyed. He was a good observer for such a weird, artificially constructed social space. Maybe a cruise ship was a real-world version of the kind of wacko candylands he wrote about in his fiction and thus provided a much needed...erm...anchor. Or evened his keel or whatever.

Part of the essay's charm is DFW's description of his own comeuppance. He brings one of those tuxedo t-shirts to wear on formal night. Whether or not he actually wears it I can't recall, but by the time formal night rolls around, he has gotten to know and like the other characters and the scene enough to understand that it's neither funny nor ironic; it is merely insulting, and he doesn't want to be that guy.

Posted by: robert61 on March 4, 2009 3:38 PM

"DFW was a total creature of academia, even so far as his family background went. His father taught philosophy, his mom taught English. Once he finished Amherst he went to Arizona for a creative-writing MFA. In the years following, he lived on book advances and by teaching creative writing at a number of different colleges."

Writing talent isn't particularly rare — it's unusual, but no more so than being able to hit a golf ball well or dance the tango. More than most gifts, though, writing ability needs the fuel of first-hand life experience, aged and contemplated: writing ruthlessly reveals the inner person, and if there's nothing inside but concepts and theories, the product is words about words.

Nothing is more likely to produce wasted literary ability than an extended stay in the gulag of the soul, today's academic world. People who might otherwise do some useful work by writing clearly and interestingly about a subject that interests them, perhaps even a profession, spend their lives in a futile chase after novelty disconnected from meaning.

Evelyn Waugh's most scornful put-down was, "this smacks of creative writing."

Posted by: Rick Darby on March 4, 2009 4:58 PM

Did you check out Ron Rosenbaum's new piece on Slate about a passel of detective novels that he's grooving on? He goes over some interesting & overlapping DFW territory. (I rambled about both of you and Will Leitch on DFW over here this evening.)

Posted by: Gil Roth on March 4, 2009 8:43 PM

A couple of telling quotations from the D T Max article:

As he told Salon, “I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably the A.A. model isn’t the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be one of the more vigorous.”

In his final major interview, given to Le Nouvel Observateur in August, 2007, he talked about various writers he admired—St. Paul, Rousseau, Dostoyevsky among them—and added “what are envied and coveted here seem to me to be qualities of human beings—capacities of spirit—rather than technical abilities or special talents.”

Both of these quotations reference St Paul. The second includes a fascinating combination of writing heroes – all three wanted to know 'how can we sinners live good lives?’But then St Paul and Dostoyevsky go one way, and Rousseau the other . . . . It's no wonder that DFW, in his own search for a coherent answer to the question ‘how then shall we live’, couldn't tell a coherent story. His stories were as broken as he was.

DFW seemed to me to be an exceedingly smart person – likely a genius – who was sincerely looking to answer the big questions (unlike the rest of the pomo crowd). Dostoyevsky found his answer; DFW obviously didn’t.

A couple of other comments on your points, Michael.

DFW didn’t have ‘glimmers’ of self-doubt; he seemed to me to be tormented by it constantly.

And the ‘hyper self-awareness’ thing – why would you think this is the state of mind he pursued? Doesn’t the history of addiction just scream out how badly he wanted to get out of his own head? In his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College he said:

It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.

For some of the really smart people I’ve met, hyper self-awareness is a curse, not a goal.

I totally agree with you re the academia thing, though. If only the poor sap could have gotten away from the universities for a while, who knows what might have happened?

Posted by: mr tall on March 5, 2009 12:03 AM

"It also struck me as telling that -- while NYC publishing characters appear in D.T. Max's article, and authors like DeLillo, Pynchon, and Beattie are mentioned -- not a word appears in the piece about the hundreds of American narrative-prose artists and entertainers who are in the business of creating characters, situations, and stories. "

Michael, it appears that you barely skimmed the New Yorker piece on DFW. Contrary to what you say, the article describes his admiration for Tom Clancy.

This calls your whole post into question.

Posted by: James on March 5, 2009 12:57 AM

Peter -- You don't enjoy "South Park"? But can you come up with much in the way of narrative satire that matches it in recent years? Tastes will differ, of course ... I'm puzzled that you see me doing anything ad hominem in the posting. I do suggest that limiting your existence and ambitions to academia and lit-fict may not be good for the health, and I do suggest that some of DFW's suffering may have had to do with the way he did limit himself to academia and lit-fict. But I also admit in the posting that I have no special knowledge in this case, that I could be wrong, and that DFW was brilliant and talented. How is any of this out of line?

dearieme -- I like your wife's thinking!

Spike -- Writers of commercial fiction seldom get depressed in the DFW way. Reminder: he was depressed in high school, college, and beyond. And in his writing he was doing battle with "literature" and "meaning" and "language." Popular fiction authors who drink or drug themselves to death seldom start off depressed, they usually aren't searching for meaning in their writing, and they usually aren't spending a lot of time combatting metaphysical sadness. They're usually working hard, punching out pages, busy with deadlines, trying to make mortgage payments, and are relying too heavily on the booze or drugs to help them achieve their goals. I know there are exceptions. But, to speak from experience, one of the biggest contrasts you can imagine is the one between a gathering of lit-fict players and genre-writing people. The first group is often pompous, self-serious, and depressive. The second is usually upbeat, sociable, and cheery. A trouble with academia for Eng-lit or creative-writing types is that they can get ever-more high-strung and self-conscious -- not good for mental health. A trouble for many with the lit-fict world is that it's almost entirely madeup. There's virtually no real audience there, and no real business. That ain't good for mental health either.

Donald -- Excellent points, tks.

Michael, robert61 -- Yeah, I have some friends who really love that piece too. Like I say, the DFW charm (or whatever it is) just doesn't work for me. I found everything of his that I read about as thrilling as watching someone else take a drug trip.

Rick -- That's saying a lot!

Gil -- Thanks, great stuff, I'll link back to it soon. Did you know that Banville (one of the authors Rosenbaum recs) once called Donald Westlake a genius, or the world's best fiction writer, or something like that?

Mr. Tall -- Thanks, nifty observations. As for the hyper-self-awareness thing, you're certainly right that DFW suffered from it. But he seems to have seen it as a virtue too. From the article: "As Wallace noted at a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”" You write: "Doesn’t the history of addiction just scream out how badly he wanted to get out of his own head?" Oh, definitely. So why was he unable to do it? Apparently his solution to the woes created by staring in the mirror was ... to stare in the mirror harder. When he lost faith in fiction ... he went back to school to study philosophy. Maybe he might have considered skipping the whole "going back to school" thing instead. So maybe his real addiction wasn't so much to booze or pot but to the academic life and the lit-fict dream.

James -- Thanks for the correction, I'll fix in the posting. But how does one mention of one popular-narrative-fiction author invalidate my point that normal life (and its analogue in fiction, namely popular/ commercial/narrative fiction) were abstractions to DFW, and are abstractions in the D.T. Max piece too? FWIW, you'd be amazed at the amount of theorizing and opinionating lit-world people are capable of doing about the popular-narrative-fiction world while being next-to-completely ignorant of it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2009 2:44 AM


Wait, so you're dead serious then?

Uh, Michael, I don't know how to break it to you, but most likely what DFW needed more than a ticket out of academia or a rip-roaring novel out of his word processor was a decent combo of serotonin uptake inhibitors and atypical mood medication, and probably more normal and supportive friends. That stuff can keep you grounded (not that I hear he wasn't, long story about a friend who took his class, I'll tell it if anyone cares to hear it).

I also question how much of the high end Ivy experience you're putting into this whole conception of academia you got going on. I've got friends in the high end schools who'd agree with you, but folks like me who plowed through the state systems tend to have a much more mixed picture than what you're presenting of college creative writing. I mean the two classes I ever took on creative writing were done by a guy who wrote cookbooks and believed them to be sublime versions of poetry and another guy who worshipped Hemingway and Elmore Leonard.

The writing circle I joined out of folks I met in both classes was composed of guys who wrote Georgian Era Swashbucklers frex, and Calvino influenced art-prose. The results were hella more interesting than anything that could come out of groups of either side.

Man, what is it with folks your age and being all Manichean about stuff sometimes, sheesh, take a good idea about genre and mainstream fic being an interesting world that's been overshadowed by the academe ideal, and turn it into some battle of life and death.

Dude, you don't like Lit Fic, yeah, and your tastes have been treated unfairly by those who do, no doubt. But, man, stuff like "DFW killed himself by indulging too deeply in the poison well of Lit Fic", well that's just... off.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on March 5, 2009 8:42 AM

Popular fiction authors who drink or drug themselves to death seldom start off depressed, they usually aren't searching for meaning in their writing, and they usually aren't spending a lot of time combatting metaphysical sadness.

Speaking as a recovering alcoholic and addict, I think this is wrong. Alcoholics of every stripe nearly always speak of an intense inner suffering that alcohol relieved, and it is to that relief that the alcoholic becomes addicted, not the drug per se. They nearly always report having been unhappy even before they began drinking, and that the decisive encounter with the bottle that began their alcoholic careers involved the booze somehow "melting something inside them", "opening the door to life", and making them go, "Ah, so this is how normal people feel", which leads to the too often fatal conclusion, "This is how I want to feel all the time".

DFW clearly suffered from overwhelming self-consciousness, as well as the "documentary in the head" phenomenon that is so horrible to suffer from when the film just. won't. stop. playing...and for which booze is such an effective antidote. At least for a while.

I don't think you've got him, Michael. Of course, your tastes are your business, but DFW was clearly someone deeply in conflict with lit-fic, who couldn't find his way out of that conflict. It wasn't his nature to be lit-fic, and it wasn't lit-fic-ness that killed him (of course you're saying more than that). It was his utter inability to be happy in that narrow, crabbed little space, his desperate desire, and failure, to get free of his own cranium that so tormented that poor man.

Co-sign, as they say, to Mr. Tall. You got DFW right. A genuine, horrible, gut-wrenching human tragedy.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 5, 2009 9:07 AM

Spike -- I can appreciate some comic caricaturing of an argument, but in the case of a recent suicide I think care needs to be taken. I didn't argue that DFW killed himself because he stayed in school and because he wrote literary fiction. I didn't know the guy. I wrote that the academic-and-nothing-but-academic life is often not good for mental health, that the lit-fict life is often similarly not good for mental health, and I wondered if these facts might have had anything to do with Wallace's depression. Big diff between that and asserting that he killed himself BECAUSE etc etc. Anyway, very eager to hear about your creative-writing experiences, as well as your tale about DFW.

PatrickH -- Nice analysis of the booze thing, although I think you're 'way underplaying just how hard popular entertainers (and especially writers) work, the role the booze and or drugs tends to play in their lives, and how that differs from the role it often plays in the lives of people who sit around cultivating their self-consciousness. Pro writers generally don't have a lot of time for staring in the mirror. Also, given that as far as I can tell I'm saying pretty much the same thing you are about DFW's central predicament -- I accept it completely -- I'm a little baffled by your (and Mr.T's) claim that I'm just not getting it. Is it just that I'm less sympathetic to it than you guys are?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2009 11:44 AM

I agree with PatrickH, Mr. Tall hit it on the head. I couldn't have said it better myself. I speak as a sufferer of longterm clinical depression, but certainly, not as a genius.

Posted by: S. Luehmann on March 5, 2009 12:24 PM

One of the reasons I didn't go into an English literature program was that reading lit-works and criticism, and commenting on them, seemed like too self-reflexive an exercise. I decided that learning to write history would be both more interesting and more of a challenge. I also discovered was that it exposes you to more stories, extraordinary stories that one's own imagination could scarcely dream up in a thousand years. It might be a Good Thing if more would-be writers of fiction studied history rather than literature.

Meanwhile, Michael, I think that Patrick and Mr Tall were saying that DFW saw his own predicament clearly, and was trying desperately to overcome it, by working towards writing books with plot and character to flesh them out, a fact which doesn't really seem to find a place in your assessment of him. That he took some wrong turns - going back to school to study philosophy, for example - was only to be expected in one who had few practical skills and little practical experience.

I believe, too, that whatever you meant by it, you overstate the impact that academic snobbery had on the man. He didn't grow up wanting to be a writer, and so he was unfamiliar with anything *but* genre fiction, at first; snobbery played no part in it. The piece you cite does not say that he loved genre writers, but it does say that as a youth he saw fiction as no more than a way to convey information, as Tom Clancy used it.

DFW seems to have begun as a philosophy/math student who found that fiction could be used to achieve some of what he wanted in those other disciplines, with less formal structure and perhaps less boredom. After all, if lit-fiction is duller than genre, you must surely agree that it is still more readable than most works of philosophy...Anyway, I don't think the man was a natural writer, as I say in a blogpost that coincides with this one.

Posted by: aliasclio on March 5, 2009 1:08 PM

S. Luehmann -- Thanks for the observation.

A. Clio -- Oh, I begin to see what's baffling me. I'm assuming that everyone is reading the D.T. Max story and seeing my posting as a ricochet off it. Instead, some are taking it as an attempt at a Final Word on DFW. Heavens, I haven't read much of his work and I didn't know the guy. The D.T. Max piece makes the facts of DFW's life pretty clear, and the nature of DFW's sufferings pretty clear too. So I felt no need to recapitulate the whole package. No, in this posting I'm just adding a few things to the conversation: 1) a life in academia (especially for the creative writer) may not be good for the mental health, 2) a life in the lit-fict world may not be good for the mental health, 3) these facts may have contributed to his depression, and (more sneakily) 4) there may be similarities between the academic world and the lit-fict world.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2009 1:25 PM

(perhaps you should read his work, not the notes)... your note is kind of ugly because you seem to missunderstood the point of DFW and yet you speak as if you could iluminate us.
perhaps theres a reason why some call him genius, dont you think, sherlock?

Posted by: eugene on March 5, 2009 1:29 PM

eugene -- If you want to think of yourself as a reader, then you may want to take another look at the posting's opening: "I'm happy to agree that he was a brilliant and talented guy." Incidentally, and not that I think it matters much (everyone's entitled to have opinions and make observations): I know the book publishing world well, I spent time in grad school, I'm familiar enough with the creative-writing industry and the lit-fict and genre-writing worlds, I gave a bunch of DFW's writing a try, and I even once interviewed the dude. Did you try the Ron Rosenbaum and Gil Roth pieces, btw? Smart guys who weren't that crazy about DFW's fiction either.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2009 1:34 PM

Michael, what Clio said. I think that DFW was desperately, horrifically tormented by a brain that wouldn't, couldn't shut up and get out of the way. It's not so much your lack of sympathy for him, as your underestimation of a) just how painful the "documentary in your brain" is; and b)how that particular form of mental self-torment is so difficult to overcome--since any attempt to do so becomes instantly subject to the same, relentless pathological self-awareness, self-analysis. And in the end, always, the self-judgment.

You cannot self-consciously overcome self-consciousness. Only drugs or a religious transformation, the liberation from the overweening self by a Higher Power of some kind (any kind!), can free you from the prison of your own constantly yammering thoughts, can turn off the camera in your mind. DFW was searching for that HP, and didn't find it.

I've suffered from "starring in my own movie", I've created conversational partners in my mind to relieve the boredom of lonely days, only to find them turning slowly but relentlessly into enemies who. won't. go. away...

Having a war going on in your mind, having that much going on inside at all, is a torment. Wanting to shut it up is utterly understandable.

I think you've just underestimated how desperate DFW's situation was. My own guess is he simply could not face another forty or fifty years of being trapped in his own mind.

So to escape his mind, he choked it to death. How sad. How terrible.

Godspeed, DFW.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 5, 2009 1:37 PM

One thing I noticed about all the posts thus far, regardless whether posters agreed or not, is that pretty much everybody's managed to maintain some respect for the others' views...which surely won't last indefinitely (it's now been linked on thehowlingfantods, and im sure someone will be scanning the site half-drunk tonight and slam you for voicing any kind of anti-dfw viewpoint, etc., etc., -- oh the life of a dfw fan).

I'm not really going to address your stance on dfw in particular since you've admitted to not having read a whole lot of his work, but I want to ask about your distaste for lit-fic; it seems that the criticism is centered on the elitist nature of the lit-fic writer, and that the primary goal of lit-fic is to enable the writers to kind of beat one another off (so to speak), but I have to be honest, for myself and I'm sure a number of other people who've enjoyed lit-fic, reading the good stuff is about as honest and meaningful experience I've been able to have, right up there with with falling in love, having kids, etc. Now, I don't suggest it will do the same thing for you, and I understand that lit-fic, especially pomo and on, is to everyone's taste. But how is your discrediting all lit-fic any different than the ivory towers which scoff at any book that sells more than 50,000 copies?

Good lit-fic is, of course, a matter of opinion in itself. What I'm really trying to suggest is that I kind of get the feeling you're making the same mistake approaching dfw that most mfa's make when reading clancy. No?

Posted by: Ben on March 5, 2009 5:36 PM


Co-sign on that one.


You said I'm making a caricature of your argument, but reducto ad absurdium often drives the point across. Also, exhortations that I should tread carefully, as we speak of one dead by his own hand doesn't shake me as much as others, particularly when it smacks of being a cheap rhetorical ploy. I mean, what is this entire post other than a big meta-commentary of your conceptions of Literary Fiction and Academia using DFW as a springboard? I mean you end it with a bullet point list saying, I quote: "Literary Fiction can be bad for your health" as the conclusion (albeit couched in the language of self-admitted armchair quarterbacking).

Now I'm not saying that you should be deprived of that opinion, or that in some respects I don't agree with it (though I think you have causality reversed, a running joke among us grad students and professors were that departments were staffed by people who couldn't hack it in the real world, despite trying). What I'm fairly cheesed about is you shaking your finger and adopting a moral tone in saying "care must be taken" with what I say, when I would bet that anyone personally close to DFW would be more offended that someone links his life's work to his demise (however respectfully and gingerly) rather than on his failure to find a good mixture of psychiatric drugs and treatment that would point him down a road of slow recovery from something that had deep set roots far outside anything he wrote.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on March 5, 2009 7:28 PM

"Moral of my musings: Literary fiction can be bad for your health."

And you use DFW as your sole example to prove it. If that's not ad hominem, I'll eat my keyboard. I pointed out, as have others, that there are writers who exhibitb DFW's problems who are not captives of the lit-fic/academe world, like Hemingway or Mishima, as well as millions who aren't writers or artists of any kind. Your reasoning is very flimsy here.

"As to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, no, I don't like or follow South Park. I watched their Team America film and thought it was pretty puerile, but admit I laughed a few times.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on March 5, 2009 7:31 PM

I'm going to come out and be blunt, in a way DFW never could bring himself to be: he needed God, but could not/would not/was not permitted to find Him.

His writings ache with longing for the eternal and the transcendent.

If you want to get to the heart of his dilemma, I think his short essay on that recent biography of Dostoevsky is a good place to start, maybe along with that Kenyon speech I linked above.

I don't think it's out of line, in fact, to compare DFW to the great Russian depressive himself. Similar minds, similar torments -- different solutions. That's not to say Dostoevsky lived an easy life of spiritual tranquility, but he did manage to avoid silencing his voices himself, and to channel his intracranial torments into some of the world's greatest art. FD lived in an age that could still take seriously his psycho-spiritual questioning; but, as PatrickH has so perfectly expressed, DFW could find nowhere to go -- that 'narrow, crabbed little space', indeed. That's why his litfic is so frustrating -- I would never argue that his novels are successes, not given the gifts of intelligence, vision and expression he was given. And of course he knew that, too.

I can't help feeling that DFW could have been our Dostoevsky if things had been different. That's the esteem in which I hold his gift, and a reflection of the depth of the tragedy I see in his suicide.

And keep in mind this is coming from someone who holds almost no truck whatever with the great boring mass of litfic out there, Michael -- I agree with you 95% of the time on this topic. DFW is the other 5%.

And, btw, thanks for this discussion. You're one of the most graceful dis-agreers around.

Posted by: mr tall on March 5, 2009 8:14 PM

PatrickH -- What's weird to me is that you write as though you're disagreeing with me, or with something I said about DFW. But all I can see in your comments is 1) you're writing about DFW's agonies more eloquently than I did, 2) you like his writing better than I did. That isn't disagreement, that's seeing the same thing thru different lenses. You write, for instance, "I think you've just underestimated how desperate DFW's situation was. My own guess is he simply could not face another forty or fifty years of being trapped in his own mind." How could I, or anyone, have underestimated how desperate DFW was -- the dude wound up killing himself. It doesn't get more desperate than that. So where's the disagreement? You write: "I don't think you've got him, Michael. Of course, your tastes are your business, but DFW was clearly someone deeply in conflict with lit-fic, who couldn't find his way out of that conflict. It wasn't his nature to be lit-fic, and it wasn't lit-fic-ness that killed him (of course you're saying more than that). It was his utter inability to be happy in that narrow, crabbed little space, his desperate desire, and failure, to get free of his own cranium that so tormented that poor man." Nice passage -- but, again, where's the disagreement? I point out in the posting, for instance, that DFW's solution to losing faith in his fiction was to go back to school to study philosophy. If that isn't an image of someone trapped in his own conceptions, I don't know what is.

ben -- Thanks for dropping by. People are being amazingly civil, aren't they? Which is a very nice thing. As for your question about lit-fict ... I don't have anything against lit-fict per se, and I'm glad to hear you enjoy some of it. I enjoy some of it too. I do like taking potshots at its (to my mind) overinflated sense of self-importance, and I do enjoy pointing out its very bizarre pedigree. At the end of this DFW posting I linked to a posting I wrote a while back explaining where contempo lit-fict comes from, for example. You might get a kick out of that one. Another one you might enjoy is my list of recent (and recent-ish) lit-fict writers whose work I do like:


Spike -- I'm getting the impresson that you didn't read the D.T. Max story. You say that "I would bet that anyone personally close to DFW would be more offended that someone links his life's work to his demise" etc etc. But, according to Max, that's exactly what the people close to DFW do. According to them, he was questioning the worth of the writing he'd done, he was searching for (and not finding) a simpler way to do ... something or other, hopefully transformative, and he was bogged down in a huge, complicated novel he wasn't able to pull together. It all played a role in why he killed himself. No doubt there were many other factors too, including (obviously) the psychiatric drugs. But unless you know something that Max doesn't -- and if you do, please share -- DFW's writing, his life, and his fate were certainly tied together in some important ways.

Peter -- You're a bright guy, you know that's not what "ad hominem" means. Ad hominem means: Person A presents an argument; Person B responds not by addressing the argument that Person A has proposed but by attacking something about Person A himself. In the case of this posting: since no one has proposed an argument, and since I'm not debating anyone, there isn't even the possibility of an ad hominem attack occuring. Anyway, I'm baffled by what you're offended or annoyed by in the posting.

mr. tall -- As with PatrickH, I'm confused. You write as though we're disagreeing. But about what? Is it just our evaluation of DFW's talents?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 6, 2009 2:38 AM

Um, the sneering attitude toward academics is pretty annoying. I'm just an undergrad who spent his pre-college years working in a greenhouse, so it's not like I'm all up and anxious about the prolonged academic life (I'm just not smart enough for it, honestly). But it seems pretty clear to me that academics are people too, and that academics have kids, have sex, fall in love, lose loved ones, get addicted, watch junky TV, and rant at the dinner table about politics in the same way any other American does. Why should a construction worker somehow have a better grasp on the "American experience" than an academic? He/she probably views life through the skewed lens of his/her own work to the same extent that an academic does. And there's an awful lot of professors working here in this country - seems kind of weird to deny them knowledge of the "American experience."

And DFW's fiction is not trite writing about writing. The part of IJ that are about alcoholics and alcoholism would make your soul screech. For someone who dislikes literary fiction and hasn't read much DFW, this article is awfully presumptuous. You could have made an argument about how lit-fic and academia is supposedly unhealthy without even bringing DFW into the fold. I tend to agree that you're mostly just "projecting."

Also, FWIW, DFW worked a few different "regular" jobs during his sort of aimless years prior to IJ. Off the top of my head, I can remember that he worked as a towel boy and as a security guard at different points. Also, he played football in college and, as far as I can tell, was a pretty big Chicago Bears fan. I don't think he was as cloistered or as shut off from society as you presume.

Finally, lit-fic authors work damned hard, too. In fact, most people who are really really good at what they do work really damned hard. As an aspiring author of what would probably be called lit-fic, I found your 2:44 comment pretty condescending. (And now I slowly amble off, seeking the nearest mirror unto which I can bounce my strange little lit-fic anxieties onto...)

Posted by: Ryan on March 6, 2009 3:00 AM

Hi Michael;

Our disagreement is simple.

In your first big set of responses to comments, part of your reply to my first comment said:

You write: "Doesn’t the history of addiction just scream out how badly he wanted to get out of his own head?" Oh, definitely. So why was he unable to do it? Apparently his solution to the woes created by staring in the mirror was ... to stare in the mirror harder.

Yes, why was DFW unable to do it? You think he could change himself. I think he couldn't and, like Patrick, think that the harder he tried, the worse things got, certainly in his writing, and probably in his head/life as well.

I think DFW was attracted to, maybe even fascinated by people who could believe -- maybe specifically in God; maybe not; it's arguable -- but who thereby could lose themselves and look out instead of in. In that same response, you note:

As for the hyper-self-awareness thing, you're certainly right that DFW suffered from it. But he seems to have seen it as a virtue too. From the article: "As Wallace noted at a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

You're misreading him entirely here. The awareness he's talking about is awareness of the people/world around him -- in his view, exactly the opposite of 'hyper self-awareness'. The message of the speech was simply this: be aware of those around you, or you'll get stuck in your head (with 'just like me' in an implied footnote). He could identify the problem, he could see the solution -- being other- rather than self-aware -- but he couldn't do it himself. He needed the big HP, as Patrick might put it, but he couldn't accept that, either, although I pray that at some ultimate moment he, like every suicide, was granted one last chance.

For whatever reason, when DFW wrote about God/belief/faith, he deflected himself with irony or speculation or by turning on the nature of the question in on itself or by any device he could find. He needed to go to church -- not to observe but to seek -- if he wanted to think about answers to the big questions that literature couldn't answer for him, not to grad school in philosophy (again, as you quite rightly noted).

But it seems he didn't.

Posted by: mr tall on March 6, 2009 3:25 AM

I stand or sit corrected about my use of ad hominem.

I wasn't annoyed or offended by what you wrote. I think that the causal connection between DFW's personal problems and his envelopment in the literary-academic world isn't as clear cut or inevitable as you seem to think.

I'd rather move on. Re: the publications you listed as locations for the cultural conversation. To use one publication I'm pretty familiar with, Vanity Fair. In what way is it part of the cultural conversation? Most of the content of any given issue is celebrity marketing. There aren't any book or film reviews. I guess the closest they come is with James Wolcott's essays, which often have a forced quality to them, as when he quite correctly despaired of the current film going experience, only to turn around and extol the supposed riches of TV shows.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on March 6, 2009 3:47 AM


Just to give you the benefit of the doubt, I went back and reread the article much closer. It's seems pretty clear that Green and others thought that his choice to go off the Nardil was extremely hazardous, considering what his goals were.

In fact I'm not seeing anything at all about DFW being destroyed by his writing. I'm seeing a recounting of a pretty interesting, complicated and talented guy who happened to have very severe longstanding depression and anxiety even before he thought of putting pen to page professionally. This depression wrapped itself around everything he did in life, including his writing.

Like someone said before, he could have been fitting pipe joints, and he could have offed himself.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on March 6, 2009 9:10 AM

Here is where your credibility goes out the window fo me:

"Meta-meta postmodernism."

WTF does that mean? I have it had with people throwing around the term 'postmodernism' to vaguely signify some crazy shit some 20th C American wrote.

It's an empty word, one that people have, at some point, made noble attempts at defining but which way too often people use like it's used here, in a way that tells the reader nothing about what it's meant to describe.

So: if you could footnote the phrase 'meta-meta postmodernism' and give me a sensible, straightforward definition of it, I'll finish reading this post.

Otherwise, I'll stick to DFW's work. It's way, way 'pomo,' and super trendy, and sure sometimes show-offy, but for all the hundreds of thousands of words he wrote, he made sure each one meant something. More than I can say about this short blog entry.

Posted by: Conley on March 6, 2009 10:14 AM

Random thoughts. (Good ruminations btw). (BTW, I have not read the NY piece, so I'm reacting to your thoughts rather than DFW himself).

The first reaction was jealousy. So he had a cushy tenure track position (something I could never hope to aspire to) and yet he still is unhappy. What a dweeb! Having a regular nonacademic job and relating to regular people does give you a sense of perspective though.

For my generation, getting into academia requires persistence and sacrifice. The problem is that it breeds a kind of insularity and wierd feedback loops. I have a brilliant writer friend who teaches English at a college somewhere. She is enormously talented; I love her work. Yet her most famous book is a childhood memoir whose style is too refined and poetic for most readers to know what to do with. Although the subject matter of her book is about real life, it seems as she is content that only academic types can understand and enjoy her stylistic flourishes. It seems overwritten. I even found myself tiring at several parts. I don't mind experimenting with style and point of view, but not if it clouds the subject matter. My aesthetic is "write things at a level which any high school freshman can understand and which people with PhDs find unfathomable."

I think the big challenge in modern fiction is accessibility. You basically have 10 seconds to win an audience on the web, so you better get to the point.

Btw, I don't particularly care for plot-driven novels, and in fact I love self-conscious literary fiction (but never was turned on by DWF). But I think you need to figure out a way to relate to a broad audience. Very few people are going to take the time to read the footnotes (btw, my teacher John Barth uses many of the same techniques; luckily he is in retirement and emotionally unscathed).

Totally unrelated: I am 3/4 through Milan Kundera's essay about the modern novel, The Curtain. It has fucking blown my mind! (best thing I'd read about the novel since Jane Smiley's 13 ways of looking at a novel).

Posted by: Robert Nagle on March 6, 2009 10:17 AM

Michael, I think our disagreement about DFW is more or less what Mr. Tall and PLW and others have said it was...

DFW was terribly unhappy trapped in his head.

He was not destroyed or even really damaged by lit-fic, because he was not really lit-fic in the first place. Though he was no doubt constricted by a sense of others' expectations of him, it simply makes no sense to take this massive, overwrought, excessive, gargantuan writer and try to cram him into the neurasthenic, bloodless, over-polished, attentuated world of lit-fic. He was just too big for that little wee place.

The nub of our disagreement is perhaps best illustrated by your description of him as perhaps being "stuck in a concept of himself as special". I don't think that's an accurate description of his situation, either denotatively or connotatively. As Tall said, he ached for the transcendent, and I hope, like Tall, that at the end, before it was too late, he found it.

Or it found him. Isn't that really how that sort of thing is supposed to work? It isn't "man's search for God", is it? It's the other way around, at least as far as I can tell from the old stories. It's God looking for us.

So let's hope God finally found DFW. Like I hope he finally finds me.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 6, 2009 10:45 AM

Patchy, busy day. I'll take on comments one by one as time frees up.

Ryan -- I suspect that your profs haven't yet introduced you to the "campus novel." It's fiction set at schools and among academic people. The reason it exists as a genre is that the setting is, by comparison to most possible settings, "closed" and therefore peculiar, and because the people and the behavior it promotes and encourages also become very peculiar and special. Hey, a fun quote from the novelist David Lodge:

"The high ideals of the university as an institution - the pursuit of knowledge and truth, are set against the actual behaviour and motivations of the people who work in them, who are only human and subject to the same ignoble desires and selfish ambitions as anybody else. The contrast is perhaps more ironic, more marked, than it would be in any other professional milieu."

That "more marked" is the key. Academia is a hothouse atmosphere in which behaviors (and psychologies) that would get pruned or slashed within days outside the hothouse get a chance to flourish and often prevail. Some people like it, many don't, but few people have made the claim that it isn't distinctive. Here's a good article about the British campus novel tradition:


Back again soon.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 6, 2009 11:41 AM

Mr. Tall, Peter, PatrickH -- Yeah, the "aching-for-God" vs. "maybe he shoulda ditched academia and lit fict" thing makes sense as a point-of-disagreement we can all agree on, so to speak. I can't resist adding that I've seen more than one person's bad case of metaphysical woe evaporate once he got a more suitable job/married/had kids/left academia -- once he made a productive real-world change, in other words. But now I'll shut up about it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 6, 2009 5:07 PM

But now I'll shut up about it.

Please don't!

Posted by: PatrickH on March 6, 2009 5:12 PM

Spike -- We read the piece differently then. For you I guess it's the tale of a suicide-bound depressive who just happened to write and hang around academia. For me it's a response to the question "How could this have happened?", with the writing and hanging-around-academia (and mood drugs) included as relevant to the question being raised. D.T. Max didn't talk much about DFW and tennis, for instance, presumably because Max didn't think the tennis played much of a role where the depression and suicide were concerned. It wasn't part of the story. But it's certainly a fair-enough interpretive point for us to butt heads about. Given that neither of us knew DFW, let alone knew him well, I doubt we'll be settling the disagreement.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 6, 2009 5:24 PM

Dear MB:

A few half baked thoughts.

A) I've been on a DWF kick the last two months. It was the first time I'd ever looked at his work. I ended up reading almost all of his non-fiction. I think he's written some of the greatest new journalisty essayish type stories ever, or at least rank up there with the top. His pieces on porn, the McCain campaign, the cruise,the Maine lobster festival are brilliant. But despite the greatness of his journalism, all those pieces distinctly lack any sense of enjoyment--at all. You get the feeling that it's not a just a narrative schtick--a real all consuming existential pain underlies the pieces, from having to go on a five star cruise, or having to spend an afternoon eating lobster, or sitting through the AVN awards in Vegas. As a reader, you want to sort of shake him sometimes, and say, fuck man, get a tan! Enjoy wathcing the pretty girls! Put aside your ethical considerations for a nanosecond and take a bite of 1 pounder dipped in butter! He played off this, sort of ironically, sort of jokingly, and that tension runs throughout his work, but you get the sense that it's very much not a joke. Contrast this to say the travel writings of an Evelyn Waugh--when EW tells you how much the natives are getting on his nerves, you still know that the man loves to travel. Or anything by Tom Wolfe, where Wolfe's endless curiosity, his enjoyment of understanding whatever it he's writing about, always comes through when he's writing at his best.

B)DWF's fiction falls into the category of writers-that-I-like-to-read-in-theory. (Pynchon falls into this category, too, Gaddis, etc.)Extremely impressive writers who awe me with their writing ability but fail to awe me so much that I want to keep turning the page. Brings to mind a quote by one of the authors of the Lost Behind series, which I'm more or less quoting accurately: "I wish I was smart enough to write a book nobody could read."

C)That being said, I think a DWF novel about the IRS would be hilarious, I'm sure to buy it and make an attempt to read it.

D)I'm trying partially tackle your question: "(But what are we to make of a suicidal depressive who wants to lay life-advice on us? The question is never explicitly raised in the New Yorker piece, though it certainly hangs in the air.)" I think it was admirable for DWF in his writing to really strive for a coherent moral and philosphical framework for Gen X and beyond. He's not just doing cute/clever novels; what he went after was worthy and meaningful, in my view. Just because he killed himself doesn't make what he said untrue, or any less valid. The Kenyon speech is pretty incredible, the mother of all commencement speechs, and the advice it gives is pretty solid real-world life advice. We have this idea that depression is just about getting the chemicals in the brain right, but it's more than that--and that's what AA is about. It's about spirtuality, a spirtuality that is something other than the chemicals in the brain. You have to want to live, you have to try to find a reason to live. DWF wrote persuasively on all of this, but the one person he appears not to have fully convinced was himself. All and all, from my vantage, it seems he could never accept that it was actually okay to be alive.

By saying all the above, I hope I don't come across as disrepectful to Wallace, his memory or offend those who loved him. My thoughts are truly with his family and friends, and as much as a reader and lover of writing can be, I'm truly saddened that he's no longer here, that we didn't get the chance to see how he would have tackled many of the issues raised in this discussion.


Posted by: MH on March 6, 2009 5:27 PM

Conley -- Small hint: It was a joke.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 6, 2009 5:29 PM

Robert -- Fun musings, tks. You studied with John Barth? Eager to hear more about that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 6, 2009 5:36 PM

MH -- Lovely comment. Be sure to copy, paste, and save that one. Thanks for dropping by and joining in the discussion.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 6, 2009 5:38 PM

A footnote to previous post: I meant DFW throughout, not DWF.

Posted by: MH on March 6, 2009 5:42 PM

If you don't have anything nice to say...
The undercurrent of anger in your writing begs the question, "If this guy has such a problem with one author's writing and success, then why doesn't he do some writing of his own instead of moaning about DFW?" I mean, really, you seem quite proud of how you picked yourself up by the bootstraps in grad school, so why not get down to this business of living in the real world by putting that degree to good use and writing something that will actually help people?

Posted by: Michael on March 8, 2009 8:47 PM

Maybe you should read all of his writing before making generalizations about his writing that don't apply to his writing. It only makes you look like you don't know what you're talking about. And I read your entire post, and the whole time all I could think is that I would rather read some Wallace. But none of this matters. The man's legacy is solidified. People will be reading Wallace well into the next century. He is the most important and influential fiction writer of the last 25 years and nothing anyone says, including a pissant like you, is going to change that. Nice try, though. Maybe next time you should take on someone more your size. How about Jonathan Lethem or something. He could use a little kick in shins. And you seem like just the elf to do it.

Posted by: Chris on March 9, 2009 1:34 AM

Michael -- "Undercurrent of anger"? Er, forgive me if I'm wrong, but I suspect that 1) you're feeling offended, 2) you're explaining it by attributing "anger" to me. Which is fine and all, if a complete misapprehension of what motivated this posting. (Namely: sympathy and curiosity.) You might want to look into the right way to use "begs the question," btw.

Chris -- Glad to know you enjoy DFW. But what makes you think this posting was an attempt to critically evaluate his work? (Small reading lesson: the topic here isn't "Is DFW any good?" It's "Could the way he spent his life in academia and so much of his creative energy on lit fict have contributed to his depression?") In your place, I wouldn't be running around being pushy about my opinion about ambitious and complicated writing like DFW's if I was incapable of recognizing a modest blog posting for what it is!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 9, 2009 8:49 AM

I have to take umbrage with the following:

"There's zero in the piece about creating a cast of interesting characters and devising piquant situations and hooks."

Apparently, to you this means that DFW was incapable of creating interesting characters or developing plot. I guess I can see how you might come to that conclusion, since you haven't actually read much of his work, including Infinite Jest. To me, Hal Incandenza, Don Gately and Joelle Van Dyne live and breathe as much as any other characters I've encountered. And the fact that a plot is complex and non-linear and inconclusive doesn't mean it's not a plot. I personally think IJ is very much plot-driven, and I found it to be a page-turner.

Really, maybe you should read more of DFW's work instead of just relying on the Max piece...

Posted by: Mike Rowe on March 9, 2009 8:40 PM

If you read the Rolling Stone article on his life and death, especially the last two pages, it seems that the main reason he killed himself was that his doctors suggested he go off the antidepressant he had been on for a long time because of some physical side-effects he experienced, and when he did go off it he quickly spiraled into a deep depression. When he tried to go back on the same antidepressant it no longer worked for him (as the article says, 'It can happen with an antidepressant; a patient goes off, returns, and the medication has lost its efficacy'), nor did any of the other antidepressants he tried. Apparently he had actually been quite happy with his life in the period before going off the drug.

Posted by: Jesse M. on March 9, 2009 10:59 PM

Not even gonna get into this — I'm a fan, you're not, and you seem really angry about academia (which I abandoned but had fun in) — but yes, you're civil enough about the whole thing. You seem to be treating DFW as a symptom rather than a guy in and of himself. That said, you might want to take a look at this top 10 list he wrote when asked what his favorite novels were:

1. The Screwtape Letters - C.S. Lewis
2. The Stand - Stephen King
3. Red Dragon - Thomas Harris
4. The Thin Red Line - James Jones
5. Fear of Flying - Erica Jong
6. The Silence of the Lambs - Thomas Harris
7. Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein
8. Fuzz - Ed McBain
9. Alligator - Shelley Katz
10. The Sum of All Fears - Tom Clancy

Worth noting he taught the Harris book (maybe it was actually Red Dragon, can't remember) in one of his literary interpretation classes. He was certainly not unaware of popular, straightforward fiction. This list is probably kind of a joke, but not totally.

Posted by: vadim on March 10, 2009 1:10 AM

I'm late to this game, but a few (civil) points:

I do think the overlooked fact in the post is depression itself, which, as another commenter pointed out, can tackle a pipe-fitter as easily as a literary giant. I'm fine with taking some shots at academia, but there are thousands of writers and professors who spend all or nearly all of their lives in or around universities (including many postmodernists) who don't suffer from crippling depression. This just seems like a red herring. Yes, Wallace was an egghead, but lots (and lots) of eggheads don't commit suicide. And lots (and lots) of less intelligent people do.

You write that Wallace might have felt intimations that "there might be a bigger life out there, beyond the campus, and outside the creative-writing industry and the New York City publishing houses." I get this in terms of the campus, but Wallace was not an NYC creature. I don't think of him as particularly New York-flavored, and I don't think he cared much about publishing houses, etc.

I agree that his fiction had flaws. I think anyone who thinks he wrote a flat-out fictional masterpiece is mistaken. I actually think it's his nonfiction that is undeniably brilliant, and I'm sorry you don't share that opinion. (Well, not sorry, but...)

You write that those nonfiction pieces "express a very peculiar combo of exhaustion and exhilaration, as though Wallace was convinced that the point of writing is to expend your vital forces chasing your thoughts around." I'm not sure that what Wallace was "convinced" of is what's important here. It's just the way he wrote. I think "South Park" is funny from time to time, but jeez, I'm glad that not every fiction writer is satisfied to aspire to the heights of Parker and Stone. There's something in this post that seems to bristle at diversity -- like if everyone wrote like Tom Clancy or Donald Westlake, the world would be a better place. I'm all for writers like Elmore Leonard, and Wallace's fiction often drove me crazy for many of the reasons that you state. But I don't think he could have written in a radically different form, so I'm happy for what he gave us -- yes, it was often tedious and anti-narrative, but it was also often hilariously funny and perceptive.

Lastly, I'm very curious about the idea that he "ached for God," as I think one commenter put it. I believe it's his short essay on 9/11 that appeared in Rolling Stone (and was collected in Consider the Lobster) in which Wallace mentions attending the same church as someone else. It's quite possible that his aching for God was taking a fairly explicit turn, but I'm not certain of this. But again, very curious about it... It ties in very obviously with his interest in AA-like simplicity, that simplicity being tied in with higher powers, etc.

Posted by: JMW on March 11, 2009 2:31 AM

michael; about DFW- thanks for the reply. Let me explain something first,1- Im from argentina, so, my english may be not so good. so- 2- no, I dont know those guys you talk about because they are not published here, in my contry. As well as part of DFW. (dont worry, Ive read him for sure) (the thing is, I suposse, (based on the many comments Ive read about this) that US people, are so sophisticated, that, in my opinion, some of them, miss the point of something like this when they aproach it as a merely avant grade tec. with all the well known commmonplaces you have in your culture, they miss this, because they are all so worry about beeing smart themselfs
You tend to see him as another guy doing the same thing... delillio/pynchon/barth, etc.
Well, that`s wrong.
Smart guys, there are a lot of them, but no so many can do things that moove. Or art.
Im young, Im 24, I dont have any degree. But I read a lot. Im now almost done with gravitys rainbow, and Ive read Barth and deLillio and Bartheleme... but before that, I was really into Samuel Beckett, kafka, Akutagawa, dostoiewsky, others from here you would not know, then, before that, Ive read a lot of burroughs and thompson, truman capote, flannery o connor, carson mccullers, JK toole, marcel schwob, etc, etc. I tend to expect good works from people, not genius, but good work.
David did more than “good work”
And I really think he is as good as any of these mentioned.
What you see as “peculiar combo of exhaustion and exhilaration”In that I found ibeauty, dedicated, smart, hard... brillant writing.
When you talk about why a suicidal is trying to help us understand, it just seem to me, with all due respect, thah you are not really listening... and that you are unfair.
His issues are not what matters here.
How many people you think are completly normal?. None. Because “normal” dont exist. Every one of us have issues. so, what you said, I take it as non valid. It would be like reading any philosopher and go “why this complicated “dude” is trying so hard to say something to me when is obious he dont get life and he is so boring and blablabnalab”-
I think, deep inside, really deep, that, either, his spirit does not make any efect on yours, or, you have an issue dealing with it.
Im trying really hard to understand why you said those things
Because, south park?, come on!!!! I like South park, but... those things dont go together.
They simply dont.
I dont agree with a single sentence you wrote
Because his work, is not about structure, meta fiction, posmodern, as you said.
Is about a lot of complicated issues dealing with life; faith, struglle, depresion, hope, anger, absurd, identity, etc, etc.
When you said you “agree” he is brillant and stuff, as you remarc to me, is not honest, becasue if you trully believe that, you wouldnt have written this.
You remarc it to said I didnt read your article well, in an ironic way, “if you want to think of your self as a reader” to explain to me why Im inferiror.
I think u missundersttood him completly. Im not angry at you,,, it is just that in your country you have things pretty arranged to do a lot of stuff and yet a lot of you academic seem just to complain in a way I cant comprehend
Those felows you mention, i havent heard of them, nor could find one of them on the net, but let me tell you, I dont have to read an academic guy telling me DFW is not that good. It doenst make any sense to me. Its a waiste of time, because ive already decided-
I even read him in english, wich its hard to me, but I do it with pleasure. And Im dying to get his firt work, (not published here, not even translated, and it will cost me a small fortune)
(a “try on his work” , its not enough, is not clear what you actually read of him)
Anyway... thanks for responding. At least you confront you own things....
I hope you post this, or else, if you dont, at least respond to me, since I have spent time reading and thinking what you said... (its not my pourpose to anoy you, but to explain my position)

Posted by: eugene on March 11, 2009 2:23 PM

mmmm... im getting the sense now, you where completly joking with the authors you mention, right?... that makes sense. still.. I agree with some of the others comments, and i still think you don get him... one thing i learn from his works, Its to read the entire book before making a judgement.
im really curious to know: you studied with barth?... where can I get you interview with him?

Posted by: eugene on March 13, 2009 4:51 PM

Hey MB, how's it going? I've been out having a life and all that :)

Anyway, lit fic! My favorite hobby horse, I just cannot get into what is supposed to be serious fiction these days (although, I have to send you the link to the post where I spammed your blog comment section about a book I could not understand being published. It was kind of mean and it was an author who writes for a blog I really like. I don't know why it bothered me to see what had been publised. I see so much good writing online, that I don't get the publishers...they are kind of destroying their own profession with their poor taste, I think. Tell stories, tell all kinds of interesting stories, invite everyone in, don't fall for the gimmick....)

(As for the comment that should be deleted, I'll have to send you the link so that you can delete the comment, provided you have time :) )

Oh, well, back to having a life. Good to see the blog so active and with such interesting comments and posts!

Okay, back to the post. I've never read any of this author, but the whole life in academia thing. I wonder if people realize how very small a slice of the world it is? The good thing about doing academic medicine is you can't be as insulated, I think, as some other academics, although the docs sure can be j-holes just as much as anyone else.

Posted by: onparkstreet on March 15, 2009 7:52 PM

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