Wallace still has a rabid fan base and entire conferences are devoted to Infinite Jest and his other books, but he’s facing more critical scrutiny than ever before. And that’s important, says Clare Hayes-Brady, author of The Unspeakable Failures of David Foster Wallace. She’s a scholar of American literature at University College Dublin who’s been called “a rock star in the world of Wallace Studies.” Hayes-Brady has a nuanced perspective on Wallace’s life and work. While acknowledging his misogyny, she also believes he’s the greatest writer of his generation. So instead of ignoring his work, she wants to engage with and interrogate it. In her view, that’s what critics do with writers who’ve entered the literary canon.
I talked with Hayes-Brady about Wallace’s troubled masculinity, the myth of the male genius, and why we shouldn’t only read virtuous writers.
You can listen to the interview with Hayes-Brady, part of an episode of To The Best of Our Knowledge dedicated to Wallace’s legacy, here.
STEVE PAULSON: David Foster Wallace is no longer simply called a literary genius. There’s now a lot of criticism, especially about his treatment of women. What has changed?
CLARE HAYES-BRADY: I think there are a couple of different things going on. He was really at the height of his powers when he died, so the initial phase after his death was celebratory and the criticism was almost hagiographic. So this is clearing the critical ground, I suppose, establishing Wallace Studies as a legitimate field.
So there is a whole body of critical study devoted to this one writer, David Foster Wallace?
Yeah, the community isn’t huge but the phrase “Wallace Studies” was first used, I think, by Greg Carlisle in 2009 at one of the early conferences devoted to Wallace. It was sort of aspirational then — the idea that Wallace is as important a writer as Woolf, as Joyce, as Eliot, as Austen — and we should have a field devoted to him.
How much of the recent criticism is a product of the #MeToo movement?
I think it’s a coincidence of timing because there was an inevitable critical backlash that was really necessary. Wallace was an enormously talented writer. Whether you are a fan or not, there is really no disputing that he was a very important writer for his generation. But you can’t simply spend a critical lifetime talking about how great someone is. Like any writer, there are flaws in his writing, both technical and also moral or ethical. So the backlash was really important and has led to a real vibrancy in Wallace Studies. We’ve established that this guy was important; now let’s talk about what isn’t so great. And a lot of it comes from an ethical perspective.
These ethical concerns seem to be more about his life than his writing.
Yes. And that’s coincided with the #MeToo movement. In Wallace’s case, the timing is interesting because the writer Mary Karr recently tweeted about Wallace’s treatment of her and their relationship.
Mary Karr, a very distinguished writer in her own right who was once romantically involved with Wallace, tweeted a few months ago, “The violence #DavidFosterWallace inflicted on me as a single mom was ignored by his biographer & @NewYorker as ‘alleged’ despite my having letters in his hand.” This was a reference to D. T. Max, who did mention that Wallace “threw a coffee table” and “tried to push her from a moving car.” Karr then tweeted again: “tried to buy a gun. kicked me. climbed up the side of my house at night. followed my son age 5 home from school. had to change my number twice, and he still got it. months and months it went on.” And apparently he even offered to buy a gun to kill her husband.
It’s a litany of seriously inappropriate and dangerous behavior. It’s really, really terrible. Now one thing that I would take issue with is Karr’s use of the term “ignored” because it is included in Max’s biography — not all of it, not in as much detail — but it is certainly included in the biography, including the idea of buying a gun to kill her husband. But what I think is interesting is that it was folded into this myth of genius — you know, the behavior of a troubled genius that became part of the story.
And maybe he was given a pass because this is what tormented geniuses supposedly do.
Exactly. This is the myth of the male genius. Yeah, that’s enormously troubling. Instead of brushing it under the carpet, culturally we tend to say, “Well, boys will be boys — or geniuses will be geniuses.” And I think Karr has been very brave to come out again and remind critics and readers that this happened and shouldn’t be forgotten.
Was David Foster Wallace a misogynist?
Yes, is the short answer. But I don’t know anyone who’s not a misogynist, and I’m including myself. We live in a culture that teaches us from birth to devalue the achievements and desires of women. I don’t think it’s possible to live in contemporary culture and not be, to some degree, misogynist, even in terms of the language we use.
But there are clearly much worse cases of misogyny.
There are. And different questions arise when we talk about the misogyny or racism of an artist. It’s an age-old question. Yes, Wallace was a misogynist and much of his work deals with misogyny. I think that’s one of the things that we notice in his writing — how self-aware and even self-deprecating he is.
It’s worth pointing out he wrote a book called Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Obviously, he recognized toxic masculinity — and undoubtedly in himself as well.
Absolutely. And he talked specifically about the misogyny in that book — about a fear-based misogyny that he was investigating. So he absolutely was aware of it. He talks about feminist theory in a lot of his early work. So there’s no denying that he was aware of gender politics and he was writing at a time when gender politics and feminism were in huge transition. You know, he was at Amherst in the ’80s. You’d have to be deaf and blind and living under a rock to not be aware of those debates.
Maybe this is part of the fascination with Wallace. He writes about angry, confused, lonely men. He understood them — and clearly was one of them. But it doesn’t excuse his behavior because he also did some terrible things.
Sure. But I don’t know that we need to excuse the behavior in order to read the work. I think that Wallace as an extremely talented writer and a very flawed human being can teach us a lot about the culture that he was writing about. He wrote about contemporary culture with a really unique voice and a unique acuity. And I think there’s an awful lot about the contemporary moment that would be extremely valuable to hear his take on.
Because he was very prescient about certain issues.
I was just talking about the teleputer in Infinite Jest, which more or less predicted Skype and even more than that, predicted things like Snapchat and Instagram and the kinds of filters that we use to present a face to society that resembles but isn’t quite the face that we live in. He really saw that coming in astonishing detail. There’s a certain corner of the internet that maintains that Wallace predicted Trump in Infinite Jest in the character of Johnny Gentle, for those of you who might be interested in chasing that one down for a little comic relief.
David Foster Wallace has been called the greatest writer of his generation, whose books defined an era. Do you think that’s true?
Yes, I do. For better or worse, I think Infinite Jest is one of those books that very much caught the zeitgeist. What makes it era-defining for me is actually the number of people who know about it but haven’t read it.
It’s really long and complicated. It’s kind of daunting.
[Laughs.] It’s huge. You can use it as a weapon. It’s like a doorstep. And it’s referenced very frequently in pop culture. It’s a real cultural touchstone and has its own signification without necessarily people having read it. For me, that is one of the things that makes Wallace era-defining. He is known beyond his readers. And there’s a kind of myth around his writing.
Gender politics also play into this debate. There’s another critique you often hear from women who are tired of having men — sometimes their boyfriends — push Wallace’s books on them. As New York magazine said, “Wallace […] has become lit-bro shorthand.” And Deirdre Coyle wrote in Electric Lit, “Wallace is on a list of books that literally all white men own.”
I would not dispute that. And embarrassing as it is to admit, I was introduced to Wallace by a guy in my college class who fulfills precisely those criteria. He is a writer who’s very attractive to a particular group of young, earnest, smart, white men. What I would say, though, is that the community of Wallace scholars, which has a big crossover with Wallace fans, is very aware of that reputation — that Wallace readership is seen as a boys club — and is working very hard against that. Actually, there are a large number of really brilliant female scholars working on Wallace and a number of very gifted scholars of color working on him from the perspective of gender and racial politics. So that reputation for being the lit-bro emblem has actually opened up the scholarship in some ways. I think that gender in particular is something that you can’t avoid now in Wallace scholarship. That’s beginning to happen also with race, which is another area in which he didn’t cover himself in glory.
But this is not just a literary matter. As Mary Karr has reminded us, he was abusive and physically violent.
Absolutely. Wallace isn’t the only writer we ask this of, but how do you justify reading a writer who you know to have behaved that way?
Should we stop reading these writers who’ve done horrible things?
It’s a valid question. I don’t think there is a straightforward answer, but I would draw a distinction between choosing as a reader and choosing as a critic. As a reader, choosing not to read a writer for any reason is absolutely valid. But I’ve noticed that some critics and scholars have said they’re not going to assign Wallace. Other writers, like Junot Díaz and Sherman Alexie, also come to mind. But the question goes way back. You have Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and Caravaggio for that matter. So this is something that arises again and again, but I’ve noticed this critical decision has been made publicly with Wallace in particular. An obvious example is Amy Hungerford, who’s talked about refusing to teach or assign Wallace anymore.
It doesn’t seem to me that this is a valid critical gesture because if you are lucky enough to be in a position to teach and design your own syllabus, no one’s going to notice if you leave a writer off. Inclusion can be radical, but to not include a writer — unless you are going to talk about the reason for not including them, in which case you might as well include them — is not a visible critical gesture. I think what happens when you do that as a critic — and as a teacher particularly — you polarize debate. I know young, early career female scholars of Wallace who have been strongly criticized by other feminist scholars for studying Wallace at all. So those gatekeeping rules seem to me to be very counterproductive, critically speaking.
I assume you teach David Foster Wallace in your classes.
Not as much as you would think. I do, but I don’t have courses that focus on him particularly. Rather than avoiding these writers, my approach is to read them in conjunction with writers who are less heard from. So I read Wallace with Porochista Khakpour, an Iranian-American author who has named Wallace as an influence — and to talk about how his work plays into hers and how hers emerges from his and challenges his. If we just shut down and say you can’t, as a feminist, read Wallace, we lose an enormous richness of dialogue because Wallace is a very talented writer and he is writing from and about a flawed position. Reading and interrogating him and genuinely challenging that work can teach us a lot about the culture that we live in and the culture that we're just emerging from 10 years on.
We as scholars of contemporary writing get to decide what we think is important despite and because of all its flaws. The world would be quite a boring place if we only read works of art by virtuous writers. And it’s not necessarily to go in and say all of this is terrible, but to see what there also is of value while accommodating the knowledge that Wallace was a violent partner and behaved in ways that are simply unacceptable and shouldn’t be forgiven and shouldn’t be overlooked. Culturally, we risk isolating and polarizing the debate further by simply flat-out refusing to engage with his work. Possibly that’s a cop-out because I like reading his writing. I don’t know.
Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally syndicated show To the Best of Our Knowledge. He’s the author of Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science.