On Outgrowing David Foster Wallace




IT IS NOT the fashion in literary assessment to admit that we might have thought differently about a book if we’d read it at another time — older or younger, maybe next week instead of last week. Even without buying any fallacy about the objectivity of taste, it is hard to shake the deep intuition that at least our own, personal tastes, like our personalities, are fixed or have more than nominal continuity. To love Mrs. Dalloway is to always love Mrs. Dalloway, et cetera. Everyone knows this postulate is false, of course. But as far as I know, James Wood has never done a drive-by on some new novel while offering the caveat that he was fighting with his spouse the week he read it, so maybe he’ll circle back in a few years and a more charitable mood.

Anyway, David Foster Wallace died about 10 years ago, and — has anyone else had this experience? — his work reads differently to me now than it did then. I’m a little ashamed of how much I once loved it. It is still funny, still terrifyingly smart, precise, moving, still has astonishing range, but it also seems sort of juvenile and aggressive in a way I didn’t sense before. It feels infected by postmortem evidence of his real-life moral failings, including his pretty shameful treatment of women. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve changed, and my tastes have too. I would not have forecast any of that back in 2008. But I suppose no one who’s in love expects to fall out of it, at least not at age 19.

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Yes, I was one of those DFW guys, but please keep reading. I discovered Wallace at 17, sitting in the over-cooled lobby of a test prep company where, shortly, my parents would pay a 24-year-old over $100/hour to remind me how to do trigonometry. The essay was “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in The New York Times Magazine, but the religious experience for me was Wallace. It was a rush, a revelation. This sort of come-to-Wallace moment has been described too often, but I still remember mine vividly, while once again having no clue about trigonometry. I began reading Consider the Lobster with Talmudic seriousness. I had not known that writing could be so conversational and funny and yet so scholarly, that it could communicate so richly or in so many registers. Suddenly I felt alive to the possibilities of prose and consciousness. Wallace didn’t write with the voice inside my head; he wrote with the voice I wanted inside my head. I decided I also wanted to write and that my mind and morals would form to his mold.

So picture a 17-year-old kid at one of the fanciest high schools in the United States confidently perfecting an essay on (I think) The Second Sex in the style of David Foster Wallace. Now picture him getting the paper back and telling his history teacher, who has a PhD, that she just did not get what he was going for. Through self-consciousness and brazen overuse of footnotes, and by using “So” to start a paragraph, he has become brilliant, he thinks. Something deeper has happened too: now he has point of view. He feels morally aware, tuned in to a generous and empathetic ethos that has somehow managed to overpower his smug contrarianism. Reading Wallace has woken him like reading Karl Marx or Ayn Rand wakes some people. Self-awareness and -deprecation, emotional candor, unashamed discursiveness, hyper-focus on detail, resistance of stylistic convention, approachability, absurdism — these are not just literary tics; they are human virtues. He will strive for them on and off the page. He has a sense, finally, of how he wants to be.

I was also, in this period, applying to college. Pomona College was already on my list, but when I decided to go there it was in large part because Wallace taught in its English Department. There was no rush, however. I had a chance to spend a year in China before Pomona, and Wallace had tenure; he would be there. I deferred and went to Beijing, my bags essentially immovable because I had packed Wallace’s entire catalog and, for some reason, a subwoofer. In my apartment at Beijing Normal University, I finished reading everything he’d ever published. I worked on my own writing. I did not meaningfully improve my Mandarin. Then I showed up at Pomona, prepared as anyone could be to become David Foster Wallace’s protégé.

He killed himself two weeks later, and I never met him. This was, to me, about as serious an abandonment as the loss of parent. I reread his work compulsively, looking for a more-than-chemical explanation. I filled out transfer applications. I regret that I wore a bandanna around campus for a while. But you’ll understand that I was in a strange spot, mourning-wise. The vast majority of my bubbly freshman peers seemed not to know who Wallace was, and they were not terribly distracted from their first weeks of college by the fact that the greatest writer on the planet had just hanged himself on the patio of his house. Everyone else I met who was truly grieving had known Wallace personally, and I felt absurd trying to commiserate with people who no doubt loved the work like I did but who had also lost the live, human Dave. As luck would have it, I was also going through a fairly brutal instance of romantic heartbreak at the same time. It was an extremely alienating and lonely time.

For the next few years, I continued to give Wallace the devotion of a widow who still sets the table for two. In retrospect, I really made a religion out of it. In my fiction, the guiding principle was What Would Wallace Write. I hoovered up the commentary from his long national inquest, extremely envious of apostles who got to write an “I knew Dave” piece, and extremely pissed at Jonathan Franzen after he wrote his. I took a course on Wallace’s work, mostly in an effort to find some kind of community of worship, but ended up feeling that no one there got him like I did. At her gallery in Claremont, Wallace’s wife, Karen Green, was selling a painting of a cockatiel they used to own — à la The Broom of the System’s Vlad the Impaler. I hung it on my dorm room wall like a relic; Wallace’s college symbol would be mine too. For a while, I evangelized to anyone who came close to asking. But soon I stopped recommending Wallace and ceased talking about him at any length. Our connection was sacred, I thought; I would only corrupt it by performing it publicly. And I loathed the smirk some skeptics gave when, by saying I liked Wallace (while being white and male), I turned from a person into a type. Wallace had told us, in the sermon-like Kenyon graduation speech that became This Is Water, that we had to decide what to worship. I decided to keep worshipping Wallace.

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But I’ve lapsed, actually. I have spent the last few years affirmatively avoiding his shelf in my living room. When I do crack one of his books, some so used that their covers are duct taped on, I have to re-sheath it quickly. I am embarrassed by my earlier fervor. My official position is that one should never be embarrassed by an earnest, considered love of any literary artifact, so I am not sure why I would now feel this way about Wallace. But I have a few ideas.

One option — time has passed. I may have been, at 18ish, pretty much Wallace’s ideal reader, and perhaps I’m not anymore. Recall that unacknowledged but obvious truth of the critic: that perception, judgment, and reaction are contingent. The only irrefutable difference between me then and now is that I am a decade older, and let’s assume for the sake of argument that I am also, qualitatively, a bit less juvenile. I can see why that might make Wallace’s work less powerful.

It’s worth noting that most of Wallace’s work is highly accessible to young people, and not just in its linguistic colloquialism. It centers on themes and experiences that one can connect to without a lot of years under one’s belt — entertainment, addiction, ambition, sexual fixation, depression, loneliness. And it never focused much on the quieter themes that purportedly occupy adult minds — love, children, marriage, class, friendship, work, race, faith, death — and that are not as directly emotionally accessible to your average white male upper-class 20-year-old. Even in Oblivion, where the content is more mature, the characters and voices retain a kind of pubertal intensity. All of this stands in contrast to a lot of other “serious” fiction. Wallace has almost none of the assured solemnity of, say, Marilynne Robinson or Julian Barnes. The Pale King seems to have been an attempt to get on a grown-up plateau — to find deep meaning in white-collar work, the dominant daily feature of American adult life besides entertainment — but except for a few extraordinary sections I think that book (if it’s really a book, properly speaking) was a failure.

Wallace, I submit, is distinctively appealing to a certain kind of young or young-minded person. Statistically, this person is also likely to be male and well off, but more essentially this person wants to be educated, to be obsessed, wants more than just a good yarn. Despite Wallace’s best efforts, he remained eager-to-impress in a way many people, even writers, seem to lose with age. And his best readers are eager to be impressed, which I assert also has an adolescent quality. Think: Teenage boys huddled reverently around a YouTube clip of a guitarist whose gift is to play very, very fast; mom looks, shrugs, unenthused.

Take, for instance, one of the deepest attractions of Wallace’s writing: it was always obviously, ridiculously smart. But his smartness was so obvious because his voice was cunningly aggressive. He wanted us to see his intellectual and linguistic dexterity — and with skill like that, who wouldn’t flex it? — but his real gift was to do it without putting everyone off. Thus “cunning.” With all of his aw-shucks Midwestern conversational charm, in substance he could be as didactic and dominating as a graduate student.

What I’m talking about is plainest in the essays, where he’s playing a version of himself. In “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” his 9/11-in-Bloomington essay, Wallace describes talking with his neighbor, who has an enormous flag and flagpole: “He [the neighbor] says there’s a very particular etiquette to having your flag at half-mast: you’re supposed to first run it all the way up to the finial at the top and then bring it halfway down.” First, you’ll note Wallace playing dumb about flagpole etiquette. Whether this is genuine or not doesn’t really matter; he’s making a show of being edified. Then Wallace summarizes that the flag has to go “all the way up to the finial at the top.” Let’s assume Wallace’s neighbor did not in fact say “finial.” So why did Wallace? He clearly knew that “finial” — which means an ornament at the top, end, or corner of an object — was not in common circulation, otherwise he wouldn’t have also needed to say “at the top.” The extra prepositional phrase helps readers suss out what “finial” means, and there’s something generous about teaching readers a new or forgotten word, but look who’s doing the educating now? In the same sentence, Wallace convinces us that he is both a relatable neophyte and totally in charge, intellectually speaking.

He pulls the same trick in the first line of his review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage: “Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskian scale?” Framed in the language of gossip and trivia — that breathless “Did you know,” as if he just learned and must tell — Wallace unloads a wallop of high-rent descriptors that leave no doubt who will sort the whole mess out.

In fiction, Wallace’s wily mode of asserting superiority manifests most obviously in his insistent use of hyper-specialized vocabulary and maximalist levels of detail. Readers of Infinite Jest hardly need a reminder of all the technical footnotes; “Mister Squishy,” in Oblivion, is a crash course in marketing jargon; and The Pale King, by its own metafictional self-description, is thick with “elements of reconstructive journalism, organizational psychology, elementary civics and tax theory, & c.” Whatever the literary virtues of drawing a reader so deep into the weeds (and I do think there are many), this is also a power play. Wallace’s mastery of esoteric details and vocabulary produces a sense of exactly that: mastery.

There’s a similar effect created by the unorthodox, sometimes puzzle-like narrative structures he seemed to find irresistible. Again, I think these formal experiments, these challenges of usual modes of reading, often pay off handsomely in the sense that they result in fun and especially satisfying experiences for committed readers. But these devices also (quite deliberately, I would suggest) leave no room whatsoever for a misapprehension that the author is anything but extremely sophisticated. They announce that Wallace is playing at a high level, that he has thought of everything, and that we’ll be playing catch-up.

I think most Wallace readers will agree that this feeling of being both just like him and in awe of him is more or less constant in his writing. It is an amazing rhetorical feat, with a lot of appeal irrespective of a reader’s age. But is it possible, too, that the desire this effect fulfills — to be moved and entertained but also to be taught by writing and to admire its writer — systematically lives a bit louder in younger people? Think again of those teens and the speedy guitarist. Think of the phenomenon of teen idols and compare to the less common occurrence of the middle-aged or elderly idol. Young people especially want someone to adulate.

And to a certain kind of juvenile you could not ask for more than Wallace offered. Suppose you’re a young guy who fancies himself precocious but wants to be smarter than he is, someone desperate, without knowing it, for comprehensive explanations of a baffling world in language more exciting than television. Then comes Wallace, who is just like you in every key particular except brighter, funnier, kinder, wiser. Even better, he writes with merciless clarity, a minimum of obfuscating abstraction or symbolism. Like a mathematician. He shows his work, and you can follow it, so long as you have a dictionary handy. It feels sufficiently sui generis to get that certain kind of young person really excited; who else writes like that in fiction?

But older people may have less of a need for it. In general, they are less enthusiastic about everything. They have learned to kill their idols. Plus maybe older people are better situated — or at least I’ve become slightly better situated — to sense that the overwhelming intelligence of his writing is actually a failure on his part. I suspect he would agree. He made no secret of the fact that the great project of his artistic life was to be less show-offy, to direct his readers’ attentions outward, to mitigate loneliness, to generate empathy. He accomplished a lot of that, but he did not stop showing off. His writing wants to be impressive; it directs one’s attention, implicitly but constantly, back to the (genuinely) remarkable qualities of its author. Of course he would have been attuned to that. He just could not help himself, apparently, in wanting to be seen as smart. (Why else, really, would he have signed up to write that book about the history of infinity, especially when, according to those who might actually know, it turned out to have been above his pay-grade, math-wise?) There was no helping how smart he actually was, but he might have avoided making such a spectacle of it. No way I could see any of that when I started reading him.

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Here’s another quality of his writing that I see now but didn’t then: his writing makes a show of being good — that is, showing the author to be a deliberately moral and soft-hearted guy. This sense of Wallace as a good person permeates his work, and I suspect again that this effect is more powerful and more persuasive to younger people than to older people. Young people are probably hungrier for or at least more receptive to the moral inquiries he embarks on. Older people are more likely to be disinterested in or jaded about that aspect of his writing, perhaps (one hopes) because they actually do not need moral instruction, or maybe they’re just wiser to the affectation behind it.

Some clear examples come from the essays — consider “Consider the Lobster,” most obviously, which recenters the tourist experience of the Maine Lobster Festival on the ethical implications of cooking animals alive, or the only-half-comic disdain of the entire cast of “Big Red Son” (which is about a porn convention), or his existential bewilderment on the cruise ship. Here’s Wallace writing about Dostoyevsky: “His concern was always what it is to be a human being — that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal.” Regardless of whether you believe it about Dostoyevsky, you’re likely after reading that to believe it about Wallace, and there’s no way he didn’t know that. It’s pervasive in his fiction too: the hideousness of the men in his Brief Interviews is not physical; the dignity of Don Gately — and his heroic resistance of medically necessary Demerol at the end of Infinite Jest — puts the self-centered neuroses of almost the entire Enfield Tennis Academy to shame; The Pale King’s core search is for virtue.

I am not saying that his moral explorations are any sort of fault on their own merits. To write with a conscience and to search for virtue is surely among the nobler purposes of literature. Adults might behave better if they kept themselves as ethically attentive as he did. And he always had a soft touch — it was often a vulnerable exercise, the opposite of the aggression with which his intelligence displayed itself. I think his moral core is what people connect with so deeply, hence the feeling among readers like me that he is some kind of guide. But that brings us to another possible reason for my lapse from the church of Wallace.

It seems, from what we now know of the live, human Dave, that at least one axis of his moral self-presentation — his extravagant performance of feminism on the page, see the Brief Interviews in Brief Interviews or his blistering critique of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time — seems to have been more performance than practice. As detailed in D. T. Max’s Wallace biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: Wallace stalked and tormented and abused Mary Karr, including once shoving her from a moving car. By his own account, he committed statutory rape on a book tour. He could in private writing and actual behavior be exactly as dismissive of women as John Updike. I didn’t internalize all of that until well after I knew it, but now — especially now — it tinges how I read him. Needless to say, it can be hard to swallow the moral tenets and explorations of someone whose real-life conduct veered into the self-evidently appalling and, at times, literally criminal.

In The Atlantic and The Outline, Megan Garber and Daniel Kolitz, respectively, have excellent recent diagnoses of how Wallace fans try to accommodate these sorts of ugly facts alongside enthusiasm for his literary accomplishments. You should read their essays, which add real value to the ancient and increasingly urgent debate over the proper relationship between an artist’s acts and works. Better yet, read Mary Karr. My only point here, re: Wallace specifically, is that his behavior is heartbreaking and could (perhaps should) be enough to entirely break one’s faith in the honest and moral core of his work, and maybe it’s broken mine.

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It’s a lot to suppose, I know, but suppose I’m right that Wallace is actually a kind of very sophisticated young adult writer and that even acolytes like me will systematically grow out of it. I do not think this makes him marginal or bodes poorly for his legacy — far from it. As any marketer can tell you, juvenilia will always have art’s most energetic and receptive audience. It should be any writer’s dream to have readers who are obsessive and enthusiastic and impressionable and unjaded, to have your work be sort of predatory in this way, for it to keep getting older while its readers stay the same age. In the other direction lies obsolescence. And to the extent Wallace’s writing does what it sets out to do — generates empathy, mitigates loneliness, makes his readers into better people — what better purpose than to thusly shape each new generation?

How, you wonder, will the next generation hear about Wallace if all of his older fans lose their fervor? Well, not all of them will lose their fervor, and many of the ones who keep it will be professors. Literature professors and graduate students, even more than your typical adult reader, like and are interested in Wallace. More I think than any other writer of his vintage, he has spawned a little scholarly industry. Even as he has fallen in and out of vogue with the New York literary set, the professors have played a longer game. Onward go the conventions, papers, and seminars; a new reading of his work might help get you tenure.

James Joyce famously claimed to have filled Ulysses with “so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries.” He knew that was “the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” Wallace surely had the same savvy. He would have known the professors could be a true and enduring audience. But what Joyce skipped in his quip about the professors — and here is the real brilliance of writing for them — is that professors have students, and students have peers. To be taught surely increases a writer’s chances of being taught again, a scholarly generation hence. And to be taught increases the likelihood that someone outside the classroom will decide to spend their valuable book dollars and time reading you, instead of reading someone whose work has not been validated by the academy. We end up at least wanting to read The Catcher in the Rye or Ulysses, even if no teacher ever assigned it to us.

Another reason to be bullish on Wallace’s legacy, even if he’s a problematic writer whose fans are disproportionately problematic young men, and even if the hip lit crowd never comes back around, is that his style is insanely contagious. This effect has been widely observed. An astonishing number of writers tip their hats to him and flirt with downright mimicry: Dave Eggers, Jeffrey Eugenides, Zadie Smith, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Joshua Cohen, Ben Lerner, Nathan Hill. (Yes, I see the imbalance in that list but it’s really just the most obvious and prominent sliver I could think of, which of course validates Wallace’s disproportionate effect on young white men.) Because a lot of these writers acknowledge Wallace’s influence, much contemporary fiction will keep pointing new readers back in his direction. Plus, as I am also not the first to point out, the Wallace virus has been a pandemic among the group of writers who defined the style of most of what we read — the internet. Irreverent, self-referential, both slangy and egg-heady. DFW, meet the early blogosphere and its progeny, Deadspin, Jezebel, The A.V. Club, Gizmodo. A lot of people now will pick up Wallace for the first time and feel right at home, like they’ve been reading him for years.

Wallace’s public significance has had some pretty fierce fluctuations over the last 10 years, and as far as I can tell essentially none of those fluctuations have resulted from any qualities of the work itself. A lot of it has been “cultural” commentary dressed up as literary commentary. Set aside the very recent #MeToo discussion, which as noted supra is deserved and should actually influence how we read his work. The rest of it, though, has been kind of silly, hasn’t it? First came a precipitous posthumous increase in his literary stature and sagacity, based largely on the timing and manner of his death. Then a bunch of commercially cynical books — the Kenyon-speech-turned-book, the David-Lipsky-interview-turned-book, his college-philosophy-thesis-turned-book, a handful-of-tennis-essays-turned-book — designed to capitalize on the wise-man status that his death conferred and (in my case successfully) to separate Wallace completists from their money. At the same time, there’s been backlash, including some irrelevant personal digs from people like Franzen and Bret Easton Ellis and a strain of criticism based on his straight-white-male-ness and the straight-white-male-ness of a lot of his most ardent fans.

I’ll confess that the last form of criticism really gets to me. I mentioned earlier how much I loathed the smirk I sometimes got at being a wealthy straight white guy who liked DFW, of being thought a type. Here’s one representative example, from the New Republic: “Wallace is the lingua franca of a certain subset of overeducated, usually wealthy, extremely self-serious (mostly) men.” But the smirk’s apotheosis, and its most thoughtful expression, was a popular Electric Literature piece called “Men Recommend David Foster Wallace To Me,” in which Deirdre Coyle — humorously and honestly I think — wrote of her frustration with some male Wallace fans’ insistence that she read him. She is very upfront about the fact that her criticism has nearly nothing to do with the work itself and everything to do with (1) Wallace being straight and male while writing about topics like misogyny and (2) the tendency of apparently a lot of guys she knows to impose him on her while also being jerks.

Point taken. Of course, I loathe the smirk because I am that type. And Wallace’s work undoubtedly deserves a serious feminist critique. But “Men Recommend” is not trying to critique the work, and what is missing from its picture of Wallace fans is that, to a lot of people, recommending Wallace is not like recommending some other writer. Instead of saying merely that you might like this, someone recommending Wallace is often trying to save you or enlighten you. He is trying to pass along what was, to him, an extraordinarily meaningful gift. Or, if you know this person, he is trying to tell you something deep about himself. It is often more plea than recommendation. He is saying this book expresses me; please connect; please meet me where I am. For a lot of people, or at least for me — because I know it makes me a type — to invite someone to read Wallace is like confessing trauma or adherence to weird, niche dogma. It risks alienation. And to have the invitation rejected is to feel more alone in the world. Perhaps that’s the real reason I rarely recommend him anymore.

I am therefore extremely against the smirk. In part because it’s a little like smirking at someone’s religion or traditional ethnic garb. Also in part because — this possibility really haunts me — what if my diminished enthusiasm for Wallace has less to do with reading the work differently and more to do with wanting to avoid being the butt of a glib literati in-joke? Could it be that I’ve distanced myself from my deepest artistic connection just to be a bit cooler and more acceptable, in the abstract, to people I don’t know and whose opinions I have no reason to care about? Am I really so hungry for approval? Would I betray myself that badly?

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I’ve so far tried to pin my Wallace lapse on Wallace, on the work, on the literati, and on the abstract concept of aging. But that’s not the whole deal. From the time I decided to go to Pomona, Wallace was more than the work to me. Like all his readers, I felt I knew him, except I also spent 18 formative months with a reasonable expectation of actually knowing him. In my head he was already my mentor, my friend; we were communing over language and literature; there were gags only the two of us got. He was going to put me on a path in which I learned to write books as well as he did. And when he died I didn’t lose only the writing he’d never publish.

For the first six or seven posthumous months, I worked extremely hard while simultaneously trying to make clear to my professors that I did not care what they thought, since they were not him, and since I was still planning to transfer. This was especially so in my first writing workshop, in which my first story was an extraordinarily aggressive, show-offy, metafictional, footnoted piece about a genius writer who has — Salinger-esque, not Wallace-esque, since this was obviously fiction — deserted the audience that longs for him. Despite my professor’s efforts at mitigation, I got savaged. Naturally I went to her office hours to explain that she, and everyone else in the class, just hadn’t gotten it. But she figured out what was going on with me re: Wallace. I can’t remember if I actually cried or only came visibly near to it. Walking out of that meeting, I remember the feeling — despite the atrocious story I’d forced on everyone — that she was taking me seriously as a writer, maybe even as seriously as Wallace’s professors treated the collegiate Wallace. Actually, a lot of my professors were taking me seriously. It was almost like they took students seriously for a living. Then I thought maybe I should take them seriously. I never submitted my transfer applications.

No question, I got lucky. The professors who started looking after me took my torch for Wallace and cultivated it into a more durable and broader love of literature. They taught me the brilliance and virtues of other writers, and they planted seeds so I might learn to see some of the limitations of Wallace’s work that I’ve described above. Not to kill my inspiration, just to dilute it to a healthy dose. This was a delicate exercise. Probably it was the most delicate for the novelist who took over Wallace’s position at Pomona. Teaching me cannot have been that pleasant for him — an unmistakably extraordinary writer, whose books I had also loved since I was a teenager, but one whose style (unlike Wallace’s) I had no clue how to imitate — sitting as he was in his deceased peer’s Chair while I insisted on writing exactly like deceased peer. Sometimes, in conversation, I would go off on some Wallace soliloquy and could see him bite his tongue, acting reserved even though he is not reserved, generally. He knew he had to be subtle in criticizing Wallace or my work’s most Wallace-ish features, but sometimes he had to, you see. Writing like Wallace was keeping my work limited in some of the same ways Wallace’s work was limited, plus I was making myself derivative — I was not finding my voice; I was still trying to find Wallace’s.

Anyway, I owe a lot to these two writers and to some other professors. It took years for me to realize this, but they were all far better mentors than Wallace would have been. Which is not pure speculation, by the way. According to both gossip and some published remembrances by Wallace’s former students, his pedagogical style was pretty pitiless. For instance, one Pomona student I overlapped with, who became a professional writer, published this description of his first Wallace workshop:

“Turgid,” he wrote to me about the first essay I wrote for him. I hadn’t known the word; it sounded like “rigid” and “turd.” Prolix, he elaborated — abstract, clunky, unclear, obfuscatory, “evincing all the worst qualities of academic writing.” […] Unless I were to change my writing drastically, I’d “spend the rest of my life producing only academic essays,” he wrote, before in green pen he changed “essays” to “prose” and added “middling” before “academic,” to be perfectly clear.

My workshop that evening was as brutal as his comments, which he passed to me at the end. He guided the discussion toward the range of problems in my essay, qualified students’ occasional praise, reiterated criticisms, and pointed to a parody he’d written of one of my byzantine sentences. He did say a nice thing or two, but the felt effect of the class was still a fusillade of criticisms I couldn’t respond to, personal criticisms, since I’d written a personal essay. 

Holy shit, right? Wallace parodied a student’s writing for the whole class? He qualified others’ praise? Can you imagine if he had done that to me? I would have walked away determined never to write again, except perhaps a suicide note.

All of this makes me glad, I think, that I never met him. Chances are he would have disappointed me, the same way one’s heroes typically disappoint in person, or he would have swatted me like a dangling modifier. I doubt Wallace as a teacher could have nurtured the inspiration that he gave me as writer. But I lucked out, and the teachers I ended up with did exactly that. I don’t mean to brag, but in the last 10 years I’ve written two unpublished novels. There’s no question that my persistence at the kind of hysterically thankless endeavor of writing owes much less to Wallace than to the people who replaced him.

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Back to our central questions: Why does Wallace read differently to me now? Why am I ashamed of him? Maybe his work is limited in ways I didn’t see before, and it is not for me the be- and end-all of contemporary literary fiction. Maybe it is, in fact, pitched to younger people and I am aging out. Maybe I no longer trust the work’s generous moral center in light of Wallace’s behavior re: women and students. Maybe I am weak and the smirkers have gotten to me. Maybe my good fortune in other mentors means I no longer need his work so intensely. Maybe all of the above.

Or maybe none of it. Maybe his loss is still massive to me, and I’ve gone out of my way here to publish some moderately critical thoughts about Wallace in order to keep not-confronting it. Maybe I’ve been avoiding his books because I know what all addicts know: I can’t have just a little. But a funny thing happens when you start working on an essay about a writer you’ve been avoiding. His books come down and colonize your coffee table and nightstand and kitchen counter. You have to really look at them again, at first for essay material but then you are just reading, curled up for hours in dereliction of friends and girlfriend and the television you usually keep up with. Pieces fall into place that you didn’t know were missing; you hear new notes, get new jokes. A decade hence, you’ve now had more experience with the unremitting demands of increasingly local concerns — your occupation, your hobbies, your family and friends — and with the inertia of indifference to all else, and you are struck with new awe at this writer’s titanic effort to enter and lovingly express so many troubled and pained minds, and yep there it is — that old feeling that someone out there seems to have understood even the smallest minutiae of your experience of being alive while simultaneously giving you the best window you’ve had yet into what it might be like for other people to be alive — and you think you may still be as helpless against it as Don Gately fears he is against Demerol. There’s that pull. Here we go.

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Julius Taranto’s writing has appeared in Phoebe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Foreign Affairs, and Lawfare. He is a graduate of Pomona College and Yale Law School.


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