April 01, 2011


steve mitchelmore

You must end this "my failure, not his" modesty. Use Occam's razor and have faith in your judgments. I think there are very good reasons why you (and I) fail to appreciate Wallace. That said, it's difficult to express the reasons to people who apparently have no feeling for the novel as the possibility of form rather than clunky prose, encyclopedic content and *ideas*.


I never understood what was so great about DFW's writing. Just too much showboating, too much contrivance, to impress me. However, I'm very intrigued about The Pale King, because I think he may have found a subject (IRS drones in the Midwest) that would suit his talent.


If you want to work up some interest in trying DFW, I recommend Zadie Smith's essay on him.

It just happens to be available in audio form here.

P.T. Smith

Steve, are you saying that Wallace's work doesn't have form? Because that doesn't make a lick of sense.

(The Other) Niall

You must end this "my failure, not his" modesty

I completely agree, not least because The Cult of Wallace was creepy and distasteful even when he was alive. From the press he picked up in later years, one would have thought he was some sort of holy man, rather than a sadly obsessive fortysomething in a bandana.

I had a lot of time for some of his writing, and none at all for the majority. Perhaps his biggest achievement was to put his head above the parapet in the mid-90s and say, yes, I'm going to speak for my generation. It was a brave and sincere move in an age of studied slackdom, but it turned out to be exactly what a lot of people wanted to hear. From there, though, he was on the treadmill to secular sainthood.


Other Niall -

I can't recall any press about DFW that presented him as a "holy man". He was a hero to a certain kind of geeky writer/reader, but that's hardly sainthood. I think you're reaching on this point.

(The Other) Niall

Zadie Smith on DFW: "A visionary, a craftsman, a comedian and as serious as it is possible to be without accidentally writing a religious text." More than a whiff of secular sainthood about that, I'd say.

(The Other) Niall

His sometime editor Jay Jennings is even balder about it: "One of the things I admired most about him ... was his devotion to writing as a moral and even religious act apart from the trappings of the literary life." What are these 'trappings' of a literary life, I wonder? Is he talking about the bandanna?



For the Wyatt Mason essay on DFW you're looking for, you have to go back several years.



Having gotten only 50 pgs. into Infinite Jest twice, I was blown away by the title story and two others in Oblivion -- "The Soul Is Not A Smithy" and "Good Old Neon" -- as well as greatly enjoying most of his two non-fiction collections. This would put me at about the midpoint of the cult member --- bandana mocker spectrum (more toward the cult?). He was often hilarious, which I like.


OtherNiall -

As I said, you're reaching. Zadie Smith did have a quasi-theological understanding of DFW's preoccupations as a writer, but that no more means she thinks he's a holy person, no more than you or I would think Flannery O'Connor was a saint because she had God on the brain.


It does not seem surprising to me that people have tried to turn DFW into a kind of secular saint; all of that relentless self questioning, the morbidly hyper developed conscience, it has the air of old fashioned, High Protestant masochism. He was a special writer with enviable gifts, a brilliant ear, a powerful mind, but I, for one, am not quite ready to canonize him just yet. Nobody, not even his most stout defenders, will argue that his work was without flaws, and it doesn't seem to me that he was ever fully in control of his talent.

(The Other) Niall

As I said, you're reaching

Actually, I'm quoting, and you're being over-literal. Can we at least agree that many of Wallace's friends and colleagues speak of him or his writing in religious terms, and that this is worthy of some comment?

Can we also agree that this is a trend that grew? If you read Dave Eggers' review of Infinite Jest from 1996 and then his introduction for the tenth anniversary edition, you might as well be reading two different writers. Not only does the more recent one like Infinite Jest better, he is at pains to explain what kind of person "Dave Wallace" is in real life. Or rather what he's not: he's not an aesthete, he goes out in the world, he sweats like you and me. Why does Eggers think this matters - how does it matter to a reading of Infinite Jest? - except that Eggers wants to assert the man's normal physicality as a bulwark against the process of canonisation that his work was going through?

(The Other) Niall

To clarify, I'd be "reaching" if I started to bring up the habit among Wallace fans and friends to ask for and keep his bandanas, scrupulously unwashed and bearing actual sweat from the Great Man's brow - almost like they were relics. That would be reaching. But, hey, while we're on the subject, what's up with that?



That just means he was a rock star, not a holy man. Following your reasoning, Tom Jones would be the divinity of ladies underwear.

People do have a tendency to dress like people they admire. You might want to attend an Insane Clown Posse concert some time.



In re Zadie Smith: I think it's a virtue to be literal when interpreting what people actually said, as opposed to what you think they might have meant.

In re David Eggers: I really don't undertand how this is relevant at all to your point. Eggers 180 on DFW, after a decade of reflection on his work, just hows that Eggers was an honest critic, capable of reevalutating his first impressions. Perhaps Eggers is emphasizing DFW's everyday physicality precisely because he didn't view him through an exalted, religious lens? Just a thought.

(The Other) Niall

Perhaps Eggers is emphasizing DFW's everyday physicality precisely because he didn't view him through an exalted, religious lens?

Er, isn't this precisely what I was suggesting?

My secondary suggestion - in fact, it's not even a suggestion; I said it straight out - is that in doing so Eggers is protecting Wallace from those who would canonise him, and project an exalted otherness onto him. Which brings us back to Wallace as holy man, which is where I came in.

People do have a tendency to dress like people they admire

This is different. Zadie Smith pulls out her DFW bandana and studies it when she's blocked. Magical thinking, much?

I think it's a virtue to be literal when interpreting what people actually said

May I suggest you learn to read rather than project, then? It would make this process all the easier, for everyone.



My problem with your take on Eggers is that you assume, without any proof, that Eggers takes the stance he does to support your point. That's reaching in my book.

Zadie Smith's bandana fixation is exactly typical of people relate to inspiration, and those who inspire them. It's as common as daisies in springtime.

Ah, so now you're speaking for "everyone"?

(The Other) Niall

It's as common as daisies in springtime

This doesn't make it not magical thinking, and it doesn't invalidate my sense that people made more of Wallace than they did other writers, and not purely because of his books.

I assume nothing about anybody, incidentally. I am suggesting a reading of the latter part of Wallace's career: where his popular acclaim only increased as the books got knottier and more unfriendly; and where people began to speak of him and his work in religious terms. I've provided evidence for this reading, but you've decided you want 'proof'. Well, phew. What kind of religious significance are you giving my opinions?

Actually, what it boils down to is that I've made a suggestion you don't want to engage with. In which case you have my absolute permission to disengage. And when you've disengaged, keep going. You have nothing interesting to say on this subject.



People who idolize an artist by definition hold that artist in higher regard than they do artists they don't care for. But that's hardly evidence for apotheosis. That's just having a hero.

Your suggestion about how Eggars' view of DFW evolved to counteract his perceived idolization is, of course, interesting, but has no evidence to back it up. You would also have to tackle the interesting fact that at this same time Eggars view of DFW's writing underwent a radical turn towards the positive, from what had formerly been at best a tepid tolerance for DFW's excesses. This doesn't really seem like the progression one would see if Eggars simply wanted to cut the cult of DFW down to size. You normally don't do that by discovering how great the author in question is.

I think we actually agree about DFW's writing. As I've stated already separately, I'm not much of a fan of his. I just found your comment about being made a religious figure odd and, come to think of it, unnecessary for evaluating his work.

All the best.

(The Other) Niall

You would also have to tackle the interesting fact that at this same time Eggars view of DFW's writing underwent a radical turn towards the positive

Sorry. With some dismay, I realise that you've genuinely misunderstood me.

I'm not suggesting that Eggers was trying to cut Wallace down to size by making him out to be a normal guy; I'm suggesting that Eggers was protectively aware of Wallace's growing reputation as a kind of literary godhead. In asserting Wallace's human normality, Eggers was trying to guard Wallace's achievement against the deadening effects of early canonisation. I'm suggesting that Eggers was responding to - rather than enacting - the kind of creepy worshipfulness that Wallace was getting from other parts.

I just found your comment about being made a religious figure odd and, come to think of it, unnecessary for evaluating his work

Here, we agree. As I said, I found the growing Cult of Wallace creepy even when he was alive. It makes no difference to me whether Infinite Jest was inspired by real events; in fact, it seems beside the point to even wonder. The book is either good or it isn't.

I was responding initially to TEV's statement that he primarily blames himself for his failure to fully get Wallace. This sort of response strikes me as the worst thing about the Cult of Wallace: its univocal, undiscriminating persistence on the subject of the all-round excellence of DFW makes people who genuinely
don't get it feel likes it's their fault.

P.T. Smith

I'm glad everyone thinks his writing is relevant to the discussion.

Martha Southgate

Check out the John Jeremiah Sullivan piece in GQ this month about him (Garth is a big admirer). It's totally on the side of "DFW is a near-god" but beautifully written and persuasive.


GQ? Is that a new literary journal?

Cadan Henry

Christ I thought I was the only one. Good to hear there is life after Wallace.


(The Other) Niall

Lengthy (and touchy, and rivalrous, and kind of bad tempered) piece by Jonathan Franzen on Wallace in this week's New Yorker. Much ado about Wallace's saintliness and otherwise. Digital access is only open to subscribers, but fans of the New Yorker on Facebook can find the full article here for the next two weeks:



I'm sorry people but image is a part of a successful writer's public image. I realize the word "successful" can be parsed in many divergent directions, and in practice, it is.
As much as DFW wanted success, and had it in the literary world, he hated himself for wanting it, and for doing what it took to achieve it. In interviews, you hear a torn man, who almost too willingly tore himself apart. In one moment, he would say something "lucid," something profound and blind us with with the promethean fire he seemingly stole on demand; in the next moment, he would claim he is nothing more than a fraud. There is an element of the carnivalesque in the way DFW searched for, wrote about, and elucidated in interviews on "what it is to fucking be human." He continually subverted himself in his quest for truth seemingly only satisfied when he found himself shipwrecked upon an island inhospitable to human habitation. (metaphor clearly stolen from franzen's 20 ton NYer acticle)
In all sincerity, I believe DFW wanted to call our attention to these inhospitable islands and question us as to why living a normal life meant pushing these islands further out to sea, making them invisible to the naked eye and eventually impossible to visit again. His writing examines the mechanisms that makes this distance possible, e.g., seduction, impotence, loneliness, greed, power, boredom, etc.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."