you don’t like David Foster Wallace? holy shit, what a brave iconoclast

I’m not really a David Foster Wallace fan. I think Infinite Jest is a noble failure. I like some of his essays, but some others not so much. I never got more than a couple chapters deep into Pale King. I share the condition of not much caring for David Foster Wallace, it seems, with much of the literate world. Not liking David Foster Wallace is such a meme that I’m amazed people don’t get embarrassed to say it. Google around. Check out the book blogs. Check out Tumblr. You will find that I am in fine company. Still, somehow this seems to come as a surprise to the very people who say so.

Back in September, Yale professor Amy Hungerford became the latest to take this incredibly brave, incredibly popular stance. She did it, naturally, in a broader defense of not reading. Because that’s the problem with contemporary intellectual life: too many people are spending too much time getting informed! Telling people that, instead of soldiering through a long book, they should put on another episode of Cake Squad and tweet about their dinner? Man, that is edgy. Truly, a bold take, excusing people from having to do hard work. (Dirty secret about academia: most academics are deeply intellectually lazy and are secretly offended by the expectation that they should have to read. My presumption is that a majority of peer reviewers don’t read all the way through the articles they’re reviewing.)

Of course Hungerford’s piece appeared in the Chronicle, which alternates between excellent essays and wince-inducing repackages of the conventional wisdom of two years prior. There’s something about the academic mind that leaves most professors perpetually about 18 months behind what’s happening in the broader intellectual culture. I still feel embarrassed to think of all the academic essays about Second Life and MySpace that came out in, like, 2012.

Like “I’m not reading white men anymore,” “I don’t like David Foster Wallace” takes a personal consumption choice and ties it clumsily to some sort of convoluted expression of one’s superior virtue. It’s a statement that is designed to show the independence and contrariness of the person who expresses it, when in fact it shows their conventionality. It’s a cliche, a commonplace, a fake stab at being contrarian that comes with none of the risk of being actually contrarian. Hungerford calls her showy disdain for Foster Wallace “countercultural,” but in fact if you were going to choose a single author that’s safest to criticize, I’d probably choose him, rivaled only by Dave Eggers of Jonathan Franzen. It’s like Hungerford is completely unaware of the vast corpus of people expressing disdain for David Foster Wallace online. It’s a large genre, and it is for a simple reason: it fulfills an essential signaling function for the kind of people I was talking about in Jacobin the other day, those who want to appear smart more than they actually want to be smart. And it comes at zero risk. Woolf? Joyce? Arguments that they’re over-assigned are ubiquitous. If Hungerford really wanted to get provocative, she’d say Toni Morrison gets read too much, or she’d question the value of pop culture studies in academic research, or she’d argue that a lot of sci fi is trash. That stuff would be actually provocative. But then, when you’re actually provocative, you risk actually provoking people.

You’ll never go poor, as a writer, telling people what they want to hear. The genre of fake guilt – acting as though justifying commonplace “bad behavior” is dangerous rather than as safe as it gets – grows and grows. Things like PostSecret supposedly excavate guilt but nobody seems all that guilty, really. In fact I find that when people share “guilty secrets” online they tend to be stuffed with pride, eager and ready to tell everyone the things that, they insist, are dangerous or edgy about them. Meanwhile, reading remains what it has always been: a profoundly lonely activity, one undertaken by weirdos and outsiders, done quietly out of the view of others, sucking up long hours for little in the way of instant gratification. Yes, being “a reader” is popular. Reading is not. It never has been. Not even in the academy. Hungerford’s article was shared thousands of times.

Meanwhile, when it comes to David Foster Wallace… let it go. Enough dirt has been packed onto his grave. I assure you, he will stay dead. Find a new signal, guys. This one’s boring, it’s played out. And Dr. Hungerford: you can just not read him. That’s an option available to you. After all. You’ve got tenure.

22 Comments

  1. I honestly think that this is the core of the problem. Aesthetics. Your personal consumption choices be they literary, musical, political, or whatevs, is all some weird “I am cooler than you” competition that no mere mortal can ever win. It’s a plague of the left. I knew this girl at school through an Amnesty International event, not well but we always said hi to each other. One day we stopped to say hi to each other, and she had on this really cute hat. I said “Oh, I love your hat.” She gave me the blankest stare and said “It’s not a hat, it’s a TAM.” Turned and walked away and never spoke to me again. And the thing was, even though rationally I knew she was completely insane for saying that, I felt great shame over it. I felt that I was the one in the wrong because of my hopeless uncoolness, my very cheek for assuming I could be part of the club without a full working knowledge of headwear terminology and a 5000 dollar fashion budget. It didn’t matter that I cared more about the cause and worked harder at politics stuff and knew more history than she did, because I said hat instead of tam. She could show up and “win” because she dressed the part. Whereas I’d always have to fight for acceptance and approval because I looked like a normal person. It was daunting. I felt deeply that I needed to put more effort into the externals so I could take part in the internals, as if, if I didn’t look right, that I couldn’t be part of the left. And I couldn’t, because I was poor. So I gave up and quit attending events. It was so strange to feel alienated from a movement that is supposed to be about helping underprivileged people because you’re wearing jeans and a JcPenny sweater instead of a tam from the Gap.

    1. How bizarre. Isn’t hat just a more general term for something you put on your head (although granted I would probably not refer to a yarmulke as a “hat”). That seems a bit like shouting “I’m not a Christian, I’m CATHOLIC!” Which I have heard, believe it or not.

      Anyway I happen to like Infinite Jest. I thought it was about a third too long and even though I liked the footnote gimmick I think he overdid it. But you don’t experience a book as a whole, it’s a series of discrete scenes, pages, quotes. So the book overall I agree is a failure, but there were a lot of passages that spoke to me that I continue to return to.

      1. Yeah, I know that is one of those stories ya read on line and think “that can’t possibly be true” but yeah. It was just weirdly humiliating. It wasn’t just that one thing, though (sorry wrote that at work) I had had the vibe all along but it was just in that moment I was like oh, eff this. Like it crystallized the feeling that I had gotten from the very start that this was an exclusive club for certain people and others need not apply. Very disappointing as I had been dying to get to college and DO meaningful things with likeminded people.

        It was like a beanie or beret, but hand crocheted. Looked possibly Himalayan, which was a thing at the time.

  2. There’s an extraordinary moment when Hungerford expresses her delight with the idea that long books are inherently undemocratic. I can’t believe anyone lucky enough to earn their living in a job where they get to read books would say this. [“I use here the metaphor for public attention that the Mexican poet and critic Gabriel Zaid uses in his delightful little book, So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance (2003). Zaid argues that excessively long books are a form of undemocratic dominance that impoverishes the public discourse by reducing the airtime shared among others. The idea rings true when one reads D.T. Max’s account of Wallace’s resistance to his editor’s suggestion that he streamline Infinite Jest: Wallace defended its length and its obscurities by indicating that he expected people to read it twice. If this was not a form of arrogance, I’m not sure what would be.”]

    1. I missed that. The essay was so garbled I had to stop reading it. Big surprise that a culture of posturing above all else produces incoherent writing.

  3. Freddie, I’m digging your analysis of reverse snobbery memes here. I have a question about your literary opinions, though, if I can steer the subject that direction. You say that you think Infinite Jest is a noble failure. I don’t see it that way (I loved it and think it works just fine), but maybe that’s just because I haven’t taken the time to read much else in the category of Big Serious Post-Pynchon American Novel. Is there anything in that category you would call a noble success, or even just a regular success?

  4. the pop culture virtue signaling is instinctively offensive. you basically have the modernist bourgeois class appropriating popular culture to subvert “high culture” as a kind of ironic bashfulness masquerading as intellectual self-security and subversion. never mind how condescending this is, it’s so obviously self-serving and pretentious that everyone, from the earnest pop culture fan to the lit snob, finds it petty and embarrassing

    1. Yeah reverse snobbery has been a thing now and it’s really gotten out of hand.

      It’s gotten to the point where I sort of prefer my father’s lit snobbery, but that’s probably just because we share reading preferences. And it’s not a pose with him, he at least actually reads the stuff he’s a prick about.

      Semi-related, I am really sick of the category of “guilty pleasure.” I had a conversation about this with my sister. I don’t believe in them. I like what I like and I’m not going to feel “guilty” unless there’s a good reason too (like, I dunno, if I found Nazi propaganda films entertaining I’d probably feel guilty about that or something).

      You know what though? I watched a lot of reality television last year, and I still found time to read some thick Russian novels. I consume what I enjoy consuming, don’t push your identity crisis or “guilt” onto me. I don’t buy into how you view media consumption.

      1. “Guilty pleasure” stuff is a good example. By calling stuff that, the anti-snob gets to profess that while they’re (obviously) too good and smart for this media, they’re edgily subverting their role as a Smart Person by enjoying it. Ugh. It’s possible to simuntaneously enjoy complex AND accessible media without using the loaded term “guilty pleasure” – i think that’s what most people do anyway

      2. Funny, I too have become more sympathetic to my parents’ cultural snobbery (which skews toward conventional old white people middlebrow stuff–they love long books!) recently, partly because I’m so fed up with the kind of thing Freddie talks about here. I actually share very little with my parents in the way of lit/music/film tastes, but over the years I have come to appreciate their opinions more because they are at least genuine. With most cultural critics nowadays I feel like everything is for show, a stance calculated to get cool points and clicks.

        Did all the critics *really* love Beyonce’s latest album as much as they all said they did? There’s no way to tell, really, in a world where praising or denigrating the “right” things effusively is the minimum price required for continued relevance.

  5. I’m so old. “If Hungerford really wanted to get provocative, … she’d argue that a lot of sci fi is trash.” Does no one remember Sturgeon’s Law anymore?

  6. I guess I find the Chronicle article a little less annoying because she does say that her countercultural non-reading of Wallace is counter the culture she works in- EngLitLand- and having spent a decade in that culture I think I can sympathize.

    On the other hand, whereas I loved Infinite Jest and started a 2nd reading the minute I finished the 1st, I thought Underworld was more in the noble failure category so it’s hard to say who’s cooler here.

    Dave Eggers (I think) had a great essay on the competition to not like stuff in order to be cool that I remember as both spot-on and overdrawn.

    I’ve never read Toni Morrison so I am way countercultural. I refuse to let politics or morality/virtue have any influence over my aesthetics.

  7. Overall this is dead on. If I may quibble with one tiny statement — I agree with the person two comments up: I think everyone has always known that 90% of sci-fi is trash. Heck, I knew that as a loser in high school. I think I started pretty much every sci-fi novel in my little branch library in Oklahoma, but didn’t finish about 2/3 of them, or even get past the first chapter. Of course I’m a girl, so some of that was horrible, horrible writing when it came to female characters (I think it was worse when the theme was “women are there to look pretty, make dumb mistakes, and be a prize to the hero” than when they simply weren’t there at all).

    As to the intellectual laziness, this rot goes through all of academia, not just the humanities/social sciences. I’m in physics, and most of my colleagues are just appallingly uneducated in anything outside their niche field. My partner (also physicist) remembers his professors in Europe when he was in school many decades ago, and that they were some of the most well-read people he knew, able to converse knowledgeably on many topics. For various reasons, this is not the case today. Part of it is the ever-increasing standards for publishing, which demand a mode of “total work” in your niche field at least up to tenure, part of it is the simple expansion of the field by about a factor of 10 which to some degree dilutes the number of intellectually curious minds in favor of mere able technicians (and increasingly, relentless self-promoters), and part is probably just overall cultural dynamics in America which says reading is for lonely losers. 99% of the geeks in school always wanted to be cool, after all.

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