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.