The online world is weird, but few things have left me shaking my head in confusion for as long as the performative hatred of David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest.
As this tweet suggests, hating David Foster Wallace - or, more accurately, hating your conception of what his fans are like - is a thing. I don’t get it; ultimately he’s a minor novelist who wrote an ambitious but limited book and killed himself at an early age. But the hate for him and what he stands for makes him into something more.
Infinite Jest is… fine, I guess. A failure, I think, though a noble one, and from what I’ve gathered from Wallace’s public statements about it he harbored a lot of reservations himself. The task he set for himself was almost impossible to pull off, and predictably, he did not. The book has a reputation for postmodern trickery that is somewhat deserved and for reading difficulty that is not. The sheer heft of it, and some stylistic tics like the infamous footnotes, obscure the fact that the narrative plays out in fairly conventional ways. The story doesn’t really conclude, just stop, which is fine; that’s been going on in fiction for a long time. The book’s reputation for difficulty is mostly a function of its length and the challenge of keeping the characters and narrative threads straight in your head. But Wallace is not William Gaddis, and Infinite Jest is not a text where you must pick through sentences over and over again to glean their meaning and the reason they are being expressed so unusually. It’s an OK, long-ass book that ends disappointingly and has somehow taken on a talismanic quality by fans and detractors alike. I’m glad it was written, I’m glad I read it, I’ll never read it again, I’ve never recommended it to anyone and I probably never will.
Are there superfans that overrate it? Sure. That’s true of any book. And there are also many people who hate it at a completely disproportionate level - because it has become a signifier, a cultural object, a touchstone for an influential class.
I have for many years been writing about the curious way in which the cultural associations of things come to overwhelm the things themselves. I’m not talking about, say, a keffiyeh or pink pussy hat, objects intentionally imprinted with identification with a specific culture. I’m talking about, for example, a Tesla. Teslas are such ideologically-loaded things. You’ve got their identification with environmental responsibility in a world wracked by global warning, similar to the ongoing public perception of the Prius. Then you’ve got the fact that they’re expensive, techy, and California-coded, and so associated with a certain class of bourgie coastal liberal. And now lately they’ve also taken on new negative tones, in certain circles, because of their association with Elon Musk, who is indeed an evil billionaire but not, perhaps, literally the biggest villain on the planet. The point is that a Tesla has become such a culturally-loaded object that (for those who are hip to the cultural conversation) it can’t just be a car. A Tesla is a car that you buy and then you have to explain to your friends what it does and doesn’t mean to you. A Camry, not so much.
“David Foster Wallace” has become such a figure. He is most often invoked now in denial and negation: you do not want to be the kind of person who reads David Foster Wallace. DFW fans, the story goes, are 20- and 30-something dudes who haunt coffee shops and grad school parties, haranguing everyone with aggressive opinions about literary merit, and trying to get laid by being perceived as sensitive and thoughtful when they’re probably aggressive sex pests. The DFW fan is disdainful of women’s fiction, though he takes care to let you know how much he loves Flannery O’Connor or other women writers he invokes purely to show he reads women. He’s a self-impressed asshole. He’s the Guy in Your MFA. (Which, for the record, wasn’t as funny as it thought it was, but skewered the correct people in today’s climate - that is, the type of white people that savvy white people would like to imagine they are not like.)
Does this actually describe any real people? There must be some. The question is whether there are enough of them, or if they are pernicious enough, to warrant what has been a mini-genre for over a decade now. To be clear:
Most people don’t read.
Most people who read don’t read fiction.
Most people who read fiction don’t read experimental fiction.
Most people who read experimental fiction don’t read 1,000 page doorstops.
When people complain about the DFW fan or the litbro or the guy in your MFA guy, sometimes someone else will say “oh, god, I know that guy,” and I think, you know, it might literally be the same guy. (How big can Cambridge’s literary scene really be?) This just can’t be a very widespread phenomenon. Contrast with sports bro: sports bro is orders of magnitude more common than litbro, and they are no strangers to sexism and toxic behavior themselves. These worlds are so small and the critiques are so specific that it simply can’t be meaningful to many people - but is most meaningful to those who write our culture, and thus overrepresented. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t feel free to critique annoying or sexist tendencies they seen in their communities. What I am saying is that once these ideas take on a life of their own, identifying them becomes less about actually responding to what’s going on in your world and more about aligning yourself with a particular social culture.
Besides, the litbro is not the default Infinite Jest reader. The book has moved more than a million copies. Even if the buyers skew white and male there’s no way any book sells that many units without a diverse audience. Don’t they get a say in whether the book is worthwhile too?
This may sound like pandering, but I suspect that in a roundabout way it’s literary sexism that has made Wallace such an online piñata. The whole litbro phenomenon (that is, the backlash against the idea of the litbro) is ultimately a product of the insecurity that has been foisted onto many bookish women that their reading habits are somehow silly or frivolous. You would hope that, in a world where Elana Ferrante would be named by many as the world’s greatest novelist, this feeling would dissipate, but literary sexism remains stubbornly real, and that is coming from a person who is probably among the least well-equipped to sense it. That this happens even as most readers are women and where women’s reliable consumption of books keeps the publishing industry alive is just one of those petty ironies of our gender politics. It’s understandable, if unhelpful, to look at dudes who are aggressively literary and to get annoyed with the books that they seem to assume are of higher value than what you read, and you don’t have to be Jennifer Weiner to feel that way. It’s hard to get mad at an industry or a culture, so you particularize and literalize it in a type of person.
But, seriously, you guys… David Foster Wallace didn’t do any of that. He is not responsible. Frankly I think women readers and writers are ultimately more hurt by the diminishing public station of reading in general than they are by the gender dynamics within publishing itself, and those dynamics are much more the product of greed-motivated decisions made by publishing houses than anything else. And to the degree that individual subjective judgments of literary value hurt the perception of writing by and for women, it’s the professional literary critics (those that still exist) who are to blame, and they tend to favor straightforward realist fiction they call “muscular” or “substantial” rather than experimental fiction like the type that Wallace produced. The way that Wallace has become this vessel for all of the undeniable sexism in publishing is just bizarre. I have zero interest in defending his character, which doesn’t interest me, but I find the sense that he uniquely contributed to literary sexism very odd. He wasn’t a he-man chest-pounder. He was a constitutionally-conservative, politically-confused guy whose literary pretentions somewhat exceeded his talents, a man who wore a ridiculous bandana because he was self-conscious about his hairline, and a serial depressive who hung himself at 46 years old.
At the time of his suicide I would have thought that, though he once attained a level of literary celebrity that was rare then and hard to imagine now, he would in short order slip gracefully into the realm of respected but little-remembered dead writers. Ah, but he has his champions: people who want everyone to know they hate him.
I didn’t know who Jess McHugh is, before seeing the tweet above, and I am a reader and an active participant in literary culture. I have heard of David Foster Wallace. Is the hand of sexism at play there? Sure, probably. Unfortunate if so. But what McHugh and others who have made a meme of hating Wallace seem not to understand is that this very revulsion contributes to the notion that he is a big deal, that he was a man of letters, that he is a figure one must have an opinion on. There is no such thing as bad publicity. If you search Wallace’s name on Twitter, you get thousands of hits. Most of them are negative, but still: he endures. You know how rare it is for writers to get any engagement at all on Tik Tok? (I mean, I have no idea, I’m just assuming.) Most writers - most of anyone - would rather live on after death thanks to the haters than to be forgotten. If you hate David Foster Wallace so much, you should have let him slip quietly into the mists of memory. Instead you have made him a bigger literary celebrity in death than any writer who is currently working and alive. So… congratulations?
There must be more useful ways to define what a healthy and diverse reading culture looks like, such as by championing good writers who are not David Foster Wallace. And, to take it a step further, by embodying the values you see as superior to the ones you associate with DFW and his fans. If you don’t like who Wallace was as a person, be a better person. If you don’t like what he wrote, write better shit. If you think Infinite Jest is a bad novel, write one that’s good. Become the next literary celebrity. Make them forget David Foster Wallace. Take his place in the pantheon. And… let him go. All this complaining just fills the pockets of his estate.
Finally, I’m gonna throw this out as a warning: if you do the performatively anti-Infinite Jest thing around me, I’m gonna quiz you for basic details about the book, what happens in the plot, who some of the characters are, etc. That shouldn’t be a problem. Because you wouldn’t hold up a book as all that’s wrong with literature and literary culture if you hadn’t read it, right guys?