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Home » Culture and Criticism

Consider The Author

Submitted by on September 15, 2008 – 2:55 PM45 Comments

Because a few people have asked…fans of David Foster Wallace should read Troy Patterson's write-up for Slate. Troy is a fellow vet of our college paper, and his take is on point as usual.

Well, as far as I can tell. I really don't know Wallace's work well enough to say (although the Updike-puncturing lines Troy cites lead me to believe that I should get to know it, pronto). I have read his essays on usage and enjoyed them greatly; his prose had a way of expecting you to keep up, without getting show-offy. It's really hard to care about the language at that length without letting a superior tone creep in, as I know all too well, so I admired that. But I really couldn't get through A Supposedly Fun Thing, and I tried several times.

Feel free to discuss and recommend in the comments.

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45 Comments »

  • Linda says:

    I've lost track of the link, but DFW wrote a long essay about why Garner's usage book was so goddamn brilliant. So…there's that.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I keep a copy of that one in my desk drawer. But I always got the feeling that that was a sideline, and didn't really get into any of his other writing as a result.

  • Rachel says:

    I never really 'got' the slavering adoration heaped on DFW. I tried to read Infinite Jest probably 40 times and fell into a dead sleep before page 30 every single time. You're clever, I get it, now tell the damn story already.

    I did like "A Supposedly Fun Thing…" simply because it echoed my sentiments about going on a forced Family Cruise with my in-laws. And his usage writing is bordering on brilliant. But the rest? Meh. Also zzzzzz.

  • Princess Leah says:

    My recommendation for diving into Infinite Jest for the first time is to ignore the end-notes. They don't add much in terms of plot for a first reading and the very act of turning from the text to the end-notes takes you out of a story that can be pretty hard to keep track of in the first place.

    On subsequent readings, however, the end-notes add tremedous flavor to the narrative. Think of them as the commentary on a DVD–you probably wouldn't want the commentary track on until you had watched the movie once.

  • AngieFM says:

    I read "Infinite Jest" when it came out and then picked up everything of his, pretty much as it was published. I really love his essays, and I liked IJ a lot, though I haven't gone back to it in the intervening years. It felt like he was doing something…risky, and real, and that it might only work intermittently, but he was trying it anyway. Even when something he was trying didn't work, it was well-crafted and you could tell there was thought and effort in it.

    My favorites of his are "A Supposedly Fun Thing…" and "Consider the Lobster", though I liked "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men", too. The other novels were sort of slow going for me.

  • Holly says:

    I guess I won't be much help with the recommends, as A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again was my favorite. Like Troy, I found his non-fiction easier to love than his fiction, although his short stories tended to downplay the verbal pyrotechnics somewhat. See "Forever Overhead" in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men for a memorable starter story.

  • Joe Mama says:

    DFW, from what I've read, seems like the kind of guy who would go to an amusement park on a sunny Saturday afternoon with his pretty girlfriend, and he would spend the whole day moping because George Bush was still President.

  • Cara says:

    Surprisingly, he was a good sports writer. His articles on tennis give a decent analysis of the game from both a player's and a spectator's perspective.

    I like his essays, but he wasn't the most reader-friendly writer out there. You have to commit to the footnotes. I bought "Infinite Jest" this summer in the hopes of getting past page 92 (third time's the charm?). I think reading that book will be my New Year's resolution.

  • Barbara says:

    I've bought A Supposedly Fun Thing 3 times and given it as a gift twice. One of my favorite books. One other thing, the news of DFW's suicide reminded me of Spaulding Grey's, both clever and literate artists, and both big losses to readers.

  • Rachael says:

    I read Infinite Jest one summer during college, and I slogged through the first 200 or so pages, taking a break to read other novels in the meantime. After about 250 pages, I was hooked and couldn't stand to put the book down. I had been thinking about rereading it recently, but now I feel like I have to wait a year or so to get past the inclination we all have to look for clues in case like this (see also: Heath Ledger/The Dark Knight). Several of his stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men made me laugh for days, and a few left me rolling my eyes.

    I appreciate that he never pandered to me as a reader; in fact, he often demanded that I work to get into the piece. If I wasn't in the mood, it struck me as obnoxious. But most of the time, I relished the work I was doing. I wouldn't list DFW as one of my favorite writers, but I will say that there are certain images from his text that remain crystal clear in my mind–10 years later–in a way that they haven't for writers that I would put on that list.

  • Liz says:

    I think part of the sadness of DFW's death was that much of his nonfiction work was written in the first person, with a voice that was mightily neurotic but still awfully appealing and frequently quite funny. It was writing that recaptured the tone of late nights talking with your smartest, most acutely observant college friend and that gave the reader the illusion that you knew him, a little. So added to the shock and sadness of any talented young(ish) artist's suicide is the realization that no, you didn't know him at all, and that apparently it was a lot less fun to be the owner of that neurotic, funny voice than it was to read it.

    Infinite Jest is a frustrating, arguably somewhat self-indulgent book but it dealt with big themes and complicated ideas in a way that was totally unlike anything else out there, and it managed to be really funny on a surprisingly regular basis. The throwaway conceit of having years with corporate sponsorship ("The Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland") stuck with me vividly enough that the last, overly-sponsored season of "Top Chef" shall forever be known in our household as the "Year of Glad".

  • jateke says:

    I think DFW is a very specific taste–not for everybody. I definitely get the "you're clever, I get it, let's move on with our lives" reaction to some writers (…FRANZEN), but never with Wallace–I just liked that he was expecting me to keep up. (Well put, Sars.)

    It may have taken me a full month to get through Infinite Jest, but I was glad I did.

  • Rachel says:

    @jateke – Yes yes yes a thousand times YES on the Franzen. I tried to read "The Corrections" when it came out because of all the hyperbole surrounding it (and then Oprah-gate) and I couldn't get into the story because I felt like JF was saying "LOOK MA! Look how clever I am!" with every word he wrote. It just took me so far out of the story that I never learned to care about the characters enough to find out what happens to them.

    Hrm. I just realized that "The Corrections" came out around the same time I tried "Infinite Jest" for the first time so perhaps that was the problem there. Perhaps I'll give it another whirl.

  • Gabbiana says:

    I'm going to agree with Rachael up there: It took me a hundred pages and a restart to get into Infinite Jest, and then I did, and then for months afterwards I was the annoying kid who couldn't stop talking about That Important Book She Just Read. (Also, footnotes!)

  • Kate says:

    The Girl With the Curious Hair, which I will be re-reading soon, I'm sure. Consider the Lobster has some of my favorite essays in it.

    The thing I loved most about DFW's work was that it always, always had heart. I've been reading a lot on the web and anyone who simply discusses his work solely as postmodern, shiny, and/or purposefully difficult I dismiss, because although sometimes it was all these things, there was always a lot of gentleness and heart to it, as well.

    It's so strange to have one of my favorite authors dead so young; it's so disturbing to have someone who made me laugh so much at others and myself dead by suicide.

  • Kimberly says:

    I'm surprised at the amount of negativity here. There is some sadness here, but some of the posts were uncharacteristically malignant. Usually Tomato Nationalists are extremely compassionate and supportive, and I am saddened by how many people are willing to speak negatively about his work, deserved or not, on the very close heels of his death.

    What a disappointment.

  • polly says:

    Couldn't get far with the fiction, really really loved the "Consider the Lobster" essays, and have hopes of reading properly the maths book, "Everything and More". I was grateful to him for taking the trouble, so to speak, to write so well. He obviously worked hard and was careful and disciplined, rather than just coasting along, on his natural talent, being quirky.

  • Jaybird says:

    I will have to make an effort to read some of his stuff. I had known DFW only as the guy who watched a starving toddler crawl along while being stalked by a vulture, WITHOUT HELPING HER, so he could take moving photos of her predicament. So I guess I would be going into the experience with certain prejudices.

    I'm still very sorry he's dead, and that he was sufficiently tormented to take his own life.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    "I'm surprised at the amount of negativity here. There is some sadness here, but some of the posts were uncharacteristically malignant. Usually Tomato Nationalists are extremely compassionate and supportive, and I am saddened by how many people are willing to speak negatively about his work, deserved or not, on the very close heels of his death.

    What a disappointment."

    …What?

  • abby says:

    I have a soft spot for the first DFW I ever read, The Broom of the System (although the ending of that one is a bit of a wreck)–sort of DFW with training wheels. Loved Infinite Jest and Consider the Lobster. I agree that Wallace simply wrote smartly and expected smart readers as a result, where Franzen or Eggers always feel to me like there's a bit of "I'm smarter than you–you know that, right?" about them.

  • Sandman says:

    If you keep a copy of DFW's essay on Garner in your desk drawer, Sarah, you could probably link to it in your sleep, but you piqued my curiosity, and I think I found it online. This page isn't the easiest job of formatting to read, but I thought other readers might want to have a go:

    http://tinyurl.com/6y4ta

    I see what Cara means, above, about committing to the footnotes, but clearly I'm going to have to get hold of his essays at least.

  • BillDozer74 says:

    @Jaybird: I believe the photographer you're thinking of is Kevin Carter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Carter), so you may be able to read DFW's works without prejudice after all.

  • allison says:

    Jaybird, I think you have DFW confused with Kevin Carter, a South American photojournalist. Carter killed himself in 1994.

  • HielanLass says:

    Jaybird, I trust you're drawing some sort of parallel between DFW and the photographer? Because the guy that took the photo you mention, Kevin Carter, has been dead since '94…

  • lauren says:

    So added to the shock and sadness of any talented young(ish) artist's suicide is the realization that no, you didn't know him at all, and that apparently it was a lot less fun to be the owner of that neurotic, funny voice than it was to read it.

    very well put, liz. DFW has always reminded me of my best friend, who was that guy at college; i made the mistake of assuming that because the guy i know made it through *his* darkness, my favorite author must've gotten through, too. this has been a punch in the gut.

    word on the "year of glad," too. i've been thinking of IJ in relation to sarah palin's husband's political connections: if alaska wants to be out of the US so badly, can't we give it to canada and start catapulting our toxic waste up there (a la the great concavity/convexity)?

  • Jaybird says:

    Wow. I was totally wrong about that, then, and I apologize. Not the first time I was wrong, nor the last, I'm sure.

    Still sorry DFW is gone, however.

  • Jaybird says:

    Meant to say also that the phrase "Tomato Nationalists" calls to mind the Eddie Izzard quote, "Do you have a FLAG? No flag, no country…that's the rule that I've just made up."

  • Rachel says:

    @Kimberly – I'm not going to deify the guy because he managed to successfully off himself. I find his work to be difficult to get into and digest, as do others. It's sad that someone so obviously talented couldn't fight his demons, but… [shrug]

    I did try to pick up a copy of IJ at the bookstore today and they were all sold out. I hope DFW, wherever he is now, is enjoying his sales bump.

  • ebeth says:

    I tried reading "A Supposedly Funny Thing…" as well and made it halfway through. I really enjoyed the essay on him playing tennis in central Illinois. I come across the book every so often and regret not finishing it. I'll have to take another look.

  • Margaret in CO says:

    I'm just gonna hafta read the guy, even with the less-than-stellar reviews here…because they guy can write total hell out of a title!
    Maybe if I start with "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" I won't be so thrown by his style.
    Thanks for the link to the article, Sars.

  • Michael says:

    "I'm surprised at the amount of negativity here. There is some sadness here, but some of the posts were uncharacteristically malignant. Usually Tomato Nationalists are extremely compassionate and supportive, and I am saddened by how many people are willing to speak negatively about his work, deserved or not, on the very close heels of his death.

    What a disappointment"

    I think most of the comments have been decently positive, but what negative comments have been written have been pretty well focused on what each poster didn't care for about HIS WRITING. We're able to separate the art from the man. No one is writing anything negative about DFW himself, and even those who have criticized elements of his writing, have usually written something positive about his writing as well, (for example, some have liked his non-fiction, but not the fiction). It's not as if we're rushing to shovel dirt on his grave.

    I've never read his writing, so I don't have anything negative (or positive) to say about him, but if an author/artist/politician whose works I detest were to pass away, I wouldn't hedge my comments out of an insincere concern for their passing. I'd much rather be truthful.

  • Linda says:

    "I've never read his writing, so I don't have anything negative (or positive) to say about him, but if an author/artist/politician whose works I detest were to pass away, I wouldn't hedge my comments out of an insincere concern for their passing. I'd much rather be truthful."

    I don't disagree with this, but I will say that sometimes, when people who admired someone's work are using a comment thread to sort of…grieve, as much as you can grieve for artists you didn't know personally, particularly in the wake of a death that's surprising and untimely, I do sometimes find it both irksome and tiresome that somebody always feels the need to come in and be like, "I'm sorry, but he SUCKED." I'll add that I don't think that was what was going on here at all — I don't think that's what people were doing and I don't think that was the topic of the thread. But more broadly, that's my only caveat to the general idea that I certainly agree that you're not obligated to pretend to like someone's books just because he died.

    It's one thing when it's a hateful politician who harmed the world or whatever, but if a singer whose music I hated died in a plane crash, and fans were having a conversation about how much they'd miss his work? I wouldn't lie or pretend to think anything I didn't think, but I'd leave them to it in peace. Again, NOT applying it here, but I think that's the one time when maybe it is the better part of valor not to air your id about the newly deceased.

  • Michael says:

    Linda clarified what I meant better than I did. I agree – being truthful should not trump tact. I just meant that someone's recent passing does not necessarily (or should not) preclude an honest appraisal (including criticism) of one's work. I do like your example of grieving in a thread only to have someone come in with the sole purpose of pissing on the funeral wreath (ok, so I took your example a little further…..)

  • Michael says:

    Not looking to go as far as "I Just Want To Be As Honest As I Can Guy". I don't want to be THAT GUY, Heh.

  • Kimberly says:

    Rereading the comments, I think I was hasty in my response. I love his writing, and as someone else said, his work did feel very personal. However, I realize it's not for everyone. I think any negativity seemed like a lot, and my reaction was overly sensitive.

    I wouldn't expect that anyone deify someone because they killed themselves; I was just surprised by the admittedly small amount criticism. I'm not convinced that I want to separate the artist from the art.

    I don't completely take back what I said, but I do recognize the abundance of admiration here. I can say that I spoke too quickly and out of frustration over the loss of an irreplaceable author whose work I find challenging, inspiring, and breathtakingly beautiful.

  • La BellaDonna says:

    Jaybird: If you're interested, google "Consider the Lobster;" it's not a long read, but it's a profoundly thoughtful one. I don't think there's any way that a guy who wonders about whether or not lobsters feel pain would have watched a starving toddler being stalked by a vulture without doing anything to help.

    And also: Is there a flag? I would totally salute it! I would raise my Diet Coke high, and say I'm proud to be a Tomato Nationalist! I think there should be flag. And an anthem. Let's see; two cats couchant, supporting a giant Jersey Beefsteak Tomato, on a field of mozzarella – how does that work for you, Sars? As far as an anthem goes, whatever you pick is bound to be more singable than the Star-Spangled Banner. If you set something original to a drinking song, you're probably not going to pick The Anacreontic Song. (Unless you have Tor Hershman do a version of it – Tor Hershman Presents "To Anacreon In Heaven" on YouTube is absolutely worth watching.)

  • Sandman says:

    "Not looking to go as far as "I Just Want To Be As Honest As I Can Guy". I don't want to be THAT GUY, Heh."

    Heh. No one wants to know that guy. That guy's only ever invited anywhere once.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @La Bel: I'm not comfortable with the cult-of-personality lifestyle (hee), but stay tuned for more on the TN flag tip.

  • Jaybird says:

    @La BellaDonna: I now feel SO BAD about mistaking Walker for DFW. I even found mention of the photo and photographer on snopes.com. How mortifying to have made such a mistake.

    As for anthems, there's always the "You say toMAYto, I say toMAHto", although there are probably better choices. I think the Roomba should figure in the flag somehow. Heh.

  • La BellaDonna says:

    @Jaybird: You are SO RIGHT about the Roomba! I actually started second-guessing myself right after I posted; surely there should be vines, or at least A vine, on the flag? And, of course, the Roomba. But we may be descending into the murky bogs of Quartering, which makes flags hard to see properly when you're getting older (maybe YOU'RE not, but I am). And there's such an elegance to the Cats holding up the Tomato. Hmmm. If the flag is edged with a Vine all around, and there's a Roomba in each corner, it won't dilute the initial clean design. It could work!

    As for the other: Dude. Don't twist. Neither author is going to berate you for the confusion. There's plenty of time for you to mortify yourself in person before live authors! (I had my turn at work last week, so my mortification's nice and fresh, thanks.)

    @Sars: Heh. Not as if we were going to tithe for you – although you would most certainly get a beer or three, if I meet you in a bar. Unless someone out there knows how to sculpt you in an appropriate medium – say, cheddar – you're probably safe for now. Although, come to think of it, if you start a religion, there might be tax savings involved.

  • Jaybird says:

    Worked for L. Ron.

  • Sandman says:

    Heh. Black Razz Org.

  • Margaret in CO says:

    I could totally sculpt you in cheddar…

  • Sorch1 says:

    DFW was one of my favorite authors of all time. Reading IJ made me completely giddy — like someone had pulled weird little threads out of my unconscious and made them into this amazing, complicated tapestry. It was like meeting someone and having an instant connection out of nowhere. My first impulse after finishing IJ was to start it again. There was a sweetness about his writing, a love of the underdog dork, that I never felt in other writers who were compared to him (Franzen, Eggers). Was IJ self-indulgent and in desperate need of an editor? Yes, indeed. Was it awesome? Definitely.

    If you can't deal with the fiction (which is incredible when it works, painful when it doesn't), try the tennis or cruise essays out of A Supposedly Fun Thing. I also liked his report (Esquire? Harper's?) from McCain's Straight Talk Express in 2000. Here's somewhere to start: http://harpers.org/archive/2008/09/hbc-90003557

  • Suzann says:

    I'm with you all the way, Sorch1. "Giddy" is the perfect word to describe how I felt as I read IJ.

    It's been hard for me to deal with/accept the fact that DFW is gone. While I didn't read his work super regularly (because it definitely is hard work at times, and not great for just casually picking up and putting down like other writing can be), I took a weird kind of comfort in knowing that it was out there waiting to challenge me — and that HE was out there making more of it.

    I also agree with the others here who've said that his work had true "heart" — that's what I always took away most readily from his writing: that he was writing from his soul, and doing it because he had to get these things out. Not because he wanted to sell a book. And I think that's what all the footnotes were about, to a large degree… he just had SO MUCH to say, about everything. I found them to be very geniune and came to love them, even though they demand such focus from you as a reader.

    I'll miss you, DFW.

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