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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

On David Foster Wallace

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 09/25/08 at 02:57 AM

Over at The Kugelmass Episodes, a reader wrote in asking for a post about David Foster Wallace’s legacy and death, something I’ve been considering and before now avoiding. Whereas, when Elliott Smith died, I was able to write in honor of a performer I had always admired, Wallace was an enormous disappointment to me. Perhaps it is possible to write about that disappointment in a way that gives his death some meaning for those of us who did not worship his writing, but still feel the melancholy fact of his loss.

Wallace was a pathbreaker for the freewheeling, wildly creative, semi-political white male novelists and memoirists who have flourished in the past ten years: Michael Chabon, Benjamin Kunkel, Jonathan Safran-Foer, Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers and the rest. In some of his prose, he even anticipated David Sedaris and Chuck Klosterman. He did everything: not only did he write a Big Novel (Infinite Jest) and bunches of short stories, he wrote essays that appeared all over the place, he taught, and he took on subjects outside of the humanities, notably the concept of infinity.

At the same time, he was something of a failure. He was not a da Vinci. His book on infinity was an explication of the concept, not a mathematical treatise. More importantly, he came to fruition with Infinite Jest, but the book is a terrible mess. It remains in desperate need of an editor; perhaps, had he found a collaborator able to focus his talent, Wallace could have produced something as enduring as Thomas Wolfe’s baggy monsters. His short stories were a study in diminishing returns. The Girl With Curious Hair was pretty good, while Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was terrible except for the title story. It is up to us, looking at his work, to try to understand what was eating him—not only driving him to despair, but first damming up his talent and undermining what work he did produce.

At the time I read Infinite Jest, in the winter of 1999, it was one of three books that young people (guys, mostly) would hurl themselves against in a show of intellectual strength. The other two books were Don DeLillo’s Underworld and the mostly-forgotten House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. Underworld, an attempt by a miniaturist to write an epic, does not concern us yet; House of Leaves certainly does. Both Danielewski and Wallace were writing for the first generation to grow up with the Internet about the terrifying nature of virtual spaces, something Danielewski underlined by printing his book in deliberate tatters on the Web.

In House of Leaves, virtual space is often imagined as text: the book is about an accidental critic who loses his grip on reality while he is researching various artifacts (letters, books, films, criticism) surrounding a man who lived in a house full of banal wormholes. The house is, famously, a little larger (and then much larger) on the inside then it appears from without, and has strange features, such as a hallway that seems to be suspended in an alternate dimension. These features, combined with the splintered, mirrored, fragmented way the writing proceeds across the pages, and the way the book was published, makes it a marvelous record of postmodern anxieties exacerbated by hypertext—Pale Fire no longer capable of going for the laugh.

Infinite Jest is equally morbid, although it has a glossier, wittier surface. The reference to Yorick sets up a series of penny dreadful plots about the dangers of entertainment. A young teen tries a weird hallucinogen and ends up mute; a filmmaker makes an Oedipal movie about crawling into the womb of a hypnotically beautiful woman, and everybody who sees it watches it unto death. It is completely of a piece with Amusing Ourselves to Death, and somewhat related to The Society of the Spectacle, but it is also akin to the billboards I see everyday in Long Beach advising the populace to turn off their televisions and avoid drugs. It is a hysterical moral freak-out, and the funniest part is that it would make a better movie than it does a book, since the plots and characters and landscapes are all celluloid chestnuts (the unwitting siren, the detectives in disguise, the debauched rich teens).

Locked in anxious awareness of its own filmic structure, the novel tries to escape from film by weighing itself down with ballast: the famous novel-length appendix of footnotes, most of which are either a) boring or b) should have been inserted into the narrative. They remain separate as a way of insisting on the specialness of text and readership, and as a way of breaking the fictional dream in order to fortify the reader’s “critical consciousness” against the narcotic of narrative.

If all this sounds rather dry and polemical, well, it is. Infinite Jest is hollow. The half of it that doesn’t reduce to a parable about entertainment is a series of writing exercises from various points of view. Early in childhood, we learn that the key to compassion and understanding is “seeing things from the other fellow’s point of view,” and so in his mid-twenties the writer of conscience becomes a professional ventriloquist. For example, the woman who stars in the killing film has her face burned with acid, and spends the rest of her days in self-imposed exile wearing a veil. She is heard from a lot. We get a whole series of pages written in street slang from the point of view of an African-American drug dealer. Want to make a point about the moral significance of animals? Write from the point of view of a lobster, as Wallace did in a later essay (Eggers, always Wallace’s sunnier double, afterwards wrote a story from the point of view of a dog). Unfortunately, for a writer feeling acutely sheltered and trying to escape in a single bound, there ends up being little difference between the lobster and the drug dealer, and literary virtuosity becomes a way of simulating compassion. The insistence on text over other media turns into an insistence on one’s own genius. Television can do it better, actually. The Sopranos covered more territory than Infinite Jest and did a better job showing how pleasure, entertainment, and death intertwine.

Wallace was, I believe, in search of the transcendent. Another way of putting that might be that he was in search of the religious, traditionally the ground upon which American literary epics stand. So he wrote his book on infinity and his Great American Novel, but he never found that ecstatic capacity within himself that could lead him outwards to communion with some sort of tangible America, either the land (Thoreau, Snyder, London) or its people (Whitman, Steinbeck, Stein). He wrote that irony was risky, imprisoning, and an impediment to true communication, and blamed television for promoting ironic detachment, but his own sudden and fervent earnestness was already outpaced by Bright Eyes and Dawson’s Creek. Wallace’s earnestness was another experiment undertaken solo, another theoretical bit of sermonizing. In the end, what he had to express was his inability to take joy in the artificial pleasures he was offered ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again"). He knew he was unhappy, is all, and the victim of a seemingly causeless guilt.

In the moment of ecstasy, a supremely solipsistic moment, the lonely self vanishes into the certainty of the harmony and sympathy of all things. There are, of course, smaller, more concrete mutualities, and it is these with which secular literature concerns itself. Compassion is not a matter of impersonation; it is a dialogue that makes generosity possible. Wallace could not tell us very much about the world. His methods were too gimmicky, his forms too bombastic. He could, though, tell us a great deal about himself and his sterile, disheartened isolation. Whether or not he could find his way outside himself, the value of his mountain of work is that we can find our way to him. Because he fails to be anything else, Wallace brings us face-to-face with the moment when amusement fails us, and words turn ghostly, and we are alone.


Comments

I was about to agree with you about Infinite Jest when I read “outpaced by Dawson’s Creek”? Outpaced? Dawson’s Creek? Which sprint or marathon were they running together?

I suspect you’re one of those grad students who like TV and don’t like contemporary novels, yet who aren’t quite comfortable with this fact about themselves. That’s allowed, you know, to prefer TV. No need to make ridiculous comparisons. 

Mellers

By on 09/25/08 at 05:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Though I am not someone who was swept away by _Infinite Jest_ (I agree with you that there’s simply too much there, too jumbled, and a lot of it doesn’t work), I couldn’t disagree more with this statement:

“If all this sounds rather dry and polemical, well, it is. Infinite Jest is hollow. The half of it that doesn’t reduce to a parable about entertainment is a series of writing exercises from various points of view.”

Sure, not all of the characters DFW inhabits fully come to life. But those who do--David Gately, the PGOAT, Hal, Kate Gompert, even Pemulis--offer the real, human, sympathetic understanding that has been at the heart of the mainstream novel since its inception. The experimentation falls away (though the prose remains lively and idiosnycratic) and instead we simply learn about ways people live. It’s earnest and honest and old-fashioned, and, for me at least, it made slogging through the failed portions well worthwhile.

By Levi Stahl on 09/25/08 at 10:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Levi,

I agree there’s a lot there, and I did feel sympathy for Hal and Gately in particular. Since, though, at that point the experimentation does seemingly “fall away,” I just began to think of the novel as a screenplay idea. I’d like Hal even more onscreen, and I can think of plenty of actors from The Wire who’d make great Gatelys.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/25/08 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tom,

Perhaps you are under the impression that off-the-cuff ad hominems are a legitimate means of parrying an argument. They’re not. I do like contemporary novels, actually. Enjoying Platform and Gilead does not automatically make me agree with A. O. Scott that Wallace was “the best mind of his generation.”

The marathon is the earnestness marathon, supposed to replace the vacuum of irony. Wallace seizes upon it as though he’s just set foot on the moon, while all around him emo music and teen soaps are taking earnestness to the limit, one more time.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/25/08 at 03:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been reading and re-reading this entry, and I can’t figure it out. I don’t recognize the writing of David Foster Wallace anywhere in your account of it. I mean, you were already losing me when you said “His short stories were a study in diminishing returns” and “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was terrible except for the title story” and it gets worse from there. You’ll say that I’m not making a substantial argument against what you’ve written, and you’ll be right, I’m not. But you make these couple of assertions, as if they’re commonly held. Well, for my part, his short fiction was especially good, and only getting more interesting.

Your comparison of Infinite Jest with “The Sopranos” is strange, too, as if the experience of reading the book (or even watching the show) could simply be reduced to what it “says” about “how pleasure, entertainment, and death intertwine”.

Also, I don’t have the essay to hand, but I don’t recall that “Consider the Lobster” was written from the point of view of the lobster. Which seems to undermine that particular point of yours. Perhaps you meant that he imagines the point of view of the lobster, but that’s not how your words read (nor does it fit with the rest of the paragraph).

By Richard on 09/25/08 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wallace most emphatically did NOT write Consider the Lobster from the point of view of the lobster.  This was an essay that he wrote for Gourmet magazine which, moer than simply posing the question of pain lobsters feel when boiled alive, explored the concept of tourism, and small-town reaction to large events.

By on 09/25/08 at 04:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Richard,

I was misinformed about the lobster story; he imagines the point of view of the lobster, but he’s not actually spelunking inside the creature’s head. (I just finished reading it.)

I regret the error. At the same time, the point stands. Wallace gets inside the lobster’s head, determines that it probably feels neurological pain, and then just stops at his feeling of unease about this. It’s not the worst way to end an essay, since it defies easy categorization, but the why and the what next are missing.

OK, yes, a book and a TV series are different singular experiences, but they are also ideological statements. They may not reduce down to those statements—I agree that in both cases they don’t—but they can still be discussed on those terms.

Take, for example, the story in Brief Interviews called “The Devil Is A Busy Man.” Now you may like his cadences, his language, and his use of details in that story; I’m fine with them, although I prefer other writers. But inarguably something is also going on with the portrait of human beings who will buy cheap but won’t take stuff for free. To be frank, this is what I think many of us considered the way to write through all of adolescence and (often) beyond: you seize upon a Twilight Zone-esque irony about fallen human nature and work a story out of it.

I mean, if one asks around at a food bank or a soup kitchen or a Salvation Army shop or FreeCycle, it is easy to determine that actually people will take things for free. Yet I do sympathize with the moral passion driving the story, mostly because, even if it is working with somewhat easy material, it is still clearly passionate. So that is why I tried to describe Wallace as somebody with a lot on his mind, but simply not sure how to go forward or reach out.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/25/08 at 06:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not off-the-cuff, Joseph. Very carefully considered. I plead guilty to arguing ad hominem, but don’t see a problem with that if the motive is insight rather than insult. I’m glad to hear you like some contemporary novels. I don’t agree with AO Scott either and, like I wrote, I was prepared to agree with you about Infinite Jest. But the idea that Wallace should have cared one way or another about Dawson’s Creek and modified his rejection of irony accordingly seems silly to me. Wallace was of course responding to a predominance of irony in literary fiction. His rejection of it WAS fresh at the time, in that context.

Think of it this way. The writers of Dawson’s Creek weren’t worried about changes in the contemporary novel. I could never imagine you faulting them (or the Sopranos writers) for being “outpaced” by some imaginary competitor in another arena altogether. You have a double standard, in other words. Hence my sense that you are oriented toward TV. I still sort of think you are, frankly, professions of literacy notwithstanding.

Tom

By on 09/25/08 at 06:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tom,

Heck, I agree with you—I am oriented towards TV, in the same way many of these new Wallaces are oriented towards comic books. There’s just so much good stuff out there. But these aren’t “professions of literacy”—I actually read Infinite Jest, which, because of the way it was written, remains for most people I know a punchline to a joke about footnotes, and not something they would ever consider heaving up to eye level for weeks or months on end. Wallace was a disappointment to me because I got excited about Infinite Jest when I read it and stayed with him for a while, buying his new stuff as quickly as it appeared.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/25/08 at 06:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I actually read Infinite Jest, which, because of the way it was written, remains for most people I know a punchline to a joke about footnotes, and not something they would ever consider heaving up to eye level for weeks or months on end.

What, you don’t know me?  (turns to cry in a corner)

That said, I’ve a long—and getting longer—rebuttal in the works.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/25/08 at 09:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"He was not a Leonardo.”

Girl with Curious Hair.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/26/08 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fair enough, but your TV orientation, I think, interferes with your reading, if you truly are affected by some imaginary race between WB shows and serious novels. Perhaps you didn’t mean to suggest that “outpacing” matters, and were just writing off-the-cuff. If you meant that, well, you read in a very strange way.  A bit like someone in entertainment marketing who says, “That is SO last year.”

By on 09/26/08 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tom,

For crying out loud, man, who are we talking about here? David Foster Wallace was so intensely affected by television that he had to write a whole essay about how fiction writers had to get television out of their heads, which I will quote momentarily. He also wrote a highly filmic book about a film that kills you. At this point your desire for a separation of mediums isn’t revealing some idiosyncratic structure of my thought, but rather proving reductive of the thinker you’re trying to defend. To wit:

It’s going to take a while, but I’m going to prove to you that the nexus where television and fiction converse and consort is self-conscious irony. Irony is, of course, a turf fictionists have long worked with zeal. And irony is important for understanding TV because “T.V.,” now that it’s gotten powerful enough to move from acronym to way of life, revolves off just the sorts of absurd contradictions irony’s all about exposing. It is ironic that television is a syncresis that celebrates diversity. That an extremely unattractive self-consciousness is necessary to create TV performers’ illusion of unconscious appeal. That products presented as helping you express individuality can afford to be advertised on television only because they sell to huge hordes. And so on.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/26/08 at 07:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

He’s not a failure just because his book on infinity wasn’t a work of original mathematical research, Joseph.

He also merely wrote about Federer, instead of besting him in the US Open.

Total. Failure.

By ben wolfson on 09/26/08 at 10:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m with Ben, Joe.  If Wallace was a failure or a “disappointment,” what for you constitutes a successful writer?

You also say, “Wallace was a disappointment to me because I got excited about Infinite Jest when I read it and stayed with him for a while, buying his new stuff as quickly as it appeared.”

By admitting of an earlier fanatical interest in Wallace, is your implication that you were later proven misguided in this interest, that you grew to see Wallace’s material as empty or deficient in some way? 

Surely there was something in the writing that grabbed you or spoke to you.  Why else would you read as much of this guy as you have?  Because “everyone was doing it”?

By on 09/27/08 at 01:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph:

I have mixed feelings about DFW’s literary legacy (I can’t think of many writers capable of something as eye-wateringly brilliant as “Little Expressionless Animals” who could also, then, write the solemnly unremarkable “Good People” in so short a span), but I think you’ve missed the boat on this one.

Passing such stark, quick judgment on “Brief Interviews”, specifically, is missing some kind of point (anyway, I consider it a largely magnificent book). I always felt the work (the man, even) was torn by the aesthetical oxymoron of his brainy populism (not to mention his nurture/rage-at complex) ... or maybe it was powered by it? I don’t know, and I’m not a DFW fanboy, but I’m a little shocked at all the critical spit from everywhere.

By Steven Augustine on 09/27/08 at 06:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Underworld, an attempt by a miniaturist to write an epic, does not concern us yet...”

Here again: are you making a virtue of missing boats, Joseph?

By Steven Augustine on 09/27/08 at 06:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ben,

If it helps, I can put this in the sympathetic terms in which I really experience it: no, he’s not a failure for writing a book about infinity, rather than studying infinity. It’s just a little strange and certainly significant that he went from being a revered novelist to an amateur popular scientist (just as, in the lobster essay, he plays the amateur moral philosopher). It’s like Michael Jordan playing baseball, if he suddenly decided he needed to do that instead of playing basketball. It points to a fundamental curiosity, which is laudable, but it is also insecure.

Mike,

When I finished Infinite Jest, I felt (not consciously) that it could go either way. I was aware of its didacticism, but a lot of my favorite writers have a didactic edge, and it’s not always fatal to their work. I also hadn’t read some of Wallace’s models, Joyce in particular.

Rather than listing off novels that I think do work or masterpieces that don’t need a shakerful of salt taken with them, let’s get right to the heart of the matter: Wallace was a preacher who was just barely too polite to preach and who didn’t offer redemption. His vision of human nature is pretty cold. Do you know why “Joe Briefcase,” the lonely guy from Wallace’s essay on television, is a lonely guy? Because “...lonely people tend rather to be lonely because they decline to bear the emotional costs associated with being around other humans.” That’s right, folks, lonely people are cheap cowardly bastards. It’s not that they’re shy, or channeled into isolated suburban pods and enclosed commuter vehicles. When the note of unrelenting—if usually blunted—moral superciliousness became unmistakable in each new work by him, combined with too-deliberate feats of acrobatic compassion (LBJ in his office during Vietnam), I found myself losing faith in Wallace.

That said, I still want to understand him, because I see a lot of myself and a lot of the modern American intellectual period in him, including in his shortcomings.

Steven,

Sorry for being quick in my appraisal of that book, but the long stuff tends to go unread. For example, nobody has taken me up on what I said specifically about the furniture give-away story.

No, I’m not trying to make a virtue of missing boats. But I’m perfectly well aware that people will defend things when the issue arises, then forget about them for the length and breadth of an average day. If I had written that I had mixed feelings about Wallace but, but, but despite my mixed feelings, he was a genius, that would have been the safe way to go and everybody would have exclaimed that they too had mixed feelings but after all here lived a man. That doesn’t really help us understand him.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/27/08 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Did he really go from one to the other? And it’s not that strange, considering that he did study mathematics (even his senior thesis in philosophy was on a more than slightly math-flavored topic).

By ben wolfson on 09/27/08 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"For example, nobody has taken me up on what I said specifically about the furniture give-away story.”

But, Joseph, that’s exactly the sort of quibble I find puzzling (if not just reductive and almost anti-literary): collating a riff/movement/motif from a work of fiction against your own experience of the world *not* as a way of gaining an insight into the author’s work, but as a way to *disprove* it in some way.

What interests me here is how DFW seems to be coming in for such a disproportionate share of eulogy-quibbles like this, as though his unexpected or disappointing or otherwise “strange” effects weren’t even under his control. It’s the same as calling Beckett inept because his prose is ugly (not that you have), or defining DeLillo as a “miniaturist” in order to contextualize “Underworld” as a category error.

The larger question: when does a writer get the benefit of the doubt? And why does the critic *always* seemingly operate from some spot on higher, more knowing, ground?

By Steven Augustine on 09/27/08 at 02:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph,

I agree with Steven here. I haven’t responded again yet till now because your original post and subsequent comments have struck me as so literarily beside the point ("anti-literary" is not too harsh, I don’t think), that I haven’t been able to decide where to begin.

For example, I’ve wanted to comment that Wallace’s writing had nothing to do with TV. I mean it. I knew that if I did so you’d quote from his famous essay “about” television. Which, of course, you did anyway, using it as a bludgeon, as many seem to when mis-using that essay. You write, responding to Tom:  “For crying out loud, man, who are we talking about here? David Foster Wallace was so intensely affected by television that he had to write a whole essay about how fiction writers had to get television out of their heads” and that Tom’s “desire for a separation of mediums isn’t revealing some idiosyncratic structure of my thought, but rather proving reductive of the thinker you’re trying to defend”. But, see, you’re reducing Wallace’s works to their alleged “ideological statements”, to what they “do” in an extra-literary sense--you can talk about such things all you want, and compare them across media all you want, but it finally says nothing at all about his writing as writing, as literature. Wallace wrote about television because he rightly saw it as a danger to writers. And he wrote about irony, not because he was “against irony” as so many seem to believe, but because the generation growing up with tv was so saturated with a certain kind of irony that writing (literature) becomes almost impossible in the face of it.

As per Steven’s final question--your remarks do strike me as coming from above the fray, passing tsk-tsking judgement, a la someone like, say, Joan Didion. When really they make very little sense.

I happen to think Wallace’s short fiction, especially in the two collections you dismiss out of hand, are where the good stuff is, the stuff of writing (though they are far from perfect--how could they be?). And Infinite Jest is neither “filmic” nor written like a screenplay. It is writing, by a writer, flawed for all that.  I also don’t know of any “new Wallaces"--who could we be talking about with such a phrase? Eggers? Lethem? Are we joking? None of the writers supposedly influenced by him have anything like the same literary concerns he had; they seem more influenced by some of the superficial, imitatable aspects of his style than anything else.

In your original post you tell us that “a reader wrote in asking for a post about David Foster Wallace’s legacy and death, something I’ve been considering and before now avoiding"--making it sound as if you’ve been forced into making this sober public assessment. But your last comment, in which you call Wallace a “preacher”, strikes me as petty, as if you have been irritated all along by all the praise Wallace has been getting and have felt the need to set the record straight. But really the only thing you’ve said about his writing, and what he was really doing in it, is that you’ve been personally disappointed and prefer others. Neither of which is arguable, of course, but that’s not what the rest of us are arguing against.

By Richard on 09/27/08 at 04:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are you actually implying that _House of Leaves_, a book that may be without a single interesting sentence, (I say “may” because somewhere less than halfway though I couldn’t stand any more), is a better book than _Infinite Jest_?

If we’re playing the game of literary evaluation here, I think that single judgment disqualifies you.  You don’t get to play.

(As for the apparently unironic claim that Thomas Wolfe’s “baggy monsters” are enduring......can you be serious?  I’ve never seen one on a syllabus or a subway.  Wolfe’s picture could go in the dictionary illustrating “forgotten novelist.” Stuff like this is why your readers are asking you “Do you know anything about fiction?” Questions of this sort are not a good sign....)

By on 09/28/08 at 05:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Are you actually implying that _House of Leaves_, a book that may be without a single interesting sentence, (I say “may” because somewhere less than halfway though I couldn’t stand any more), is a better book than _Infinite Jest_?

Leaving aside the original post, this is a strange sentiment, and (I’m guessing) a bit of a snobbish one. House of Leaves is clearly a big deal, not least because it’s a self-consciously brainy novel that functions, on one level, as a response to pomo critics (and criticism of postmodernism, whatever that means this week), yet is from start to finish both scary and moving (not to mention laugh-out-loud funny in places). Improbably, it’s a beach book! Danielewski set out to write a literary page-turner, and did; he set out to write an entertaining meditation on certain trends in modern ‘critical’ thought, and did so quite handily. Both are notable achievements. I ripped through House of Leaves in two days with a haunted sleepless night inbetween, and have thought about it unexpectedly often, ever since. There’s a there there.

Regardless of the worth of the prose - I give it more credit than you do - the question of whether House of Leaves is more aesthetically ‘successful’ than e.g. Infinite Jest remains open. I vote ‘no’ but there could be a vote, is the point.

By Wax Banks on 09/28/08 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m fine with the highbrow and the lowbrow; mostly not so fine with “contemporary literary fiction” of the sort the NYTBR praises--so, guilty as charged, Wax.  Hated it.

By on 09/28/08 at 07:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ben,

Over the course of his career, his book publications and—I think it is fair to say—a gradually increasing portion of his literary energies went into nonfiction.

****

Steven writes:

But, Joseph, that’s exactly the sort of quibble I find puzzling (if not just reductive and almost anti-literary): collating a riff/movement/motif from a work of fiction against your own experience of the world *not* as a way of gaining an insight into the author’s work, but as a way to *disprove* it in some way.

Since you find my reading of a 1.5 page fable reductive, why don’t you put your cards on the table and offer your own rich, expansive, literary reading of the same material. I’m not trying to disprove the fictional elements of the story, such as the folksy father character. Nonetheless, the story attempts to offer some rather cynical, embittered commentary on greed. It’s not a beautiful story or fantastical, except in the empty sense in which all fictions are fantasy, but even if it was, it still wouldn’t be separate from the world of real things that gives birth to language.

Perhaps everything Wallace wrote was purely and wholly intentional in its structure and eccentricities—who knows? Who cares? That doesn’t make it aesthetically or ideologically sound. Giving “the benefit of the doubt” comes here to mean simply suspending one’s critical (in the sense of analytical) response, something no reader can do in good conscience, nor any writer endorse. We give a writer like Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce the benefit of the doubt because, in effect, their writing forces us to do so. Even then, that doesn’t hold for Joyce’s poems or some of Pynchon’s less successful later epics.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/29/08 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Richard,

You know, once upon a time the novel was a danger to poetry; if you read My Name Is Red, you can learn that in the Middle East Western painting techniques were considered a danger to the Islamic art of painting miniatures.

Television and irony are not conspiring to make writing impossible. Artists work across media all the time, drawing influence and inspiration from it. Blake and D. H. Lawrence were both painters and illustrated some of their own work. Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot after seeing a painting by Holbein. Dylan Thomas wrote radio plays. Many of our modern American novelists either write graphic novels or are partly inspired by them. You are really going to tell me that a book about a lethal movie and videophones has nothing to do with television? The fact is that you knew Wallace’s essay on television relates to his literary work, so you didn’t want to trot out your thunderous pronouncment, preferring instead to try to come at me sideways by lumping my response to a different commenter in with some random group of Wallace’s critics/bludgeoners.

I’ll say the same thing to you as I did to Steven: why don’t you explain what you mean by “literary,” what a proper “literary” reading of Wallace is supposed to look like, and how one properly uses Wallace’s essay on television. After all, I have to be sympathetic to Wallace’s situation. For many of the modernists, writing was impossible because of the horrors of WWI. For Theodor Adorno, art was nearly made impossible by the 6 million people killed during the Holocaust. And for Wallace, writing is pushed to its breaking point by Saturday Night Live. It seems every generation must face horrors of equal magnitude in its ongoing effort to write.

It’s just funny that Wallace would pick irony, since irony has been the great liberating force for so many writers, going back to the Enlightenment (if not further, to Chaucer or Plato) and forward to Thomas Mann and Ralph Ellison.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/29/08 at 02:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nick,

I don’t get to play? OK, you have my permission to ban me as a commenter on your blog, assuming you have one.

Actually, I haven’t read House of Leaves, so I’m not in a position to say whether or not it’s better than Infinite Jest. My specific data about it comes from Wikipedia; my impressions of its cultural role come from many discussions about it with friends and acquaintances who did read it.

Ah, the old subway-and-syllabus test. I know these subways of which you speak. I remember seeing a great deal of Dan Brown. The last syllabus I looked at had a whole week on out-of-print Victorian pulp about sinful nuns.

Look Homeward, Angel is still very much in print, outselling an academic hot potato like Jacques Derrida’s late work Rogues by a huge margin. More important, its stature (such as it is) is based on the fact that the book went through enormous revisions, transforming Wolfe’s completely uncontrolled talent into something reasonably focused. As far as I know, there is little evidence that Wallace’s great novel went through any such editorial refining fire.

I agree that some of these comments have been ominous signs, but we may disagree on what those signs signify.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/29/08 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Look Homeward, Angel is still very much in print, outselling an academic hot potato like Jacques Derrida’s late work Rogues by a huge margin.”

This is supposed to prove what?  All novels that outsell _Rogues_ are canonical?  Do they also have to outsell _Homos_?  _Prisms_?  _Beginnings_?  You set the bar high!

And you haven’t read _House of Leaves_??  You might have wanted to point that out in the original post where you call it a “marvelous record of postmodern anxieties”.  (Or did Michiko Kakutani write that phrase while you’d stepped out for a smoke?) Have you read _Underworld_?  Or is this entire structure you’re setting up based entirely on watching “Dawson’s Creek” and pulling shit out of your ass?

Your post seems increasingly ridiculous as you defend it, and it’s far too late for me to sound cordial--I’ll just stop here…

By on 09/29/08 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Since you find my reading of a 1.5 page fable reductive, why don’t you put your cards on the table and offer your own rich, expansive, literary reading of the same material.”

Joseph, here’s a parable. I see a man (dressed up as a surgeon) walk towards the room where he is scheduled to perform brain surgery… hefting a sledge hammer. I say to this man, “Stop, sir. That is not the proper tool for brain surgery!” And he responds, somewhat snarkily, “Okay, George Clooney, let’s see how *you’d* do it!”

Maybe that’s less a “parable” than a zen koan. Or a New Yorker cartoon. Anyway, to get specific, you wrote:

“Take, for example, the story in Brief Interviews called “The Devil Is A Busy Man.” Now you may like his cadences, his language, and his use of details in that story; I’m fine with them, although I prefer other writers. But inarguably something is also going on with the portrait of human beings who will buy cheap but won’t take stuff for free. To be frank, this is what I think many of us considered the way to write through all of adolescence and (often) beyond: you seize upon a Twilight Zone-esque irony about fallen human nature and work a story out of it.

I mean, if one asks around at a food bank or a soup kitchen or a Salvation Army shop or FreeCycle, it is easy to determine that actually people will take things for free. Yet I do sympathize with the moral passion driving the story, mostly because, even if it is working with somewhat easy material, it is still clearly passionate. So that is why I tried to describe Wallace as somebody with a lot on his mind, but simply not sure how to go forward or reach out.”

Your quibble with the material is anti-literary because it deliberately ignores the fact that the “human beings who will buy cheap but won’t take stuff for free” are not skewed, falsified or inaccurate representations of specific human beings of your own experience, they are characters in a work of fiction… in which context, reported “behaviour” is as natural or unnatural as the writer designs it to be, towards goals determined by the fiction (as determined, consciously or not, by the writer); the relative success or failure of the enterprise will vary from reader to reader, but the readers for whom a work of fiction fails on the *documentary* level are, mistakenly, I feel, reading fiction as ersatz reportage. Which is what I mean by “anti-literary”.

(My own anti-literay two cents: there’s a paper for selling/buying secondhand merchandise here called Die Zweite Hand and I’ve learned, when trying to get rid of A) an old couch and B) a hideous old 5-ton computer monitor, that it’s better to ask for a minimal price than write “Pick it up! It’s Free!” if one wants someone to actually call about the stuff).

We can re-read “Little Red Riding Hood” tonight and all agree that very few little girls of our acquaintance would mistake a wolf in a nightie for granny, but we’d be missing the point. And, btw, is the “point” of Little Red Riding Hood some sort of moral (or anything as functional as that)? It possibly was morally instructive/cautionary, back when/where it was current… but now the moral is all but incomprehensible, which doesn’t stop kids enjoying it on a level that defies explication. Likewise with the adult pleasure in the fairytales that come complicated, for adult consumption, by overt sexuality or references to work and money or with tricky word games and/or flamboyant orthographic distortions.

You can dismiss the story in question (as I dismiss any number of stories by Ray Carver; as we all dismiss something), but to reverse-engineer a “failure” by starting from a target the writer wasn’t even aiming for seems unfair.

Now, the irony is that we’ve tussled on notions of verisimilitude, or “the possible”, before, with semi-reversed positions, via my argument that any film belonging to the “super hero” genre fails, by default, to be “realistic” (ie, and eg, reflection of the audience’s average daily experience of the laws of physics or physiology). Note, however: failing to be “realistic” is in no way an aesthetic crime in a work of Art (it’s often a plus), it’s just that anyone arguing the “validity” of an artifact on that level (as something useful *because* it’s “realistic") has an entirely different rhetorical front to defend than someone arguing a preference for a work on aesthetic grounds.

I don’t think any work of fiction *needs* to be defended on the reality front, but it can certainly be dismissed (on a personal level) for any reason (on any criterium) the reader chooses.

But that’s not necessarily the same as producing a literary critique.

By Steven Augustine on 09/29/08 at 04:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t say Look Homeward, Angel was canonical. I said it was enduring. It is doing better day-to-day than plenty of books that have been recently published and are lighting up syllabi everywhere.

Yeah, I read Underworld. And I stand by what I said about House of Leaves; the fact that it didn’t appeal to you on the level of the sentence (it apparently did appeal to Waxbanks) doesn’t mean it didn’t channel certain modern anxieties, or that I couldn’t know that without wading through it. I would say the same thing about Infinite Jest, not despite its flaws, but partly because of them.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/29/08 at 05:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven,

Your parable is a parable about common sense: “I’m no literary critic, but I do know that” blah blah blah. In fact, if you want to deprecate somebody’s literary criticism, you do have to be a literary critic. I don’t mean you need a degree or a publication to your name, but a slur like “anti-literary” demands getting your own hands dirty. Otherwise you’re just the peanut gallery. Medical professionals are not exactly pleased when lay people decide they know quite enough medicine to interfere with diagnoses and treatments. There’s probably an episode of House airing right now where a concerned person is trying to keep House from walking into a patient’s room with a sledgehammer.

In your response, you keep trying to have it both ways. You start with your parable, then get into specifics. You deny the “reality-based” way of reading texts, and then drop in your own experience selling stuff on Die Kraigs Listen. Is it really that surprising that a secondhand goods paper would lead to different exchanges than a site dedicated to “freecycling” goods? It’s a difference of structure. Create a structure that supports generous exchanges, as the people at FreeCycle did, and all of a sudden you can teach pigs to sing (to paraphrase Wallace’s story).

“Little Red Riding Hood,” an acting-out of certain childhood anxieties, isn’t a natural parallel here. Better would be any of Aesop’s fables. Sure, you could say that Aesop’s fables are just stories about magical talking bats, and have no necessary relation to daily life on Earth, but that would be a terrible reading. You refer vaguely to Wallace’s “goals” as the criteria for judging him, but what were those goals? To make us all feel slightly worse about humanity? It’s as if you want to make up an interview where Wallace says to us, “Any resemblance to actual hideous men living or dead is purely coincidental. I just thought it would be nice to imagine hideousness and then to cover my pages with it.” Disconnecting Wallace from the real world makes his embittered moral judgements harder to understand, not easier.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/29/08 at 06:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph:

I argued an unambitious case carefully; I also didn’t try to have anything “both ways” because I qualified all of my statements to prevent that conflict (my parenthetical graf about selling couches was labeled as *anti-literary* for a reason; using it as ammo, despite that, is shoiddy/unsporting). Starting with a parable and going into specifics isn’t a contradiction of my implicit purpose here, it’s my fulfillment of your requirement that I “get my hands dirty”.

Naming DFW’s (or the story’s) goal isn’t necessary (or possible): showing that he had any goal other than mirroring *your* experience of the world was all I needed to do (and I did it, unless it turns out DFW is a creature of *your* imagination).

And your Aesop riff is near-non-sequiturial (and possibly mere decorative pedantry?): again, all I needed do was cite a famous narrative that many find enjoyable *despite* the obvious “unreality” therein. It could just as easily have been a Mickey Spillane trifle, or I.B. Singer, I was referencing to make the point.

You’re trying to take on too many reasonable criticisms at once and flailing. I like the young-Bobby-Fischerness (or Bruce Lee-ness) of the attempt but the results are somewhat sloppy.

My own feeling is that writing DFW’s anti-eulogy (quite obviously) requires more knowledge of the work than you’re in possession of and, really: what *is* the point, and how is this article better than a very minor blog posting?

By Steven Augustine on 09/29/08 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Your parable is a parable about common sense: ‘I’m no literary critic, but I do know that’ blah blah blah. In fact, if you want to deprecate somebody’s literary criticism, you do have to be a literary critic.”

Are you actually claiming that title ("literary critic") for yourself? Are you presenting this not-quite-adequately-prepared opinion piece as literary criticism, Joseph? Would you say I’m alone in pointing out that it fails on that level?

By Steven Augustine on 09/29/08 at 07:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven,

Talk about being unsporting! Qualifying a doubled, internally inconsistent move one way or another doesn’t change the fact that you’re throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks.

By merely stating that Wallace had “goals” that weren’t “mirroring [my] experience,” you aren’t showing or proving a thing. I remain assured that holding a mirror to reality, mine included, is precisely what Wallace intended to do.

My reference to Aesop isn’t a “riff,” and this isn’t a Led Zeppelin song. Wallace’s story is a fable. It ends with an explicit discussion of its own “lesson.” It is different, on the level of genre, from a non-pedagogical fairy tale like “Little Red Riding Hood.”

It could just have easily been a Mickey Spillane trifle

Suddenly everything is a perfectly good example of anything, at least where the creative arts are concerned. Now who’s being reductive?

My own feeling is that writing DFW’s anti-eulogy (quite obviously) requires more knowledge of the work than you’re in possession of and, really: what *is* the point, and how is this article better than a very minor blog posting?

Well, it is a blog posting. What knowledge are we talking about? I mean, sure, somebody out there has also read his new stories and The Broom of the System and all the essay collections, but that hypothetical CV doesn’t mean I happen to be wrong about Infinite Jest.

Are you actually claiming that title ("literary critic") for yourself? Are you presenting this not-quite-adequately-prepared opinion piece as literary criticism, Joseph? Would you say I’m alone in pointing out that it fails on that level?

No, Steven, you’re not alone, and the bandwagon does not intimidate me. Yeah, I’m claiming the title “literary critic” for myself. It’s what I do for my living alongside of teaching English. If you want to be a “literary critic” too, go ahead and plant your flag. I’m not stopping you.

My intention in writing blog posts is to get people thinking, not to present research papers with footnotes. I’ve written plenty of blog posts like that, and they receive few responses. Nobody has the time to read them, and I don’t have the time to write them. This certainly was an opinion piece, but it is grounded on a series of interpretive arguments backed up by months of reading Wallace and years of thinking back on that reading. That is enough prep work, given the medium.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/29/08 at 07:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph:

“Qualifying a doubled, internally inconsistent move one way or another doesn’t change the fact that you’re throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks.”

Read the comments as carefully as they were written. My point was that A) the story in question needn’t have reflected any particular person’s experience of human behaviour to work although B) even if that *were* a requiremnent, the story would have met that requirement for *me*, because I have experienced that phenomenon in “the real world”, even if you haven’t.

What’s the “doubled, internally inconsistent move one way or another” in that? That phrase is very thin doubletalk.

“Yeah, I’m claiming the title “literary critic” for myself. It’s what I do for my living alongside of teaching English. If you want to be a ‘literary critic’ too, go ahead and plant your flag. I’m not stopping you.”

Joseph, citing Dawson’s Creek in an attack on DFW doesn’t do much for your bona fides as a “literay critic”, however many thousands you apparently earn in that capacity (or even if it’s just pocket money). Let’s go full pop (yet no longer quite fashionable) and invoke Britney as a “professional” singer; is she also a “good” one?

Your consistent conflation of “plot” and “purpose” highlights one of your limits as a TV-bred (or infected) judge of Literature; writing “The Sopranos covered more territory than Infinite Jest”, in a populist forum, long long ago, could well have seemed a boldly unselfconscious move for some young lion to make, but now it’s just lamely rebellious.

And, while I have no interest in playing “literary critic” with you or anyone else, I won’t accept just any dismissive, half-arsed readings of authors/books I’ve read myself, very carefully, with pleasure. Sometimes I even post comments to that effect.

Anyway, you’ve succeeded in persuading everyone that you don’t much care for DFW’s work, and that you find your own reasons not merely personal but significant.

By Steven Augustine on 09/29/08 at 08:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven,

Read the comments as carefully as they were written. My point was that A) the story in question needn’t have reflected any particular person’s experience of human behaviour to work although B) even if that *were* a requiremnent, the story would have met that requirement for *me*, because I have experienced that phenomenon in “the real world”, even if you haven’t.

Since I absolutely will not grant (A) without serious debate, a debate that in fact we have already had a long time ago, let’s confine ourselves to (B), without taking refuge back in (A) if it seems opportune to do so.

It is not merely a question of ascertaining whether or not the readers of a secondhand bulletin are more likely to buy something for $1 or to pick it up for free. One has to ask what leads them to it—what structures dictate their actions. The people who use FreeCycle are not better people than the people who use Die Zweite Hand, more trusting, less grasping. Rather, they are behaving rationally within a differently constructed medium. Wallace sees the possibility of a certain pervasive market system inspiring average, daily mistrust and greed, but he blames the people rather than the system, just as he blames lonely people for being lonely. A structural analysis can make plenty of room for both Die Zweite Hand and FreeCycle, and a good story is a structural analysis.

I don’t know that Britney Spears is a very good singer, although she has put on a lot of excellent singles, but if the point of your contorted metaphor is to compare her singing to my literary criticism, then I would respond that even if she’s not a good singer I certainly wouldn’t call what she does “anti-singing” or even “anti-musical.”

Why is it, exactly, that referring to the earnest dialogue in Dawson’s Creek caused such a fuss? I wasn’t claiming that Dawson’s Creek was a brilliant show, just that it was ideologically committed to articulate earnestness, even when that broke verisimilitude or clashed painfully with the absurd plotting.

The problem with citing Dawson’s Creek was that it was television and lowbrow television at that. Wallace’s readers, like Wallace himself, want to take their stand against the corruptions of television and vulgar culture. That was my point about the footnotes dotting the text. But this desperate ploy for distinction is an ignoble battle and a losing one, and there’s no better sign than the fragile rebel confidence yielding quickly to vituperation and rage.

Or maybe you just shouldn’t recycle what Tom Mellers already wrote upthread.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/29/08 at 09:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Or maybe you just shouldn’t recycle what Tom Mellers already wrote upthread.”

Joseph, to help you keep these things straight, Tom Mellers wrote:

“I suspect you’re one of those grad students who like TV and don’t like contemporary novels, yet who aren’t quite comfortable with this fact about themselves. That’s allowed, you know, to prefer TV. No need to make ridiculous comparisons.”

I wrote:

“Joseph, citing Dawson’s Creek in an attack on DFW doesn’t do much for your bona fides as a ‘literay critic’, however many thousands you apparently earn in that capacity (or even if it’s just pocket money). Let’s go full pop (yet no longer quite fashionable) and invoke Britney as a ‘professional’ singer; is she also a ‘good’ one?”

Different statements, man! You have a tendency to argue using *tone* as the chief implement, as though the air of exasperation you’re so good at communicating is enough.

You refute the following, “My point was that A) the story in question needn’t have reflected any particular person’s experience of human behaviour to work...” by stubbornly eliding that “any particular person” and treating the sentence as though I mean by it that fiction doesn’t, or shouldn’t, reflect *anyone’s* experience… because it’s convenient for you to frame my reasonable observation as Hysterical Formalism. My only question: is this obtuseness on purpose?

*I’m open to any insights that will freshen or add to my understanding of the material at hand* but too much literary criticism, in my opinion, is in bad faith or misplaced (critics writing about writers they don’t like or “get”; what’s the point?) or driven by careerism (a la Mr. Wood’s or Mr. Kirsch’s sweaty climb to the top) or the super-banal mysteries of ego.

Don’t worry: I promise (before the thread gets closed or deleted) to keep it at that. The diminishing returns light is flashing…

By Steven Augustine on 09/30/08 at 04:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven,
Tom called me “oriented towards TV,” you called me “a TV-bred (or infected) judge of Literature.” Not so different after all. The error of insisting that television infects while literature pleases or educates is, among other things, a serious handicap when it comes to interpreting the literature of the television age.
To say that a story “needn’t have reflected any particular person’s experience” is not grammatically the same as saying that a story “needn’t have reflected one particular person’s experience.” If you meant the latter, that’s how you should have written it.
But that isn’t the conceptual point here. If somebody writes a story about a murderous, animalistic black man assaulting a careless, helpless white lady, they are certainly allowed to protest that their story isn’t supposed to represent anything general, and therefore shouldn’t be interpreted as racist. Likewise, a dream journal is certainly “true” in the sense that it describes the subjective experiences of the dreamer. Yet we do feel uncomfortable about the first story, and bored by the journal, because on some level everyone understands that a story’s profundity hinges on its relation to the universal. The quality of a work of fiction is partly a function of how well the author understands its universal meaning, and so it is quite possible to have an experience, to relate it truthfully up to the limits of one’s insight, and still to have misunderstood. Whether or not Wallace’s story is “truthful” depends less on whether instances of that phenomenon exist, and more on what account of the phenomenon he provides.

I’m open to any insights that will freshen or add to my understanding of the material at hand* but too much literary criticism, in my opinion, is in bad faith or misplaced (critics writing about writers they don’t like or “get”; what’s the point?)

The point is to be able to make discriminations, rather than making the whole practice of criticism irrelevant by saying nothing if you don’t have anything nice to say. (But that isn’t even the case here; my original post was not a slash-and-burn.)

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/30/08 at 04:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, Steven, Richard...Gentlemen,

I appreciate the sympathetic chimings from Steven and Richard. Many issues here, obviously, some of them quite complex. But I was making a very simple point, one Joseph has yet to address or even grasp, it seems. When he attempted to address it, Joseph made a basic category mistake.

Of course, Wallace wrote about TV. TV was one of his SUBJECTS.

I have no idea why Joseph thinks that justifies his weird idea of a foot race between Infinite Jest and a WB melodrama, in which either one could be “outpaced” (J’s word) by the other. To put it more abstractly: this is a matter of how we evaluate a novel, not a matter of whether a novelist found a particular subject congenial. I claimed that it is silly to evaluate a serious novel based on the extent to which it scooped, or got scooped, by Dawson’s Creek.

I don’t mind J’s tone. It’s possible to sound exasperated without exasperating those of us who like order and logic.  J should possibly watch a little less television, though.  I know that whenever I watch too much TV, my sense of order and logic suffers.

Tom

By on 10/01/08 at 05:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph,

I do see you as a literary critic, and I agree that a substantive critique of literary criticism requires further literary criticism. I just didn’t think your post amounted to much in the way of literary criticism. In my view, a “literary” reading of Wallace or any other writer would attend to the actual text, the words used, the effects achieved by those words. You don’t bother with any of this. You’re more concerned with examining those elements that it could possibly share with artifacts from other media (plot, character, theme). It’s not that discussing those elements is inappropriate in literary criticism, but you seem to want to discuss them only in terms that are relatable to tv shows or movies or whatever else isn’t a book. For example, you compare Infinite Jest‘s “ideological statement” with that of “The Sopranos”; Wallace’s supposed “earnestness” with that of “Dawson’s Creek” or Bright Eyes. I don’t have a problem with you doing this, but it’s not literary criticism. (I do have a problem with the condescending way in which you declare that “actually” “The Sopranos” does “it” better.)

“You know, once upon a time the novel was a danger to poetry; if you read My Name Is Red, you can learn that in the Middle East Western painting techniques were considered a danger to the Islamic art of painting miniatures.”

Television is not like the novel. The spurious idea that it’s just another medium in which artists might work is itself a product of unexamined ideology. The bit about My Name is Read is telling; citing a novel as evidence for facts in the real world is pretty weak. In any event, the reference is beside the point. Television is substantially different as a technology than all the rest, including radio, and the experience of it in our lives is substantially different.

“Television and irony are not conspiring to make writing impossible.”

I didn’t say that television and irony are “conspiring to make writing impossible”, and neither did Wallace. I do maintain that television makes writing difficult, for a variety of reasons, which I don’t really think I should have to delineate here, they are so obvious. [Incidentally, this comment was written before I saw Tom’s last comment, above. I, for one, know that television viewing--and internet use--has clearly affected my ability to think and compose.]

“You are really going to tell me that a book about a lethal movie and videophones has nothing to do with television?”

Yes, I am. But did you even bother to try to understand what I might mean by that? I’d already said that the experience of reading a book, Infinite Jest in particular, has nothing to do with (is nothing like) the experience of watching a television show, “The Sopranos” in particular. This obvious, basic observation you swept aside as essentially irrelevant, since they both “are” “ideological statements” and can be read that way. Well, they can be “read” for their ideological content, but the problem of what the work actually does, for the reader, does not go away. I’m asking you, as a literary critic for God’s sake, to return to the reading experience (to coin a blog name--where is Dan Green when you need him?), and to make that the basis on which you judge the work. All of your references in this thread to form and style are cursory and dismissive (and, in my opinion, uncharitable). My reading is that, in his fiction, Wallace brilliantly inhabits various language-worlds, displaying enormous imaginative empathy along the way. (I also find it frankly bizarre that you find his view of humanity cold. I do not think we are reading the same author.)

“The fact is that you knew Wallace’s essay on television relates to his literary work, so you didn’t want to trot out your thunderous pronouncment, preferring instead to try to come at me sideways by lumping my response to a different commenter in with some random group of Wallace’s critics/bludgeoners.”

I didn’t say the essay didn’t relate to his literary work. What I said was that Wallace correctly identified television as a problem for the writer. This problem doesn’t go away just because people once feared that the novel would ruin poetry. (I have to admit that in order for me to say much more about the essay, I’d have to read it again, and my Wallace books are not readily available. I confess that this is not a high priority for me right now.)

“After all, I have to be sympathetic to Wallace’s situation. For many of the modernists, writing was impossible because of the horrors of WWI. For Theodor Adorno, art was nearly made impossible by the 6 million people killed during the Holocaust. And for Wallace, writing is pushed to its breaking point by Saturday Night Live. It seems every generation must face horrors of equal magnitude in its ongoing effort to write.”

I don’t know what to tell you, Joseph. I find this passage in your comment unnecessarily sarcastic and glib, and to be missing the various points by a country mile. I find I don’t even know where to begin in addressing them, so instead I’ll ask you this: Have you ever read Gabriel Josipovici’s criticism? I’m tempted to quote from him substantially here, but I will refrain from doing so.  Instead, I recommend his book On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Susipicion. Not to worry, he doesn’t talk about Wallace at all, but I see Wallace as belonging to the lineage of writers he does talk about. I see Wallace as a Modernist, concerned with the same sorts of problems as the Modernists.

“It’s just funny that Wallace would pick irony, since irony has been the great liberating force for so many writers, going back to the Enlightenment (if not further, to Chaucer or Plato) and forward to Thomas Mann and Ralph Ellison.”

Wallace does not announce that the writer should abandon irony. Nor did he abandon irony in his own writing.

In connection with this last statement, and the one about Wallace-as-Modernist, I’ll say it again: his short fiction, far from being “a study in diminishing returns”, is where the real action was. You vastly underrate Brief Interviews, and Oblivion, which I gather you haven’t read and which admittedly has a couple stories that aren’t quite worth the considerable effort it takes to read them, is fantastic.

By Richard on 10/01/08 at 08:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

***To say that a story “needn’t have reflected any particular person’s experience” is not grammatically the same as saying that a story “needn’t have reflected one particular person’s experience.” If you meant the latter, that’s how you should have written it.***

Joseph, you probably didn’t get the memo that day, but one of the definitions of “particular” is, “1: of, relating to, or being a single person or thing”. If that helps. If you need help with “any”, too, you know where to find it.

By Steven Augustine on 10/01/08 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tom,

J should possibly watch a little less television, though.  I know that whenever I watch too much TV, my sense of order and logic suffers.

As opposed to when you read Antonin Artaud or Arthur Rimbaud or Finnegans Wake? At best, this is a road that leads straight to the desperate superficiality of the Mozart For Your Mind and Baby Loves Mozart records.

I claimed that it is silly to evaluate a serious novel based on the extent to which it scooped, or got scooped, by Dawson’s Creek.

That could be. But in this case I was evaluating an idea in one of Wallace’s essays.

Richard,

I absolutely recognize the possibility of certain kinds of non-visual, complex sentiments being conveyed in Infinite Jest that could only be conveyed by a novel—i.e., by the peculiar communications technology that a novel is.

On the other hand, there is no law stating that readings of a literary text must be either microscopic or seismographic (recording the reader’s experience as a narrative of sorts). It is not always necessary to descend to the level of the word; in fact, doing so obscures certain meanings while illuminating others. Nor can you oppose ideology and readerly experience, as though it was possible to guard against discussions of the ideas in a work of literature by insisting that ideas are not, in some primal way, experienced.

I should point out that my experience as a reader is folded into what I’m saying here. I got to the passage in Infinite Jest written from the point of view of the drug dealer, and I suddenly had all kinds of thoughts: Why is he doing this? This character feels artificial, overly recognizable. What does this have to do with the rest of the story, other than the associative link of “drugs”? Is this character going to return? (No.) ...and so on. There were other moments I thought were moving or clever, naturally. Calling Wallace “something of a failure” is not to say that he failed totally.

Turning to “The Devil Is A Busy Man,” I see that Wallace is writing in a breathless, folksy style, but I don’t see how that integrates with the events of the story, except as a way of reinforcing the corn-shuckin’ wisdom of the rather archetypal father character. Sure, you could invent elaborate motivations for the lack of punctuation, but only if you ignore the fact that most of Wallace’s stories are written like that, regardless of who’s speaking or what’s going on.

I agree that Wallace was modernist in his stylistic variety and his aims, but I think his books read as inferior to those of his models (Joyce, Pynchon, Barthelme, and the New Journalists).

Television is not like the novel. The spurious idea that it’s just another medium in which artists might work is itself a product of unexamined ideology. The bit about My Name is Read is telling; citing a novel as evidence for facts in the real world is pretty weak. In any event, the reference is beside the point. Television is substantially different as a technology than all the rest, including radio, and the experience of it in our lives is substantially different.

In some cases a novel does contain facts about the real world; it’s not “weak” to say so if those facts are true. Feel free to prove that My Name Is Red invented the anxieties to which I refer.

Television is substantially different from most other media (it isn’t hugely different from movies, of course), but not in terms of artistic possibility or social threat. You are recycling, down to the word, the kind of Chicken Little responses to new media that have always accompanied their development.

I’ll take it on faith that there’s good stuff in oblivion; it could be all gems and we’d still have a discussion on our hands, given the nature of his essays and big novels.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/01/08 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"On the other hand, there is no law stating that readings of a literary text must be either microscopic or seismographic (recording the reader’s experience as a narrative of sorts). It is not always necessary to descend to the level of the word; in fact, doing so obscures certain meanings while illuminating others. Nor can you oppose ideology and readerly experience, as though it was possible to guard against discussions of the ideas in a work of literature by insisting that ideas are not, in some primal way, experienced.”

I agree with this, for what it’s worth. I should say that I am not trying to suggest that ideas are not part of the experience. I suppose, in part, I was objecting to the reduction of the ideas experienced in Wallace’s experience, to a one-line or one-paragraph “ideological statement”, which is then compared to a similar statement from other media, as if the nature of the experience doesn’t influence the quality of exposure the ideas.

“Calling Wallace “something of a failure” is not to say that he failed totally.” [...] “I agree that Wallace was modernist in his stylistic variety and his aims, but I think his books read as inferior to those of his models”

I have absolutely no problem with either of these statements either. I still happen to think that Wallace’s fiction has vastly more going for it than any of the other writers you mentioned in the original post (some of whom have written novels I have enjoyed, others of whom are simply embarrassing--Sedaris?).

“In some cases a novel does contain facts about the real world; it’s not “weak” to say so if those facts are true. Feel free to prove that My Name Is Red invented the anxieties to which I refer.”

It’s obviously true that novels contain facts about the real world, and it’s true that we learn such things about the world from novels. I can concede this point, but I will clarify why I took issue with that particular sentence of yours, in the context of the rest of our discussion. Your citing the novel as evidence seemed of a piece with what I was--perhaps unfairly--reading as a tendency on your part to marginalize or ignore the “literary” qualities of fiction in favor of what one might “learn” from it, be it facts or ideological statements you disagree with, or whatever.

“Television is substantially different from most other media (it isn’t hugely different from movies, of course), but not in terms of artistic possibility or social threat. You are recycling, down to the word, the kind of Chicken Little responses to new media that have always accompanied their development.”

Well, television is substantially different in terms of social threat. (That this is debatable is astonishing to me, but I know I’m in the minority on this one.) Whether or not I’m recycling past overblown “Chicken Little responses to new media” doesn’t make my assessment inaccurate. Obviously you disagree that television is a problem. I’m not going to try to persuade you otherwise in this space. (Also, do I need to say this? I have watched countless hours of television in my life, and have loved and still do love plenty of it, and I still watch a decent amount of it, despite my better efforts.)

By Richard on 10/01/08 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Richard,

I also find much of Sedaris embarrassing, particularly when he tries to be earnest rather than funny.

I think we are hindered from going forward by a practical problem: my copies of Infinite Jest and The Girl With Curious Hair are in storage, victims of a necessary triage since I have little space in my apartment. Even though you have the book within arm’s reach, I think, it’s huge, and I can understand how you might not want to prioritize searching through it.

I understand how you read my reference to Pamuk; as I’m sure my earlier comments made clear, I am myself media-troubled by the difficulty of starting blog discussions via close readings (as opposed to larger, synoptic claims like the ones I make here). Perhaps I’ve swung the balance too far the other way.

***

Let me try to make clear how I feel about television. I do feel troubled about the influence television has had on the novel, and I’m not especially pleased with its role in Western society.

That said, let’s focus on one particular well-known statistic: that the average American watches something like six hours of television per day. (I continue not to believe this is true, since I can’t imagine how it is physically possible, but perhaps the real average is something like four hours.) If I was told that the average American spent six hours a day reading, I would still feel a great deal of concern. The balance would still be weighted too heavily towards passive consumption. So in that sense the real problem is the consumer culture of passivity and not the medium of television.

Of course, we associate reading with skill in writing, and that’s reasonable enough, but it only goes so far—beyond a certain point, writers get better by writing. Likewise that elusive quality “critical thinking.” The real spur to critical thinking is discussion and disputation, not reading plain and simple.

If I heard of a television critic who watched television six hours per day, then spent another few hours each day writing thoughtfully about television and discussing it with other viewers, I would consider that person as educated and valuable as any literary critic. I would feel this even more strongly if they focused on the best shows and took advantage of the advertisement-free, replay-friendly TV-on-DVD format.

Many people complain that television weakens the imagination, since it supplies images rather than forcing the reader to invent them. I cannot accept this argument for two reasons. First of all, most great filmmakers and television writers like to watch movies and television. If David Lynch’s imagination had been deadened by the movies, he couldn’t have given us Mulholland Drive. Second, there are many voracious readers who show little creative imagination. (It is often their fate to become lesser critics.) Reading awakens the receptive imagination, but it does not necessarily inspire creative agency.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/01/08 at 09:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How many times am I going to have to tell you that the title of the book is Girl with Curious Hair?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 10/01/08 at 09:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"replay-friendly TV-on-DVD format”

A quibble: DVDs are not quite replay friendly.  You have to skip to the beginning of a unit of whatever is on the DVD—you can’t go back a minute or two to see something again that you’ve missed something about at first viewing.  Digital video recorders like Tivo or its clones are replay friendly.  That is a subtle bias in favor of TV critics who watch shows just being aired over those watching past material.

By on 10/01/08 at 09:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK Joseph, please, please:

Actually, I haven’t read House of Leaves, so I’m not in a position to say whether or not it’s better than Infinite Jest. My specific data about it comes from Wikipedia; my impressions of its cultural role come from many discussions about it with friends and acquaintances who did read it.

I confess that I am a little drunk (how else do you watch the antepenultimate episode of goddamn Project Runway?!), but those sentences are some bullshit. In kindergarten I used to sit in the corner quietly reading during naptime, so I don’t think of such a situation as punishment, but baby you have ten minutes sitting quietly in the corner, starting now.

In a professional context that’s unforgivable, right? (I wouldn’t know - ‘unprofessional’ is my stage name.) Someone convene a panel on blogging in academia! Right? Right?

By waxbanks on 10/01/08 at 10:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, shouldn’t Scott be dropping bombs all over this thread right about now?

By waxbanks on 10/01/08 at 10:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I think we are hindered from going forward by a practical problem: my copies of Infinite Jest and The Girl With Curious Hair are in storage, victims of a necessary triage since I have little space in my apartment. Even though you have the book within arm’s reach, I think, it’s huge, and I can understand how you might not want to prioritize searching through it.”

Actually, all of my Wallace, except for Oblivion, is in storage as well (small house, new baby, etc). So, yeah, I’m not really prepared to continue the discussion with any sort of detail, either.

Thanks for your thoughts on television. I don’t have time to respond at the moment, but perhaps tomorrow…

By Richard on 10/01/08 at 10:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan,

Well, clearly I needed at least one more reminder.

Waxbanks,

I feel simply awful. But please note that nothing I wrote disagreed with what you wrote, and also that The Valve isn’t a profession.

Yes, Scott should. He knows this but is busy, as we all are.

Rich,

My computer enables me to do exactly the kind of rewinding you’re talking about, as (I think) do most DVD player remote controls.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/01/08 at 10:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Scott should. He knows this but is busy, as we all are.

Actually, I’ve got plenty of time—I just ran out of bombs.

I’ll Dresden you shortly though, when I finish re-reading The Infinitely Curious Jest with Broom for Hair.  I think you’re dead wrong, needless to say, but I know better than to say that without ammunition.  (You know, bombs.) The last word I’d use to describe IJ is “hollow.” If anything, he’s overly sentimental.  More later.

But a bit more now: to get all historicist on you, you’re being anachronistic here.  It makes no sense to say that IJ‘s earnestness was outpaced by Bright Eyes and Dawson’s Creek—band and show entered the cultural scene in ‘98, three years after IJ was published, but neither gained much in the way of traction for a few more years still.  In other words, as I wrote earlier, I consider IJ a catalyst, not a competitor, such that without Wallace we wouldn’t have Whedon or Williamson or Oberst.  (I know, I know—but without Whedon and the return of the auteur to television, we might not have The Wire or Deadwood either.  But that’s a larger argument.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/01/08 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kugelmass: “At the same time, he was something of a failure. He was not a da Vinci. His book on infinity was an explication of the concept, not a mathematical treatise”

Not a da Vinci equals failure?

It isn’t very easy to be a brilliant artist and a genius mathematician in the 20th and 21st century.

By on 10/06/08 at 02:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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