People sometimes ask me “where do you find articles like that” and I am more than willing to reveal my sources. One of them is Arts and Letters Daily, a website run by The Chronicle of Higher Education. The site provides links to academic articles on a wide variety of topics in the humanities. If you’re looking for something to read, it won’t let you down. Right now, there are stories about denialism, Oscar Wilde’s US book tour, and whether learning French involves a period of hazing.
The next question is usually “where do you find the time to read all that” and the answer is I don’t. I get their digest every week which points me to the top 5 articles.
Which is all a long way to let you know that this week the #1 article was Academics Explain David Foster Wallace to Me: A report from the 5th-annual David Foster Wallace Conference. It was published on The Outline and was written by Daniel Kolitz.
The reason it caught my attention is that Barb and I read Infinite Jest as part of our annual impossible book read, which you can read about here. Let’s just say we weren’t big fans.
There are literary qualities. DFW was a magician with words and detail. He was observant and prescient. But, Dave Eggers called it “lexical diarrhea” when it came out and he’s right. It’s self-indulgent and narcissistic and even with the “look ma no hands” style moments, the whole is vastly overrated.
I have enjoyed some of DFW’s non-fiction, especially when he goes to (wait for it) a trade show on adult films or on a cruise and reports back on the people he sees, employing his incredible power of observation to great comedic effect.
The first thing that struck me about this essay was that much of it actually read like the DFW coming back and writing an essay about visiting a conference about himself. There’s observation and sympathy and some really good laughs. Kolitz actually has a DFW-like command of detail when he describes something, as in:
Which is how a surprisingly accessible talk on the “synecdochic network of the Encyclopedic novel” — from Kathryne Metcalf, a neon-orange-haired graduate student in American Cultural Studies at Bowling Green State who’d driven through the night from Ohio to get there — wound up being delivered to me, and only me, while at regular intervals raucous, sold-out-crowd laughter erupted from the next room (this from a panel titled “Depression, Alienation, and the Medical Gaze in Infinite Jest”). Eventually another person did slink in, allowing me to tactfully flee next door, which sounds cruel but by this time Metcalf had ceded the floor to her Skyped-in co-panelist, an Italian named Marco who’d spent much of the talk darkly muttering to someone (or something) off-camera. (“Honestly I don’t really know what happened,” Metcalf told me, over make-your-own-tacos at lunch. “He defined the word ‘ouroboros’ over and over, and then he talked about programming for a while, and then he defined ouroboros a couple more times, and then it was over.”)
It’s like of a land-o-lakes-lady-holding-the-butter-with-her-picture-on-it moment.
Also: even at DFW-fest, BGSU always represents! #ayziggy.
Beyond that, though, it raises some interesting questions.
First, why (or how) did this author get his own society? I mean that both literally and rhetorically. Importantly, the story notes that the international DFW society has 170 members, so that provides some perspective. But, what is it about DFW that has inspired this kind of passion in anyone, even in small groups?
You do get an idea when you read the article. I’m not sure I reached understanding, but there are notions in there.
More importantly was the chance to think (again) about the relationship between bad people and their art, the discussion of which Kolitz noted was ruining “first dates” across the US.
It’s a tough one. I love Midnight in Paris. Can you still watch it, knowing who Woody Allen is? Can you really compartmentalize all that? That’s a tough one.
My perspective has always been that you have to separate the creator and the art. Caravaggio was a raving asshole. Do you take him off the walls of the museum?
I also understand that my perspective might be a product of white (and male) privilege.
Having said that, as I read this article I did see the point. You can’t separate the self-indulgence, lack of impulse control and narcissism of the man who slept with his students and abused his girlfriend with the self-indulgence, lack of impulse control and narcissism of the man who wrote a ten-page description of moving a mattress or all those footnotes or any of the diarrhea that is in much of Infinite Jest.
Even that’s kind of a chicken shit way out of the debate about whether it is right to read/watch these people.
In the #metoo world, it isn’t an academic debate.
Last note. Even as an Infinite Jest critic, you have to note that this book will not go away.