Is DFW Washed Up?

[2009 UPDATE: This article was written by someone who greatly admired David Foster Wallace and hoped he would regain his footing as a writer. It was written before David Foster Wallace’s suicide and without knowledge of the author’s troubled emotional and mental state. (It is highly doubtful that DFW read this site or even cared about my opinion. But had I been informed of his troubled condition, I likely would have written this piece differently.) To preserve history, the article remains unchanged and unmodified from its previous form. I am not interested in revisionism. Nor am I interested in tempering or modifying what I said at the time. Since I have received several emails and comments suggesting the deranged idea that I wrote this article with the hope that DFW would hang himself, let me correct the wingnuts. I wrote this article because I had hoped that the genius who gave us Infinite Jest would return to his former heights. And if you are offended by writing that unhinges your delicate and inflexible sensibilities, or confirms your worldview, I suggest that you hit Alt-F4 right now and join any number of cults, religions, or groups that specialize in such a despicable and counter-intuitive human condition.]

dfw.jpgIt goes without saying that I’ve been a DFW fan ever since reading Infinite Jest in 1997. The book in question was absconded third-hand from a man in Sacramento, who gave it to someone else “because you’re smart enough to get this,” and this person in turn gave it to me. The hardcover (who knows if the original owner ever missed it?) sits proudly in my bookcase to this day. At first, I called it Infinite Pest, but once I fell into its groove about 75 pages in, I was tickled by its plot shuffling, its endlessly inventive endnotes, its penchant for detail, and its gleeful sense of the absurd. The book was, outside of Pynchon, one of my first reading experiences involving a mammoth postmodern novel.

Ten years have gone by since Infinite Jest was the Novel That All Smart People Are Reading. Sure enough, a tenth anniversary volume is in the works from Little, Brown. Since Infinite Jest, Wallace has produced two volumes of fiction and two volumes of essays. But where the other two “prodigious fiction” writers singled out by Tom LeClair (Richard Powers and William T. Vollmann) have proven that they aren’t just cerebral structuralists flaunting their immense knowledge (in many cases working against their own limitations), Wallace, by contrast, has more or less shuffled to the same beat.

Now nobody wants to say this. Even I harbor some small hope that Wallace will either try something daringly different or subject his work to a degree of scrutiny in which peers tear him a necessary new one. But since this has not happened, it’s time to confess the cold hard truth: Wallace has failed to evolve. Why then is he still writing? Phoning it in, as Wallace did with the recent Federer essay, is simply too whorish for a man of his obvious talents.

The stories in Oblivion remain cold, needlessly dense, mired in academese and marketing jargon, and are, for the most part, all fixated on the same cartoonish emotion of detached anxiety. Banging the same drum over the course of a short story collection is, for my money, a cardinal sin. (Even if it is DFW here, it simply must be said.) The essays in Consider the Lobster are certainly amusing, but the only real “evolution” of the Wallace form is contained within “Host,” an essay in which DFW’s footnotes take over the text in an almost desperate way. This is all very fascinating (personally, I preferred the Atlantic colored typesetting to the book’s crude flowchart form), but it still leaves one wondering whether this is truly the best Wallace can evolve. Or if he really wants to be writing.

One looks upon the strange irony of Wallace touring the country for a book while ignoring virtually all interviews and wonders if Wallace is only putting out these books or accepting these gigs to keep a little extra cash coming in. You do what you have to do, I guess. But living at the whims of Bonnie Nadell (or anyone) seems a bit puerile for a man of 44.

It’s worth mentioning that during his San Francisco appearance with Rick Moody last year, Wallace noted that he had attempted a “sentimental” novel, which he abandoned. And I can’t help but wonder if this is symbolic in some sense. Reading his last two books in particular, I detected a joyless timbre, an almost total reluctance to pursue emotions on any subject at all. There was, of course, the brief allusion to religion in DFW’s 9/11 essay, the only essay in Consider the Lobster to contains any real feeling at all. Is it because Wallace wishes to isolate himself from the public? Or is it because he secretly detests writing?

One thing’s for sure: What has happened with Wallace is the same thing that befell Barth after Letters: Barth, like Wallace, had established himself as a professor and his later writing was denuded of the early career zest.

While it breaks my heart to say it, I think Wallace is washed up. He could very well prove me wrong. But if he has nothing playful or interesting to contribute to the world of letters, I’d much prefer it if he threw in the towel and coasted on his past achievements, rather than writing work that sometimes reads and feels as dated and inconsequential as a 1997 episode of Seinfeld.


  1. First, let me say that while I disagree, I do not do so in an attempt to say you are wrong–I know this is all a matter of impression and what not–and I do not want this to come off as a “Oh, man, no way! DFW rules.” I recently spent time telling someone how great Wallace was and touched on the opposite of a lot of your points, so I might as well…

    I recently finished Oblivion and I thought is was really great, really sad and really touching. In particular I found “Good Old Neon” and “The Suffering Channel” to be particularly great. It strikes me that though Wallace may have sustained his style for the most part over the years, I find the stories in Oblivion to have refined his technique greatly. Yes, the stories are wordy and opaque and full of jargon, but they are incredibly fluid–and still the core of empathy for people in terrible situations is there–that core that made IJ so wonderful. (On the other hand, I enjoy Brief Int. much less than other people I know. I have a harder time getting into those stories).

    Of course, some of this is entierly dependant on the person reading–what strikes me as sad and moving may seem stupid or off putting for another–and also I imagine that this probably largely is a matter of timing. I read IJ last Christmas–and had only read a few stories before that–and since have read almost everything else he has written, so I don’t have the same sense of his writing over time having taken it all in one lump.

    Maybe that is the difference.

  2. I read this blog everyday and I am usually amused and rarely offended by its contents.

    This post really bothers me for some reason. I am not interested in getting into the finer points of your criticism of Wallace because that is a matter of opinion, but I am curious about what the point of this post is supposed to be. I know that you don’t shy away from confrontation (or at least blog-frontation) but this just seems like needless (and perhaps unjustified) muckraking.

    What do we gain by proclaiming an extremely talented and still relatively young author “washed-up?” It sounds to me like you are basically saying:

    Dear Mr. Wallace, If you are not going to write any more mind-blowingly awesome novels of incredible depth and skill, please just stop writing altogether. Regards, Ed

    You have complained often on this site about DFW’s reluctance to be interviewed by anyone including yourself and I can’t help wonder if this post would have ever appeared if there was a forthcoming DFW appearence on the Bat Segundo show.

    If you care to explain how your comments are useful or constructive in any way, I would welcome it.

  3. DC: No worries, man. We all have different perspectives of literature and it helps for any literary critic to see another person’s view, if only to strengthen and modify his own. What we’re dealing with here is a set of reader responses and perhaps if we collate all of these together, we’ll have a greater understanding of what makes DFW’s work tick. 🙂

    I’m wondering how you feel DFW’s style has been strengthened by these respective stories. I will have to revisit the two tales you cite, but I will agree with you that the empathy is there, but I believe it to be more passive and less dimensional than the heights of IJ’s Hal Incandenza.

    To be fair to your opinion (and a few others), I will try and serve up a post that clarifies (with specific supportive examples) the “wash out” assessement.

  4. BEN: This has nothing to do with whether or not I got an interview with DFW. In fact, I never mislead an author into thinking that I falsely love their book, although I do try to be as polite and respectful as I can. And I only talk with people I have an interest in talking with.

    You may not know this, but as it so happens, I wanted to get the interview so I could put these sentiments to him directly. If you are offended by my opinion, that’s your business. I don’t set out to placate everyone. But I have to ask why you are offended by the notion of quibbling over DFW’s direction.

  5. Ed, going to throw out an possible alternate intepretation, just ’cause. Is it all possible that DFW is the same DFW he’s always been, and it’s your taste that’s moving beyond him?

    You know all to well that I’m no fan. So it doesn’t surprise you that, when you cite Oblivion as being “cold, needlessly dense, mired in academese and marketing jargon, and are, for the most part, all fixated on the same cartoonish emotion of detached anxiety” you hit on the problem with (in my eyes) everything he’s ever wrote.

    The tennis piece seemed no worse than, say, his lobster essay. It was just more of the exact same thing all over again. (And I dare the NY Times to commission him but to insist NO FOOTNOTES. I honestly don’t believe either side could do it – ask or comply.)

    Maybe DFW’s little bag of tricks has finally run dry for you? Because, to these eyes, the new DFW is the old DFW.

    Just a thought.

  6. Mark: I’m willing to consider that possibility. I do try and keep an open and constantly shifting mind (although I did enjoy the lobster essay’s daring legerdemain, even if, stylistically, it was more of the same).

    To my mind, a great writer will constantly shift and evolve. I realize that this is largely an instinctive reader response and individual preference I am espousing. But I don’t have DFW’s books at my side right now to single out specific examples. So bear with me.

    It all boils down to that third or fourth book, in which an author is able to encapsulate an idiosynchratic and demanding voice without drawing attention to his artifices or his tricks (see David Mitchell, who I believe is the perfect example of this). This is not unlike the principle of “the elegant variation” — the title of your blog. After X number of books, a writer should be fully aware of his voice and be actively honing it. And by “honing” it, I don’t mean just writing a conventional narrative, but taming the beast in a way that conveys nuances operating with pyrotechnics.

    Writers who do this for me: Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers, William Gaddis, Margaret Atwood, Gilbert Sorrentino, Carol Shields, WTV, Sarah Waters, Jonathan Lethem, T.C. Boyle, Kate Atkinson.

    Writers who don’t (but who I nevertheless admire): John Barth, DFW, John Updike (sometimes), Dave Eggers, Colson Whitehead (I fear the fourth novel), Harlan Ellison, China Mieville (maybe, “The Iron Council” is perilously close), Bret Easton Ellis, Stephen Elliott, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen.

    Again, I applaud “Host”‘s experiment, but I still feel that pushing formatting is not enough, that there are deeper ethical issues about the radio industry that DFW is holding back on. Perhaps, as you suggest, a essay sans footnotes is the answer.

    I’m going to have to mull over this a bit and get back to you and everybody else.

  7. Regarding writerly reluctance to be interviewed, I’ve always loved this from John Barth, from an interview collected in The Friday Book:

    Angela Gerst: You don’t enjoy interviews.
    John Barth: As a rule, no.
    G: Why do you suppose so many writers feel that way?
    B: No doubt because our business is the considered word, not the spontaneous. We care as much for the *how* as the *what* gets said, in print. Talking with audiences can be enjoyable. Talking tete-a-tete can be enjoyable. But talking tete-a-tete for the record . . .
    G: Yet you’ve agreed to this tete-a-tete for the record. . . .
    B: The rules, as Jesus says about the Sabbath, are made for us, not we for them. I have a big new novel done [LETTERS], which I’m excited about and may now speak of without risking the muse’s disfavor. Finally, you’re both a student of mine and an old friend. Shoot.
    G: Even so, you’ll want to review the transcript?
    B: To put it gently.
    G: My questions as well as your responses?
    B: Inevitaby. Otherwise it all comes out late-Eisenhower. Another reason for interviewing rarely: it’s work.

  8. a terriffic post, even though it does come out harsh. while i don’t agree with your overall assessment, some writers only have one or two great books in them; it’s not a sin but not a reason to stop writing, either. thematically, dfw does seem to have a one-track mind, and i agree that stylistically, he’s in a rut (though most writers would kill to be in such a rut). it may also be the expectations are too high. where does one go after “infinite jest,” really? as readers, we expect that every book top the previous one in some form, show some growth and explore new terrain. dfw hasn’t been able to do that.

    the obvious comparison is to pynchon. after “gravity’s rainbow,” there wasn’t anywhere to go — it took him over many years to get a novel of similar import ( “mason & dixon”) after missing the target with “vineland.” i wouldn’t count out dfw by a long shot — most writers produce their best work in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, in any case.

  9. I must respectfully disagree with you about DFW, and your commentator on Pynchon. It’s hard to understand why artists don’t keep surprising us in the predictable way we like them to surprise us, but it’s easier when we remember they are not mechanical toys, but living human beings on idiosyncratic courses of their own devising.

    Very often what is dismissed by an artist’s contemporaries as too much, more of the same, too little, or some combination of the three is discovered to be his or her most daring and innovative work by subsequent generations.

  10. I sort of agree with you. And it wasn’t just Infinite Jest. Girl with Curious Hair was amazing, and then IJ took it to the next level. So the wait, inevitably, has been for the third book that would cement his status — but it hasn’t arrived. I’m not willing to write him off … It’s more a vague feeling of disappointment that nothing significant has shown up in the past ten years. I would give him until 50 — I have a feeling he’ll perceive that age as a milestone, which hopefully will inspire him.

  11. I’m not sure if anyone is still reading this, but I very much agree with the author of this note. Wallace has an extraordinary philosophical mind, and the moralistic, anti-satirical, anti-ironical, message of Infinite Jest was a refreshing, though terribly hypocritical (as he is unable to avoid the above characteristics in his own writing), contribution to postmodern literature, or literature trying to transcend postmodernism. If you are familiar with the man, you will know that he is in fact a child, a scared anxiety-ridden child, who will never have the courage to risk his reputation and try to exhibit, make concrete, implement, the abstract theory of Infinite Jest in which he preaches kindness, honesty, and all that old-timey, cliche practical wisdom which is so foreign to the man himself.

  12. Personally I feel that Wallace enjoys getting his ass whipped routinely by an overweight elderly German hooker.

    Having said that I love everything I have ever read by him.


  13. Wallace can still write and I think the whole “is he washed up one tap yes, two tap no” a phoney question. More disturbing is the fact that Wallace is now part of the american writing establishment,along with dullards like Dave Eggers.
    Was this whole question just a plant from Wallace’s publicist?

  14. I’m admittedly a fan, and always have been, but am sad to see this page pop up in my Google search for DFW’s essay about 9/11. It’s a huge loss to me personally, as well as a member of the literary community and as a US citizen, that we don’t have his voice any more. We need it now more than ever, and I’m dying to know what he would say about all this that we’re contenting with at this moment as a nation. Suffice it to say I’ve spent most of my life critiquing things other people write (as a student, and now as a professional writer and editor), but calling an artist of DFW’s caliber “washed up,” whether he was suicidal or not, is neither insightful nor responsible.

  15. I’m new to Infinite Jest, having read it after Wallace’s death even though it’s been on my shelf since ’98, but with that hindsight, the book is profoundly sad. I believe Wallace was a person of immense genius, but I think he fell into the trap that other writers who have been praised by critics and the general world at large as “brilliant”, “genius”, “voice of our generation”. I believe his deepening mental state correlated to the expectations of those around him, those in the academic circle. I think he didn’t know what to do and accepted all that came his way and was probably, internally, indecisive of what he should do with his life and in the future. He lacked his own ability to guide himself and allowed others to guide him forward and, I would daresay, felt empty because of that. This might be why he could never finish The Pale King. Wallace is Hal.

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