Coming to terms with the canonization/commercialization of David Foster Wallace

We covered DFW’s essay “Consider The Lobster” from the eponymous book during my writing class last semester. Of the 12 students and professor, I was probably “the expert” given that I’d read all of his published nonfiction, studied his teaching syllabi, struggled through Broom of the System, and worshipped at the altar of Infinite Jest. Once I was even within 5,280 feet of the DFW Archive at the University of Texas at Austin. None of this is to imply I fully understood what I was reading, but I was able to attend to our class discussions the way one might reminisce over a now-gone friend while also seeking deeper insights into his behavior.

Our treatment of DFW in class was interesting. After an easy dismantling of his Everything and More pop-math book and his essays’ cutesy-trite use of mathematical word salad in class, I finally found a way to come to terms with my former “fanboy” attitude towards DFW. And this is what I realized: he is a phase. He’s an important phase, yes yes, and I firmly believe the greatest thing he ever wrote, and the most important thing anyone can ever read during their early years, is his Kenyon College commencement address. But his style and intellect was so singular that it was almost niche (or maybe it was completely niche?), and there’s only so many miles one can get out of niche writing.

And so now here I am, taken aback hard by this intense push to “canonize” DFW these past couple of years. Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the Vatican all agree that beautification can’t begin until at least five years after the saint’s death, but for DFW, it took just over three years and was officially marked by the publication of Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story. After that, we quickly saw the publication of Signifying Rappers and Fate, Time, and Language (two manuscripts that probably should’ve been left alone for at least another 10 years), a DFW “The Last Interview” installment, several “David Foster Wallace and X” books (just…just search for him on Amazon and you’ll see what I mean), and, coming to a theater near you, “The End of the Tour,” a movie-ification of the ho-hum Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. This is a rush to capitalize on DFW’s canonization, which, really, is just a rush to profit from the suicide of a brilliant writer who suffered valiantly against crippling life-long depression.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this post, the latest step in the profiteering of a fellow human’s suicide, the release of the new David Foster Wallace Reader. Specifically this review of “The Reader”: The Turbulent Genius of David Foster Wallace. I’ll be honest here and just say that I quit reading a quarter of the way through. It’s all stuff I’d read before, but the paragraph that stopped me cold was this one:

Wallace did not subscribe to Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” of fiction, wherein the unsaid was the greater part of artistry. If Wallace had written “Hills Like White Elephants,” it would have been an incredibly frank, convoluted and informed (not to mention unbelievably verbose and sometimes even weirdly jaunty) debate about abortion, not a sparse short story about the same.

I stopped here because I’ve read enough DFW to know this is not true in the slightest. No. Reading this paragraph immediately pushed me away from the review to another, less formal, review of Infinite Jest by the late Aaron Swartz: What Happens at the End of Infinite Jest? (or, the Infinite Jest ending explained). (Now there’s some real dead-mic-dropping irony.)

So that’s it.  Unless given as a class assignment, I don’t plan to read anything else by DFW that I haven’t already read.  No more new editions or previously unreleased manuscripts or documentaries/interviews/movies/biographies.  The phase has come and gone now.  The early 80s Transformers episodes are staying in their DVD cases underneath the TV.  And now I just wait for Infinite Jest to displace Catch-22 as the seminal 20th Century absurdist novel taught to high school seniors in 2036.

1 Comment

  1. Luigus

    I’m still gonna make you relive this phase for an episode, brotha.

    Reply

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