A Supposedly Fun Blog

June 27, 2009

A Brief Justification From An Uncultured Man

Filed under: Uncategorized — dylanmatthews @ 5:47 am

By Dylan Matthews

My participation in Infinite Summer is much weirder than Ezra‘s. Though Ezra does not care for David Foster Wallace, he does like fiction. I, as a general rule, do not. Oh, sure, there are novels and short stories I can recall enjoying. But about ninety percent of it I find tiresome and irritating. For a while, I thought I just found florid description annoying, but a brief and unfortunate experience with Hemingway quashed that theory. 

I am aware that this renders me uncultured and dull in the eyes of polite society. Most people – or at least most people with whom I talk about books – will always think someone who reads V.S. Naipaul for fun more interesting than those of us who prefer books about intergovernmental institutions. I accept that, and this endeavor is decidedly not an attempt to force more respectable literary taste upon myself. I harbor no illusions that  Infinite Summer will suddenly make me a sucker for fiction.

Then why I am doing this? Why, if I dislike fiction so much, am I reading a novel, let alone one as long and intricate as Infinite Jest? There are the little reasons. My brother liked it, and he and I have similar taste. In an earlier life, I had a mild obsession with provincial Canadian politics, and IJ involves Québécois separatism. I told myself I would read something substantial before heading back to school (unlike the other members of this book club, I am a lowly undergraduate, not a distinguished journalist), and I think anything with 1,088 pages counts.

Mostly, though, David Foster Wallace seemed like a nonfiction fan’s novelist. For one thing, he also wrote nonfiction, much of it brilliant. What work of his I had read before IJ conveyed a sense that Wallace does not write in order to tell stories. He writes to understand things. There is a difference. I do not read books for stories. With the rarest of exceptions, all stories can be told in more clearly and efficient than through lengthy narrative and exposition. But “Consider the Lobster” isn’t great because of Wallace’s description of being at the Maine Lobster Festival. It’s great because Wallace forces his readers, and himself, to understand what it means to kill a sentient being for food. You need long-form prose to do that. And based on his other writing, I had an inkling that Wallace would use Infinite Jest for that purpose, to force me to understand something rather than to just tell a good yarn.

I am only sixty pages in, and it will certainly take a lot longer to know whether that inkling was right. Here goes.


  1. My mother could never bring herself to read novels either. I don’t know how similar her reasons are to your reasons. At the root, for her, I think she found it purposeless. She could spend hours, and I mean hours, or regulations though.

    Let me propose that if you can watch television ‘stories’, or movies that aren’t documentaries, than you could enjoy fiction as well. I have not met a person who genuinely didn’t like stories of some kind. It was all a question of the vehicle, the medium they liked them delivered in.

    I will caution the need for understanding, some kind of illumination from IJ. I liken it to expecting something from meditation, or reflection. Fiction that tries to convey understanding of the kind you seem to be looking for is more properly called propaganda.

    Consider, also, that Plato would have no poets in his ideal republic. I think he would have said the same for Wallace and his kind for the same reasons.

    Something visceral stirred in me reading this post and Ezra’s. Old memories of a journalist friend of mine and our arguments about the purpose of writing I think. I once said, in a pique of anger, that journalism is to writing what statistics is to math.

    Comment by Anthony Cooper — June 28, 2009 @ 7:05 am | Reply

  2. […] in my head for what I was going to say, but then I clicked over to the blog and found that Dylan already expressed all my views on this subject. But to some up, Dylan and I are apparently identical people who both don’t like reading […]

    Pingback by Infinite Footnotes « A Supposedly Fun Blog — June 29, 2009 @ 4:10 pm | Reply

  3. I’ve started Infinite Jest a few times, but every time I pick it up again, I practically have to start over because it’s so complex and mind-boggling. It’s the kind of book that requires your complete, undivided attention, and may even require a flowchart or notes alongside to help keep everybody straight. It’s undoubtedly brilliant, though, just incredibly dense. Kudos for taking it on!

    Comment by Jess — June 30, 2009 @ 1:16 pm | Reply

  4. […] Dylan stole Matt’s idea, and Matt stole my idea (I was busy being wrong about DFW’s endnotes on […]

    Pingback by The Case Against David Foster Wallace « A Supposedly Fun Blog — June 30, 2009 @ 4:20 pm | Reply

  5. […] Matthew Dylan: Québécois […]

    Pingback by Infinite Bloggers « –scott’s blog– — June 30, 2009 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

  6. “What work of his I had read before IJ conveyed a sense that Wallace does not write in order to tell stories. He writes to understand things.”

    I think this is absolutely true. But, I would submit, this is also true of most good novels. The point of serious literature is to understand thing. It seems an odd way of going about it, but it’s true nonetheless.

    Comment by James Martin — July 1, 2009 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

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