A Supposedly Fun Blog

June 30, 2009

The Case Against David Foster Wallace

Filed under: Uncategorized — cjclarke @ 4:19 pm

By Conor Clarke

Since Dylan stole Matt’s idea, and Matt stole my idea (I was busy being wrong about DFW’s endnotes on Twitter a whole week ago), I’ll go ahead and steal Chris’s idea of outsourcing my first thoughts on Infinite Jest to someone else: James Wood. Before I picked up the novel last week, the last words I remember reading about Wallace were in Wood’s How Fiction Works. Wood (who, incidentally or not, is married to Claire Messud) doesn’t like Wallace. Wood likes aesthetics — fine phrasing the precise language and unobvious ways of describing an obvious world. And while I haven’t read enough of IJ to know what I think of Wood’s take, I think it’ll be helpful to keep in the back of my head as I read.

(The passage on Wallace is quite long, so I’ll stick it after the jump. Still, I’ve cut it down a bit. Any errors are probably from transcription.)

Wood writes:

On the one hand, the author wants to have his or her own words, wants to be the master of a personal style; on the other hand, narrative bends towards its characters and their habits of speech. The dilemma is most acute in first-person narration, which is generally a nice hoax: the narrator pretends to speak to us, while in fact the author is writing to us, and we go along with the deception happily enough. Even Faulkner’s narrators in As I Lay Dying rarely sound much like children or illiterates.

But the same tension is present in third-person narration, too: Who really think that it is Leopold Bloom, in the midst of his stream of consciousness, who notices “the flabby gush or porter” as it is poured into a drain, or appreciates “the buzzing prongs” of a fork in a restaurant — and in such fine words? These exquisite perceptions and beautifully precise phrases are Joyce’s, and the reader has to make a treaty, whereby we accept that Bloom will sometimes sound like Bloom and sometimes sound more like Joyce.

This is as old as literature: Shakespeare’s characters sound like themselves and always sounds like Shakespeare, too. It is not really Cornwall who wonderfully calls Gloucester’s eye a “vile jelly” before he rips it out — though Cornwall speaks the words — but Shakespeare, who has provided the phrase.

A contemporary writer like David Foster Wallace wants to push this tension to the limit. He writes from within his characters’ voices and simultaneously over them, obliterating them in order to explore larger, if more abstract, questions of language. […] In Wallace’s case, the language of his unidentified narration is hideously ugly, and rather painful for more than a page or two. […]

The risky tautology inherent in the contemporary writing project has begun: in order to evoke a debased language (the debased language your character might use), you must be willing to represent that mangled language in your text, and perhaps thoroughly debase your own language. Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace are to some extent [Sinclair] Lewis’s heirs (probably in this respect only), and Wallace pushed to parodic extremes his full-immersion method: he does not flinch at narrating twenty or thirty pages in the TK style. His fiction prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to decompose — and discompose — his own style in the interests of making us live through this linguistic America with him.

“This is America, you live in it, you let it happen. Let it unfurl,” as Pynchon has it in The Crying of Lot 49. Whitman calls America “the greatest poem,” but if this is the case then American may represent a mimetic danger to the writer, the bloating of one’s own poem with that rival poem, America. Auden frames the general problem well in his poem “The Novelist”: the poet can dash forward like a husar, he writes, but the novelist must slow down, learn how to be “plain and awkward,” and must “become the whole of boredom.” In other words, the novelist’s job is to become, to impersonate what he describes, even when the subject itself is debased, vulgar, boring. David Foster Wallace is very good at becoming the whole of boredom.

So there is a tension basic to stories and novels: Can we reconcile the author’s perceptions and language with the character’s perception and language? If the author and characdter are absolutely merged, as in [Wallace’s writing], we get, as it were, “the whole of boredom” — the author’s corrupted language just mimics an actually existing corrupted language we all know too well, and are in fact quite desprate to escape. But if author and character get too separated … we feel the cold breth of an alientation over the text, and begin to resent the over-“literary” efforts of the stylist. The Updike [quoted earlier] is an example of aestheticism (the author gets in the way); Wallace is an example of anti-aestheticism (the character is all): but both examples are really species of the same aestheticism, which is at bottom the strenuous display of style.


  1. Well, of course Wallace’s characters sound like Wallace’s characters. They carry his distinctive inflections, and generally share variations on his particular perspectives and thought-processes. As Wood concedes, it is ever thus with literature.

    However, and I suppose this is simply a matter of taste, I just disagree wholesale with his assertion that Wallace’s prose is hideously ugly. I find it often infuriating, frequently obscure and always challenging, but simultaneously inventive and playful and funny and wonderful. His characters may speak with his voice, but they do so beautifully and movingly. Clearly, Wood’s aesthetic sense objects to Wallace’s language, but at the end of the day it is only Wood’s sense that does so, and we remain free to read Wallace’s writing and love it, indifferent to Wood’s assertions.

    Comment by Dan Summers — June 30, 2009 @ 4:49 pm | Reply

  2. Wood — you didn’t read Ulysses. As it is sure that Leopold Bloom does not say things as “buzzing prongs,” but Dedalus sure does. And he narrates a goodly portion of the novel.

    Comment by James Joyce — June 30, 2009 @ 7:30 pm | Reply

    • You pretentious sunuvabitch

      Comment by Cofee Mapps — May 26, 2012 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

  3. My characters always sound like my characters, but my characters are often me. It’s the same with DFW.

    -James Joyce

    Comment by James Joyce — June 30, 2009 @ 7:32 pm | Reply

  4. How am I supposed to give credence to the opinion of someone whose writing is so much less insightful, funny, and genuinely engaging than the writer whom he is criticizing? Reading James Wood’s criticism, my most immediate reaction is that DFW could have written it so much better. Calling someone’s work “hideously ugly,” besides being a tautological cliche, is both snobbish and reductive. Wood gets a huge boner over free indirect discourse, so of course to him that is the only literary device that matters. Too bad he represents an aging establishment that prefers its writing homogenized, cautious, and achingly boring.

    Comment by Phil — June 30, 2009 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

  5. I wouldn’t expect that bit (or anything Wood writes) to illuminate your reading of IJ. Everything I’ve ever seen Wood write has had the feel of a critic who imposes his own agenda atop everything he purports to examine, usually at the cost of never really engaging with the material. (His infamous review of one of Zadie Smith’s books is a good example: did he ever once actually consider the book on its own terms?)

    Comment by Ryan — June 30, 2009 @ 9:05 pm | Reply

  6. I generally have a lot of respect for Wood but I think he missed Wallace’s boat here. I share his concern over instances when “the author’s corrupted language just mimics an actually existing corrupted language we all know too well,” but this is patently not the case with Wallace. In fact, Wallace’s brilliance lies in the way he takes that corrupted everyday language and re-casts it in a wickedly erudite register. The result is a mad hybrid that Wallace can seemingly bend and shape however he wishes.

    What’s even more amazing is that Wallace’s strenuous display of style rarely obscures or impedes the force of his characterization — he creates an enchanted linguistic world peopled by characters who operate in a super-charged rhetorical register, and somehow maintains the illusion that this world is, in fact, plausible. If anything Wallace, through sheer force and charisma of his style, has come up with an ingenuous solution to the problem Wood sets forth at the beginning of the excerpt.

    Comment by infinitedetox — July 1, 2009 @ 2:51 am | Reply

  7. The thing is that Wallace uses free indirect discourse masterfully– in fact the entire opening section is, I think, a fantastic commentary on both the pleasures of free indirect discourse (the illusion that when we read fiction, to paraphrase Hal, “we are in there”) and its terrifying falsity (no, actually, we are NEVER “in there” with anyone else).

    So, if Wood is trying (I actually can’t tell from this excerpt) to say that Wallace abandons free indirect discourse, he’s wrong. Mainly, it seems to me that Wood is trying to pass off a complaint that is actually about contemporary life as one about Wallace’s literary craft. That is, he masks his real belief that our *world* today is “debased, vulgar, boring” with the claim that Wallace’s fiction is those things. Those are two very different complaints.

    Comment by sarahb — July 1, 2009 @ 3:17 am | Reply

  8. Yeah I’m sorry but Wood’s complaint is entirely about free indirect discourse. His problem with Wallace is that in DFW’s work “author and character are absolutely merged.” For Wood the ideal writer of free indirect discourse maintains a distance between the perspectives of author and character, creating little ironies that allow an author to guide the reader’s judgments about the characters. Wood’s complaint is basically that DFW didn’t criticize his characters, didn’t use his authorial distance to comment on their “corrupted language.” His problem with Wallace is that Wallace abandoned free indirect discourse and allowed the character to take over. And Wood doesn’t like this, because the omnipresence of free indirect discourse is basically his litmus test of good writing.

    But what’s so ridiculous about Wood’s complaint is that DFW knew exactly what he was doing. DFW was about as conscious about his use of language as a writer could possibly be. In Infinite Jest he repeatedly talks about the way that cliches like “One day at a time” can have practical meaning and significance. In effect DFW was endorsing the “corrupted language” of his characters, by showing how despite its banality it can reflect something real.

    Comment by Phil — July 1, 2009 @ 5:21 am | Reply

  9. Wallace is a much more intelligent, interesting, and insightful writer than Wood. Nothing more needs saying.

    Comment by Grandly — July 1, 2009 @ 6:41 am | Reply

  10. Here’s a great parody of Wood by novelist Colson Whitehead (John Henry Days, The Intuitionist, Sag Harbor). http://harpers.org/archive/2009/02/0082377

    Comment by mpharris — July 1, 2009 @ 2:30 pm | Reply

  11. Phil: I guess my issue is twofold: 1) Wood’s idea of free indirect discourse is idiosyncratic and uselessly limiting (there is no “rule” [outside of Wood’s mind I guess] that distance be maintained between narrator and character when employing the style– think of Henry James’s The Ambassadors) and 2) I think it’s wrong to say that because Wallace plays around with that style he has “abandoned” it. But I think we are all agreed that Wood is an ungenerous reader.

    Comment by sarahb — July 1, 2009 @ 3:16 pm | Reply

  12. Wood is good, but Peck stacks the deck:


    Best hit piece EVER.

    Comment by Knemon — July 1, 2009 @ 6:38 pm | Reply

  13. I’m pretty sure the real case against David Foster Wallace is “Everything and More”.

    Comment by Nick — July 2, 2009 @ 10:20 pm | Reply

  14. […] Clarke of the Atlantic writes, prefacing a negative review of David Foster Wallace’s work from James Wood: “Wood likes […]

    Pingback by On Beauty « A Supposedly Fun Blog — July 8, 2009 @ 4:48 pm | Reply

  15. […] like to make another point here. Awhile back Conor Clarke over at A Supposedly Fun Blog posted a lengthy excerpt from a James Wood piece in which he (Wood) came down pretty hard on Wallace’s style. I generally dig Wood — […]

    Pingback by The Good Word — Egregulous « Infinite Detox — July 17, 2009 @ 12:49 pm | Reply

  16. Wood’s argument seems to me to rest on the tired old misconception that characters are somehow analogues to something outside the novel, when in fact character is simply one more device available to writers of prose fiction to demonstrate the (hopefully) keen mind (i.e., that of the writer) at play in the universe.

    Comment by maximumfiction — November 18, 2009 @ 6:34 pm | Reply

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