David Foster Wallace’s legacy is much diminished in light of the growing revelations of his mistreatment of women. So inflated was the myth of Wallace’s saintliness, so glowing his reputation, that ten years after his suicide the women he harmed, including the writer Mary Karr, are still struggling to make themselves understood. Wallace has been credibly accused since his death of sleeping with his students “by the boatload,” of stalking and abuse, of exploiting his fame and power to hurt multiple women. The hagiographizing of Wallace was gross, and untruthful and shallow, based largely in the broad dissemination of a sentimental 2005 commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College. As his best friend Jonathan Franzen put it to David Lipsky in Rolling Stone, “He wasn’t Saint Dave.” But the reckoning, welcome as it is, does not lessen the quality or value of Wallace’s work. On the contrary. This was a real person, a fellow human being, who left behind him a brilliantly glittering roadmap of a thousand ways to be, and not to be.
I’m not even saying this because I am a longtime admirer of Wallace’s writing, though I am. I’m saying it because since his death there have been calls for boycotting Wallace’s work in the academy; his name is routinely coupled with the adjective “problematic,” mentioned alongside fellow accused-literary-superstar-sex-pests Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie. The “Men [who] Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me” are the subject of real revulsion at Electric Lit. There is an incoherent but general barring of the door to a serious engagement with Wallace’s work.
I could care less if anyone shares my literary tastes, but I note with real alarm that “morality clauses” in publishing contracts are on the rise, “whereby publishers can terminate a contract in cases of ‘conduct [that] evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals.’” I care that the incoherence should be made coherent. I care a lot that the empire of letters is free.
Calling for the boycotting of or even a concerted prejudice against the works of damaged or criminal artists is very dangerous. History demonstrates that it is a sick society that chooses to turn away from the true facts of its own nature and organization, from the real individual consequences of the life it is making for us. Damaged people, sick people who exploit or harm others, are members of our culture and we very desperately need to know about and understand them. To put this another way, we’re each of us complicit, just by virtue of being human.
Nobody who has read Infinite Jest carefully could doubt for one instant that the author was a deeply troubled person. In life Wallace conjured a professorial fog around himself, an engagingly lofty detachment; in public he presented himself as an entirely evolved specimen. He knew how to seduce, how to charm. Had he lived, one hopes that Wallace would have been busted in public for preying on his young admirers, as Karr said on Twitter that he did, and forbidden to teach. That is an entirely separate matter from his literary posterity.
Last summer Clare Hayes-Brady, lecturer in American literature at the University College Dublin, delivered at a Wallace conference in Illinois the presentation: “Reading Your Problematic Fave: David Foster Wallace, feminism and #metoo,” a version of which appears at the Honest Ulsterman. Hayes-Brady said, more or less, that boycotting a writer reduced criticism to a consumer exercise (“refusal or disengagement as critical praxis seems to me to reinforce a neoliberal, late capitalist mode of understanding or encountering art.”) I can see what she’s getting at, but it also brought me out in hives. There’s an acceptable way to read and study Wallace, she suggests, as a specimen well apart from ourselves, as a biologist would an illness, or a historian a despot; that it’s good to study Wallace’s misogyny, and place him within the larger context of his times; basically to identify him first as “problematic” and go from there. I think Hayes-Brady’s heart is in the right place but honestly? Honestly, fuck that.
Writing in The Outline about a Wallace conference he’d attended, Daniel Kolitz kind of unbelievably expressed his relief at having been given permission to continue reading Wallace (and by a woman, yay!)
Hayes-Brady’s talk gave us exactly what we wanted; perhaps what many of us came to Normal to find: a cogent and nuanced permission structure within which to a) continue reading Wallace (none of us were ever going to stop doing this, anyway) and b) justify our continued reading to others — others who, like anyone with a political conviction in 2018, are fundamentally unpersuadable, and who either way wouldn’t take well to being accused of neoliberalist sympathies.
It’s essential to reject the infantile bullshit reasoning that tells us to “separate the artist from the art.” That’s a cruel and terrible idea. I think people will benefit forever from reading Wallace, with grief and pity. The artist is the art.
If people who love literature draw a line around themselves, the “civilized” and “educated” people, as if they were perfect or even different—any line at all that leaves anyone out—we will be throwing ourselves right over the cliff. We all belong to one another; we all are each other.
The study of literature is meant for learning the truth, much of which is not “acceptable” or containable or convenient. But Wallace’s example points to something beyond this: The artist of special gifts who is also a “hideous man” is a valuable source of information for a society seeking to better itself.
Wallace was very sick pretty much all his adult life, and he hurt a lot of people. The last person he hurt was himself, with a belt. In the garage.
Is that “problematic”? I guess.
Wallace was horrible to Mary Karr and she is pissed as hell and who can blame her but she has said, also, that they “kept each other alive” in the early days of their recovery. Her whole nuanced feeling about Wallace and his suicide is there for all to see, no paywall, in a poem published in Poetry in 2012, about what it is to be enraged forever, etc., at a terrible person you loved.
just wanted to say ha-ha, despite
your best efforts you are every second
alive in a hard-gnawing way for all who breathed you deeply in,
each set of lungs, those rosy implanted wings, pink balloons.
We sigh you out into air and watch you rise like rain.
And Karr’s poem is a thousand times more than that. Among other things, it’s an acknowledgement of Wallace’s illness.
bastards like you, unable to bear the masks
of their own faces.
Wallace was an expert maker of jokes and of paradoxes. He had a wonderful contrarianism, a little reminiscent of Wilde’s, sometimes playful, sometimes less so. He once declined to include his beloved Kafka when a magazine called on him to name ten favorite books, packing the list with Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and C. S. Lewis instead. He loved to pose as the world’s most sophisticated rube and would talk proudly about simple, ordinary things he liked.
He once told an interviewer, Patrick Arden, who’d driven from Chicago to visit him in Bloomington: “I don’t know if you’ve ever enjoyed Cracker Barrel before. It’s easy to make fun of, but the food is really pretty good.” Then Wallace ordered the meatloaf, but he wouldn’t let Arden order the same thing because he was afraid Arden might not like it, and then he, Wallace, would be to blame.
There are intractable binds everywhere in Wallace’s characters—Don Gately, thief and murderer, virtuous man, hero; Joelle van Dyne, monster and/or goddess; Hal Incandenza, world’s dumbest genius—mirroring the binds in Wallace himself. He was a recovering addict who had spent long years in the desperate condition of “loving the very thing that was killing you,” as he described it. In his writing, if less so in life, Wallace owned his defects: his work is stuffed to the gills with admissions of selfishness and ignorance, weakness, blind lust, cowardice, and intellectual vanity. (He owned his defects to the degree he was able, at least. At a reading one time, I asked him about Alcoholics Anonymous, and he put me right in my place about the anonymity part.)
It’s easy and seems obvious to say that Wallace the novelist was an ethicist, deeply concerned with fidelity to the truth. He didn’t flinch from plumbing the scariest, strangest, most difficult things right to the bottom: scenes of psychic torture, or right-to-life Christians facing an unwanted pregnancy, of suicide or murder, addiction or philosophy, the mathematics of Georg Cantor or the ethics of eating meat. In fact, though, his fiction is full of whoppers. I mean plain lies, as in, you can’t kill someone with ground glass (as in The Pale King) any more than you can use Lemon Pledge as sunscreen (as in Infinite Jest). The author David Foster Wallace was a few years older than the David Foster Wallace who appears as a character in The Pale King. The character Wallace wrote The Pale King, a “first-person memoir”; the author wrote an identically titled novel. There are countless assertions made in his novels that won’t hold up to even a little scrutiny.
The lies pull the chair out from under the reader by making him question (and google) the ground glass, the Random Fact Intuition, and the age of the (real-life) author David Foster Wallace, who never worked for the IRS. Thus thrown off balance, the reader of Wallace is forced to break new ground, sentence by sentence, to think over each separate proposition in a condition of suspicion and uncertainty. It is bracing and infuriating.
Why do this to us? It’s to make us do the “hard work,” as he used to call it, of reading well. Through these cascades of weird little fibs, reality itself is over and over called into question. All of it. Experience, reading, writing. Being. We come to realize we’ve gathered our idea of poisons from detective novels; we’ve been wandering around forever with a half-baked belief in the possibility of a “scientific” ESP. It’s not just that the truth is mutable or self-contradictory—it’s that the very machinery we have with which to describe and experience and read about the world is pathetically unequal to the task we’ve laid on it. Our whole equipment is flawed and possibly broken.
Here again Wallace, himself a broken man, saw American brokenness with an uncanny clarity. His defense of the truth required the telling of lies. Showing how the defects of language and narrative conventions might paradoxically point a way toward that part of the machinery that might, unaccountably, inexplicably, work. Or that part of it that at least might be salvageable.
Wallace is a literary genius. He is a cautionary tale. His wrongdoing in life is a matter for concern and regret. The culture enabled and then exacerbated his illness and caused it to metastasize, again and again. I’m not trying to lessen his agency, or his responsibility, but still this is incontrovertible. Wallace’s illness worsened amid widespread delusions, American delusions that persist today, of the benefits of meritocracy and competition; the need to be always the best, a superstar. He knew this, discussed it in many places: “Good Old Neon,” “The String Theory.” The culture provided him with phrases like “chasing tail” and with classrooms and lecture halls full of admiring young victims, themselves culturally snowed by the glamor of “genius.” He knew all of this; it’s what Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is about. The culture provided him with alcohol, opiates and cocaine. Later, with Nardil. Wallace knew himself to be grossly flawed. He knew it; that’s what Infinite Jest is about. Should we read it? You can only answer for yourself. Do you think any of that is worth addressing?
The author’s special thanks to Carrie Frye.
Correction: an earlier version misstated the name of Wallace’s story, “The String Theory,” as “Michael Joyce’s Second Act.” Thanks to David Lipsky for the alert, and also for the following comments:
“Nobody who has read Infinite Jest carefully could doubt for one instant that the author was a deeply troubled person.”
Nobody who has read Infinite Jest carefully could doubt for one instant that they themselves were a deeply troubled person.
Nobody who has read Infinite Jest carefully could doubt for one instant that any standard person was a deeply troubled person.