I was terribly saddened to hear this news. Whatever one felt about his work, it was hard to imagine any serious reader of fiction not being intensely interested in what he was going to do next. I had been looking forward to witnessing his literary journey, and to adjusting my own opinions and prejudices — or rather, being forced by the quality of the work to do so. Of great interest to me was his own ambivalent relation with some elements of postmodernism (irony, too-easy self-consciousness, and so on), and the burgeoning presence of moral critique in his work. One had the feeling that his new work was being written under considerable pressure — and I don't just mean psychological pressure, but the pressure of staying loyal to his fractured, non-linear epistemology while at the same time incorporating some of that admiration he had for the concerns of the nineteenth-century novel. To put it flippantly, he was aesthetically radical and metaphysically conservative, and the negotiation of that asymmetry would have been a marvelous thing to follow, as a reader.
An untruthful reviewer of my book, How Fiction Works, claimed that David Foster Wallace was its "aesthetic villain." That is not true. I discussed him as an extreme example of a tension I think is endemic to post-Flaubertian fiction, which is the question, as Martin Amis once put it, of "who's in charge": is it the stylish author, who sees the world in his fabulous language, or his probably less stylish characters, who are borrowing the author’s words? Wallace's fiction, I wrote, "prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to to decompose — and discompose — his own style in the interests of making us live through this linguistic America with him." One of the most impressive aspects of Wallace was that stylistic fearlessness.
On Friday, I was pondering writing a note to Wallace to say as much (and to correct the impression he might have got from that review), and then on Saturday came the terrible news — "like a man slapped."
We might wonder why we had to hear from Wood on this topic at all. Testimonials from DFW’s friends, his fellow writers, his former students, and his fans – readers who cherished his works or had been influenced by them – yes, but Wood was none of these. DFW has never figured very largely in the journalism Wood has written since he’s been in the U.S. When his name does appear, it’s typically in one of Wood’s perp walks, sloppy amalgams such as “Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace,” as if they were all engaged in pretty much the same literary project (as they might seem to someone especially thick-headed). At some point in his Guardian past Wood wrote a kind word that ended up as jacket blurb for Infinite Jest – “Wallace is a superb comedian of culture” – and while I don’t have a copy of whatever this quote was lifted from I would lay odds that it was something along the lines of his Franzen review, i.e., blandishments amid a general birching. More recently, in How Fiction Works, Wood introduces DFW for a few paragraphs as the examplar du jour of the tendency he has elsewhere decried as “Hysterical Realism.” But so what? He has never been a booster of DFW’s work, and he’s never been a particular detractor of it either, preferring to train his fire on DeLillo and Pynchon and shunt Wallace to the guilt-by-association amalgams. In other words, there was simply no rhetorical occasion for him to be saying anything at all, in public anyway, about DFW’s death. Here was a time when nobody, nobody (apart from his fluffers) cared about what James Wood might have to say. There was no reason for him to write his eulogy on DFW except to draw attention to himself – and HFW.
The eulogy opens on a note of impersonality (“Whatever one felt about his work . . .”) that is really the foot in the door of the uninvited guest. Then through the pried-open door comes an inky cloud of narcissism disguised as a bouquet thrown at Wallace’s growing moral seriousness. “Of great interest to me was his own ambivalent relation with some elements of postmodernism (irony, too-easy self-consciousness, and so on), and the burgeoning presence of moral critique in his work,” could be rewritten as, “Of great interest to me was the way he was coming to look like me.” Graveside condescension does not get any more revolting than this: a critic lamenting the death of an author a couple of years his senior on the grounds that the latter’s work had been showing signs of maturity. “He was aesthetically radical and metaphysically conservative” – gosh, he’d made it halfway there! The portrait is accurate – at the points where it is the reflection of its author.
But narcissism can be wounded, and so we come to the “untruthful reviewer.” This is a reference to Walter Kirn, who gave How Fiction Works a witty twitting in the New York Times Book Review. Kirn is “untruthful” about HFW, writes Wood, because he “claimed that David Foster Wallace was its ‘aesthetic villain’.” So we don’t miss the point he reminds us again: “That is not true.” Note that it’s “an untruthful reviewer” and not “an untruthful review” (and still less “an inaccurate assertion”). Kirn, says Wood, is a liar, and to prove it he shows first Kirn’s lie and then goes on to restate the ostensible truth to be found in How Fiction Works. Wood doesn’t give Kirn’s name, however – maybe because he doesn’t want people to go back and read the review for themselves. Here’s what Kirn wrote:
The heroes of this great artistic labor tend to be semimonastic introverts who, like Wood’s beloved Henry James and Gustave Flaubert, toil with the doors shut and locked, in soundproof splendid isolation, attentive to the subtle frictions among nouns and adjectival phrases. Conversely, the folks who spoil the experiment are David Foster Wallace types who let themselves be distracted and overwhelmed by the roar of the streets, the voices of the crowd. Wallace, to whom Wood grants the dubious honor of being one of his book’s few aesthetic villains, is accused of “obliterating” his characters’ voices in an unpleasing, “hideously ugly” attempt to channel cultural chaos rather than filter, manipulate or muffle it. For the vicarish Wood, sequestered in his chamber, part of the fiction writer’s true vocation appears to be acoustic regulation — the engineering of a mental space in which literary whispers can be heard. (my emphasis)
But this is rather different – Kirn says Wallace is one of the book’s few aesthetic villains, not THE aesthetic villain. So far it seems like the untruth is on Wood’s side. If this is just a quibble, it’s the quibble on which Wood stakes his potentially damaging assertion of another reviewer’s “untruth.” But maybe it’s the word “villain” that has Wood so upset; it’s easy enough to consult the pages of How Fiction Works where DFW’s name pops up and see if the word amounts to an “untruth.” There are one or two nice things about Wallace in those pages, which Wood was careful to cherry-pick and plug into his little eulogy. Here’s another compliment: "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." Why didn’t he plug that into the eulogy, too? It’s the blandishments-and-birch routine all over again; the compliments come in the context of setting up the author as the current exemplar of a very damaging tendency in contemporary fiction – exemplar, or, in Kirn’s formulation, “villain.” Here’s Wood from an August 15, 2004 interview with the Boston Globe:
Part of my anxiety and unease about novels by Foster Wallace, Franzen, and others is that they have swallowed a great deal of journalism, sociology, and cultural studies, which means they are no longer doing something that's not replaceable that another medium can't do as well or better. . . . I am accused of being too harsh, but the critic's job is to look at the threats, the menaces to literature. (Ellipses in original)
So, Wood can speak of “menaces to literature,” but Kirn can’t use the rhetoric of ‘heroes and villains’ when speaking of Wood’s preferences and biases in his review? No, it isn’t a stretch for Kirn to write that DFW plays the role of one of the “aesthetic villains” in How Fiction Works. It’s not a stretch, and it is a patent untruth to call it an “untruth.”
And finally there’s the priceless, star-fucking conclusion: “I was pondering writing a note to Wallace—” Not a letter, mind you, but a “note.” So casual – thought I’d drop you a line! Yes, Jim, we know you know a lot of real writers, OK? And then a final flush of narcissism, a last glance in the mirror before he exits the wake: the idea that DFW had at some point during the last months of his life bothered to check in with what the likes of James Wood had been writing about him.