"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

November 26, 2008

Crocodile Tears

There’s nothing like death to bring out the narcissism of the living.  There’s a good, sound, physiological reason for it, too:  it’s the organism’s reflex at realizing that it, by exhilarating contrast, still lives.  But most of us have the good manners to suppress the impulse while we’re at the wake.  

Which brings me to this performance, in equal parts comical and enlightening:  James Wood on the death of David Foster Wallace (via Edward Champion’s tribute page).  It has been up on the web for a while now, but it’s amusing enough for a second look, now that the wake is over:      

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.   


Steven Augustine said...

That *was* rather astounding, wasn't it? I was too... well, let's be frank. I was actually too *upset* by DFW's death (an auto accident or fatal mugging would've been tragic, but his *hanging himself* poisoned my sleep for days) to comment on Wood's lapse in decorum at the time.

And isn't the rich irony there that Wood's supposed expertise is in fine readings of the novel's supposed stress on the niceties of emotional transaction in the context of perceived society? And yet there he is being deaf as a bust of Beethoven to the proper register in which to deliver a eulogy?

Steven Augustine said...

PS One last bit. I criticized DFW here and there, long before his death, in little comment threads, for the tension I perceived between: A) his need to see writing as a mission of goodness and B) the hostility of the super-smart towards the less-than-super-smart that I felt buzzing from his fiction like blacklight. Not that I'm against that hostility; far from it; I just felt there was a conflict dividing the man and it was strongly evidenced in interviews.

And to the extent that he tried to frame his work as a humanitarian mission, there was bullshit there. But it was *sincere* bullshit; he had no control over the conflict (in my opinion; I'm not a mind-reader, of course).

Raised in a generation (of a specific class/demographic) that probably felt an exaggerated weight from PC noblesse oblige, did DFW's need to be a nice guy bruise against the *arrogant relish of extraordinary talent, at the height of its powers, in play*?

The tone of his natural gift was not warm and fuzzy. The weakest thing I ever read of his was that late New Yorker story, the groaningly sympathetic-to-vacuity "Good People". It was actually mediocre on a technical level, in my opinion: a shock. Technically hobbled by the desire to do good?

Thesis: DFW loved "people" (or wanted to) and *hated* stupidity (or dripped with contempt for it) and struggled, increasingly, with addressing the overlap. I'm not connecting that with the suicide, of course, but with the writer's block.

Edmond Caldwell said...

That sounds to me like a good parsing of an essential tension in DFW’s approach, and an original one, at least as far as my limited reading on the matter goes. You mentioned his background as being a possible influence on this (the era of PC), which made me wonder if his background might also have influenced both traits, A and B, in another way as well.

Specifically, I knew he was from the Midwest, and both traits seem like they could be expressions of cultural provincialism, of impulses and anxieties typical of writers from provincial backgrounds. On the one hand, the missionary impulse, which is way too disarmingly earnest to be cosmopolitan, and on the other hand, the “smarter than thou” contempt which is so often the sign of someone who does not wear their learning with to-the-manner-born lightness (I always think of Ezra Pound – as much as I love his work – as being a consummate example of the provincial, something which Gertrude Stein perceived when she pegged him as a “village explainer.”).

However – I just looked at DFW’s wiki bio – his parents were academics, which bespeaks a metropolitan developmental environment even in the midst of the cornfields, so maybe my guess is off.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should also add that I say all this as a total provincial myself. I arrived at this East Coast metropolis in the back of a turnip truck, in bib overalls, with straw in my hair and Chapman’s Homer in my pocket.

Steven Augustine said...

"In the interests of full disclosure, I should also add that I say all this as a total provincial myself."

I'm a hybrid: mother a local beauty with piles of Edgar Cayce on the nightstand, father a hipster (with an old rich dad who lost it all before I was born) who went to art school after the Korean War and moved to North Africa (to paint fauvist masterpieces) with his new family when I entered college. I ended up being leery of manly self-expression (yet exasperated with its wifely opposite) as a result. I couldn't help noticing, though, that his paintings didn't become great until he A) expatriated and B) got old (another level of expatriation).

Edmond Caldwell said...

Whew, I'm telling you, I got quite a vertigo-inducing dose of involuntary memory from your mention of Edgar Cayce. A name I hadn't thought of in decades. Maybe it will be my madeleine. Nightstand reading of my mother and, I think, grandparents (until my mother graduated to Baba Ram Dass's "Be Here Now," and from thence, born again, to the Bible).

Steven Augustine said...

"...until my mother graduated to Baba Ram Dass's "Be Here Now," and from thence, born again, to the Bible."

Ha ha! Mine moved on to "Autobiography of a Yogi", but I had my own copy of "Be Here Now", a satisfyingly fat little book on great paper stock, as I recall. Good old Richard Alpert! I think my maddie cookie would have to be the strawberry-scented candles I burned whilst "reading" (or, like, experiencing?) Dick's book...

PS I found a copy of Orson Bean's "Me and the Orgone" secreted behind Mr. Cayce (and Hans Holzer and Jean Dixon) on my mother's supernatural bookshelf and ended up reading all of Wilhelm Reich's stuff at 16. Is that why I ended up in Berlin, I wonder... ?
PPS Remind me to tell you about the time I played a prank on Fritjof "Tao of Physics" Capra

Edmond Caldwell said...

Reading Reich at 16 might explain a lot more than just why you ended up in Berlin! But maybe I, on the other, should have read the Ram Dass after all. Presentness has always been a problem. The title of my breviary: "Be There, Then."