Thursday, August 24, 2006

In Defense of DFW

So, Ed Champion has declared David Foster Wallace to be "washed up". The elements in his "argument"? I will quote from it at length:
Since Infinite Jest, Wallace has produced three volumes of fiction and two volumes of essays. But where the other two “prodigious fiction” writers singled out by Tom LeClair (Richard Powers and William T. Vollmann) have proven that they aren’t just cerebral structuralists flaunting their immense knowledge (in many cases working against their own limitations), Wallace, by contrast, has more or less shuffled to the same beat.

Now nobody wants to say this. Even I harbor some small hope that Wallace will either try something daringly different or subject his work to a degree of scrutiny in which peers tear him a necessary new one. But since this has not happened, it’s time to confess the cold hard truth: Wallace has failed to evolve. Why then is he still writing? Phoning it in, as Wallace did with the recent Federer essay, is simply too whorish for a man of his obvious talents.

The stories in Oblivion remain cold, needlessly dense, mired in academese and marketing jargon, and are, for the most part, all fixated on the same cartoonish emotion of detached anxiety. Banging the same drum over the course of a short story collection is, for my money, a cardinal sin. (Even if it is DFW here, it simply must be said.) The essays in Consider the Lobster are certainly amusing, but the only real “evolution” of the Wallace form is contained within “Host,” an essay in which DFW’s footnotes take over the text in an almost desperate way. This is all very fascinating (personally, I preferred the Atlantic colored typesetting to the book’s crude flowchart form), but it still leaves one wondering whether this is truly the best Wallace can evolve. Or if he really wants to be writing.

One looks upon the strange irony of Wallace touring the country for a book while ignoring virtually all interviews and wonders if Wallace is only putting out these books or accepting these gigs to keep a little extra cash coming in. You do what you have to do, I guess. But living at the whims of Bonnie Nadell (or anyone) seems a bit puerile for a man of 44.

It’s worth mentioning that during his San Francisco appearance with Rick Moody last year, Wallace noted that he had attempted a “sentimental” novel, which he abandoned. And I can’t help but wonder if this is symbolic in some sense. Reading his last two books in particular, I detected a joyless timbre, an almost total reluctance to pursue emotions on any subject at all. There was, of course, the brief allusion to religion in DFW’s 9/11 essay, the only essay in Consider the Lobster to contains any real feeling at all. Is it because Wallace wishes to isolate himself from the public? Or is it because he secretly detests writing?
First of all, trivially, since Infinite Jest, Wallace has produced two volumes of fiction, not three. But more importantly, I think this post reveals a lot more about Ed Champion than it does about David Foster Wallace. I'm not going to discuss his essays, because mostly I don't care--they're generally amusing works-for-hire and little more. His fiction is what matters, his fiction is what will be remembered, if he's remembered at all. And, in my considered opinion, his fiction is just fine. Oblivion is not a perfect collection (a couple of the stories are pretty weak), but then I'm not looking for perfection in my reading. More specifically, I did not find it "cold"--on the contrary, the best of its stories did indeed evoke emotional responses in me; in fact, I found them to be full of an enormous empathy for people and their problems, an impressive ability to imagine the mind-states of different people. And I have no idea what Ed could possibly mean by describing the stories as "needlessly dense". I have to ask, to what end? What "need" is obstructed by the "density" of Wallace's chosen style in many of these stories? Presumably, Ed is accusing Wallace of throwing up all this digressive language in the way of an actual story, that he does this as a sort of alienation technique to get in the way of emotion. I think this quite misses the point of what Wallace is up to, and why. Indeed, I think it misses the point of what he was up to in Infinite Jest itself. I argued previously, borrowing a term from Dan Green (if not borrowing his argument), that in his fiction Wallace is interested in occupying and describing the specific "language-worlds" of his characters and their respective milieus. I think he does this masterfully, and I think the result, if the reader is open to it, is potentially one of great emotional impact.

Ed draws in the famous Tom LeClair article that discusses DFW along with Richard Powers and William T. Vollmann for the purpose of claiming that, unlike them, Wallace has "failed to evolve". But maybe Wallace didn't fit in with the other two in the first place, except superficially. They are three very different writers. Comparing the arcs of their careers for the purpose of finding one of them wanting is a waste of time. But, while we're at it, let's look at Powers, briefly. (For the record, I am a huge admirer of Powers' fiction.) Ed has said elsewhere that he considers The Time of Our Singing a step forward for Powers. I don't find anything at his own blog about that novel in any detail, but let me again link to The Reading Experience and Dan Green's post about that novel, to which Ed posted a lengthy comment. Dan is more critical of the book. First, he addresses a common general complaint about Powers' fiction:

To say that Powers [quoting Sven Birkerts here] "has always fallen short in the presentation of viscerally compelling characters" is to say only that he has attempted to exploit the possibilities of fiction in a way that doesn't rely on "viscerally compelling characters" to engage the reader's interest. He wants the reader to involve him/herself in the "intricacy" of design, to find in the tracing out of the incremental, spiralling pattern a source of interest at least as compelling as character identification, if not more so, since Powers's novels make it clear that the writer's job is not merely to tell stories and evoke characters, but to use such things as story and character to make something fresh from the form, to find the means to unite story, character, and theme with form in a way that is mutually reinforcing: character is tied to the evolving revelations of form, formal ingenuity itself embodies and discloses theme.

Ultimately, Dan's judgement is that, in The Time of Our Singing, "Powers too tightly harnesses both style and form to the exposition of "theme" in a manner that is much too earnest for my taste." In his comment to this post, Ed says:

it seems clear to me that Powers has been gradually shifting away from his conceptual dual narratives, hoping to evolve in order to convey life with a more human voice, one in which language and Powers' remarkable erudition take a back seat to the human experience. It's a highly ambitious development, particularly interesting given that it comes uncharacteristically mid-career. But, as far as I'm concerned, it does makes Powers one of the most exciting novelists to watch at the present time.


Powers WILL get beyond this point. Because every novel he turns out is a evolution of this struggle. And it seems to be getting easier for him to work this problem out in a sustained narrative.

I am much closer to Ed than I am to Dan in my enthusiasm for this novel. But I didn't see it as any great departure. I've bolded what I think are the most relevant lines in this comment. Ed sees Powers as "evolving"--and approves--and sees Powers' erudition taking "a back seat to the human condition". At risk of being overly pedantic here (too late), what else has Powers been writing about if not the "human condition"? I've never found Powers' fiction cold or emotionally lacking, either. I didn't find The Time of Our Singing any more emotionally affecting or personal than his other novels, but I did find it more obviously emotional, more obviously personal. Or, as Dan has it, more "earnest". I was not really bothered by this. The point is, Ed appears to want Wallace to do what Powers is doing, insofar as he thinks writers should evolve in this way.

Consider, also, Ed's assertion that "Banging the same drum over the course of a short story collection is, for my money, a cardinal sin." One wonders why it's a "cardinal sin". It seems clear to me that Wallace, in his recent fiction, is interested in writing about certain things, exploring certain aspects of the human condition in certain ways (imagining the extremities of a given "language-world"), and his two post-Jest story collections, and huge portions of Infinite Jest itself, are the result of this effort. But Ed doesn't want Wallace to do that. Ed wants Wallace to be more expansive, to connect, man, to tell a goddamn story already. To follow through on what he perceived the promise of Infinite Jest to be. Tautologically, Ed doesn't want Wallace to write what he wants to write, Ed wants him to write what Ed wants Wallace to write. This is no way to assess a writer's work. Hey, personally, I like the stuff--it's fun to read, it makes me work, it makes me think, and, yes, it moves me, dammit, though I hardly think this is its primary function or intent.

But returning to this complaint about "banging the same drum" being "a cardinal sin". What about those writers who return to common themes over their entire writing lives, themes that they explore and worry continuously? Writers as diverse as Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Beckett, Proust (ok, this is cheating), Kafka, hell, Stephen Dixon--are they to be found wanting according to this formula as well? Ed seems to be exhibiting a bias in favor of writers who don't do that, who try different things from book to book, story to story. It is, of course, entirely his prerogative to have whatever preference he likes when it comes to fiction, and to not like what Wallace has been up to lately. Ed's on record in several places for preferring fiction that is expansive, detailed, even lengthy. Fine. But this strikes me as just as limited a notion of what literature can be as some critics' fixation on character or realism, and it seems to embody a highly limited notion as to what "growth" might mean for any given writer.

Earlier this week, Ed lambasted Nick Hornby's lazy formulation of reading as "fun" vs. "boring", criticizing the apparent lack of curiosity in and dismissal of more difficult works that seems to be all too common. Well, this was like shooting fish in a barrel. Nick Hornby is a joke, and it's a truism that most people don't like to challenge themselves when they read. But to turn around later in the same week and effectively dismiss a supposedly favored writer for essentially not writing what you think he ought to be writing is finally not much different than what Hornby was doing. All other matters aside, it seems extremely hasty to jump to the conclusion that Wallace is "washed up". What's the rush? It was nearly 20 years before William Gaddis finally followed The Recognitions with JR. What if he never publishes another story or novel--is that such a tragedy? The works he has already written will remain and will be judged as a body of work. The term "washed up" is redolent of our celebrity-fixated culture, where we expect art to be produced for our enjoyment on certain schedules, according to certain sets of expectations, and when it's not we move on to the next producer. This is irrelevant to the enjoyment and assessment of literature.


Scraps said...

This is awful writing, equal parts attitude, cliche, and rhetorical bullying without a shred of critical insight. If Wallace needs a takedown, this isn't it.

Champion slips from "I" to "one" and back to "I". He might as well have used the pompous objective voice throughout, since he's fond of the of-course-you-agree-with-me approach ("time to confess the cold hard truth"). On the other hand, the subjective voice is a better fit for the bravely-pointing-at-the-naked-emperor approach ("nobody wants to say this", "even if it is DFW here, it simply must be said"). His condescension, at least, is consistent, albeit unsupported by anything worth expressing outside a dorm room.

His prose is spackled with stock phrase thought-substitutes ("some small hope", "tear him a new one", "phoning it in", "banging the same drum", "over the course", "for my money", "cardinal sin" (the last four in the same sentence!), etc. When he tries to speak in his own words, the results aren't better ("joyless timbre").

He doesn't know exactly what he's saying ("for the most part, all fixated"), so he inserts vague modifiers at every opportunity ("all very fascinating", "certainly amusing", "almost desperate", "a bit puerile", "symbolic in some sense", "truly the best"). He shows no evidence of listening to himself from one sentence ("any subject at all") to the next ("any real feeling at all").

I've learned something about Mr Champion's inarticulate emotional reactions to Wallace -- if I were to speculate Champion-fashion about his Wallace-maunderings, I'd guess that he's motivated by mere irritation that others continue to like and praise work Champion dislikes -- but nothing (at all) about Wallace's recent writing. Which, unfortunately, is (about) (par for the course) for internet bookchat.

ed said...

Richard: Thanks for the detailed and constructive response, and for the correction. I will respond (hopefully) at some future point about the apparent inconsistencies you perceive. I assure you that my tastes aren't nearly as limited as you impute, and they are often in collision with each other.

I'm curious what stories in "Oblivion" you found strong or representative of a major variation in DFW's repertoire. (Both of us have made the mistake of clinging to generalizations, rather than citing specifics.) I am, as you point out, a great fan of expansive fiction. But if a book doesn't give a damn about its subject matter, if it doesn't grip you by the lapels, then it seems to me a waste of an author's talent. That is what I mean by "the human condition." Faulkner's "human heart in conflict with itself."

This is not to suggest that straight style or intellectual writing doesn't have its place or can't be appreciated. But I think DFW would be a stronger writer if he let down his guard and explore emotions the way Powers has in his last few books. I welcome nuance as well as style. And of course this is about me expressing my opinions, just as your responsive post here is about you expressing yours. And I think we agree a lot more than we disagree.

As for Scraps, I find it difficult to take anyone seriously who uses the phrase "vociferously opposed to Islam." :)

Richard said...

Ed, I think I know what you mean about your tastes often being in collision with each other. I feel the same way sometimes. In any event, I am not suggesting that you don't have, for lack of a better word, eclectic tastes, or that you don't read widely. That much is clear from your blog. What I am saying is that expecting Wallace to conform to your ideas of what he ought to be doing with his writing limits your ability to judge what he is doing with it.

I did not say that I found Oblivion "representative of a major variation in DFW's repertoire". My point is that to seek variation in the manner you appear to be seeking it in his work is fruitless. He might spend his entire writing life working at the same set of problems. I am saying that this should be ok, that many great writers have done exactly that. I am saying that Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews and Oblivion are part of the same project.

When you say "This is not to suggest that straight style or intellectual writing doesn't have its place or can't be appreciated" I get the sense that, even though you read and enjoy plenty of fiction that fits that description, in the end you don't think it's quite as good or as important as fiction that tries to do more, as for example you perceive in Powers' recent work. This conception is partly what I am finding limiting. It may well be true that "DFW would be a stronger writer if he let down his guard and explore emotions the way Powers has in his last few books", I can't say. I merely read the books when they appear, if they appear, and decide what I think of them then. But maybe DFW admitting that he'd tried his hand at a "sentimental novel" and scrapped it is him saying that finally it's not what he does well. Here you might say that he should be writing against his strengths, but would you not agree that a writer should not be forcing himself to write that which he does not feel? That which is false?

As for Oblivion itself, well there are a few stories I'd point to. In my earlier post, which I linked to above, I cited "Mister Squishy", and I provided a relevant quotation for your perusal, if you're interested. Also, "Good Old Neon" was an amazing act of empathy. "The Soul is not a Smithy"; "Oblivion" itself... But, see, the thing about emotional impact is that if the reader doesn't feel it, then they don't feel it, right? So for me to argue that these stories are not cold, that they have great emotional impact, doesn't mean much. It seems clear to me that Wallace does "give a damn about [his] subject matter"--his "subject matter" being, I think, the exploration of language-worlds and thought processes. I think it's clear he gives a damn because he explores the nuances of this stuff in great (I would say, loving) detail, and he does it, quite often, brilliantly. I don't know what you mean by a book "grip[ping] you by your lapels", it doesn't seem to tell me anything.

One thing I would draw your attention to in Scraps' comment was the point about your generalizing from your personal response to a provocative post proclaiming Wallace "washed up". If you'd written something like "man, I just read that Federer article, and DFW really seems to be phoning it in lately.... I found Oblivion cold and dense and I think...etc" then the post probably wouldn't have rankled as much. But you know full well that not only have others you like and even admire praised his recent fiction, including Oblivion, but many have been responding quite favorably to the Federer essay itself (I haven't read it), not to mention the Lobster book. I am not at all trying to say that you're not entitled to your opinion, or that you don't have the right to rant about something on your own blog, but I think he's right in describing your "of course you agree with me" and "pointing at the emperor" approaches. They are not conducive, normally, to good literary discussion. You might say that obviously your post did elicit a discussion, but I still think the condescension was unnecessary.

Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting.

George said...

I am saying that Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews and Oblivion are part of the same project.

I love this point. It's true that some of the work in the short stories after Infinite Jest feels like it plays with the same themes (and sometimes the same techniques; e.g. the textless "Q." in Brief Interviews first appeared in IJ). But DFW is clearly in the midst of a "project" in his career as an influential thinker, to explore how human impulses toward emotion and communication has been influenced by arguably-decadent US culture. Thanks for taking the long view of his work.

Matt said...

"One looks upon the strange irony of Wallace touring the country for a book while ignoring virtually all interviews and wonders if Wallace is only putting out these books or accepting these gigs to keep a little extra cash coming in. You do what you have to do, I guess. But living at the whims of Bonnie Nadell (or anyone) seems a bit puerile for a man of 44."

"But more importantly, I think this post reveals a lot more about Ed Champion than it does about David Foster Wallace."

Yes, probably so.

"I'm not going to discuss his essays, because mostly I don't care--they're generally amusing works-for-hire and little more."

Assume that you're excluding his short fiction, which is excellent, but then I suppose SFTINDA suggests in its very title (a certain ambivalence) that he might agree?

Richard said...

If I had to guess, I would indeed think that he might agree. I have to think his fiction is more important to him than his non-fiction.

I'm not sure what you mean by "Assume you're excluding his short fiction, which is excellent". If you mean you assume I'm "excluding" his (excellent) short fiction from the category of things I don't care about, then, yes, you're right.