Booked Up, with Seth Colter Walls: An Incredibly Un-Fun Misreading of David Foster Wallace that Katie Roiphe Should Never Do Again

DFWHave you ever loved a writer or book real hard? So hard that when someone got her or him-or it-all wrong, it was like you’d just been gutted? Well, then: the Katie Roiphe essay, from this weekend’s New York Times Book Review.

There are some things to admire here. Chief among them is her argument that a lot of contemporary dude fiction is pretty flaccid stuff. Consider all those fish effectively barrel-shot. And I’m also on board for championing the virtues of erotic ecstasy that are there to be found in mid-century dude fiction. This is less-obvious ground to be treading, these days. (And yes, even if it was mannered and self-conscious in its time, and can look stale today, the “virility” of Mailer, Updike et al remains a legit-if-narrow form of erotic ecstasy. Not for everyone: but different blowjobs for different folks, etc.) Though really now: David Foster Wallace does not belong in an essay about the droopy-dicked tendencies of Benjamin Kunkel and Jonathan Safran Foer.

In the parenthetical where she first mentions Wallace’s review of a late-period Updike novel, Roiphe writes: “(Recounting one such denunciation, David Foster Wallace says a friend called Updike ‘just a penis with a thesaurus’).” Now, if one were using this as a piece of evidence with regard to Wallace’s ostensible pivot, sexytime-wise, away from all things Updike may have ever stood for, here might be a good point to ask does Wallace himself subscribe to this view that he has quoted? Hell, let’s just go look at the page in question, from Consider the Lobster, via’s “look inside this book” feature.

This bit, halfway up the page from the “penis/thesaurus” line, is hardly useful for Roiphe’s clean division between old and new male lit stars: “… I’d like to offer assurances that your reviewer is not one of those spleen-venting spittle-spattering Updike haters one often encounters among literary readers under forty…. I do believe that The Poorhouse Fair, Of the Farm, and The Centaur are all great books, maybe classics.” Point… incoherence? Certainly not Point Roiphe.


It’s not the only time Roiphe mis- or under-reads Wallace’s Updike essay (or Infinite Jest, either).

She writes: “In this same essay, Wallace goes on to attack Updike and, in passing, Roth and Mailer for being narcissists. But does this mean that the new generation of novelists is not narcissistic?”

Let’s return to the Wallace essay Roiphe wants to summarize. Is it true that Wallace fails to note or distinguish the narcissism of a past era versus the narcissism of the present one-such that it’s appropriate for a gotcha transition in an overbroad trend piece?

No. Just no. Here’s Wallace again, in the same essay, which runs all of eight pages (and is therefore not his most difficult work for readers to bear the responsibility of completing): “But I think the deep reason so many of my generation dislike Updike and the other GMN’s [Great American Narcissists] has to do with these writers’ radical self-absorption, and with their uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters.” (Emphasis added, since it seems like an important, qualifying word.) Wallace expands on the difference between different generational approaches to narcissism on the next page, when he writes:

But young adults of the nineties–many of whom are, of course, the children of all the impassioned infidelities and divorces Updike wrote about so beautifully, and who got to watch all this brave new individualism and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation-today’s subforties have very different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without even once having loved something more than yourself.

This is all much more complex than Roiphe gives it credit for being, perhaps because she’s too busy shoehorning Wallace into a fraternity of lesser writers with whom he does not belong. I doubt even Eggers himself-who wrote a self-deprecating intro to the 10th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest-would put his Roiphe-pilloried novel You Shall Know Our Velocity! up against either of Wallace’s. And I say that as someone who likes Eggers in general, disliked his first novel, and is looking forward to opening, eventually, that grandly (if unsustainably-conceived) newspaper that is McSweeney’s 33. (I mean, just to make my point a little more overt: my dream, as a currently single person, is that I could share the different sections of McSweeneys 33 over a pot of coffee with a smart woman on some soon-to-come lazy Sunday morning. And then after passing it back and forth for a couple of hours, we’d go have hot sex. Because I’m pretty sure that would be an ecstasy I’m not at all “too cool” to admit wanting as a twenty-nine-year-old.)

Just for completeness’s sake, the other Wallace quotation Roiphe uses, from Infinite Jest, runs like this: “He had never once had actual intercourse on marijuana. Frankly, the idea repelled him…. ”

Now-aside from the question “how about when not on marijuana?”-it should be said that Infinite Jest is a long book, featuring many characters who use all manner of drugs. So at first I wondered if this was Hal being disgusted by the idea of doing it on weed, or maybe his pal Pemulis. Turns out this line is from the opening section on Ken Erdedy. The guy who smokes so much pot that we re-meet him hundreds of pages later in a halfway house. This is not a fair shot at the putatively sexless literary kids these days. It’s not even a representational view of the erotic as it works in Infinite Jest. Also, for what it’s worth: this line occurs on Page 22 of the book, and describes a rather minor character.

If you can tolerate the most vague of Infinite Jest spoilers, I’ll say that, hundreds of pages later, you can see Don Gately take some very decisive, hero-type action that you would be hard-pressed to square with Roiphe’s blanket line: “Even the mildest display of male aggression is a sign of being overly hopeful, overly earnest or politically un­toward.” (Greater earnestness, as it happens, is a virtue that Wallace pushes most of the sympathetic characters in Infinite Jest toward.) And, while being transported to the hospital after the incident in question, the fact that Gately has enough presence of mind to sneak a peek underneath Joelle Van Dyne’s veil: there’s simply nothing sexless about this moment. Or about the film-within-the-novel that gives the book its title (along with Hamlet, obvs).

These plot elements do what Roiphe rightly celebrates Updike et al for doing when they are at their best-“These passages are after several things at once-sadness, titillation, beauty, fear, comedy, disappointment, aspiration.” In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you don’t get lustfully moved by Gately’s desire for Joelle Van Dyne, or if you fail to understand her equal and abiding desire to get it on with Gately as she exhorts their fellow addicts to help her drag him to the car already-it might just be the case that you, the reader, have yet to get properly did in the bedroom.

As a side-note: Before one stays up all night writing something like this instead of sleeping, it might be useful to ask, “When is a much-celebrated writer worth sticking up for? More people love and respect Wallace’s writing than will ever know my name, or likely Roiphe’s. So who cares?”

When it comes to someone like Mailer, it always seems silly to take up a collection for his defense-since, in his own books and essays, he takes up his own cause pretty reliably. Though it is obviously different with a writer like Wallace. Self-aggrandizing beef isn’t really present as an ingredient in his journalism or his fiction. He was brave and brainy-one could even say virile-as a writer. Plenty of his sentences wow men and women alike with their hyper-endowment on the level of porny 48WTF?-cup tits or 12-inch cocks.

And this is why I suppose I care. Despite all his literary physiognomy, Wallace wasn’t the kind of brawling dick-swinger to go around saying “Who’s the champ? Who’s the champ? I’ll take on all comers” all the time. And just because this wasn’t the case doesn’t somehow make him a writer who is “too cool” for eroticism, as Roiphe wants to claim. Wallace may have been a (merciful) break from the primping pageantry of a prior era’s literary bodybuilding, especially when compared to your average “imma drop 1,000 pages in yo face” novelist. But, contra Roiphe, Wallace was also a lover, even through the pharmacological fog of his treatments for depression-which included, at various points, electro-shock. (Also? I’ve heard in commercials that even the lower-wattage approach to managing depression can sometimes mess with a person’s sexual drive, at times? But maybe we can let this one go.)

Seth Colter Walls writes for Newsweek.