Monday, January 4th, 2010

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.

52 Comments / Post A Comment

katiebakes (#32)

Wait, is this just a personal ad couched in literary criticism? I like what you've done here, you little minx.

Jasmine (#8)

Right? Between this and Balk's G-Spot item…both making weakly veiled attempts to get the ladies hot and bothered…

Hey! There was nothing veiled about it!

"Hyper-endowed writer demonstrably able to locate G-spot…"

Definitely worked for me!
Gwan wit' yo bad self, SCW.

lizp (#1,347)

Trying to outsmart David Foster Wallace = always a mistake.

mathnet (#27)

Choire's hero!

davidwatts (#72)

I can understand the urge to shoehorn DFW into that piece – all that feminist studies stuff a life spent in '90s academia forced into his brain (and writing), the kind of anti-desire/anti-seduction bent of Brief Interviews, and the general quality of being hopelessly lost in your own indecision (and not in some hooker's vagina) that a lot of his writing has. But, yes, the examples she picks are horrible, and more likely the result of a Lexis-Nexis search for "Wallace Updike Desire" than any sort of understanding of DFW. And also, as you so ably point out, likely totally untrue, in toto.

I would also like to just say that "hero-type action" is a delightfully DFW-y turn of phrase, and I loved it.

lizp (#1,347)

Just saw a key typo in your indented DFW quote: last clause should be "the prospect of dying withOUT having even once loved something more than yourself." Not "with."

Gah, thanks, Lizp!

LondonLee (#922)

The only thing I've ever read of Wallace's was the thing he did on talk radio for The Atlantic (my bad, I know) but I read all of this piece just because I love it when people care about writers and writing.

RickVigorous (#214)

Start with Broom of the System!

Awww, yes Rick. YES.

Abe Sauer (#148)

It's telling of DFW's work that his superior essay work is always referenced when criticizing his fiction. Even this criticism of the criticism adopts as its (witty!) title a superior DFW non-fiction work.

A Supposedly Fun Thing is a "superior" piece, yes. But I wouldn't go so far as to call it superior to Wallace's other work.

Full disclosure: I've only read IJ once, but all of his anthologies, both fiction and non-, at least twice. (Save Everything and More — that actually sorta borders on unreadable for me, I'm embarrassed to admit.) Broom of the System currently stands at 4 and is probably my favorite novel. Period. All this is to say: I fear that calling Wallace's non-fiction essays his best work bespeaks only a passing familiarity with his canon*. Sorries, Abe!

*[obligatory DFW footnote!] I decided "canon" was less obnoxious than oeuvre. Thoughts?

Yeah Abe, agree with Dorothy. The non-fic is fantastic, but I'm not persuaded by claims about its superiority to the fiction. To me, IJ is the equal of Lobster/Fun Thing. Now, Broom may read more like the best college honors thesis in history (and that's not bad!), but I'd argue we shouldn't hold its apprentice-novel status against something as masterfully fashioned as IJ. Or the story collections, for that matter.


Abe Sauer (#148)

Well, maybe less a passing familiarity with his canon than personal preference. It IS literature BTW so better/worse arguments will never be resolved. My own personal feeling is that his style feels more natural (and humorous) in the non-fiction stuff. In the fiction I just feel like I am actually pulled away from the story by the style. Again, preference. AND I agree that Everything and More was a humbling (attempted) read.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Start with A Supposedly Fun Thing, and then go for Infinite Jest.

barnhouse (#1,326)

SO absolutely true, WHAT an irritating essay.

Granting first that literary skill w/r/t eroticism is beyond subjective, and that nobody so far has come within miles of John Donne in this area. The reverse of Roiphe's point is the far worthier one: certain of today's novelists are far more skilled at communicating a full, credible (and, consequently, genuinely moving) picture of eroticism than the penis-with-a-thesaurus gang could ever have dreamed up.

In the case of Infinite Jest, what a nerve to suggest the pot-addled Erdedy as a model, when a few brief pages away is the heartbreakingly steamy tale of Bruce Green and Mildred L. Bonk! I ASK you.

"She was the kind of fatally pretty and nubile wraithlike figure who glides through the sweaty junior-high corridors of every nocturnal emitter's dreamscape."

barnhouse (#1,326)

"Shy, iridescent, coltish, pelvically anfractuous, amply busted, given to diffident movements of hand brushing flaxen hair from front of dear creamy forehead, movements which drove Bruce Green up a private tree. A vision in a sundress and silly shoes. Mildred L. Bonk."

joeclark (#651)

No, I don't agree with that. To use the vulgate, Roiphe was complaining that American guy novelists these days act like indoctrinated lesbians, as though as though actually having a giant fucking cock to use on somebody is intrinsically sexist and evil. These guys act like fags with girlfriends, to continue to use the vulgate.

Sensitive guys get really boring after a while, especially when you want them to fuck your brains out. Reading about sensitive guys' unwillingness to fuck somebody's brains out (for fear of some indoctrinated lesbian calling them sexist) is so very much worse.

The Wallace mentions are incorrect, it seems. But the thrust of Roiphe's piece is not.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Personal views of sexual matters differ wildly, even within a generation. I appreciate that you agree with Roiphe, here, but apparently many do not (myself included.)

random_play (#200)

To use the Vulgate:

Et insanivit libidine super concubitu eorum quorum carnes sunt ut carnes asinorum et sicut fluxus equorum fluxus eorum.

Ez 23:20

barnhouse (#1,326)

Yikes, but that is apropos.

(translations here.)

lizp (#1,347)

SC-W: No problem. If I weren't already taken, I'd consider a post-McSweeneys 33 roll in the hay with you based on this essay alone.

Matt (#26)

Why was that dude always dressed like Axl Rose?

barnhouse (#1,326)

I think because those gnarly pills he took made him sweat a ton.

bmichael (#213)

If you want to talk about flaccid writing, Seth Colter Walls is a good place to finish. Or not–as the case with this essay's finish, which casts some sort of weirdly veiled impingement on DFW's sex drive because of a medical therapy he took? What a disappointing end to a fairly decent post.

gregorg (#30)

hah, different strokes for different folks indeed.

JaguarPaw (#312)

My thoughts exactly – all of a sudden the somewhat thoughtful discussion devolved into a "Uh, thanks Dad" view of psychopharmacology. Maybe it's my love for DFW that makes me defensive against such ignorant, simplistic slights.

Huh! I didn't actually take it as a slight — and certainly not an ignorant one! — but only as an observation? Of what seems to be an unassailable fact? (That antidepressants tend to wreak havoc with the sexytime feelings.)

I'm not sure that it necessarily had any bearing on Wallace's writing (i.e., sexytime writing), but I don't think I could subscribe to an argument that the antidepressants are irrelevant to this discussion. Indeed, I think the scant 2 sentences about it in the grand scheme of this piece were just about perfectly apt. Your mileage et cetera.)

Totally agree with Ms. Mantooth on so many counts here, not least of which is that this was neither a slight by Seth Colter Walls, who declared his love for DFW straight out of the gate, nor was it gratuitous, coming as it does in an essay defending him against Roiphe's misreading and maladroit grouping of him in with the new male lit stars "too cool for eroticism." Depression and meds are said to affect sex drive in many cases; that DFW's work clearly shows he was "a lover, even through" these bolsters the argument SCW has laid out in the preceding paragraphs. Though he's clearly uncomfortable with having to do so!

Also, I don't take umbrage at it, and I take an antidepressant. (Which neither prevented me from enjoying this piece, if you know what I'm sayin', nor diminishes the desire to be properly did.)

As a side-note: Before one writes a comment like this at an obscene hour instead of sleeping, it might be useful to check that one remembered to note an unfortunate reality: Even those less familiar with the canon (hello!) can't help but to be aware of Foster Wallace's medical history, given that it is noted in nearly every discussion of his creative life. Nothing new here.

gregorg (#30)

nice finish there, right down to the vulnerable, little parenthetical squeeze at the end.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a lobster to consider–if you know what I mean.

shostakobitch (#1,692)

I've read Broom, Infinite Jest and almost all his essays. Motherfucker can write I get it and I love it. But why do I feel like people only talk about books (particularly DFW) as a scheme to get laid?

Flashman (#418)

call me!

Because it works.

I thought the point of having a language was to get laid.

LondonLee (#922)

Just knowing who Sylvia Plath was got me laid once.

shostakobitch (#1,692)

I once fucked a girl because she told me about her and an ex boyfriend had robbed a pizza place to get money for drugs. Well that and I'd sleep with almost anything you put in front of me.

Point being that I know one doesn't need to read fancy book learnins to fuck but it still feels like such an integral part of the talking-about-reading experience.

I know Choire asked the same thing yesterday, but seriously, how does Roiphe continue to get work when she is so wrong so often? Reading her piece yesterday — particularly the Wallace bits — gave me bad flashbacks to the era of my having to read book-length college admission essays by Wendy Shalit and Jedediah Purdy for my online-bookstore gig. Those tomes were so full of relevant-example-grasping you could see fingers wiggling in the background if you looked hard enough. (Well OK, some of that was just me going near-blind with rage over who was being ushered into the "you deserve a book today" club while I toiled at a dot-com. Little did I know that I'd a mere 12 years hence be looking back fondly at an era where editorial work was deemed worthy of any sort of compensation!)

elecampane (#1,877)

Your comments on JvD/Gately perfect. Anyone who rattles off that list of contemporary American novelists and puts Wallace in the company of Foer, et al. is about as good a reader as Jesse Hallam.

the Loud Coast (#1,362)

I was born in 1984 and I didn't really enjoy reading all that much until I read Infinite Jest. Part of the appeal of the book to me was that Wallace included a believable and honest discussion of sexuality but did not allow sexual issues to take over the whole story, like a lot of other writers tend to do.

barnhouse (#1,326)

+one zillion

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

I couldn't find the exact post in which JoeTheLion ( said this, but in response to this essay, she asked the obv question (my paraphrase here): 'Do str8 ppl even have sex n e more? Feel sorry for yall.'

Chris Lott (#2,858)

Don't forget, Roiphe has gotten it seriously wrong about DFW before (though she wasn't the worst offender in this instance):

slinkimalinki (#182)

*call me*

spanish bombs (#562)

I don't really like Wallace's fiction, but this was a pretty good essay.

SemperBufo (#1,849)

I loved Infinite Jest, first of all. It really resonated with me & it examined certain aspects of life (addiction & escapism, primarily) in ways that no other writer had really even attempted. Also, Roiphe is and always has been a lightweight, as far as I can tell (though I'm not exhaustively familiar with her work, but you know, if you don't like the single, you're not goign to buy the album). There may be something lazy about the whole project of trying to ascribe something to a "generation" of writers.

All that said, for me there is something a bit sexless and maybe even puritanical about his work.His depression and the meds probably contributed to that. But so what? Does every writer have to write the hot stuff? Given that (at least in Infinite Jest) Wallace was writing about the cost of ecstasy, maybe it's an appropriate stance. And whatever the subject, I'd rather have no sex than badly written, painfully fake sex.

FWIW, SC-W's analogy of writers' prowess to tits & dick seems to leave too many hostages to fortune. As much as I love the sprawling nature of IJ, Wallace's verbosity & compulsive footnoting sometmes felt like an obviously fake pair of implants.

joeclark (#651)

Autobloggatio: "What's almost as pointless as a bottom with nine inches uncut? A novelist with nine inches uncut."

SweetJane (#2,944)

"Again they stripped each other to the waist and she, in that same kind of jitterbug jape they didn't have the breath to laugh at, she hopped up at him and forked her legs the same way over his shoulders and arched back until his arm stopped her fall and he supported her like that, the left hand horned with old callus at the small of her satiny back, and bore her."

Orin always struck me as equally sexy and ridiculous, the kind of guy you can't believe you fucked because he's so absurd, and the reason I love this line, why I copied it at length into my journal on a jerky plane–it's a beautiful piece of writing, really hot, as an image, an idea, but also: so ridiculous. Who fucks this way, I wonder, and yes please, that sounds right. Everyone who loves D.F.W is reverent about his genius, it's old news, but the way he just consistently links up such disparate feelings, more like invokes them, anyway, for me…no other writer forces me to get it right, to make sure, yes, I read that, a person actually wrote that, and made my life better for it.

This article, this Mr. Seth Colter Walls who I've never read before, nailed every part of why I am still regularly googling D.F.W., why I can't get over his death, though I always admire him with sadness for having the guts to do it; why I've come home drunk and fruitless, being newly single and felt comforted by reading pleasures such as this, the synchronicity of someone WHO GETS IT.

Thank you.

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