The Natural Noise of Good
Appeared in the Canberra Times on 9/7/11 as “Behind the howling fantods”
How did a Canberra schoolteacher come to run the website of one of America’s most celebrated authors? Duncan Driver finds out.
I used to think that style was more important than substance. In all the arts, and especially in literature, I considered that you didn’t necessarily choose your subject; it was more a case of your subject choosing you, and so it was what you did with your subject that counted. Philip Larkin didn’t particularly want to be the poet laureate of misery; he didn’t even want to be a poet, but verse was where his talent took him and deprivation and sadness were what inspired his most beautiful lines. Because no one decides where their talents are going to lie it seemed natural that the important thing was how well-developed those talents were.
I still have moments where I believe this to be true, but two writers have made me question the wisdom of my argument in recent years. The poet W. H. Auden was the first: half way through a well-established and glittering career he made the brave decision that the exercise of virtuosity and the creation of beauty weren’t enough. Having lived to see mechanized war, mass starvation and the aftermath of Hitler’s Final Solution, he considered that poetry had to subjugate itself to the bleak realities of the world. The poet was required to ignore any impulse that did not come from a place of harsh and sobering truth. There could be cautious optimism, yes, but every line had the primary aim of facing the worst of humanity head-on. He put it succinctly in the 11th of his sonnets from China:
Fr life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face,
For vegetal patience, for animal courage and grace:
Some have been happy; some, even, were great men.
But hear the morning’s injured weeping and know why:
Ramparts and souls have fallen; the will of the unjust
Has never lacked an engine; still all princes must
Employ the fairly-noble unifying lie.
The poet was to choose a morality that governed the content of his work, even at the expense of his natural talent. This seemed to me to be a case of the artist – a traditionally carefree and childlike, even childish, person – taking adult responsibility for what he produced. I was mightily impressed. In my view the only other writer to have matched Auden’s regard for the importance of a writer’s morality has been the American novelist David Foster Wallace. Indeed, choosing to write in the first place was, in Wallace’s case, to choose the path of most resistance: his peculiar intellect and the trajectory of his education had led him towards mathematics and philosophy. In his late twenties, however, Wallace turned his back on these pursuits and focused himself on the development of what he called “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction.” Like Auden, this was a writer who did not consider the whims of his muses or the strength of his talent enough. He wanted to be able to impose his will over his creativity and write only that which satisfied a strict morality:
“Talent’s just an instrument. It’s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn’t … the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.”
For Wallace, to allow your talent free reign was to write for yourself, not for your readers; it was to try only to impress with how smart or witty or articulate you were, instead of trying to impart something of value. This is all the more impressive in Wallace’s case given that he was so smart and witty and articulate in the first place. His talents were great, and so to circumscribe them within strict moral limits was indeed a brave and admirable thing.
Wallace’s writing is famously replete with humour, irony, earnestness, fact, observation, digression, silence and sadness. His sentences have the unsettling effect of opening out before you like vividly coloured pop-up books, growing ever larger and more baroque. His style ranges from the rarefied and poetic to the arcane and technical to the scatological and philistine, often all in one paragraph. His stories regularly included semi-literate exchanges between characters such as, “Heh heh. So then what happened?” / “Heh heh heh.” / “Heh heh heh,” and yet he frequently used arcane words and phrases like “androsatorial,” “epigone,” “leptosomatic” and “the howling fantods.” This last is particularly interesting in that it was chosen as the title for the internet’s most significant Wallace-related website.
“The howling fantods” actually means a state of uneasiness or apprehension, a more intensely felt version of something like “the creeps” or “the heebie-jeebies,” but such is the popularity of the site that it now carries a double-meaning: a “howling fantod” is also a particularly devoted Wallace reader, someone who has poured over the thousand-page Infinite Jest many times and who seeks out rare interviews and uncollected pieces of Wallace’s expansive journalism. After Wallace died in 2008, tributes in most major newspapers and magazines appeared in which journalists confessed themselves to being “fantods.” Even the British novelist Zadie Smith nailed her colours to the mast in piece on Wallace’s short-story collection, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.
This internet curio should be of particular interest to literary Canberra Times readers given that “The Howling Fantods!” website is owned and run by a Canberran, Nick Maniatis, an English teacher at Campbell High School. In 1996 Maniatis had been studying arts and science at ANU and had the good fortune to discover both Wallace’s extraordinary writing and the infant web technology at roughly the same time.
“Geocities had appeared on the stage and allowed for free web hosting,” he explains, “and so I set up my homepage with links to stuff I liked, which included some links to David Foster Wallace, and in researching him I found links to [other Wallace sites], and, following them, I went from a personal website to a website about David Foster Wallace … I was teaching myself how to code HTML and learning about the web and linking and all of that kind of stuff. I’ve always been into computers, so being able to create a presence on the web for something that didn’t seem to have that much popularity on the web, that’s what set me going.”
It didn’t take long for the site to garner interest that Maniatis could exploit, adding more content as more and more people got in touch and shared their resources with him: “I knew I was getting hits, I had one of those silly little hit counters … but as it got more popular – and I was competitive – I realized that there were other information resources out there. So when I had a postgrad student first contact me and say ‘Look, I’ve written this thesis on Wallace and he’s read the thesis and given me some feedback on it; would you like to put it on the site?’ that was pretty exciting. I hadn’t really thought before that moment that I could be providing text, research and papers to other fans.”
The site soon outgrew its bandwidth limit and had to be hosted by a more powerful server. Today it is the most valuable and impressive online database of Wallace scholarship and journalism that exists. If this article has done its job and piqued your interest in David Foster Wallace, your first move should be for your laptop, where you should open your internet browser and find the “New to DFW?” section of “The Howling Fantods!” See for yourself just how rich and informative it is.
Maniatis is modest about its success, but clearly pleased that it provides so many with an introduction to the man the New York Times called “the best mind of his generation”: “I like to think that it’s more than just news; it’s somewhere students can go to find information, links to extensive bibliographic information and papers that explore some of the greater themes in Wallace’s work. That’s what I hope it is now.”
Despite the site’s popularity and its ever-bourgeoning content, it hasn’t always been easy for Maniatis and “the Howling Fantods!” Attempts to shift the focus of the site towards a more communal, participatory, web 2.0 version of itself have been consistently frustrated. Forums that allowed “fantods” to chat about Wallace’s work were hacked and destroyed some years ago, leaving Maniatis acutely aware of the problems that can attend popular websites.
“That was shattering. All of the discussion and the really interesting community stuff was lost. After [the forums] got hacked, I got completely paranoid about security, and so I was never able to find something that integrated with the [site] in the way that I wanted it to, and was secure in the way that I wanted as well. And now, having children, I don’t have the time to maintain them. Being a member of a number of online communities, I’m quite aware of the difference between a well-run web forum community and one that’s kind of free range and crazy.
“I think it’s really important that if you’re going to encourage a community that you really want thoughtful discussion and good moderation, and you need to be aware of what’s happening on your site, and with lots of Wallace’s stuff popping up on the web as PDFs in illegal forms, I didn’t want … to be caught up in copyright disputes … I would have been great to be able to provide a big web forum community, but, due to various stumbling blocks, I don’t feel like it’s possible to do that now.”
For Maniatis, though, the popularity of the site, the places it’s taken him and the esteem in which he’s held by scholars and writers put such problems in perspective as mere bumps in the road. He corresponds with Wallace’s literary agent, has become friendly with journalists such as Rolling Stone’s David Lipsky and is regularly invited to speak at conferences, fora and symposia around the world, as when he attended the “Footnotes: New Directions in David Foster Wallace Studies” conference in New York in 2009.
“[That] was a real 15-minutes-of-fame situation,” Maniatis admits. “Lots of people who I’d read online, I bumped into … when we met each other and spoke and clearly appreciated what each other had done, it was strange and great. The great thing about that conference was that it wasn’t just marketed to academics. There was kind of a blossoming awareness that there were fans online and people who where interested in Wallace’s work to the extent that they wanted to talk and write about his stuff in a lot more depth than just saying, ‘I’m a fan too; didn’t you like this bit?’ They wanted to look into some of the literary theory that he himself was courting and responding to. He’s not one of those authors who sits separate to the theory: some of the titles of his short stories invoke academic theory and literary theory. So, you’ve got this conference with academics and fans, many of whom were coming over and saying, ‘Nick, I’ve been reading your site since the beginning’ and it was really nice and scary. When you’re in Canberra, creating a site about an American author who not many Australians have heard of, to go to another country and suddenly, you’re the guy… and to have those personal thank-yous, I guess the internet sometimes means that we lose some feeling of the connection that we might be making with other people, and seeing as that’s one of the themes in Wallace’s work, its significant when people come and say that to you.”
Maniatis is right to point out that a feeling of isolation or dissociation from community is one of Wallace’s great themes, as is the heroism of our attempts to bridge differences and make connections in spite of this. Wallace found these attempts frustrated by a heavily ironic culture and his own crippling self-consciousness, but a felicitous by-product of his writing is that it achieves this aim in its readers: those who love Wallace’s work are brought together in surprisingly unguarded and significant ways by it. As Maniatis says, “When I meet people who are as passionate about David Foster Wallace as I am, it’s almost like barriers drop and defences melt away. You know that if that person respects the things Wallace writes about and is interested in exploring, that you can open up to them and listen to them knowing that they’ll listen to you in that same way. And I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like that before apart from in my marriage and with the people I’m closest to. You have lifelong friends that you do that with, but this author makes me drop my guard that much more readily.”
Hearing Maniatis speak about it, I’m reminded of a conversation that David Lipsky recounts in his recent biographical work on Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Arguing with fellow author Jonathan Franzen about the nature and significance of fiction, Wallace is reported to have said that the point of books is to help combat loneliness. It’s a rather Nietzschean observation in some ways – art as consolation for those who lead small lives – but it sits well with the things Wallace concerned himself with and the selfless, deeply moral impetus of his work. As Lipsky puts it, “David’s writing self … was the best friend you’d ever have, spotting everything, whispering jokes, sweeping you past what was irritating or boring or awful in humane style.”
I know that when I read Wallace I feel this way, but it’s hard to realise it without feeling a twinge of sadness or inadequacy, because it forever casts Wallace in the role of a friend who gets nothing back in return for his friendship. It’s rather like what Christopher Ricks says of Bob Dylan: his curse is being the only person in the world who has to show up at every Bob Dylan concert and being the only person in the world who can never go to one. David Foster Wallace wrote so many wonderful stories, essays and articles that draw people together, but he could never read them as we do and feel their warmth and love for himself. It’s another way of saying, I suppose, that the writer’s life is a lonely one.
Duncan Driver has lectured in English at the ANU and is an artistic director of Canberra’s Everyman Theatre.
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