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David Foster Wallace News and Resources Since March 97

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Home News by Category The Pale King Divine Drudgery - Inspired Devotion

Divine Drudgery - Inspired Devotion

A couple of big pieces worth considering a little more deeply today.
Jonathan Raban's review/overview of David Foster Wallace and The Pale King for the May 12th Issue of the New York Review of Books, Divine Drudgery is first. Spoilers (Due 14/5/11).
It's an extensive review/overview that considers a selection of Wallace's work over the years but has a couple of... flaws (?)... that exemplify some of the things plaguing Wallace reviews right now. Unfortunately, Raban does himself, and the review, disservice (as many reviewers have) by once again bringing up details about Wallace's suicide that don't need close analysis, a little subtlety goes a long way. Sometimes it's worth remembering than an author and his work are not one and the same. Another paragraph frustrated me too, Raban writes:
I’m not that diligent a reader, but many are, as the several fansites devoted to Wallace’s work, like, attest. Here, devoted readers mingle with literary academics, to share papers delivered at Wallace conferences, wall maps charting the relationships within the galaxy of characters in Infinite Jest, and tidbits of Wallace news. Before his suicide in 2008, he was a widely admired and increasingly studied writer; since then, he and his work have become so loved and revered (and denigrated, by the inevitable dissenting minority) that it’s hard to read him sensibly.
Thanks for the shout out and all, but, "it's hard to read DFW sensibly," while admitting, "you're not that diligent a reader"? If there's anything Wallace's work requires it's diligence... I posit that difficulty in reading Wallace sensibly is sometimes the result of forgetting about diligence and get wrapped up in some of the other aspects of Wallace's life, and death, that many otherwise great reviews have been hobbled by. Raban's not my target here, the general lack of diligence in reviews is, it just happened to be Raban's piece today that got me going.
Today's other big piece is by Nathan Heller and appears in Slate, David Foster Wallace: Why he inspires such devotion in his fans. (21/4/11) This one sits at the other end of the spectrum.
There's a small soundbite sized comment from me in there that came out of quite a substantial interview/conversation Heller and I had a few weeks ago. I knew he was onto something because he was exploring why Wallace has a passionate and dedicated fan base from a perspective that many reviewers and journalists seem to have forgotten about lately, Wallace's writing, not his death.
Finally, a considered piece that looks at why readers might be drawn to David Foster Wallace's work in the first place. I'll let you in on a secret, it's not because his work is "intelligent" or "maximallist" or uses "pomo tricks" or any of the myriad of terms people use to try and describe a body of work that resists being pigeon holed if you've read a good portion of it. It's because of this:
To humanize the postmodern crisis in this way was Wallace's great achievement, and a culturally resonant one. Between 1970 and 2004, enrollment in both college and graduate school doubled in this county. That period also saw increasing specialization among academic pursuits. DFW's rise to maturity as an artist, in other words, coincided with the emergence of record numbers of highly educated middle-class Americans, many of them entering the adult world equipped with determining interpretive habits and rarefied habits of thought.

What his mature work offered such readers was an opportunity to break past this pale of smarts and knowledge—and many found the prospect attractive. Nick Maniatis, a teacher in Canberra, Australia, who founded and continues to run the leading DFW fan site, The Howling Fantods, told me that the fans he encounters today largely embrace Wallace for same reasons that he became an acolyte 15 years ago, when he first bought a copy of Infinite Jest on a whim (the book was on sale) and had his worldview transformed. "It helped me to engage with people who had completely different opinions to me," he explained; the novel began to change him from a dogmatic and stiff-minded university student to a reader with the tools to navigate a pluralistic world.

These lessons in humane ethics, more than Wallace's prose style or satire, lie behind the recent groundswell of DFW fandom, too. Both of the nonfiction works pushed into print following Wallace's death—his undergraduate thesis in modal philosophy (refuting Richard Taylor's 1962 argument that free will is an illusion) and his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon (reprinted, one sentence to a page, as This Is Water)—purport to be valuable as not literary works but as statements of humane leadership: Here is the collegiate Wallace, breaking past a crushing intellectual system to champion what's beautiful and unexpected about human experience. Here is the world-wizened DFW, telling you that all the analytic tools and interpretive self-awareness you acquired in college is just a starting point—that the real work of an educated person lies in moving among ways of thinking, and with compassion. "The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it," Wallace said at Kenyon. Yet "[t]he really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people."

Last Updated on Friday, 22 April 2011 11:58  

The Howling Fantods