The backlash against David Foster Wallace

Not everyone’s enamoured with the author who’s become a kind of fringe pop icon
Richard Warnica
ca. 1996 --- Photographed in his hometown of Bloomington, Ill. --- Image by © Gary Hannabarger/Corbis
The backlash against David Foster Wallace
Gary Hannabarger/Outline/Corbis

David Foster Wallace died on Sept. 12, 2008. He hung himself in his home in Claremont, Calif., while his wife, the artist Karen Green, was at work. He was 46 years old. A novelist, essayist and short story writer, Wallace produced a relatively thin portfolio for an author of his fame. But he touched readers in a way few others of his generation and genus—the high-brow literary kind—did. “There was so much of him in his writing,” says the novelist Matthew Baldwin. Fans felt as if they knew him, as if he was their friend.

In the years since Wallace’s death, he has become a kind of fringe pop icon. His name today is almost a shibboleth for a certain kind of reader, a symbol of faith, of conversion to his particular genius. “The undergraduates I’ve taught who love him, typically, they love the person, they love the idea of him they have from his books,” says Alexander Chee, a novelist who now teaches at Columbia University.

Wallace’s pop culture footprint, meanwhile, continues to grow. This summer, the Decemberists, an indie folk band, released a music video based on a scene from Wallace’s most famous novel, Infinite Jest. In October, a character bearing an uncanny resemblance to the young Wallace—a bandana-wearing, tobacco-chewing polymath from the Midwest—will appear in the new novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. (New York magazine was the first to point out the resemblance.) It’s almost as if Wallace has “become an icon for being an iconoclast,” says the Canadian author Bill Gaston, as if his life is now as important as his work.

Dedicated Wallace-heads tend to be the kinds of people who use books the way others do clothes—they primp them, push them out on public shelves as signs of their own good taste. But not all his readers were such big fans. In fact, in recent months there have been signs of a cautious backlash against the Wallace oeuvre. In March, the essayist Geoff Dyer pronounced himself “allergic” to Wallace’s digressive style. “It’s not that I dislike the extravagance, the excess, the beanie-baroque, the phat loquacity,” he wrote. “They just bug the crap out of me.” A long review of Wallace’s work in the The New Republic, meanwhile, called Infinite Jest a “literary overdose” and said it was “dispiriting to see him still toying with metafictional tricks” in (the posthumously published) The Pale King.

It’s on the question of his influence, though, that things have grown most heated. A low-scale literary war broke out online recently over a Maud Newton essay in the New York Times Magazine that worried over Wallace’s sway on other writers. “In the Internet era,” Newton wrote, “Wallace’s moves”—his verbal tics and loquacious, high-brow folkiness—“have been adopted and further slackerized” by writers who lack his quick mind. In a response on his blog, Chee wrote about Wallace imitators creating “a house style of the Internet,” a sort of “faux-naive” tone.

The problem, really, is that Wallace wrote like a literary daredevil. He did radical things with words that could seem remarkably tossed off. “The odour coming off the work is that it’s wild and undisciplined,” says Gaston. “And what writer wouldn’t want to be able to do that?”

But of course, what Wallace did was anything but easy. Copying him, Baldwin says, is like “some average guy saying he’s going to ape Usain Bolt. It’s just not going to happen.” That doesn’t mean young writers won’t try, to usually bad effect. Gaston, who heads the creative writing program at the University of Victoria, can’t imagine teaching Infinite Jest to his students. Chee, meanwhile, would prefer his pupils have a sense of their own style before even reading Wallace’s work.

For Baldwin, who founded an Infinite Jest reading group in 2009, Wallace’s long-term influence is likely to be thematic. His sincerity and humour will last, even if no heir to his voice or scope emerges. “It’s hard to say that any single writer could look at Infinite Jest and think to themselves, I’m going to write a book like that,” Baldwin says. “It would be the equivalent of saying, ‘I’m going to become David Foster Wallace.’ I think that’s the only way you could accomplish that.”