My literary allergy

Prospect Magazine

My literary allergy

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The work of David Foster Wallace brings me out in hives

It’s taken years of unscientific tests, but I now accept that there is such a thing as literary allergy. This should not be confused with a negative value judgment; it is simply a reaction. With food it’s possible to be allergic to things one actually enjoys eating, like strawberries. In the realm of literature, that combination of liking and allergy would seem almost inconceivable, but the kind of reaction I have in mind here is not simply an intense dislike. Nor is it the same thing as developing an intense antipathy to a writer solely on the basis of the persona that emerges in and through his or her writing. As a reader, this is what happened to me with Bruce Chatwin. As a writer, I seem to have occasionally generated this feeling myself—how else to interpret the blogger’s declaration that he wanted to headbutt me?

I have always felt well disposed towards the widely acclaimed David Foster Wallace, whose latest novel, The Pale King, is published on 15th April, two and a half years after his suicide. But I am allergic to his writing. I liked the idea of someone swimming in big modernist and postmodern theory and still making room for human feeling, but a page—sometimes even a sentence, or an essay title—brings me out in hives. This is not a literary judgement; I have not been able to read enough of him to form one. I’ve only read the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and two essay collections. Of these A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is my favourite. Yes, I actually like his writing. I chuckle. I mark bits with a pencil. I admire… I break out in a mental rash.

So I’m not attempting a considered evaluation here; I’m just trying to explain my symptoms in the hope of finding out what it is that makes me react in this way. Of course, that’s exactly how the process of critical enquiry usually begins, but to attempt a judgement on DFW without having read the 1,104-page Infinite Jest would be like judging Joyce without having read Ulysses. Who knows? Maybe in some homeopathic way reading Infinite Jest would cure me of my allergy. Perhaps I just haven’t consumed him in sufficiently large doses. But even a small dose is, in my experience, an overdose. He’s funny, he’s hip, he has this whopping supply of verbal energy. His braininess and virtuosity are as hard to avoid as a 747 on a runway—and almost as noisy. He’s one of those writers who won’t let the reader get a word in edgeways.

I guess it’s a question of tone. I react against the variously contrived sloppinesses of all those “sort ofs” and “kind ofs” in tandem with, sometimes followed by, the magisterial flamboyant (“Existentiovoyeuristic conundra notwithstanding”). Or the grunge affectation of the double “though” in: “There are big differences between Agassi’s and Joyce’s games, though. Though Joyce…” It’s not that I dislike the extravagance, the excess, the beanie-baroque, the phat loquacity. They just bug the crap out of me. As do the obsessive parenthesising, insistent italicising, footnote-generating footnotes and typographical gimmickry that reaches a kind of apotheosis of unreadability in “Host,” from Consider the Lobster. And it bugs me, of course, that his style is catching, highly infectious.

All of this is accentuated because I am interested in a lot of the stuff he wrote about. Tennis, particularly. There are so few decent things written about tennis that I’m grateful to him for adding substantially to a small corner of the bookshelves. I actually love his (incredibly irritating) essay on Michael Joyce who, at the time of writing, was “the 79th best tennis player on planet earth.” Inevitably, it was one of DFW’s most-lauded essays, “On Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” that made me realise the extent of my allergy to him. All players have their distinctive styles within a generally-agreed-on idea of how to play tennis. These styles are inextricably bound up with the tics, mannerisms, compulsions and quirks they display between points and games. Now, as a writer DFW is all tics, quirks and obsessive compulsions. These are not decorative additions to his game, his style, they’re absolutely integral to it. Federer’s style is about maximum economy and grace of action. Between games he just sits there. Barely even sweats. DFW, by contrast, is forever picking his shorts out of his arse like Nadal, bouncing the balls as many times as Djokovic, tugging his cap forwards and backwards like Roddick, or twitching like Lleyton Hewitt. He is the least Federer-like writer imaginable. Hemingway said that the test of a good book is how much you can throw away. There is nothing to subtract from Federer’s game of simple declarative movements. We are seeing tennis reduced—and elevated—to an elemental graciousness. Start taking away from DFW, and you don’t know where to stop. I’ll try to read The Pale King of course. I may be cured and converted. Or I may be covered head to toe in a rash. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.

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  1. April 11, 2011

    Susan Greenberg

    ‘There are so few decent things written about tennis that I’m grateful to him for adding substantially to a small corner of the bookshelves.’ Geoff Dyer on David Foster Wallace

  2. April 12, 2011

    Brian

    I have to say that after reading this piece I have no idea what the hell you mean by a literary allergy.

    If you read interviews or writing about DFW, you find that he largely cut out a lot of the literary pyrotechnics that seem to bother you, if that’s all you mean. His story “All That” appeared in the New Yorker in late 2009 and provides a good example of this.

  3. April 12, 2011

    S. D. Kleinhans

    Thanks for this. I thought it was just me. The collective mania about this man can induce a bit of madness. I’m sorry he did himself in, he was a talented writer, but zounds, from the hype you’d think he was the second coming of Shakespeare. He isn’t and wasn’t. In time, I suppose, people will come to appreciate him in his rightful place in American letters, and spend more time looking beyond the near shelves to those they’ve unfortunately and grossly missed.

  4. April 12, 2011

    Lyle Rubin

    isn’t this just an argument for the Flaubertian le bon mot (james woods’ beloved realism) advanced as idiosyncratic ambivalence? nothing wrong with that. it just comes across as a wee bit disingenuous without you coming out and saying it.

  5. April 12, 2011

    normalvision

    “Between points he just sits there.”

    That should be “between games.”

  6. April 14, 2011

    Lyle Rexer

    I love Julian Gough’s: American universities sheltered DFW and almost ruined his writing. I aks you, Geoff (as in, \don aks me dat\) does that \almost\ mean it wasn’t completely ruined or that it was already ruined before he arrived at the university and an academic career could not lay a glove on it? Isn’t it axiomatic by now that Americans cannot write novels? They write Something Else that Wants to Eat the World. You break out in hives; I get indigestion.

  7. April 15, 2011

    Rino

    ok – this piece doesn’t really add anything, does it? Just a buy-in on DFW’s posthumous, incomplete book being published?

    If the substance of DFW is so rich you break out in hives, you need to radically reduce your intake or just simply change diet. Try something with more fiber & padding, say like Updike.

    The above doesn’t pass as tasting notes.

  8. April 15, 2011

    Barry Woolner

    I too have trouble with some of his books, and Infinite Jest is one of the best books I have ever read. Hard work, outrageously long-winded, and truly laugh-out-loud funny. Give yourself up for a few weeks and enjoy the ride.

  9. April 15, 2011

    Bill Clark

    There is a twitch pulling at the skin next to my left eye. What could be the cause? It can’t simply be my reaction to a negative review of Wallace’s prose, I read Ziegler’s pathetic postmortem response without blinking. It’s not the author’s word choice or sentences, anyone writing about Wallace necessarily double and triple checks their grammar lest they leave themselves open to easy criticism from Wallace’s legions of “snoots”. Maybe my allergy is an immune response to the arrogance with which the author pretends that his cognitive dissidence is caused by something external. Maybe it’s a response to the author suggesting that simply acknowledging his naivete somehow makes him capable of overcoming that gap in his knowledge. I will need to do research alright, but I will do that research without subjecting myself to anymore of the unpleasantness that I am currently feeling, and the only way I can do that is staying away from the cause of the irritation.

  10. April 16, 2011

    Charles

    I recently started Infinite Jest, my first Wallace work, and can hardly put it down. Some people like Mahler, others feel he is far too cumbrous and overblown. He certainly doesn’t swing like Basie or Bach. There’s all kinds of art; if you don’t like something, stay away from it.

    My interest in Wallace is deepened by something else. I read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom last year and loved it. I don’t like Pynchon, but it seems to me these novelists of the long sentences have actually created a movement. As a serious sculptor living through an age of shallow visual art with nothing but provocation to it, with curators who are interested in nothing else, I didn’t actually think a real movement of real art could happen any longer in this Warhol-whipped society. I respect those who can’t stand these novelists’ dense run-on sentences, but they don’t bother me. I enjoy the books, and I particularly welcome this real, actual, valid, present-day movement.

  11. April 17, 2011

    AJ

    I’m a big fan of DFW. But I enjoyed this piece. It think you accurately describe his style. In fact, I think DFW would have agreed with your “tick” characterization. In fact, I seem to recall him saying the very same thing–critically, about himself–in a letter to Jonathan Franzen.

    I don’t think Pale King is the place to start, my man. Broom of the System or Infinite Jest. I guess my worry is that if you read Pale King, you won’t be inclined to go back. Haven’t read it myself. But no one seems to be raving about it. There’s a consensus that it shows promise, but it’s unfinished and its value is chiefly as a momento mori.

  12. April 19, 2011

    Tod

    Come on and show some backbone. Instead of hiding behind this allergy metaphor, just admit you don’t care for DFW’s style. There is nothing wrong with that.

  13. April 22, 2011

    Christian in NYC

    Geoff, in the spirit of your essay, I would edit all your insights or carping or whatever down to this: “Hemingway said that the test of a good book is how much you can throw away. ”

    That would appear to be your literary beef.

    The fact that you reference Hemingway in an article about Wallace clearly shows that you miss the entire point of the latter’s writing. And maybe the point of about every major American writer since Hemingway who wasn’t, like Didion, trying to emulate the guy. Or at least Pynchon.

    Wallace was writing about an America-dominated world that, with omnipresent television and technology and way too much more, has become maximalist itself. The cafes of Hemingway weren’t Starbucks. The bullfights Hemingway attended weren’t held in corporate-named stadia. The war that Hemingway was an ambulance driver in wasn’t broadcast live in real time. Hemingway just isn’t a good analogy, frankly. Aside from the fact that he, too, killed himself.

    Start taking away from this America, its consumer culture, its television, its media, and then maybe I’ll grant that Hemingway reference. But otherwise, to reiterate, you miss the whole point of the man’s work. At least in his most important work, the one you haven’t bothered to read.

    Wallace wasn’t trying to make anything easy or simple or plain. Easy, simple and plain describes roughly 99% of fiction. Instead, Wallace was trying to make it as fractured and complex as living today is. He talked a lot about it.

    Also, DFW covered that whole “your-whole-tennis-game-is-a-series-of-tics” already. In Infinite Jest. You should read it.

    • August 19, 2013

      negligent gardener

      This is exactly on point. Taking that bit of one writer’s, Hemingway’s, own mantra and using it in an attempt to smear an author whose works you have read very little of is like trying to justify a dislike for Mark Rothko (which would be fine in itself) by saying Chuck Close believed in the value of superior realism…

  14. May 4, 2011

    dick diver

    So, to sum up, i haven’t really read his stuff, haven’t got a substantive criticism or point to make but i do have a book tour coming up so i will plump for an article criticising David Foster Wallace, bingo…

    This is pure shi*e Dyer, have some self respect.

  15. May 23, 2011

    Dutch guy

    From another blog entry by Geoff Dyer:

    ‘I was putting my faith in the power of ignorance as an investigative tool’

    Pretty much sums up this little column well, doesn’t it, Geoff?

  16. August 22, 2011

    Mike

    The best argument against a DFW-mimicking style of hedging, of wanting to be pals with the reader, of self-conscious literary apology (even in as bland an instance as this), is your last line:
    Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.

  17. August 30, 2011

    kadrian@gmail.com

    Sorry his writing is over your head, Geoff.

  18. March 5, 2012

    Loudon Cleary

    Thank god it’s not just me. But my Wallace Allergy is even stronger than Dyer’s. Any reference to DFW supposed brilliance makes me lapse into a secondary condition involving wanting to dismiss not only his entire oeuvre but the critic’s and indeed that of the Western literary world from the 90s onwards.

    • January 16, 2014

      Jim C

      I agree, but make it the 80s onward. If not late 70s.

      I think he’s a really awful writer. I’m allergic to most modern first-person anyway, but DFW’s oh-so-hip-and-knowing long-windedness really irritates me. And what’s his use of words like “guys” and “stuff” in literary essays? It’s cloying, and terrifically dated.

      Was just reading Hazlitt today. By comparison, how can anyone say that what we’re getting now is any good?

  19. March 13, 2012

    Erik

    I think I heard a giant

    WHHHHHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSSSSHHHH

    as I read this article.
    “… the test of a good book is how much you can throw away.” Whoa – I mean, is it possible to be an author yourself and ACTUALLY NOT UNDERSTAND what he’s doing?

    See, it’s fine to not like DFW, people differ in their artistic tastes. But to say that he’s “all tics” in a complete misunderstanding, a classic category error of not abstracting enough. Read DFW’s Everything and More and he lays out a theory of abstraction being the basis of intelligence, I’ll leave out that obvious connection to you here. Frankly, I think that people are seeing the canonizing of an actual literary giant and are uncomfortable (Franzen as well) because it’s become clear that Infinite Jest is going to be considered classic literature in the future.

  20. March 27, 2012

    Jose

    I feel rejected reading DFW. He ask too much of me. But I’m old and tired of reading Masters Works…

  21. March 27, 2012

    Edward

    Infinite Jest is insufferable, and for reasons, IMHO, that the book shares with the work of Pynchon and DeLilo and every mega-novelist that abounds. If Joyce was Chopin, Pynchon and his offspring resemble nothing so much as the degeneration into Liszt and every musical mediocrity (von Bulow)that followed him into the death throes of Romanticism. DFW wrote everything he knew of philosophy (with the irritating sonority of a graduate student) and tennis (God help us!) and murdered the reader through intellection. He needed an editor, simple as that sounds, that would discipline him. He is/was simply an awful writer in an increasingly crowded field. Auden once said that we enjoy the sight of our own writing in the same manner we enjoy the smell of our own farts. That sounds positively quaint now.

    • July 13, 2013

      Ben

      I admire Edward’s command of the english language. I think he’d be a pleasure to meet at a party.

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Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer
Geoff Dyer's most recent book is 'Working the Room' (Canongate) 


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