Tag Archives: David Foster Wallace

Literary power couple

Bobs-Burgers-The-Belchies-550x649I read this profile of James Wood and Claire Messud some time ago, and, especially after all the interesting coverage of The Woman Upstairs, finally broke down and decided I had better not damn the dame for all my ambivalence towards the man. So I’m finally reading The Emperor’s Children.

Perhaps inevitably, it contains some sidewise commentary on David Foster Wallace via a character’s overly earnest attempts to educate himself. It’s played for humor, I think, but it’s one of those referents that comes so loaded with Messud’s husband’s very public views that the whole thing lends itself to a post-modern meta-interpretation akin to that which Wallace himself described in E Unibus Pluram (though that was of course concerned with television).


(Aside: I have just now realized that my copies of How Fiction Works and Consider the Lobster sit only three books apart on my shelf. Perhaps I should remedy that.)

Re-reading part of E Unibus Pluram has made me appreciate anew how the discussion of these dynamics in television continues to dominate pop culture. See also Bob’s Burgers, a show that Seth and I have been really enjoying. A consistent thread of the show’s humor is metacommentary, see for example an episode called The Belchies (Goonies), the pleasurable genius of which is better experienced than explained, which brings me to Wood, who never met a pleasure that couldn’t be picked apart for a thorough analysis. Or maybe he could, I don’t know. I’m being hyperbolic here because I so thoroughly lack that sort of critical impulse.

I found my copy of the Irresponsible Self, which I intended to read in tandem with The Emperor’s Children, but I didn’t get past the introduction, in which Wood acknowledges the pitfalls of dissecting comedy, then proceeds to do just that with his maiden example. The dissection proceeds for several paragraphs, becoming more and more precise, until I just had to slam the book closed in a full-body paroxysm of critical theory aversion.

Where does this aversion come from? I’m not completely sure, but back in January, New York Magazine published a great article called Why You Never Truly Leave High School, which got me thinking. My sophomore English class was taught by this chipper creature who single-handedly destroyed my love for To Kill a Mockingbird with her over-explication of it. This is, again, a bit hyperbolic, and there are I think at least as many if not more inspiring and lovely teachers than those whose Cliff Notes-level insights into a book cheapen your affection for it…but maybe that experience was the point at which I closed myself off to critical theory.

Such is my distaste for that teacher that I kind of modeled a character after her in a short story I just revised. It’s really more of a parody than a model, actually, but in this latest revision, I was all, what the hell. And I gave her the actual teacher’s name. It wasn’t a very kind impulse on my part, and I’ll probably change it back, but it gave me a tiny thrill to do it.


There’s nothing on

Smiles of a Summer Night

I didn’t have cable growing up, because, as my mother rightfully pointed out, I would have watched it all the time. So I think that “there’s nothing on,” a common whine of the period, was pretty justified. I mean, we had something like five channels in total.

Now I sometimes feel that way about the internet, when all my regular haunts either haven’t been updated recently or don’t contain anything of interest. This is clearly irrational. There is always something “on” the internet. It’s akin to that parental gem about only boring people being bored.

In this spirit, I try to break out of my internet rut from time to time. At other times, there is no rut (the feast v. famine phenomenon). For instance, over the last couple days, I’ve seen great material everywhere, such as this article on reality and authenticity and marketing from The Awl, and this essay it links to on David Foster Wallace. Or this discussion on Slate’s Double X blog about The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by French feminist Elisabeth Badinter. I guess the latter book has been bandied about in many places online for what one of the Slate discussants says is “18 months,” but damned if I’ve caught any of the conversation. Perhaps it is only because the topic is recently relevant to me that I am just now noticing.

Anyhoo. There is always something on, especially online. But also on TV, now, and then: when I was a teenager, I turned on the TV out of extreme boredom one night at one or two a.m. I ended up watching Smiles of a Summer Night on PBS. I found it very strange at the time. Years later, I saw A Little Night Music and realized it was based on that same Bergman film. And just like that, my teenage boredom was transmogrified into smug cultural self-satisfaction, a feeling so potent that I’ve apparently carried it around with me for years, waiting for a moment to impress no one about it.

Now that the moment has come, I hope to present it with as much self-deprecation as I can muster, in deference to David Foster Wallace, the trap of solipsism, and the impossibility of a truly authentic response. Read that link above! Good stuff, even if I don’t agree with all of it. I was convinced, for example, that its author is not a writer of fiction, though I found that’s not the case.

Post-MFA writing

The literal results of my 3 years in the MFA program: lots of recycling.

Immediately after I completed the MFA program here – literally, within the first few weeks – I churned out a new story. Then I started dicking around. I wrote another scurrilous fast-draft novel. I kicked around other story ideas (only one of which I drafted).

This was all by way of putting off the revision of my real novel. When I realized that I was procrastinating, I forced myself into action. But instead of actually revising the novel, I hit upon this idea of fast-drafting a bunch of new content. After several weeks, I realized that this was a grand delusion: while the process had the distinct tang of productivity, it was in fact exactly the wrong thing to be doing. I already know the story. I just need to make it work better, aka revise it.

Le sigh. I have a fairly regimented approach to writing, so a month and counting of lost productivity (due to renovating and moving) is turning me into a brittle, anxious person. The novel feels like a cartoon anvil, suspended over my head by a fraying rope. It wants me to write it. I want to write it. There’s a palpable urgency about the enterprise. So when I lose another evening, not packing, but nursing a headache on the couch, streaming Parks & Rec and playing Angry Birds on my phone, self-loathing is the natural response.

I’m sure I’ve quoted this David Foster Wallace essay here before.

The best metaphor I know of for being a fiction writer is in Don DeLillo’s Mao II, where he describes a book-in-progress as a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (dragging itself across the floors of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebro-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.

And so you love the damaged infant and pity it and care for it; but you also hate it – hate it – because it’s deformed, repellent, because something grotesque has happened to it in the parturition from head to page; hate it because its deformity is your deformity (since if you were a better fiction writer your infant would of course look like one of those babies in catalog ads for infant wear, perfect and pink and cerebro-spinally continent) and its every hideous incontinent breath is a devastating indictment of you, on all levels…and so you want it dead, even as you dote on it and wipe it and dandle it and sometimes even apply CPR when it seems like its own grotesqueness has blocked its breath and it might die altogether.

This is the kind of urgency I’m talking about. And yet, I am neglecting this sad misshapen sack, when I know full well that if I turn my attention to it thoroughly enough, I can shape it into something you’d at least mistake for a proper infant if you were squinting, or just glanced at it in passing.

Two weeks past our move deadline, knowing that we must be out of our old house this weekend, I sit around strategizing how I can shoehorn writing (even the long-hand journally scribblings I sometimes complete in the mornings) into the tasks at hand, which include making sure we have a functioning toilet in the new house before we move.

I’m at once confuzzeled and conflicted about prioritization.  

Overthinking: process and self

Voyager Gold Record

The painful grind of my intended one-month novel project is finally coming to a close – three weeks late. I am so ready to move on. It’s not so much the project that’s the problem as the time commitment. I’ve been averaging 1,000 words/day, which is just too much to sustain for long periods of time. Sometimes one just needs a break, you know? Besides, it’s not as if the results are the stuff of deathless prose. Clearly the opposite is the case, even if it seems OK as I go along. I’m reminded of this comment Tim Gunn made to a Project Runway contestant a long time ago, which was that when you first go into the monkey house, it smells awful, but the longer you’re there, the less it stinks. I’ve been in the monkey house too long.

I’m not sure why I feel compelled to write about this novel project here. On one hand I think, Perhaps this methodology could be useful to someone. Perhaps there’s some value in testifying to this particular way of getting through the agony of a first draft.

Because it is So. Hard. to go from idea to draft, especially early on in one’s writing practice. Ideas are rarely the problem, it’s the process of realizing them that can feel Sisyphean. Where to start? An outline? Research? When to stop researching and start writing? What to do when concurrent research suddenly recasts the thrust of the project, making it painfully clear that emergency intervention revision is required. How to fight the compulsion to obsessively re-write, which keeps one stalled at chapter one for weeks or months at a time. How to reconcile one’s self to the baffling detours the story takes, despite what seems to your conscious mind to be a straight shot to a culminating event. How to allow one’s self to temporarily suspend a genius narrative structure that somehow morphed into the literary equivalent of a straightjacket. How to stay productive during the long slog of the mid-section. How to resign oneself to the draft ending not with some badass revelation or the crystalline moment of perfect resonance you thought you were writing toward, but a dull petering out or an outright clunk. And how to sustain love and passion for a project that you grow to simultaneously hate (see for a better take on the latter this fabulous David Foster Wallace essay, The Nature of the Fun).

For me, the answer to all these questions is the one month fast draft. Once something’s down, it’s easier to see a path forward. Revision is of course a whole other kind of agony, but what part of any artistic process isn’t? If this shit was easy, we wouldn’t do it, because it wouldn’t be worth much.

So. The darker, ickier side to writing about my experience with this process in a public forum is that it’s easy to short-hand it or toss off some quick thing that comes off as (or is) boastful, or strident, or judgmental, or lacking in nuance. This is a method that’s worked for me, personally. It’s not the only way. It’s not even the best way for most people. There is so much that I don’t know about writing and process. And if publication is one’s measure for authority, well—I fall down on that account (…to date).

It’s kind of amazing when you think about how many books are out there on writing process.* I had lunch with a friend and I asked what books on writing he’s found valuable, and he said he hasn’t read many. That he finds what he needs to know about writing in fiction, and that process is more or less the same for writers generally. These points are valid, but I just hate to be in the monkey house by myself. I read a lot of books by writers on writing, as it can be both comforting and revelatory to understand how others think about and navigate the process.

The real sticking point here is: what right do I have to blather on about writing in a public forum? What can I say about writing that hasn’t been said better by a better writer with a better publication record? Elsewhere on these great internets, someone said that it takes a person with “gentle narcissism” to blog in the first place, which I think is a really kind description. Sometimes it’s an uglier impulse. But it can also be an act of hope, an act of optimism, that someone, somewhere, somehow will be a witness to a time or an experience, like the micro-level equivalent of the Voyager Golden Records: great void, we submit to you these things that we have come to know and value. The void might not be as much of a void as it appears. Maybe someone will find that record and shout back, validating the knowledge it contained and adding to it in some unimagined and fabulous way.

And then – to take this entry to its logical and inevitable conclusion – we will walk together, hand-in-hand, out of the monkey house and into the world.

*Last week, at a used bookstore, I found a book on writing by a writer I’ve met. Then! I was electrified to discover that the writer had actually signed the book, to another writer I know. I’m being oblique here because I’m uncomfortable with the fact that the book was sold, an act that suggests it wasn’t valued, despite its having been personalized. It makes me feel as if I am the keeper of some strange private drama, a drama I am only comfortable revealing in part to the great void.

Insufficient resources for processing

My image search for DFW also turned up a pic of Adrian Brody.

Today, I was going to write something responding to, or riffing off of, this interesting excerpt of James Ryerson’s intro to the publication of David Foster Wallace’s undergrad philosophy thesis.

But I’m not delusional: this stuff is over my head.

It’s possible that I have some coherent thoughts to offer on a related set of topics more in line with my intellect and reading history. And I may yet attempt to compile them into an actual blog entry. But! That is not going to happen tonight. Instead, I’m cleaning house, wrapping a couple of straggling gifts, baking shortbread, working out, packing, etc. It’s my last paroxysm of holiday preparation.

I’ll be back sometime next week, perhaps to tackle the DFW stuff, perhaps not. In lieu of that, I offer the following, a holiday-inspired version of which appeared on Jezebel the other day. It’s weird on so many levels, I’m not sure where to start. I guess with the silence. And then the sword. After that, I’m at a loss.

OK. More interactive unicorn-themed activities here. Oh, my god…the soundtrack alone…

Reiterating the calls on bs

I’m not sure if it’s possible for any writer online to have avoided seeing – much less giving in and trying – purported writing analyzer I Write Like. It’s everywhere. And the universal consensus is that it’s bunk. Margaret Atwood gave it a whirl, and it turns out she writes like Stephen King. I tried it three times and came up with three different results: 1) Dan Brown 2) Chuck Palahniuk 3) David Foster Wallace. (My reaction to number one was basically the same as the first commenter on this post.)

Either the programming tools they’re using are insufficient to perform the type of sophisticated analysis required, or their sample of baseline authors is too narrow, or both. There’s a professor on staff at the University who focuses on artificial intelligence, which he’s applied in a number of ways, including toward the understanding of a “write-print,” which is the idea of identifying people based on writing samples, sort of like a fingerprint. From what I understand, the program is a sort of uber-technical manifestation of that which E.B. White and William Strunk have been saying for decades:

With some writers, style not only reveals the spirit of the man but reveals his identity, as surely as would his fingerprints.

…I thought too that somewhere Strunk and White had a line about identifying a writer’s distinctive style based on what s/he unconsciously does wrong, but now I can’t find it. So my little transition there didn’t work as well as planned. But! In my search, I found an amusing passage (on page 73 of my edition of Elements of Style) that doesn’t leave much doubt about how the gentleman would regard the proliferation of (most? all? this?) blogs:

The volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. “Spontaneous me,” sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.

The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.

As the kids say: Oh, snap. I’m almost shamed away from blogging. But E.B.! I have no illusions: what crosses my mind is NOT of general interest. Does that make it OK?


It’s been a while since an ad sent me into a tailspin of fury, driving me to the internets to vent my annoyance. Perhaps this is because my stress level has been such that all I can spare is the clenched jaw and squinty eye of profound disapproval. But I’m back, baby!

Yes. I’ve had it with NuvaRing, and only the internet can soothe my affronted sensibilities. Thank you, internet, for passively accepting my rage into your limitless void.

So. NuvaRing. A form of birth control that purports to catapult a woman from the stale, monochromatic  retrodom of daily pill popping to a contemporary, yellow bikini-ed (yet curiously sexless) life of leisure. Look at those women in the soaking pool, carefully spaced in such a way as to negate any Sapphic connotations (and of course arranged in a ring…a NUVA ring, one might say). No cabana boys here, no sir! These are good girls.

The NuvaRing commercial that’s really rubbing me the wrong way is the new one, in which a group of ladies hang out in a living room together. The synchronized swimming version of the ad comes on TV. “Oh!” the woman closest to the tube exclaims. “I love this commercial!” Then she actually lip-synchs to the maddeningly catchy little tune (“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…”) before defaulting to the role of NuvaDrone, extolling the product’s virtues to her submissive audience.

Birth control marketers, like marketers of “feminine products,” struggle to find compelling ways to sell their products. I can’t recall having ever seen an ad for hormone-based birth control that demonstrates what the product actually does (in contrast to condom marketing). The pill’s been around now for 50 years. Has birth control’s purpose become irrelevant to its marketing? NuvaRing and its competitors focus instead on differentiating their products by hyping incremental innovations in required frequency or method of use or positive incidental side effects, such as reduction of acne or relief from premenstrual dysphoric disorder. They don’t touch sex. Why? Could it be…THIS? Talk about irony.

Anyhoo, what I really wanted to write about is the ad’s irritating solipsism. To me, solipsism is a form of metacommentary, which is in itself a peculiar phenomenon of our time. David Foster Wallace exhaustively (of course) documented the phenomenon in his essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The extent to which metacommentary infiltrates our pop culture is surprising and strange, and often dictates the extent to which we find something – say a children’s film, like the inexplicably resurrected Shrek franchise  – amusing.

What does this say about us? Perhaps it’s somehow tied to a kind of cultural tribalism, in which those who get the in-joke self-select into a particular niche.

NuvaRing, though. That’s an in-joke no one wants to get.