Scattered Links, 3/10: Steve Donoghue on ‘The David Foster Wallace Reader’ and the Scourge of Alt-Lit

Opinions Are Not Like Assholes

All of this came in a writing fit over the last couple hours. Links are added to mild effect.

the-david-foster-wallace-reader-coverSteven Donoghue’s takedown of the newly-compiled anthology The David Foster Wallace Reader—a nearly 1,000 page survey of the late writer’s oeuvre—is both unashamedly vitriolic and more than a little dishonest. And I can already see that those not fond of Wallace think the defense that follows is predictable, Wallace-ite behavior, but I’d do that with any writer whom I felt had been mischaracterized, even if I thought they were shit. While I’ll line up with anyone who wants to criticize the clunky prose and convoluted plots Wallace employed, particularly in his early work, I’d stop well short of saying he’s immune to criticism, or that that’s even been the case since he took his own life in 2008.

Wallace worship is at an all-time high—chalk it up to my age and only relatively recent dive into contemporary American literature, but I hadn’t heard nearly as much about him, if at all, until after his death—with two posthumous publications, a slew of scholarly studies and conferences, and now a sprawling best-of, unprecedented for any other American writer, alive or dead, within the last twenty years. (Maybe even more than that. Was there nearly as much of a hullaballoo after the death of Saul Bellow?) It’s understandable that someone not a fan of Wallace’s style—and it certainly is stylistic in its styleyness—might become increasingly peeved at the never-ending accolade parade for the bandana-donning ex-philosophy student. But what is baffling is the outburst of rage Donghue unleashed.

Among some of the wild and unprovable claims Donghue lays down include Wallace’s refusal to take any editor’s comments to be consistent or cut down, that a minor error in one selected paragraph from Infinite Jest is the result of arrogant, artistic ego, and that his style has proven so influential that any seemingly bizarre avant concept can never be dismissed or sneered at, for fear that the writer “might be the next David Foster Wallace.” And these are claims, particularly the first two, that Dongohue repeats over and over again. I don’t know what to say other than it’s demonstrably not true. His editor at Little, Brown, Michael Pietsch, required Wallace to trim several hundred pages from Infinite Jest, and many of his essays—for Harper’s or whoever—always edited the essays he submitted. Donoghue criticizes the choice of language from the opening paragraph of The Pale King—which, remember, was never finished, published posthumously, and cobbled together assuming that it was somewhat in the intended order (had Wallace ever published it). The idea that no artsy-fartsy writer has not been criticized—just check out the deserved derision thrown at the precious Tao Lin, Harry Siegel’s devastating dismantling of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘experimental’ Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, or the middling-to-negative reaction to virtually everything Dave Eggers has done since his debut breakout A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—is patently false.

It’s fine if Donoghue expresses his dislike of Wallace and the acolytes that trip over his every single word. And I would be more than interested to see someone pick apart the syntactic-stickler’s knottier sentences and demonstrating why it’s poorly put together, both grammatically and aesthetically. But Donoghue doesn’t do that. Instead he resigns himself to hurling insults he can’t substantiate, like the lazily tossed-off (and remarkably not clever) remark that Wallace is the “Patron Saint of the Smart Lazy”—and whether the slight is intended for the author or his admirers is irrelevant; the body of work he has influenced in both literary and academic circles is immense, and that Donoghue was reviewing a 1,000-page sampler seems to be lost on him. Or, you know, maybe he’s just a hyperbolic asshole.

tao linThe epithet ‘alt-lit’ is one I’ve found as perplexing and mercurial as, though considerably stupider than, the undefinable postmodernism, and apparently it died a horrible death late last year when several prominent members of the self-appointed vanguard, including Tao Lin, Stephen Dierks, and Gregory Sherl, among others, were accused of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. In the aftermath, hipster bastion HTMLGiant shut down. It’s hard finding too many updates on whatever came of the allegations—whether they were charged, or an investigation ongoing—but I will say the background of these writers is pretty awful.

I’m not terribly familiar with anyone who’s part of this scene other than Tao Lin, and I consider Tao Lin to be one of the more embarrassing stains on American literature in the 21st century. Everything he writes is puerile and emotionally stunted. His characters act in such a way that you can’t be sure Lin has ever interacted with another human being. And while others have thoroughly analyzed the misogynistic aspects of Lin’s and others’ work, and because I never delved into anything ‘alt-lit’ past ankle-deep, I figured Lin’s immaturity for that feverishly dumb ‘quirky’ aesthetic akin to Miranda July or Dave Eggers’s early stuff. You know the kind I’m talking about: everyone’s in college, the protagonists are sad and misunderstood, sex is weird, and they have peculiar hobbies and great tastes in music.

I’ll say what I see from here and recant if I ever feel it necessary since I admittedly don’t know much about the ‘movement,’ but it appears to me to be just another manifestation of the pent-up hostility that educated, disaffected white males harbor. On the surface, the cognitive dissonance is easy to identify: “I’m a nice guy, and I don’t understand why all these dumb sluts don’t get it.” But like anything else, it goes deeper than that, and American culture sends conflicting signals every which way. The inclusion of a “Fuck List” on HTMLGiant, its meaning self-explanatory, is disgusting to say the least, and that’s to say nothing of the fundamentally childish and sexist subject matter of many alt-lit flag-wavers. In the end, though, I have a feeling the readers of this stuff who identify with it fiercely are a lot easier to reach than those logging on to Stormfront.

Last note: I never spent much time on HTMLGiant, but the time I did spend there, after being linked to a piece about ringleader Blake Butler, was mostly headache-inducing. Everything was so overwhelmingly precious and annoying and fucking stupid. Everyone who wrote there was so concerned with being clever, for caring enough to go to great lengths to give the appearance that they didn’t care, that it should be preserved as a holy grail to snarky, self-obsessed writing that was funny only to the terminally hip.


2 thoughts on “Scattered Links, 3/10: Steve Donoghue on ‘The David Foster Wallace Reader’ and the Scourge of Alt-Lit

  1. As your wonderful site here demonstrates, some hyperbolic assholes named Stephen can occasionally make good points – sorry you don’t in this case think I’m one of them! But I have to say: if, when you wrote this critique, you didn’t see that thousands and thousands of pages of prose can EASILY be as much a product of laziness as of industry, you must have been having a bad day. There’s more genuine work in a single page of Muriel Spark or Pete Dexter or Marilynne Robinson than in the entire gaseous lifetime effusion of DFW, because those single pages were WHITTLED rather than bullshitted into existence.

    • Hi Steve,

      Thanks for dropping by. I think you could have made a perfectly good case about the long-winded nature and clunky prose of DFW; “The Depressed Person,” whose ‘point’ is to bludgeon you with the neurotic thoughts of the protagonist, is a perfect example of this. But you didn’t do that. Instead you stuffed your piece with claims like this:

      “There’s more genuine work in a single page of Muriel Spark or Pete Dexter or Marilynne Robinson than in the entire gaseous lifetime effusion of DFW”

      Does industry laziness exist? Sure. Is the 1000+ page Infinite Jest an example? I can’t honestly say. Read it once and haven’t revisited. I’ll give you industry laziness regarding the people who reviewed the book but, by all appearances, didn’t read it. But there’d have to be much more effort to convince me all of DFW’s work is a sham other than pointing to length at laziness. At the moment your piece just comes off as a style you personally object to.

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