Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Challenge

David Foster Wallace is the highest god of today’s literary world. In their September issue, Harpers magazine has published a story of his, “The New Examiner,” possibly an excerpt from a larger work. Apparently (Wallace was very prolific) they had a lot of manuscript to choose from, and this is what they came up with. I’ve invited an anonymous professor who’s been posting here to explain the story to us. I extend the Challenge to all of Wallace’s many fans. What makes the story so wonderful? What about the story qualifies its author as a genius? Why is this writer your model? What does that portend for literature? 

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I didn't think it was a great story. It's an excerpt of an unfinished book about which I am somewhat dubious. I doubt Harper's thinks it's a great story. They published it, I would guess, because Wallace was an important part of the magazine and wrote some brilliant pieces for them over the years, and they wanted to bring attention to the imminent publication of the new, posthumous book. A tiny excerpt from an important writer is not product thrust out to be defended or derided or used to justify or condemn a career that lasted twenty years and resulted in literally thousands of pages. That is the very problem with your view of literature. It's not a game and it's not an up-or-down context. Those three and a half pages of Wallace's, which may or may have been intended by him even to be published, cannot be the last word, from me or anyone.

I'd issue a challenge to you. Read Infinite Jest. Really read it. Spend time with it, think about it, try to grapple with the fact that Wallace basically foresaw so much of what is happening right now. It's a terribly funny, noxious, troubling, strange novel, and for you to talk about his work like it's some Gong Show product suggests why you are in exile, or whatever you're calling it. You're free to dislike Wallace's work. Even I don't like all of it. But he was an honorable writer. What he did was important, even if you don't like what he did.

I'm not sure I can have a debate with you on any writer until you are able to recognize that even writers you dislike for personal or aesthetic reasons may have things of value to tell you. I'm not a fan of, for instance, Paul Bowles. In fact I hate his work. But I've read him carefully, and tried to formulate why. It has nothing to do with his fondness for Arab boys or his personal connections but his artistic fixations and aesthetic sensibility.

The Anonymous Professor

King said...

Establishment writers have "things of value" to tell me?
That's a lame copout; a rationale for supporting the status quo no matter what. Yes, I might not like the work; it might not be any good-- but read it regardless!
******************
You don't think DFW's Harpers piece is a great story. Why isn't it? Can you tell us?
Could it be that the story's flaws are Wallace's flaws-- and he had some very large flaws? Is this possible?
******************
I've read more of his work than that story. In the mid-90's I devoted an issue of my newsletter to him. At that time I'd read his first book of stories, and also an interview he did with Review of Contemporary Fiction which I found enlightening. I've read other things by him since-- though not, fortunately, Infinite Jest. When that work came out I knew several people who bought it and carried it around all the time. I'm not sure any of them finished it.
Before I give my own assessment of DFW's art, I want to first see if others will weigh in.
What about the HTML Giant crowd? They seem all to be giant fans of David Foster Wallace.
Perhaps one of them will care to give us a defense of his story. Someone please let them know what I'm looking for.

King said...

(A side note. Professor, the Harpers story VERY MUCH is product thrust out by Harpers to represent current literature. There are other stories they could've printed instead. You don't seem to get that at some point it is, yes, about product. The current Literary Machine is cranking out a ton of literary "product," in DFW's case twenty years of it. What is that product doing to our literature? What's the standing of the art form in American culture? For that matter, what's the condition of Harpers itself?
You seem to believe that the accepted writers, whether named Bowles or Wallace, are a given. They've been handed down from on high. They're an immutable fact. We have to accept them as our literature. Why? Because the Machine, including representatives of the Machine like you, tell us this is so. The literati carry on like Eloi, questioning nothing.)

Anonymous said...

If you believe writers as disparate in sensibility and concern as Bowles and Wallace are mere "product" purposefully disseminated by some faceless cultural machine, that they have anything in common at all other than that both are published and lived on planet Earth, then, my god, man, there is absolutely nothing I can say and obviously nothing we can contribute to our mutual understanding.

As for "the standing" of American fiction in American culture ... David Foster Wallace has sold, probably, close to a million copies of his books all told. Is that relevant enough for you? Is that enough standing? You seem to believe that if you don't admire something, no one should. I simply don't feel that way.

King said...

There are three hundred million people in this nation, Profesor.

King said...

SIDE NOTE:
I'm at the main library here.There's a big sign announcing Fall 2010 author events. The library is in that sense an adjunct of the New York publishing industry.
21 authors in all. EVERY ONE is a bourgeois white person. (The Great Mr. Franzen included.) Fit representatives of the current publishing world.

King said...

p.s It's not about me thinking no one should admire Wallace, Bowles, etc. Again, what I post here is my own view. The point is that 'I' don't admire these writers.
Your point is that I-- meaning, everyone-- should.
Be careful about looking through the wrong end of the binoculars. You get a skewed view.

King said...

(Note that the prof is always talking about "feel" this or "feel" that. He/she "feels" that DFW is a great author. Thinking has ben subordinated.
Herein lies a clue to the literary value of DFW. Read his story and think about it.)

Anonymous said...

I may not be the freest, most original thinker, no, and possibly my literary taste is, as you would call it, "machine-fed." But at least I can console myself that I'm not a bitter old hack whose mind seems trapped in a faux-populist, Gil Scott Heron-esque snow drift of analysis that has not moved or budged in thirty years.

King said...

Whoa! You can't win an argument, so you resort to personal attacks? So typical.
********************
The person who's stuck in an intellectual box, Professor, is you. You believe in a static universe. I see the universe as dynamic, constantly changing. This is why I reject the status quo. The present is already the past, so quickly do things move. An art form which refuses to change stagnates and dies, which is slowly happening to literature. Part of the reason is the mentality of literary people themselves.
Sixty years ago Hemingway was a bigger cultural personality than movie stars and singers. That's been sixty years of UNchange. The New Yorker story is still the New Yorker story.
Where's lit's Lady Ga Ga?
Part of the problem IS the machine, which awards conformity, and allows no room for dissent. As we can see even by the professor's remarks. Heaven help the student who dares question the voice of authority!
Who is the academic person writing about?
David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen! Daring choices.
Say what you will about me, but I've actively searched for new and overlooked writers. Those who don't appear on the cover of Time. With the ULA I attempted to bring new talent to the marketplace.
*********************
Meanwhile, Im still waiting for someone to bring some analytical ability to DFW's story. If it doesn't work, WHY doesn't it work? Surely someone is capable of telling us.
This is what I suspect: That people like the Prof fear looking too closely at current literary art, and the assumptions which undergird that art. If they did, they might find it to be badly flawed.

King said...

p.s. The current intellectual class is inexorably marginalizing themselves, on issue after issue, by sterotyping those who disagree with them. Which is the opposite of a freethinking intelligence. If you can sterotype a person or group of persons, then you can dismiss that person or persons, and their ideas. Unfortunately for elite opinion, those they're dismissing are a majority of the population. It's a prescription for disaster.
Their pillars are collapsing, and they won't budge from their mental boxes to understand why this is. The NY Times is a money loser. Harpers has long been on life support. You know who their audience is? Themselves.
When I can I'll cite a recent Wall Street Journal article which depicts the big box chain bookstores as being in serious trouble. A mere ten years ago they were impregnable. Change is upon us. Those who can maneuver quickest will be the survivors.
The system is at an extreme of complacency and narrowmindedness-- which means its ripe for drastic change. For real revolution, which means sea change. the world of letters being turned on its head. It will happen. I may not be around to take advantage of it, but at least I can predict it.
(Ten years ago with five other broke undergrounders, I shook lit to its foundations. The system is way shakier now. Look out! If I ever find a stake somewhere, I'll blow the system out of the water. Intellectual dinosaurs will be exposed more than they already are. Of course, they could always do a 180 and reverse their mindset; to get ahead of the curve. Their minds may be too ossified for them to do so.)

Karl Wenclas said...

(What we found with the professor is a thin veneer of liberalism scarcely a millimeter deep. Liberalism is the dominant ideology in the academy and the culture right now, so apparatchiks pay lip service to it, while believing in it no more than apparatchiks in the Soviet Union believed in Marxism. Appartchiks always do what's required to go along.
There's no concern whatsoever for the underdog, not really. The entire history of the ULA showed this. It was socially acceptable to scorn us; just as it's socially acceptable to scorn and mock lower class white people, Tea Partiers, Sarah palin, et.al., without making a smidgen of effort to understand where they're coming. It's NOT socially acceptable any longer to scorn and mock people of color, so this has been taken off their list of easy targets.
Apparatchiks are narrow-minded individuals whose very standing as mediocre cogs in a machine-- wearing their MFA's like long-ago Eastern European bureaucrats parading chests of medals-- creates their insularity and their snobbery.

Karl Wenclas said...

p.p.p.p.p.s.
What was I doing thirty years ago?
I was working in the grimy bowels of industrial Detroit.
Twenty years ago I was writing an investment newsletter for a fly-by-night commodity trader and writing letters to Barrons!
Ten years ago I was on the verge of helping to create the Underground Literary Alliance.
I've been up and down and all over the board.
One thing I haven't been is stuck in a rut!

n said...

"In their September issue, Harpers magazine has published a story of his, “The New Examiner,” possibly an excerpt from a larger work."

It is an excerpt from his unfinished novel: The Pale King.

"I extend the Challenge to all of Wallace’s many fans. What makes the story so wonderful? What about the story qualifies its author as a genius? Why is this writer your model? What does that portend for literature?"

I am a fan of Wallace. I haven't read the story yet so I have no opinion on how "wonderful" it may or may not be. Obviously I also cannot say how it "qualifies its author as a genius". Wallace is not my "model". I don't see how the publication of a few pages of an unfinished and as-yet unpublished novel could "portend" anything for literature other than giving a brief glimpse at the style and content of The Pale King which, as you know, is a soon to be published, unfinished novel by David Foster Wallace.

What are you so worried about?

King said...

???? Exactly. Why should I be worried?
I'm not. My position viz-a-viz literature couldn't get any worse. DFW's, given his reputation, couldn't get any better. They could put out a hundred unpublished books of his. It won't affect me one iota.
It's those who HAVE who worry, not those who have no position, no standing, nothing to lose.
*********************
If you try using your brain for a moment, instead of reacting emotionally, you might understand what I'm getting at with my questions about DFW's Harpers story.
Yes, it's only one story, but it's fairly representative of his fiction work. I could pick another story of his (and have before on this blog) and make the same point.
DFW, likely the highest rated of all overrated postmodern authors-- even given Franzen's publicity blitz-- is fairly representative of problems with current American literature as a whole. Can you see this? That one can examine a phenomenon in the micro to better understand the phenomenon in the macro?
Scientists and economists do it all the time.
So, again, I ask for SOMEONE, anyone, to examine DFW's Harpers story-- which is right in front of us, available on any bookstore magazine rack, RIGHT NOW, very accessible-- and either defend the story or tell us what's wrong with it.
If it's NOT representative of DFW's style etc, then please tell us why it isn't.
A college professor, of all people, proved unable to do this simple task.
Can you?

Anonymous said...

I'm not unable to, Mr. Wenclas. I just don't see the point is trying to. You're telling me anything I could say or argue will change your opinion? I don't believe that, and neither do you. I realized very quickly after interacting with you that you're never going to come to any conclusion other than the one you want to come to. I could lay out my case, waste a lot of time explaining what makes Wallace's work, in my view, worthwhile, and how his story in this month's Harper's is not the best illustration of his work's value, and you wouldn't listen for a minute. I'd have a more salubrious experience explaining it to a chihuahua.

The AnonyProf

King said...

A chihuahua? You don't lead a wild dog pack like the ULA for seven years by being a chihuahua! A doberman might be a closer analogy.
****************************
You know, don't you, prof, that your remarks sound like a lame copout? It's something one of your students wouldn't dare come up with. More like a kindergartner. "I would if I could, but I don't want to."
I can give my analysis of DFW in a paragraph or two, if necessary, and get to the core of the problem with his work.
(Incidentally, I'm not saying everything about it is bad. My argument is that his work is unfit to be used as lit's highest standard. As a curiosity, okay. But you don't put his kind of writing at the head of the literary dogpack-- which consists in its higher realms not of chihuahuas so much as Yorkies or these other fluffy and useless type of dogs that rich people carry in their purses. You don't put DFW out front unless your goal is to disconnect the art from the American public. For reasons of control and exclusivity, that may indeed be the goal. I've been in barroom discussions with writers who are hardcore DFW fans. You're not the first one I've encountered. Many of them live in Brooklyn and a smattering have moved to Philadelphia. I've been told that DFW's writing "isn't meant for people like you."
What value does their hyperexpensive education hold if anyone and everyone can understand their favorite authors?
Even for lesser postmodernists like the Eggers Gang, snobbery has always been a big part of the appeal. The first McSweeney's was designed to be deliberately offputting.
And that's too big a subject for me to cover in a paragraph. . . .)