Selfies with hideous men

>> Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wallace is the lingua franca of a certain subset of overeducated, usually wealthy, extremely self-serious (mostly) men. Wallace’s bandana and occasional playfulness disguised this, but history has slowly revealed what has always been true, which is that David Foster Wallace was exactly the kind of person who would be into David Foster Wallace, just smarter. 
- Alex Shephard, "Minutes," The New Republic

It feels bad to read a book by a straight cis man about misogyny. It feels bad when this book contains some relatively graphic depictions of sexual assault. This is par for the course, when the course is reading books and the par is the Western canon. What feels worse is having this man’s work recommended to you, over and over, by men who have talked over you, talked down to you, coerced you into certain things, physically forced you into others, and devalued your opinion in ways too subtle to be worth explaining in an essay (as in the interviews, where the hideous men are the only characters we hear from). Either these Wallace-recommending men don’t realize that they’re the hideous men in question, or they think self-awareness is the best anyone could expect from them. 
Electric Lit, April 17th, 2017.

We love the things we love.  Sometimes wisely and sometimes not.  Sometimes with such a passion that we feel awkward when someone doesn't love a thing as much as we do and with such a passion we feel awkward when we discover someone does.

It is embarrassing to learn, for example, that a favorite author or work is a fetish for people we would never knowingly associate with.  You wonder if it reflects poorly on you.  You wonder if you should feel guilt.  You don't think of yourself as a "dudebro" or a "lit bro" (presumably a dudebro who reads), but are you poisoned by your association.

And then, over there, you see someone who seems like the sort of person you would agree with on all sorts of subjects, who is probably a fellow traveler in much of your politics, ideology, and ethics--and this person appears to have a special loathing for something you have cherished, and you wonder where you are and whether you should be there.

I have recommended David Foster Wallace to many people.  Both in person and to any random person reading this blog.  DFW has his own tag on this blog, for goodness' sake.  Then, this year, I discover this strange phenomenon that Wallace is popular with assholes and the target of a backlash among cool people who apparently have never liked him, and I can't help feeling insecure (I am an insecure person, honestly).  I knew Jonathan Franzen was a frenemy of Wallace's, but Jonathan Franzen's never really been that cool, or at least I never thought so (and this is where I guess I'm doing it, too, knocking someone who is much loved by some people).

It makes me anxious and sad.

Anxious, because I want to be a cool kid, too.  That isn't why I read DFW; I read DFW because my sister gave me Girl With Curious Hair one Christmas and I was smitten.  But you want to think the things you like are cool, don't you?  And that they're a shared taste among cool people, and a scab like Neil Gorsuch isn't cool.  (A cool guy would have told the President to nominate him after Merrick Garland had a hearing.  Maybe the next time a seat opened.)

Sad... I suppose for almost the same reason.  Because you want other cool people to validate your coolness by liking the same things you do.

There's a specific sadness reading Ms. Coyle's piece that I feel should be mentioned.  And that is that it seems like she's had so many awful experiences, it doesn't occur to her that maybe some of the men who recommended Wallace to her did so because they hoped she might validate them by liking what they liked.  Or not even just that, but that Wallace brought them pleasure and they wanted to share that pleasure.  I hope this doesn't sound terrible, because I don't mean to justify anything else they did, from talking down to her to abusing her.  And I sincerely hope I'm not doing that, either.  I'm certainly not attempting to invalidate or question her feelings.  I'm simply expressing a crestfallen "Oh" in response to her response to shitty people.  I'm simply trying to say I wish her experiences had been different.  Both with the men and with the words.

David Foster Wallace has meant a lot to me because I perceived in him someone who was thoughtful and sensitive, someone who was analytical and wounded.  He could be funny and mean, but some of his best prose came out of such a deep empathy, he could feel a profound sense of dread and guilt about the animal he was eating for dinner.  Truthfully, when I think of Wallace, my first thought isn't of Infinite Jest, as amazing and discursive as it is (a postmodern throwback to the 19th Century novel in all the glory and messiness of that format); my first thoughts go to "Consider the Lobster" and "Incarnations of Burned Children."  The former I've recommended time and time again as a brilliant piece of thought; the latter I've never recommended and never will because, while it is an amazing story, it is one of the saddest and most terrifying things I've ever read or am likely to.  (My eyes get heavy and my throat constricts just thinking about the damn thing; and checking that link I just re-read it and I'm having a little trouble breathing.)

So that I can't even begin to comprehend what a man who would give a truck driver a choice between freezing to death now or losing his livelihood later might see in a writer.  It's actually quite a lot like wondering how Chris Christie can be a Bruce Springsteen fan when nearly everything he professes to believe is at odds with nearly everything Springsteen sings about.  I can only speculate, but I can't help believing that Wallace would have seen the story underneath TransAm Trucking v. Dept. of Labor as being an example of the terrible, absurd grief at the heart of the universe.  And if I'm right that one of Wallace's great themes and obsessions was that there is a vast well of sorrow and regret that runs through everything, it seems to me that the main reason for writing about that is to curse it and mourn it, not to relish it sadistically.

To be clear, Wallace could be angry and mean.  And, if we're being honest, he could be cruel in clever and funny ways.  But I think sadness redeemed him.  I don't mean his depression, which is something different.  I mean that I think David Foster Wallace felt what I can only call a cosmic grief, which he sometimes painted over with colors like cruelty, anger, intellectualism, snobbery, self-effacement, and snark, but if you were looking you could always see what color the wall used to be: mourning.

I don't know if that's what "lit bros" see in him.  It's hard to think how they could and could still be such a creature.  Maybe I only see my own reflection in Wallace, just as any great book is really a mirror; if so, maybe what Gorsuch sees in Wallace is someone clever who passes off a mean streak as erudition.

Selfishly and selflessly, I wish everybody liked what I like in the way I like it; I wish the things that are meaningful to me were meaningful to others in nearly exactly the same way.  I wish the men who recommended Wallace to Ms. Coyle were better people, and I wish Neil Gorsuch was better people, and I wish we all were (myself oh so included), and I wish Ms. Coyle saw what I saw in the mirror, and I wish Wallace was still around.


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