David Foster Wallace was a prick.
David Foster Wallace wrote some beautiful, explorative, prose, but:
David Foster Wallace was a prick.
Bizarrely – or perhaps tellingly – this five year old biography of the man behind Infinite Jest, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider The Lobster and several other [less interesting] books describes in great detail the behaviour of an obnoxious, predatory hedonist who treats everything except the literary art with apparent and consistent contempt, yet fails to offer any negative judgement. D. T. Max writes sympathetically and lyrically about the power of DFW’s prose after hundreds of pages of showing us a classist, elitist, sexist, terribly-adjusted dickhead and the narratorial voice is all just a bit… errr… fine with it.
Maybe as recently as 2012 the literati were willing to laud “genius” and accept appalling behaviour in the same fleshy body, but I don’t think the world is – or at least wants to accept that it is – like this any more, and I don’t think any biography that has pretence towards literature (rather than being a piece about literature) can ignore morality. In fact, Max writes about the development of DFW’s sober personality (better but never good) and how, as he aged, DFW came to value moral and emotional engagement far more than the clever-clever booksmarts that charactersied the man when younger. Max, unquestioning, nonjudgemental, essentially lives within the literary tradition that he writes about DFW growing to reject: that of the distant, disaffected white male. Even Bret Easton Ellis, in an interview in the TLS this week, accepts that the best literature at the moment isn’t coming from voices that are white and male and middle class and hetero. Max writes, detached, about DFW kinda coming to this realisation, but Max then fails to consume the lesson, and also fails to mention how – for anyone, like DFW, with some kind of late-developing sense of loosely spiritual morality – a truly self-aware moral inventory would lead a person with DFW’s history towards the kind of despair that absolutely would double down and make unbearable a long-building severe depression.
Max writes Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story as a literary biography about a man who is “killed” by a book. According to Max, the overwhelming tragedy that leads to DFW’s suicide is the fact that he cannot find the correct way to write The Pale King. Though this is in keeping with the young, arrogant, art-obsessed DFW that is explored in the majority of the book, it isn’t really in tune with the DFW that Max sketches during his final years. The book is massively weighted towards DFW’s “wastoid” years as a marijuana, booze and [undiagnosed] sex addict, and though it creates a firm impression of an awful, awful young man, Max seems bored and disinterested by DFW as DFW himself becomes less bored and disinterested in other people. Max writes a book about a writer that is more about that writer’s periods of failing to write than it is about that writer writing. Max goes into great, horrific, detail about DFW’s stalking and physical abuse of girlfriends and women who he wanted to be his girlfriend, as well as his corrupt sexploitation of students he taught. Max writes about this awful man, dirty, paranoid, rude, pretty much only friends with men, and he then writes about Infinite Jest as if all of DFW’s bullshit was worth it. Which is so fucking 19th century an outlook that it makes me want to be sick.
I’m not going to lie and claim that I didn’t get hold of this book because I have enjoyed DFW’s writing and I have intended to read Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story for years. But, if being truly honest, the reason why I’ve read it now is because I was pretty certain – following the accusations about Junot Díaz that recently surfaced and some mentions of DFW in tweet replies – I wouldn’t be morally able to do so at a later date. But no, it appears that DFW’s consistently gross behaviour was well known and not a secret, but as recently as five years ago, a book could be published about a hideous man where the response was “what a tortured genius” and not “what a fucking dickhead”.
Yes, Infinite Jest is a great, decade-defining novel of serious literary power, BUT is it good enough to excuse a near-lifetime of cuntishness? Should the book be remembered in a vaccum, the author dead in both a literal and Bartesian sense? Should history be allowed to laud a man who wrote one great book and some good ones without remembering that he truly made life terrifying for numerous women? No, I don’t think that’s fair. And I doubt many [compassionate] people, now, this end of this decade, would want to claim it should be any other way. Charles Manson doesn’t get to be predominantly remembered for his folk music (which is good), Jimmy Saville doesn’t get to be predominantly remembered for his charity work (which was substantial). And though DFW isn’t “as hideous” as these two men, he gets to be remembered for Infinite Jest rather than for the abuse and exploitation he [allegedly] undertook throughout all but the last few years of his life. At what point does bad behaviour become forgivable? Well, the answer is clear: when it doesn’t affect grown men or children.
My poem, referenced on here before, ‘Sex Tips For Literary Bad Boys’, opens with the lines:
Clean your sheets
And hide the David Foster Wallace
This line always gets a laugh when I read it aloud, but like all of the lines in this self-effacing poem, whenever I read it on the page I cringe, as I am – or, at least, have been – exactly the type of “literary bad boy” I am satirising. David Foster Wallace, and the stereotypical reader of David Foster Wallace, are also this same kind of white male reader, keen to be “critical” w/r/t everything except his own conduct, societal privilege and, probably, the cleanliness of his bed linen. David Foster Wallace is a writer beloved by undergrad stoners, beloved by manboys who still live with their mothers and beloved by the same kinda people (men) who love that moron Jordan Peterson. This doesn’t mean that his prose is bad, it just means that there is a strain of conservatism within some of his writing that appeals to people – especially men – who like to be told that their conservative ideals are the “correct” result of “rational” thought.
DFW himself is the problem with appreciating DFW’s work, particularly because DFW claimed to care about ethics and morality and making amends for those he injured.
DFW’s conduct towards women and – especially earlier in his life – many ideologies he espoused are repulsive to most forward-thinking progressive people (which, let’s [for a moment acknowledge our bubble and] remember that this is what the majority of people who read and engage with literature are), but his work still has the level of cultural capital that sees him on the same shelves as writers who stand for the opposite. The casual way in – I think – Consider The Lobster he jokes about being reported to superiors for being racist is a clue, as too is writing a whole fucking book centred on broadly comic interviews with men he describes as “hideous”. DFW was not a nice man.
I have seen Infinite Jest in my own and my friends’ book collections nestled beside the kind of progressive texts he would have sneered at.
The problem the problem the problem is that DFW’s writing can be – though isn’t always – some of the most spectacular prose one can encounter. But: he was a prick, who made multiple women’s lives – at various points in his – hell. He was an obsessive stalker, usually towards married women, he was physically abusive – once PUSHING A WOMAN OUT OF A MOVING CAR AND LATER THROWING A TABLE AT HER – and, despite D. T. Max’s insistence that, as a committed member of AA and thus committed to the “make amends” step of the 12-step programme, DFW never made any appropriate attempts at recompensing those he had abused.
If this book had wanted to speculate, had wanted to engage with its topics and narratives from an emotional and thoughtful perspective, it could have dramatised and moved towards the conclusion that DFW killed himself because his consciousness “caught up with him”. But Max makes it absolutely fucking clear that DFW should be forgiven for pushing a woman out of a moving car, should be forgiven for fucking students, should be forgiven for stalking while being a physically imposing guy, because – even though the guy was a prick – he wrote Infinite Jest.
No. We shouldn’t be doing that.
It should be hard to separate David Foster Wallace the man from the writing of David Foster Wallace. It should be disappointing and it IS relevant to know that DFW was a hideous man, and a self-hating one at that. Max writes about DFW seeming to grow, emotionally, but by writing this biography as if this doesn’t matter, by writing with such a fucking unbothered tone, D. T. Max normalises male abuse of women and he excuses unpleasant behaviour when it is performed by people who did other things of “positive” note. Female fear and abuse is the “price” of “male genius”. What fucking atavistic bullshit.
Max – by not making more of DFW’s unforgivable behaviour – praises a man who does not deserve or need any praise. There are things he found out about DFW that should have repulsed him from writing a book about him, unless that book were about guilt and shame crushing someone who eventually understood their own unforgivable failings. But he doesn’t. Max is comfortable writing that DFW killed himself because he didn’t think The Pale King was good enough. That is simplistic and condescending, because surely every depressed person who tries to kill themselves does it because they don’t think they are good enough.
Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story feels far older than it is, and really could have benefitted from Max having had a close engagement with Gordon Bowker’s Malcolm Lowry biography, Pursued by Furies. Lowry was also an addict who assaulted his wife, but he was assaulted in response and – in Bowker’s interpretation – his wife murdered him because his alcoholism was pissing her off.
It is irresponsible and deeply unsatisfying to write about people who have done terrible things without either affording them a crushing revelation of their own fucked grimy soul or having them destroyed by an antagonist or circumstances that are a direct response to their own bad behaviour. Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story posits itself as an amoral book. And that’s boring and bullshit: there is no such thing as an unbiased truth, so by failing to condemn DFW and by implicitly stating that DFW didn’t deserve to be condemned, Max is absolving DFW. That can fuck off. An abusive man being killed by a book is whingey and fucking shameful. An abusive man being killed by guilt is a cathartic ending, also one that would make me feel comfortable reading the unread copy of The Pale King that I’ve had in the same place as this book for a long time.
David Foster Wallace was a prick.
David Foster Wallace wrote some beautiful, explorative, prose, but would so many of us have read that prose if we’d realised what a bellend he was?
Maybe, maybe not.
A distressing read, an unjustifiable book. Outdated and embarrassing.
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