I feel just the hint of a question here about what E Unibus actually says about television’s effect on an audience’s ability to consume the long text-based narrative: I thought I did remember something to that effect in it, though you’re right that the anti-irony stance is more prominent. Perhaps a brief quotation is in order?
I just read Chuck Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur, in which there’s an essay drawing parallels between Kurt Cobain and David Koresh. A little infuriating, actually, but interesting.
Did I ever tell you that when our Infinite Summer meetup group got to the end of the book and knew we wanted to keep meeting, I found it so hard to think of a new book that could measure up that I proposed we start a writing group instead? Everyone agreed, which I was suprised by. Of course, it didn’t last too long, maybe a few months, and then I moved away, and they began to read first Don Quixote and now The Instructions. Long, hard books being the key, still. And social reading. And drinking.
I agree with Jim — you mention earlier that the occasion of Wallace’s death was clearly one of the motive forces behind Infinite Summer, and that’s worth repeating here. In other words, it’s not an outlier in terms of being a social online reading event, but it is in terms of its “rhetorical situation.”
Though it’s also worth noting that the technology behind Infinite Summer was quite different from that of GoodReads and LibraryThing. I liked your earlier point very much about how Infinite Summer was an occasion for writing, and for performing writing, as much as for reading — that’s certainly less true on the book networks. Though it’s worth mentioning that Infinite Summer had a bulletin board as well as the blog: probably part of the reason for its success is that it tried to enable as many forms of discussion as possible.
This essay is very suggestive about the contemporary sociology of reading–thank you for this work! I want to know more about the social locations and dispositions of these “right” readers in Infinite Summer, though I know that that information can’t be deduced easily from blog posts and comments and so might be beyond the scope of the piece. With Radway in mind, I wonder: Is this a particular version of the middlebrow–one that combines the intellectualism or nerdiness of technomodernism with the wider appeal of therapeutic and self-help discourses? Who has access to this circle of readers? Is the specificity of Wallace’s position in the literary field part of the reason why the differently positioned Dracula or 2666 did not have their own Infinite Summers, as you relate later on?
I’m contemplating hosting a read of Gravity’s Rainbow at Infinite Zombies in a couple of months, incidentally. There definitely continues to be an interest in the sort of program Baldwin spun up; none to my knowledge have been quite as successful. Dracula was ultimately a failure, I think, because it’s just not that gripping a book. It certainly doesn’t have the sort of emotional hook at IJ has. And while it does have a hint of the “oh, I guess I should have read that” that IJ has in spades, it’s not that terribly difficult; it doesn’t require rallying and so forth. It wasn’t the right book, as you note several times supra, for the audience that came to Infinite Summer wanting support in climbing a mountain (which is also why at IZ, Moby-Dick and Ulysses and 2666 were fairly successful.
I wonder if it would be useful to consider programs like The Big Read, which aren’t exactly online group reads but which, at least in the case of my community, begin to try to bring the real, meatspace community together around a book via discussions online.
Also interesting to me — though perhaps not wholly relevant here — is how different communities within the larger community relate to one another. Shots were sort of fired across the bow at/from Infinite Zombies, Klein’s blog and one of Avery Edison’s posts at Infinite Summer, with little factions arising here and there. I was had a generally antagonistic feeling toward those two bloggers, and I think there was mutual warmth/admiration among infinitetasks, infinitedetox, and my blog. It’s not unlike real life, really, but in terms of discussing how online community provokes different sorts of relationships with reading and with particular books, maybe relationships among the various reading communities is also worth taking note of.
I also wonder (to make a brief addendum to my prior comment) whether or not consideration of different features of a particular community portal would be interesting. For example, I participated very little in the IS forums but commented regularly on the blog, which felt more like a conversation than like firing something off into the void. The FB group and Goodreads group (et al) seemed superfluous. The holy grail would be a site that aggregated these things somehow, I suppose. (A wallace-l poster who also went on to read and post on Matt Bucher’s blog for 2666 started work on such an app, actually, and we discussed tag-teaming it, but life got in the way, etc., and I don’t think it’s been thought about for six months now.) None of this really feels like it’d fit in this paper, but I find the topics interesting and thought I’d mention them.
The other fellow and I had the idea (and we surely weren’t the first two) independently and more or less simultaneously. He posted something on twitter about investigating php frameworks, and I perked up. When I tweeted about starting the Moby-Dick group read, he emailed me some pretty vague ideas he had been thinking about, mostly having to do with aggregating various streams. To keep up with everything #infsum, you really had to follow the main blog, the forum (which I think used a separate login system), hashtags and relevant accounts on twitter, various and sundry other blogs, and possibly even things like delicious links. Then there were the Goodreadses and the Shelfaris and the Facebook groups and the ravelry.com groups and so on. It was a lot of information in a lot of different places behind a lot of different authentication walls.
I suppose there are a couple of approaches you could adopt to building a hub for group reads. One is to do aggregation, which ultimately doesn’t scale that well, since new services pop up all the time and have to be developed for and still have their various authentication systems. The other would be to develop an actual platform with APIs that other app developers could consume. Of course, Goodreads wants you going to their site rather than hitting an api to fetch your updates, so there’s a barrier here too.
Probably the most realistic approach in terms of seeing any adoption would be to write a platform that a Facebook app consumes and to use FB Connect to let anybody who has a FB account interact with your platform via a separate app. You could then push whatever info into either portal. In an ideal world, people could add their own resources/feeds for public or private consumption, and anybody who’s signed up and playing can filter/search and choose how much of what types of info they want to see. The idea, though, is basically making as much information about a given group read available from a single place behind a single auth system (if that’s even needed).
All that said, I haven’t given it that terribly much thought, and there was only one very brief email exchange between the other guy and me before we both moved on to other things.
(By the way, I added a number of paragraph breaks, but I don’t think this theme is honoring them. I’m not complaining — just in a way apologizing for this unforgivably long chunk of text, if it renders as a single chunk).
This is very important. I think that the fact that Wallace’s work evokes such emotion and insight to human behavior is lost on many who don’t look past the (as you have aptly put it) high-modern/postmodern experimental pyrotechnics. His comedic prowess, including his ability to suddenly down-shift from high to low brow, is a perfect example of this. To me, this is truly is a sign of genius. It allows for a wide variety of readership, and thus, a better group read experience.
But for all its questionable motives and uncritical assumptions, Oprah’s Book Club was in a key regard an unmitigated triumph: it got people to buy books, and to read them, and to care deeply about them. – But just so long as the books are worth caring about, right?
Potentially useless comment, but one touching on Infinite Jest‘s “vision” of the communications future: I didn’t really begin to understand the book (or apprehend its power) until I switched from reading it on paper to reading it on my iPhone. (A switch that was initially just a matter of convenience–wanting to carry the book around and have it available whenever I could dive into it.) For me, it is a completely different, vastly more accessible, more powerful book when read (and reread) on that device. It’s hard to believe that some (likely unconscious) vision or intention on the author’s part is not behind that circumstance. (Also hard to believe that I’m the only reader who has had this experience.)
Right, the rhetoric is unclear: after the statement “descriptions … will sound unsophisticated,” “Perhaps this is so” is either a grammatical misstep or, at best, an unclear referent.
Not sure that you’re effectively setting up death-angst and loneliness as effective relatives, here. DFW’s work didn’t directly address depression as a type of pain, and only rarely discussed depression at all. So “he died of what he was trying to cure” isn’t fair, at least to me. Perhaps a better tack might be to focus on the more ironic aspect: for a guy who invested so much energy in penetrating through the potential superficiality of interpersonal connection, and the hard work necessary to really share your thoughts and experiences, and who appeared to succeed at that difficult project, to then revert to his old-school position and decide to die alone, unable to bear even a witness.
Fair point, PR, on the consciousness of DFW’s choice. But that’s the disconnect that startles me reading KF’s text: she focuses on how DFW died of the very pain he had helped so many others work through, when I believe that communal pain is loneliness, not depression.
This might want a little revision; Steven Moore says the bulk of the novel was written 1991-1993, and the time between the first complete draft in Dec 1993 and eventual publication in 1996 was mostly polish and production, not active rewriting.
KF is trying to note that big influential Internet trends all started after IJ, but felt compelled to note that some weblogs had appeared by 1994. I’m not sure why it wouldn’t be more consistent with reality to say that IJ was “largely complete” or “submitted for publication” before weblogs had begun to appear in great numbers, much less become influential, which strengthens the point that DFW could not have known about later trends when predicting the Internet’s future in 1991-1995.
And somewhere you might want to address the paradoxical lesson of IJ itself: imploring readers to put down the book and go live your life. Recognizing that, in some sense, the time spent discovering community or self-understanding through reading (or any passive reception of art, e.g. TV, film, etc.) is not time well spent; if we all sit at home and read IJ over and over, we’re no better off than if we were hopeless drug addicts sitting on the floor next to a giant pile of Dilaudid.
Yes, in the sense that joining a social club is better than drinking alone at home, IS mediated the obsessive/addictive effects of IJ the novel. But the novel’s (fairly) explicit probing of its readers’ willingness to escape the wraith’s fate and actually live a sociable life instead of obsess over the consumption of art is part of its purpose, and I’d argue a big reason why IS didn’t itself recur as a project.
Good point! I was on a listserv devoted to Larry Niven for a while, and there was much less demonstration of the values promulgated by DFW’s work (liberal democracy, candor, compassion) than there is on wallace-l or in Infinite Summer.
I think this bears much further pondering, but you’re definitely on the right track: literary studies doesn’t just seek to open students’ minds directly (by, e.g. explaining the different approaches to reading, and conceptualizations of a text), the literary academy must add value to its relevant non-academic culture, in a way similar to how, e.g., academic astronomers add value to the community of backyard stargazers. I recently discussed this with a historian, who related that his more accessible books (e.g. straightforward well-written historical accounts) were routinely derided by colleagues as “coffee table books,” unworthy of serious consideration. I certainly agree with Matt that lots of valuable, insightful chatter about literature takes place outside academia, but I do think people with academic literary training can add to such discussions without resorting to credentials-in-the-place-of-insight elitism. One of the worthwhile things about online discussion is its obscuration of authors’ credentials; that makes discussion more egalitarian and candid. But it also short-circuits the credibility systems we have in place elsewhere; we’ve all been part of online discussions that turned out to be nothing more than fencing with totally unqualified and loony people, and there’s a middle ground between purposeful obscuration and lowest common conversational denominator that takes real effort to establish and maintain.
I can’t disagree with your point, Maria, but the question KF is confronting, whether the quality of discourse in an online discussion will be attractive to fairly sophisticated readers, is a recurring one and not susceptible to much simplification. Wallace-l, for instance, works because of quite a lot of community-building and commitment to discourse, and not a little moderation from Matt. So KF is right to confront the skepticism of her target academic audience, a community of mostly sophisticated readers who value, for professional reasons if no other, the right to claim authorship of particular insights into literature and the literary community. And I think she does it the best available way: by confronting their fear of irrelevance.
I wonder if it would be useful to specify the distinction between your use of David and Wallace explicitly – I take it to mean that David is the person you knew, and Wallace is the imagined author that readers come to know, but maybe that’s not a distinction you’re trying to make?
Agreed. And perhaps you’re getting to this, but my thoughts drifted from this point about the blogged book being a site of community to these comments here being a different form of community. What might have Infinite Summer been like in CommentPress?
Agreed that IJ creates meta-addiction, but is it “passive reception”? I think KF’s argument about the interactive way that IS worked challenges the addition metaphor, at least as a passive & individual experience.
What strikes me here is that the model for television dissemination – tied to a schedule, privileging simultaneous consumption both within a room and across the country – is much better suited for this type of social “reading” than literature (at least non-serialized lit). When does a literary text spur “watercooler moments” aside from recommending that others read a book? Whereas TV, people regularly talk about shared consumption experiences and come up with ways to structure that sharing (via Twitter, blogs, wikis today; watercoolers & conventions in previous eras). Is this a comparison worth bringing out?
I agree that you shouldn’t grant sophistication to the “professional readers” (not your intent, but the effect of the paragraph). There is a great deal of sophistication, interpretation & contextualization within the reader response & community formation articulated earlier around InfiniteDetox. Perhaps you want to be a bit more bold: might the critical gestures made by typical literary interpretations might mirror the ironic detachment DFW highlights in television, and the affective engagement of readers more directly connect to the experiences and cultural value of reading that his fiction attempts to foster?
I want to chime in on Daryl’s comment here. I suggested, on the IS main page, that this “second circle” of blogging was in fact more “sophisticated” than what took place on the IS site itself. Along with Daryl/Zombies, Detox, and myself, there were Gerry Canavan, Repat Blues, and Paul Debraski/I Just Read About That… Together, we were working not simply to respond to the text, but to move cooperatively inside it, look at its possibilities and in some cases analytical tools, and tracking down textual and philosophical complexities and references. (And we did it in such a way that it also served, spoiler free, as a read-along for new IJ readers, among which I counted myself.) The “archive” of this work remains unbalanced, though, between its specific temporal location in the transient blog medium, and its collectively generated, diachronic usefulness.
I wrote about 45,000 words over the summer in 25 or so mini-esays, collected at the link to my blog. Detox’s contributions included both exquisite Wallace-inspired humor but also serious consideration of Wittgenstein and other background materials. Gerry’s analyses were rock solid and influenced us all.
None of this obviates your larger points about the re-contextualization of both reading communities and potentially literary culture (though I think that these structural transformations might also be lined up against the insights in n+1’s recent “MFA vs. NYC”). I think this is an awesome bit of work, and can’t wait to see the book when it comes out!
I completely agree with your ambition and think it is well-expressed here. I saw and was fascinated by (enough to write an essay about it) a similar situation in which an online bulletin board devoted to a novel, Mark Z. Danielewski’s _House of Leaves_ (2000), organized a web-based critical reading community of lay-readers If you haven’t looked at it, you would probably enjoy doing so:http://www.houseofleaves.com/. Thanks for sharing your insightful article!
Given your recent tweet about Jean-Luc Nancy and online community (and perhaps this is where you’re headed, but I wanted to jot this down here before I forget…), I wonder if the mode of identification that you’re describing here is less about “opening oneself” than it is about recognizing a radical exposedness. That is, Wallace (in IJ and interviews) always seems to be discussing the human condition much the way that Nancy and Levinas do – in terms of a singularity, a primary sociality or exposedness, a predicament that we must somehow take up but that is impossible to take up.
Yes, Wallace is very much concerned with opening oneself and genuinely listening, but I also think he fully recognizes the exposedness of being human. Thus, we can either take up the impossible challenge of listening, or we can (attempt to) shut down the approach of the various other that impinge upon us…
My previous comment holds here as well. Yes, there is (for Blanchot as well as the theorists I mentioned earlier) an obligation to respond, but that comes in the face of an openness to the other that is not a choice but is rather an ontological predicament (I’m very much channeling the work of Diane Davis here. You may be interested in her new book, Inessential Solidarity.)
Wallace’s death clearly had something to do with the kairotic moment of Infinite Summer, and it seems that the devotion to the project by the organizers and fringe participants (I was one of the latter) was linked to feeling a sense of responsibility (response-ability, as Davis suggests in the book mentioned above) to Wallace.
So it may not be that that “model” is extensible…it may be that the rhetorical situation is/was absolutely singular.
Thanks for the comment, Matt. It’s of course not that simple — my entire first book is on Pynchon and DeLillo and their representations of television, so trust me, I could go on. Perhaps a footnote pointing to that larger discussion would help.
Yes, absolutely — thanks, Maria!
Really helpful note, Trent; I have a habit of torturing a sentence and then failing to realize how I’ve tortured it.
Yes, I think what I meant here was closer to “perhaps they are” — perhaps they are “unsophisticated,” at least when it comes to the kind of theoretical approaches that literary scholars have of late adopted. It’s again the “naive reading” debate that I’m alluding to here, and I think I need to stop alluding and just bring it the heck in.
I’m not sure I’d be willing to distinguish between books that are and aren’t worth caring about; that kind of divisiveness w/r/t “quality” is very much the kind of problem I’m trying to get at. What I’m interested in is less whether any given book is “good” in some objective sense than in how it matters to its users. “Worth” is very much in the eye of the beholder.
I’ll ponder this, George. My feeling has always been that DFW’s work was always about depression, most particularly when it wasn’t explicitly discussing it, given the relationship of depression to the kind of angst he references here. I’ll think about how to tighten that connection.
That’s exactly it, Matt; thanks so much for that helpful refocusing.
I am hugely looking forward to reading it!
What is up with that, indeed. If it’s true of journalists, it’s even more so of mainstream academics (by which I mean to say academics who aren’t explicitly working in digital arenas). The resistance of print-based folks to new digital means of communicating runs deep.
Oh, that’s really helpful, Jim, and I think exactly right. If it were just a matter of opening oneself — well, where’s the problem? — but the risks involved in that kind of exposure create pressure to remain hidden. If the challenge weren’t impossible, on some level, we’d have it figured out.
Excellent point, George.
That’s super helpful, Matt — thanks so much for all the references. I think this helps the ultimate point a good deal; while there might still be reason to read Infinite Summer as having been an anomaly, it’s likely one of degree rather than kind. The project is still clearly indicative of widespread trends in online reading.
You make me SO jealous that I wasn’t able to participate in that read. I wonder if it could be resurrected; I could really use some discussion to get me through the middle third of the book…
What I’m really hoping to do in this paragraph (and throughout the essay, really), and what I’m clearly not fully succeeding at yet, is to confront precisely those assumptions made by academics that reading outside the academy is somehow naive, by suggesting that if there is this mode of naive reading, it’s what I’m doing, too, and it’s a mode of reading that academics have to contend with if we’re going to remain relevant to a culture that’s perfectly happy to go on reading without us. I need to ponder how to get this paragraph a bit closer to what I intend to say there…
That’s really interesting, daryl; I’ll definitely have to look into the relationships within reading groups!
Actually, that’s really useful for my thinking about where this project might go next, beyond this article. I’d love to hear more about that potential platform…
You might be interested in this interview with Cobain in Rolling Stone, especially regarding his use of irony: “For five years during the time I had my stomach problem, yeah. I wanted to kill myself every day. […] This is no way to live a life. I love to play music, but something was not right. So I decided to medicate myself. Even as satire, though, a song like that can hit a nerve. There are plenty of kids out there who, for whatever reasons, really do feel suicidal. That pretty much defines our band. It’s both those contradictions. It’s satirical, and it’s serious at the same time” (emphasis mine).
Oops. I didn’t emphasize the part I meant to emphasize.
a human connection that we have lost the knowledge of how to satisfy.
I would say instead, “that we no longer know how to make.” The question of TV passivity (the empty promise of satisfaction) as against an active personal attempt to satisfy that desire might be articulated (?)
“Perhaps this is so” a little bit unclear for me. The actual identification is in some way flawed, “unsophisticated”, “less”–these readers are deluded? Or are they barking up the wrong tree theoretically in some other way? If readers “care deeply” about these books it’s kind of like the old Woody Allen joke (“they need the eggs.”)
+1 zillion, especially para. 3. Fine work (and I want to hear more and more about the last sentence of para. 3, as in, I could easily read a whole book about just that.)
And yet so many contemporary novelists have resisted the Internet, as journalists have, kind of scoffing at the whole thing–Franzen determinedly using a non-connected computer for writing, or Wallace’s own avoidance of email, even. I’ve been arguing for over a decade with journalists who rail against each new development–email, blogging, Facebook, Twitter–only to succumb, way after the adoption would have done them the most good. What is up with that?
(exciting! YES! so much more to be made of this.)
The 2666 read!! was spectacular! It was by far the most fruitful group reading experience I’ve ever enjoyed. [Also, this very brilliant maniac Steve W. whom I’d lost track of a decade before turned up for it out of the clear blue, from Mexico, bearded, a hardcore BolaÃ±o fan and absolutely busting with insight. (When I’d known him he was a terribly dapper PI lawyer in Iowa.) Which is this other dimension to the human connections you’re talking about–the reconnections that the Internet makes possible.]
Matt’s site is one of the best reading guides for 2666 out there.
Matt, I see this as kind of pre-empting what seems to be a typical response from academics to any discussion literary activity in the world outside, like scoffing at Oprah, scoffing at young readers, I’m not interested, this is too primitive–we see a lot of that kind of thing on wallace-l. The best, most elegant, most exciting, most incisive literary criticism comes from the most surprising sources, I always think. Sometimes even from an academic whom you’d expected to be too hidebound or too dry to make a great contribution, but suddenly this person’s blood has started to flow and pow!–sometimes from the most random person on a listserv, or some blogger on Salon whom you’d never even liked before.
One thing is for sure, I was very much underwhelmed by the press reviews of 2666 (especially compared with the results of the bolanobolano group read.)
Yeah but the real problem is that all that jockeying for position takes people’s eye off the ball. Is this a good reading, or not? Is this true, or not? Doesn’t matter where it comes from! All readers are involved in the same project.
One of the things I always loved most about Wallace is that despite his being so learned, he was an organically, to-the-bone democratic reader, just another citizen of the republic of letters. The way he engaged those who asked questions at his readings, the accounts of conversations between himself and his students, the friendly, approachable voice of his writing, all spoke to this. (He seems to have been kind of horrified to learn even of the existence of wallace-l, but he would have made a wonderful contributor there, I always thought.)
Fair enough. But! This whole discussion is so reminiscent of the passage in Readings’s The University in Ruins (p. 154) regarding the “anti-modernist rephrasing of teaching and learning as sites of obligation, as loci of ethical practices, rather an as means for the transmission of scientific knowledge.” The more of these calls-to-academic-reform I read, the clearer it seems that articulating those “ethical practices” is a culture-wide project, not just an academic one. Clear parameters for discourse can (and should) be set inside the academy and out. Communities like wallace-l provide just the kind of venue whereby these practices can be spread.
This might not be too important for what you’re doing here, but I think DeLillo’s understanding of television is more complicated than this. You might take a look at, for example, Peter Knight’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Don DeLillo. Knight concludes that “in DeLillo’s novels the possibility of transcendence and the imagination of an alternative to the seeming inevitable triumph of neoliberalism is not to be found in some inaccessible and outmoded otherworldly realm but within the very technologies [such as television] and discourses of contemporary life” (38-39).
One thing that strikes me about these group reads of long novels is that, in terms of sheer number of words read, it’s more work to participate in an online discussion because you have to read 75 pages of a novel and then read a summary, two or three blog posts (and their comments) on the “main” site, and then more discussion on twitter or facebook or goodreads or ancillary blogs–as opposed to an IRL book club where you can read the book pretty much at your own pace and then just chat about it later over wine. [Also, I think an Infinite Summer in this paragraph needs ital.]
Maybe somewhat related here is Tim Aubry’s forthcoming book (also from Iowa) called Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans. He discusses Oprah and IJ among others. http://www.uiowapress.org/books/2011-spring/reading-therapy.htm
George, Moore also enumerates all the substantive changes Wallace made after he (Moore) last saw the manuscript. Based on the letters from Pietsch & the drafts in the Ransom Center, DFW was revising and rewriting in 1994 & 1995. I think this is consistent with Fitzpatrick’s point here.
It’s true that Baldwin did not undertake 2666, but I contacted him about it and organized an independent, five-month-long read of 2666 on my own site (http://bolanobolano.com), with guides and “trackers” of certain strands of the novel–and with many of the followers from Infinite Summer following along. While it wasn’t as high-profile as Infinite Summer, it did get attention in the LA Times (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2010/01/infinite-summer-bolano-2666-spring.html), the National Post of Canada, and some other newspapers and prominent blogs. Additionally, the blog Infinite Zombies (http://infinitezombies.wordpress.com/), which followed along Infinite Summer also completed the group reads of Dracula and 2666, and organized successful group reads of Moby-Dick and Ulysses. http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2010/jul/25/knoxvillian-leads-group-reads-online/
I’m sort of sensitive to this notion of contemporary literary scholars being more “sophisticated” than either book clubs, online communities, or your paper. It sets up this us vs. them scenario where “sophisticated” equals better (or “more valid” or “smarter” or something) and someone’s academic credentials end up being valued over their insights (or lack thereof). I totally agree with what you are saying here–it just ruffles my feathers because I know there is highly sophisticated discussion happening online (and outside of academia).
If I may add to Carr’s last comment: it may help for KF to simply clarify that the “very pain” referenced in the paragraph’s last sentence “…the very pain that he had helped them through…” refers specifically to acute loneliness not depression. In fact, recall from “Depressed Person” that a large component of the depression’s great pain was the inability of the sufferer to communicate (and thereby assuage) the pain that is at depression’s core; i.e., to communicate the awfulness of acute, terminal loneliness.
So perhaps a better final sentence would clarify that the real point of irony here is the fact that DFW — so good at communicating certain kinds of emotions and information and emotional information, etc. — i.e., that he wasn’t, in fact, able to communicate his most deep and real loneliness (and pain). This wasn’t a problem just at the end of his life but also during his high-functioning, medicated period, too. He never spoke publicly about his struggle with depression even when he was doing well. It’s perhaps this unwillingness or inability to talk that the final descent into mental illness only exacerbated not caused. (Leaving aside the debate about whether speaking publicly about his depression and medication would have helped do anything other than make him a ‘poster child’ for depression, etc.)
I hope I’m making myself clear. I’m trying to side-step the whole “did the disease cause his death or did he choose to die” debate and instead focus on what I think KF’s real point is: it’s ironic that DFW couldn’t or didn’t communicate his own deepest and darkest pain in ways that perhaps could have brought him deeper healing or relief — or so he seemed to advocate in writing.
On this point, I wonder if it’s simply that many of them are simply too tired/scared-of-failing to take the time, make the effort and learn this new stuff, and as a result feel threatened and take solace in decrying innovations (often using predicable and lazy cliches – if I hear one more person say that they don’t use Twitter as they “don’t want to know what some pop star had for breakfast” I may scream).
Not sure that point assists in the crafting of this essay (which I’m enjoying very much by the way, as someone who, as you alluded to earlier, came to and devoured Infinite Summer both after it was all over, AND after I’d read Infinite Jest entirely ‘on my own’!)
Man, I need to write shorter sentences…
It’s a good point that – much fun to be had for instance in simultaneously watching a TV broadcast and tweeting about it with, in many case unknown, others (whether seriously or, more often, not, almost in an MST3K riffing style).
I guess that’s where InfSum had its cake and ate it – the 75 pages per day thing (in theory) allowed more or less simultaneous consumption and communal commentary, while retaining the benefits that literature can bring and TV cannot.
To counter the above mentions of potentially conferring sophistication on academia, would the following wee wording change maybe help?
“may appear relatively unsophisticated to many contemporary literary scholars”
“may be perceived as relatively unsophisticated by some contemporary literary scholars”
I may have slightly misunderstood the issues raised above though (it’s rather late here) but I wonder if that shifts the onus onto academics to consider changing their perceptions (if such exist) rather than onto you to change your essay to suit supposedly objective notions of “sophistication”
Hmmm, does that make sense? I know what I’m trying to say here but not sure I’m really saying it…
Great essay, really enjoyed it and the comments.
I think you are both making good points here, but some synthesis is needed. I would say, Kathleen, that DFW’s work was informed by depression (to an extent that it will take years to untangle) but not necessarily about it, even indirectly. And I don’t believe, George, that DFW’s death was a reversion to an “old-school position”. That he could not use his own tools and techniques to climb out of the abyss had more to do with biochemistry than with intellectual choice.
This worries me a bit, because of the paucity of evidence. Would, for example, an online textual community built around the Left Behind series have these same qualities? (I have no idea whether or not such a community exists.)
I can’t manage to figure out how to leave a comment on the entire text, so I want to thank you, Kathleen, for writing this excellent article and for giving me and others a chance to comment on it in this fashion.
I like what you say here about irony and think the process operates in DFW’s nonfiction as well. I have been struck by this while teaching some of his essays.
This is not a comment on this para really, but a comment on the ideas therein for future exploration: what about those reading communities that self-consciously try to engage with “scholarly” knowledge and interpretation? I’m thinking here of Oprah’s reading of Faulkner; didn’t that use/engage with some academic Faulkner scholars?
“Wallace’s fiction combines rich investments in form, in ideas, and in emotion” — for me this is a simple but brilliant elucidation of the powerful and invitingly resonate synthesis at work in Wallace’s fiction. Very nice.
Footnote on “self-helpy” that you probably have seen but others might not have: Maria’ Bustillos’s piece for the Awl on Wallace’s collection of self-help books.
Yes, thanks for sharing this. Really liked the essay — and enjoyed being introduced to this type of draft presentation.
Not sure if you wanted technical comments as well as substanial ones, but the sentence that begins “In Wallace’s work…” is awkward. Consider: “In Wallace’s work, high-modern/postmodern experimental pyrotechnics are repeatedly wed with both an incisive cultural critique and a deeply personal concern for quotidian human suffering.” Or something similar.
4 December 2011 at 8.43 am
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