A love-hate letter to David Foster Wallace

‘Mum? How do you know what kind of pan to get out of the cupboard?’

Dear David,

Starting a piece of work is tough. You knew this, so bear with me.

Your writing changed my life. You loved writing but hated projects. You loved rules but broke them all anyway. You loved analogy, and understood that ultimately, fiction is analogy. I think that’s why you didn’t bother so much with plots. You didn’t write stories. You wrote analogies. I think even the physical restriction of having to present writing as bound and on paper was a burden to you – analogies work best presented freely. Parts of Infinite Jest could have their order scrambled just fine, and your work would hold because the analogy holds. Your essay about the suffering of lobsters was one of the subtlest, most interesting analogies I’ve ever read – and I actually don’t know if that one even occurred to you as being an analogy, I think it probably didn’t.

I do analogies too. All my best ideas are analogies. Sometimes, I go back and read old analogies I have written and reel in dopamine at how good I think they are. I think you did this too and I think you might’ve hated this about yourself. I don’t know if me doing it preceded reading you or not. It’s impossible to know that anymore.

For the first time in history, I’ve read the cover quote of a book and agreed. On the cover of my copy of Infinite Jest, it says ‘He is the voice inside your head’.

Well, yeah actually. You, not something like you, but you, are one of the voices inside my head, and having read you so young, I don’t know whether it’s mine or yours.

But you know what, David? I don’t like that voice very much. It’s usually more trouble than it’s worth.

You aren’t one of the good voices. You are one of the fun voices, one of the very fun ones at times, but at my best, you are one of the ones I get off the windshield so I can see the road. You are the voice in my head that diagnoses, questions, berates, argues, doubts, replays, derides, and ultimately, fears.

You are the voice of the little boy inside me that asks Mum things like ‘How do you know what kind of pan to get out of the cupboard?’ and Dad things like ‘What should I do if I accidentally kill someone?’. When I read in one of your obituaries (there should have been more, so fuck it we can call this one too) that you asked your parents things like that too, I started to think the voice was mine, but that you had the same one, and that was yours.

In looking for images for this article I discovered a whole sub-genre of Foster Wallace charicatures that all share one characteristic – a massive head.

I have been reading your books again. I first read Infinite Jest five years ago now. To go back to that ‘your writing changed my life’ comment, I need to add a qualification. Reading Infinite Jest changed my life. Read that sentence carefully. Infinite Jest, the text, did not change my life. It was good. It was a really good text, a great text even. I’m proud of you for writing it and I enjoyed it. But as a text, it was not a life-changing text, for me. What was life changing was sitting down and fucking reading it. Spending that time with an author, that in my case just happened to be you, with diligence and deliberate enjoyment at a moment in my life where I really needed that, changed my life. Reading Infinite Jest changed my life – not reading Infinite Jest changed my life, that’s the difference.

I’m sure you understand that difference. You make these kinds of sometimes very clever sometimes wank sometimes both ‘see here’s the distinction you didn’t see but I saw it and showed it to you look at how good I am at distinctions’ literally all the time, it’s your bread and butter, your bread and butter is a sentence like this, one where you semi-deliberately start to lose track of whether you are addressing the reader or yourself or both or if the reader part of you is different to the writer part of you, both in this actual moment of actually simultaneously reading and writing a thing but also down the line when you read the thing and are still doing so as both a reader and a writer and in fact I want to suggest to you David that this whole thing you do with the mega stream-of-consciousness vibe was in fact never about the reader but in fact about you and ALSO that it isn’t the way you think it’s about you (see I did the distinction thing again but don’t worry I won’t do the whole spiel about the distinction thing again for the sake of making this longer, that would be a cheap trick and I know you hate cheap tricks and this is one of many things I think we agree on) but to get back to why you do the SOC thing and also the acronym thing that I just did which I also tired of, you do them for you but not for you the way you think you do them for you is basically my point, which is to say that I do not believe your writing is wank which is I know for a fact something you feared, because wank is designed to in its complexity bamboozle a reader into perceiving cleverness that is not there, and your cleverness is definitely real but I also concede there is in fact bamboozling going on, just that it is exclusively self-bamboozling, in that you convince yourself you are writing this way to be explorative and if it happens to be wank oh well that’s disappointing but in your heart of hearts you’re an artist so that’s ok people always call good art wank, but actually you are doing it for quite a different and selfish way because your primary reader was always you, it’s why you edited so much, editing takes a lot of re-reading, let’s remember, and this made your writing a sort of weird selfish non-wank if that is a thing, because writing this now, this very second putting it on paper in the style I learned from you, I see the selfishness because I see the appeal, because writing like this is easy and that was your evil secret and the thing you really feared would be found out about you, and it is easy because it allows you just think AT the page and drown in your own voice and for you, if you are anything like me and I know you are, that is enthralling to the point where someone opened a door behind me just before and it scared the ever-loving shit out of me because I was so in the zone writing this monstrous fucking thing that I have nonsensically directed to a literally dead human being who would never read it but all this is beside the point, the point is that writing like this is fun and it helped you get out your ideas, and I don’t think in all the interviews I ever saw or all the essays I ever read from you or all the fiction I ever analysed, there was a single hint of you managing to have fun despite the fact that your entire style is basically literary hedonism, which can only be enjoyed by a reader if they consent to inhabiting your mind  for the period of the madness and in exactly this way, I think you actually poison them and also trap them, in a sense that is really toxic and dangerous, not for them but for you because it is like scratching an itch way beyond the point of satisfaction all the way til it bleeds all over your hand and then you have to sit with not only the wound and the blood but ultimately the moral cowardice and stupidity of having scratched so hard in the first place, and the fact that the way you talk and think is actually a bit genius makes this an extra terrible thing to do because it is an abuse of your power of the genius writer part of yourself over the helpless reader part of yourself, and if the person reading this right now hasn’t made the connection that this might be what I’m doing to them and also myself I’m going to make it explicit right now in a way you never did, because for you would be like a magician revealing his trick and ultimately losing his power to trap himself, because you fell in love with the trap, and then I will stop and deliberately leave the trap because I know that’s what is good for me.

That was fun, and it was easy. I needed to get it out. I needed to inhabit your game for a minute to better understand it. I feel like I’m doing a live experiment in the very writing of this in further understanding you, actually.

Don’t get me wrong, I like reading your style David. And writing it doesn’t even feel stilted, in fact it’s dangerously good fun, as you know by now is my whole point. Probably it’s even something I could get really good at, if I’m being totally honest with myself about my talent for putting things on paper. But like you’ve said repeatedly, I get to decide the most important things in life – what I look at and what I do, and I decide to write in a way that is more giving.

Even just writing now, having gone back to my own ‘stock’ style (I have regular mix-ups, but think of it a stock ball in cricket), I am already finding that the relationship between me and the person reading this letter is returning. This is what was missing before. When I was writing that monster sentence, I became so self-absorbed in the act of thinking at the page that I forgot where I was, and as I mentioned had the shit scared out of me by an opening door. The clever or not cleverness of what I was actually writing didn’t even matter to whether this process was selfish – it just was.

I am willing to take that leap when I read you because I think your ideas really are clever. But I sometimes wish that you had come to realise yourself that there is something special about meeting the reader halfway, or even more than halfway. I know you did this too by the way, I’m not one to generalise your writing. In fact the writing of yours I like the most does this, like A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and the parts of the Pale King that feel the most actually fictional.

It was your essays, in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster, which I read on a trip to India on my kindle last month, that helped me really understand what I had experienced reading Infinite Jest years ago. Even though I liked it, the novel had forced me to come to you in every possible way. As a reader I love doing this, I like to work to understand, but I think your life might show that writing this way is not necessarily good for the person writing – or perhaps the selfish writing was a symptom of deeper selfishness problems.

‘Despite the unquestioned assumption on the part of pop-culture critics that the poor old Audience, deep down, “craves novelty,” all available evidence suggests, rather, that tthe Audience really craves sameness but thinks, deep down, that it ought to crave novelty.’ – David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Other Essays

I hope you don’t think I’m starting a culture war here. I know that if some publishers had their way, the longest sentence in contemporary fiction would be nine words, and we would all be made to chant Orwell’s rules about verbs like a pledge of allegiance before creative writing classes. I don’t want this either, I think you used a literary freedom authors have a right to use, and I’m glad you used it. As I’ve said a few times, I do really love your books – but as a person tempted to write this way, I’m just a bit combative because it scares me that they might’ve been bad for you. I don’t want them to be bad for me. I want to be an artist like you without being a person like you. Is that possible?

Your writing is so yours that it is a little coercive. I’m reading the Pale King now and I think this is why I’m struggling to love it. I love the prose, and as always, your analogy. This book is about how boredom is an analogy for actual existential struggle and existential struggle is just as often an analogy for common boredom. It is about being alone. It’s a great set of themes and there are genius analogies in this book. And yet it feels like entering the last dregs of a really long joke, and starting to realise the punchline won’t be as funny I’d hoped. I know for sure that you detected that too and we all wish what happened next didn’t happen. Still, I’m going to finish it, I promise, and maybe my view will change, but I can’t help but wonder if it shouldn’t have just been a chaotic subplot thrown into the rest of Infinite Jest instead of a novel of its own.

Then again, who am I to give ‘the next Thomas Pynchon’ writing advice – and after all, if I ever have any kind of success, I will know it was partly down to you. Not for the life advice, but for igniting my love of analogy, and preaching freedom in the face of conformity. I may have my issues with you mate, but thanks for everything.

See you on the other side,


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