Getting Wallace Right

The literary blogosphere’s been circulating Rebekah Frumkin’s defense of David Foster Wallace’s fiction, and this has to be a good thing. Frumkin seems like a sharp and precocious writer, and I agree with her essay’s goals, though I think it makes the same mistake many associate with Wallace: telling instead of showing us how to feel. (Here’s how much I agree with its goals: last week, at the university where I’m working on a Ph.D., I gave a guest lecture on Wallace and John Barth to a contemporary fiction course. It shocked me how few of the students knew Wallace’s nonfiction, much less his fiction. I’m talking maybe 20 out of the 90 and 5 out of 90, respectively, which suggests Wallace’s current vogue may be a generational phenomenon.)

Anyway, there’s a lot to like in Frumkin’s essay. But I do want to point out that she gets some stuff about Wallace flat out wrong — and often in tendentious fashion. Take her statement that Infinite Jest received reviews that were “bemused, irritated, and downright negative.” Now compare it to three or four of the reviews collected at this early HTML wonder of a website. It gets worse. Frumkin quotes a Walter Kirn review of Wallace’s Oblivion: Stories at length because his snippy opinion “most closely matches that of the vox populi.” Well, in 1996 and in New York magazine, Kirn also reviewed Infinite Jest. Here’s what he had to say.

Next year’s book awards have been decided. The plaques and citations can now be put in escrow. With Infinte Jest, by David Foster Wallace . . . the competition has been obliterated. It’s as though Paul Bunyan had joined the NFL or Wittgenstein had gone on Jeopardy! The novel is that colossally disruptive. And that spectacularly good.

Again, I agree with Frumkin’s larger point — that Wallace’s fiction doesn’t get enough attention, especially when compared to his nonfiction. The students I lectured to are proof of that. To right this wrong, though, it’s going to take two things: carefully explaining how and why Wallace’s fiction works (for the unconverted) and defending it honestly and dispassionately (for the nonbelievers). Frumkin’s essay does neither.

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
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