All that Fuss about David Foster Wallace

A few months ago, when I started getting serious about writing (again), someone pointed me in the direction of a website called ‘I Write Like’. Clever little robots analyse a sample of your writing (in English) and tell you which writer (living or dead) you most resemble. Imagine my surprise when it came up with ‘David Foster Wallace’ after I cut and pasted a chapter of my WIP.  Surprising, because: 1) my novel is crime fiction, and 2) I had never heard of this author.  (Yes, my grasp of contemporary American fiction is a little shaky.)  So I ignored this first result and submitted another text.

Same result.

By now, I was getting convinced that this was the default setting of the website, no matter what your input was.  So I tried a poem.  And got Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  What does one of the world’s funniest books have in common with my rather moody and depressing poetry?  Anybody’s guess!

So, although I was unconvinced by the analytical tool, this website did make me curious about David Foster Wallace.  I started reading up on him.  And boy, was there a lot of stuff written about him!  Most recently, a biography by D.T. Max entitled Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.  This, in turn, led to an outburst by Bret Easton Ellis on Twitter, culminating in him calling David Foster Wallace ‘the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation’.

Well, with an intro to like that, I just had to read the man himself!  Wouldn’t you?  (I am cheating a little bit with the timeline here: in fact, I had bought ‘Infinite Jest’ just before the summer holidays and intended to polish it off during my inactive, very long-seeming days on that nondescript beach in Greece that my husband’s family calls home.) I am about halfway through this doorstopper of a book: page 508 of its 1079 pages (including endnotes). And I can tell you two things for sure:

1) This book is not made for beach reading (although it is good for dipping in and out of).

2) I do not write like him at all.

Or at least I hope I don’t. Not that I disliked his style.  I was, by turns, amused, fascinated, bemused, indifferent, enthusiastic, critical, passionate and infuriated.  It is not an easy read and you have to be in the mood for it – which is difficult to sustain over that many pages.  It is a book breathtaking in its ambition: to capture all of contemporary American society, which is why it’s probably best read in several sittings, across many months.  Although individual passages glowed with insight and humour, although there was beautiful writing which made me want to reread and quote, I did find the cumulative effect rather wearisome.  There, I said it!  Does that mean I am siding with Bret Easton Ellis?

No, not really, because I don’t understand why he is attacking David Foster Wallace himself for the halo of sentimentality and mantle of sainthood that his readers and followers have bestowed on him. It’s like accusing Van Gogh of commercialisation because his ‘Sunflowers’ sell so well, or Shakespeare of insisting that people use his newfangled word inventions.

I may have no wish to write like David Foster Wallace myself, but I can still enjoy reading him (in small gulps).  If we only liked reading people like ourselves, the world would be a very bland place. I find some of the imitators of David Foster Wallace tiresome and pretentious.  I find all imitators tiresome, unless it’s a clever sequel or deliberate satire. And I dislike literary pretentiousness, so well satirised in the character of Monica in Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’. I am sure more have praised ‘Infinite Jest’ and its author than have actually read it or him.  Isn’t that what happens with other famous works such as Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman?

Which, by the way, all three happen to be heartbreaking works of staggering genius.  Not easy, but stick with them!

* Gorgeous new graphic design for Tristram Shandy at Fast Company:

29 thoughts on “All that Fuss about David Foster Wallace”

  1. I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while but I keep putting it off because of the sheer size. Although I, too, didn’t know much about Wallace until last year when all the hoopla began and I followed it.

    You’ve certainly rekindled my interest.

    1. To me, it feels a bit like the kind of book you enjoy more in retrospect – perhaps for the sheer feat of having finished it in the first place! But it’s certainly worth having a look at it.

  2. Thanks for this so much, I for one have never heard of this website but am now tempoted to try it myself -;)! As it happens I do like Wallace!

    Kind Regards,

  3. Marina Sofia – I think that’s so interesting that you went back to explore the author whose work yours is supposed to resemble. And I know what you mean too about books that are best savoured over several reading sessions…

  4. I also think it’s great that you went to read the work of the author whose work yours was supposed to resemble. I’m intrigued by the website now and will stick a bit of my work through it. I’m not sure I could stick with the book you are reading, as you have though.

  5. When I did the ‘I Write Like’ gimmick I got back, among others, Stephenie Meyer! So be happy with what you got. 😉
    I was going to check ‘Infinite Jest’ out at the library, but then I saw how big it is! I read the first few pages though, and am intrigued enough to buy it someday. It looks like something worth owning.
    I admit I’m a little jealous you had the summer free to read anything you wanted. Someday …

    1. I wonder if EL James now figures on it. Perhaps as soon as you mention ‘rolling your eyes’ or expensive presents, it will say that you write like her…
      As for the freedom to read – that was mainly because I did not have the opportunity to write or work as much as I would have liked… So be careful for what you wish for!

  6. How intriguing … of course, I couldn’t resist it … had to try it, and guess what? I came out as being ‘like’ Charles Dickens, Vladimire Nabokov and David Foster Wallace … heh-heh … doesn’t exactly fill one with confidence in this app!!! What a laugh! So … basically Marina … take no notice … you’re an ace writer … you’re YOU not anyone else and you have a voice and stuff to say xxx

    1. You’re in good company, then! It is a laugh, you are right, but I just felt rather ignorant for never having heard of DFW, so made sure to catch up on him. Sounds a bit like a Plath-cult in the making (and I am, or was, a huge Plath fan).

  7. I enjoy DWF’s essays much more than his fiction. Granted, the man had the IQ of a genius and it shows in his writing style. I was introduced to his work back in 1995 when I made the acquaintance of the freelance editor who was editing the footnotes for Infinite Jest. Footnotes as a hallmark of style! Yes, that is DWF.

    In any case, that led me to “sorta” read Infinite Jest, but really he’s just messing with the reader and it does feel a bit wearisome at times. However, I then did a presentation on his writing style in a 400-level nonfiction writing class on his “Shipping Out” essay. My other favorites include “Consider the Lobster” and “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.”

    I’ve seen the I Write Like link before, but didn’t try it until just now. According to its algorithm, I write like Kurt Vonnegut. Granted, I put in what I feel is my best short story (written 12 years ago). I can see why that would be. Then I put in the draft of chapter 1 from my current project, and it said H. P. Lovecraft. Go figure. Another story likened me to Mark Twain. Then an essay written in the second person and I got the grandmaster himself David Foster Wallace.

    1. Interesting combination of … influences, shall we say? Or styles?
      Anyway, I am sure it’s not meant to be taken seriously…
      You are right, I think DFW’s essays are a better showcase for his talent than ‘Infinite Jest’. I will try other things he wrote – it hasn’t put me off him. I may even finish ‘IJ’ … some day… when I have plenty of time. And patience.

  8. I went to that website not long ago and was compared to Douglas Adams, Mark Twain, and Daniel DeFoe. Silliness. And I have no use for David Foster Wallace.

  9. Thanks for this site. I have it bookmarked now. I got three different results and got a big kick out of the last one–said my writing was similar to Douglas Adams who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

  10. James Wood’s article “Human, All Too Inhuman” ( criticizes Wallace and several other writers as, among other things, dispensing with standard literary concerns with plot and character development and replacing it with vague and indiscriminant “information.” He groups their massive encyclopedias together under the name hysterical realism. While my taste is somewhat broader than Wood’s narrow and conservative conception of literature I have a lot of sympathy for his criticism. Sure, we live in a world of paranoia, simulacrum, too much information and too little knowledge but if that is going to be served up to me as art I want a little artistry with it.

    1. Exactly! I know the world is fragmented, overwhelming, full of fake sympathy and superficial knowledge, but art needs to be better than that.
      Thank you for dropping by to read this post and for commenting.

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