Friday, July 23, 2010

A Back Road to DFW

Got paper?

I had never really thought about David Foster Wallace until some ridiculous writing analyzer (IWriteLike) told me to post on my blog "I write like David Foster Wallace." I thought that was kind of fun at first, but then I noticed that it also said Sarah Palin writes like H.P. Lovecraft. No way, unless that just means they're both xenophobes. Right then I knew it was just a crappy sentence length, punctuation count, word length sort of analyzer with no real stylistic connection to the writers it pretended to "know." Bummer. But despite the bummer, I suddenly wanted to find out about ole DFW. Maybe we at least had parentheses in common. I knew he is something of a humorist, writes in a "postmodern style" (whatever that means these days), and that he's a little bit greasy (and quite dead). But I'd never read him.

So on one of those Saturday nights at Barnes & Noble ("the bookstore where they have trains" as my son calls it), I found myself sitting in a miniature Adirondack chair by the kids' train table and picking through DFW's books of essays. Nothing sounded too interesting from the tables of contents, and glances inside revealed the "postmodern style" of excessive footnotes and disjointedness. I couldn't just jump into reading anything because he was all over the place. Finally, on one back cover, some reviewer mentioned that somewhere within the mess of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again was a single essay on literary criticism. I decided to find that one. I found it to be only five or six pages long with absolutely no intrusive footnotes, and decided that essay, "Greatly Exaggerated," was my way into David Foster Wallace. Whether it was a good way in or not, it was the perfect length for a train table visit! I'd be done reading before any tank engines started flying across the room and before my not-quite-kid-sized ass could become permanently molded to the kid-sized chair.

I was immediately taken in by conversational, semi-outsider writing on the now age-old problem of the death of the author. I immediately wanted to take notes -- I didn't want to buy the whole jumbly book for a six page essay in the middle! Having just cleaned out my purse (it had had about ten pounds of paper in it), I could find no paper to write on. A crumpled Kohl's receipt for "LADIES SUNGLASS" would have to do. So here's my first take on DFW, as transcribed from boy-distracted, boyish handwriting on this poor receipt, and without the text in front of me.

In the essay DFW reviews H.L. Hix's 1990s published dissertation entitled Morte d'Author: An Autopsy. DFW starts out by explaining Barthes' (and basically all the poststructuralists') idea of the death of the author in layman's terms. He also notes how even if he's explaining it clearly, forgetting about authors altogether probably seems pretty ridiculous to the average reader. As a sort of outsider DFW looks into academic criticism from a unique place. He is an English professor, but holds no Ph.D. He earned an M.F.A. for his real passion, his creative writing, and was only convinced to enter academia by an enthusiastic friend. In other words, he's reviewing a kind of thing he would never attempt (or want) to write (i.e. a dissertation).

There are a couple of things going on in the review -- DFW is not only reviewing this particular work of Hix's, but making commentary on the current style of academic writing in general. He enjoys Hix's book, and he is glad that someone is seeking to resuscitate the author, but he is put off by Hix's critical style and wonders why academic writing has to be so inaccessible and boring.

Not being a "hardcore theory weenie" himself, Wallace never quite believed what he read in the author's obit. He lays out Hix's basic premise and objections about the "death," and even suggests that the things Hix will do with deconstruction might be "wicked fun," but soon starts to tell the reader not to bother with Mort d'Author unless the reader is a self-proclaimed "theory jockey." For Wallace, what looked like it would be a whole lot of fun turns out to be not nearly as fun or interesting as Hix's introduction makes it sound. The dissertation is representative of an academic's "obsession with anality that's so common [...] an obsession with the jots and tittles of making excruciatingly clear what he's saying and where he's going." The book runs long for Wallace too, and he wishes some kind-hearted, less academic editor would have snipped away at the published version, to "delete gestures that seem directed at thesis committees rather than paying customers." I don't think the point here is that hint at economy, but rather at how the paying customer is likely to be a more average reader, and once you've defended your dissertation to those in the know, perhaps you should open yourself up a little if you want your work to be at all useful or interesting to students and fans of literature.

What Wallace says about the death problem itself is less important than what he's saying in the review. He is on the fence, leaning toward anti-death. Hix is anti-death, but exposes how the problem is much more complex than just author or no author. I enjoyed Wallace's coining of the "pro-death" (mostly European) and "anti-death" (mostly American) labels, and waited for him to sneak in an abortion reference which he did just once, calling someone's anti-death work a "sneaky pro-life apology." Then lines like "before we whip out the spade or the defib paddles..." put the "death" into perspective. This essay is less humorous than the others in the collection (it was originally printed in a Harvard journal, so it probably wasn't permitted to cause too many grins), but it does put the death of the author into understandable and semi-enjoyable terms for regular reading folk, and explores some of the complexities that Hix brings to the death conundrum, while using humor and lightness as a way to make it all less daunting. I can't say that I understand all the stuff about "Derrida by way of Wittgenstein" (maybe something even Wallace himself should have cut from the "paying customer" version), but I think Wallace is talking about Hix's ability to look at both sides of the death problem by bringing together continental and analytic philosophy to try to solve (or at least better illuminate) it.

I would recommend this essay to someone who has yet to get into the big poststructuralist claims, as a way to prepare one's self for what's to come (or perhaps a way to get frightened away from that stuff if it's not for you!). Wallace shows the seeming absurdity of the theories of the mid-century, but also shows the importance of such jarring theories to the legacy of literary study. Most importantly (for me), Wallace makes it okay to be pissed off by having to read dry, unfun criticism, whether you like what it's saying or not. His ultimate take on Mort is a positive review, but a rather backhanded one considering those paying customers who read this essay will likely steer clear of Mort d'Author and guys like Hix. And students like me who may or may not decide search Hix out, will certainly be more aware of keeping "excruciating" writing out of our own work.

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