Sunday, September 2, 2012

David Foster Wallace: "Empty Cleverness"?

Was David Foster Wallace "obsessed with empty cleverness"? Caille Millner, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, thinks so, as she wrote yesterday (9/1/12). She cannot understand the high regard Wallace is held in; for example, she tells us that the Guardian called him "the most gifted and original American novelist of his generation." Millner, in contrast, says he "represent[s] the worst of everything in contemporary literary fiction....His novels are long, plotless, obsessed with their own cleverness, and a cacophony of styles and voices minus character development." She also feels his popularity is gendered. She writes that "his audience isn't just an audience but practically a cult: a walking army of the kinds of upper-middle-class boys who collect vinyl records, all of whom speak of him...with three breathless letters...: D. F. W." She writes, further, that most people who read novels want plots and characters, rather than "slogging through 1,200-page novels whose chief purpose is to demonstrate the author's superb understanding of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein." All of this is strong stuff -- extremely critical, even harshly so. I tend to agree, but have mostly thought of my lack of interest in Wallace's work as my own preference. I have even wondered if not liking or even always understanding the little of Wallace's work I have read was my own shortcoming, my own limitation. (Not that I have ever stayed up nights worrying about this!). My main response to Millner's arguments is that I mostly agree, but on the other hand, any (iterary, at least) author that gets people to read has value, and I am glad that there is a variety of types of novels out there.

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