In early 1996, Infinite Jest was finally released, almost a decade after David Foster Wallace's debut novel, The Broom of the System, hit stores when he was just twenty-four, establishing Wallace as one of the most innovative and bright literary minds of his generation among critics. Leading up to the release of his mammoth followup, Little, Brown marketed Infinite Jest as the premier literary event to end the 20th century, but no one could have predicted the reaction that the novel received upon its release. In his review for New York magazine, Walter Kirn called the novel "colossally disruptive," and stated that "next year's book awards have been decided." Remarkably, given the prominence of its publication venue, his review teetered on the line between immense praise and an obsessive fanboy's manifesto, clearly displaying the level of genius that was Infinite Jest. With the release of The End of the Tour, David Foster Wallace is a frequent talking point for journalists seven years after the writer's untimely death, and reviews have ranged from Oscar worthy to disdain given Wallace's own aversion to becoming a commercial entertainment parody. Yet, one recently published article uses the film's release to make a bold claim about David Foster Wallace's readers and in turn, David Foster Wallace himself.
Readers flocked in packs after reading Walter Kirn's review of Infinite Jest. They placed Wallace and his work on a cultural pedestal, and righty so, but almost two decades after its release, Molly Fischer, writing for the same publication that housed Kirn's review, has called out the very readers that listened to New York magazine's praise, the ones who agreed with the laudatory statements and considered Infinite Jest among the best novels of the last half of the 20th century. With a click bait title, "Why Literary Chauvinists Love David Foster Wallace," Fisher's article has obviously produced some waves.
She starts off with an anecdote of Wallace professing his disdain for the "Great American Narcissists," John Updike and Philip Roth. He was against the male chauvinism of these two literary giants with special dislike of Updike. In what seemed like a viable parallel, Fischer tangents off to declare the irony of Wallace's personal opinions by asking "How did poor David Foster Wallace go from dissecting the pretensions and shortcomings of mid-century men of letters to holding a central place in the pretensions of their heirs?" The word choice of "poor" is used mockingly and rather carelessly considering that it implies some sense of "woe is me" pity for a man who lost his life to clinical depression.
The essay becomes a narrow minded, stereotypical piece filled with brash opinions of Fischer's friends and herself. Reportedly, when Jason Segel purchased a copy of Infinite Jest to research his role, the woman at the counter stated "Every guy I've ever dated has an unread copy on his book shelf," proceeding to roll her eyes. Fischer declares Wallace as a "lit-bro," while her friend describes a male with a man-bun remarking that he would probably be one of the first guys in line for the movie. She says with authority that every "David Foster Wallace fanboy" has bothered a woman about it to the point that they themselves stop reading Wallace's big novel. Even more ridiculous, she points out how it is commonly included on the comically offensive list of "Books that Literally All White Men Own."
When talking with David Lipsky about the novel, Wallace noted that it was a "fairly male book," in response to Lipsky's remark about the novel's appeal. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with a male oriented book that young, intelligent men enjoy. No one complains about books aimed at young, intelligent females, and certainly does not refer to those sorts of readers as "literary chauvinists" because of their reading preferences.
Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. was an impressive novel that revolved around the perceived modern day male chauvinist. As a young male, I appreciated its irony and comedic undertones, and as I write this, it is displayed on my own bookshelf, as is Infinite Jest and every other book published by Wallace. My shelves are filled with breathtaking novels by many male and female writers. If I claimed that Zadie Smith's White Teeth, a large novel that is often compared to Wallace's magnum opus was my favorite novel, would Fischer declare "literary chauvinism"as well?
This is where Fischer fails in spectacular fashion. Using Waldman's novel as reference, she notes that the definition of literary masochism has transformed. Instead of the directness voiced by the likes of Updike and Roth, literary chauvinism is now "more agonized and subterranean. Status remains a battle between men, and proving you've got the biggest, hardest book is only slightly subtler than the alternative." Because Wallace wrote a large novel that was critically and commercially praised he was proving his literary dominance over other male writers? Hardly so given the wealth of knowledge available on Wallace. Besides his humble conversations with Lipsky and other interviewers, take Wallace's favorite books of all time:
- The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
- The Stand, by Stephen King
- Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris
- The Thin Red Line, by James Jones
- Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong
- The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris
- Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein
- Fuzz, by Ed McBain
- Alligator, by Shelley Katz
- The Sum of All Fears, by Tom Clancy
Thomas Harris, Stephen King, Robert A. Heinlein, Ed McBain and Tom Clancy hardly resemble a list of favorite novels by a writer who Fischer claims inspires "literary chauvinism." Even more interesting than the wealth of genre fiction is the Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, a book that helped spread second-wave feminism. He taught a course on literary analysis that included books by Mary Higgins Clark, Thomas Harris, Stephen King and Larry McMurtry to, of course, influence future "literary chauvinists"?
Fischer does remark that most male writers are threatened by David Foster Wallace, but not for the quality of his fiction, but because "His stature is bound up in masculine competition." Misinformed, she declares that Lipsky's comment about Wallace being a "strong writer" as a competition of strength between competitive men. As a critic talking about a writer, one would think that instead of stating that the phrase is something elementary school teachers say to young children, that she would research the term that was coined by legendary critic Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence. "Loves DFW" to many women according to Fischer means he "is one of those motherfuckers." The emphasis on those defines men who enjoy Infinite Jest as the new generation of "literary chauvinists," and implies that they are awful people because of it.
Fischer's essay is riddled with appalling stereotypes, declarative presumptions formed without a shred of factual details. There is nothing wrong with not liking the writing of David Foster Wallace, but placing all of his many fans in a bubble of "literary chauvinism" is an unjust and narrow minded approach to express said dislike. Criticism like this is frivolous, offensive, and disrespectful to not just his fans, but to David Foster Wallace himself. Zadie Smith is a strong writer. Nicole Krauss is a strong writer. Marisha Pessl is a strong writer. David Foster Wallace was a strong writer. Chauvinism is defined as an "excessive or prejudiced loyalty or support for one's own cause, group, or gender." "Why Literary Chauvinists Love David Foster Wallace" is a dubious example of chauvinism.