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Everything and More

Laura Miller
"The creeping prevalence of the view of literature as a message-delivery system."
05/14/10 at 17:28

It's my fondest wish to someday deliver a book-club post from a particle accelerator! I envy you, Jason.

I'm ambivalent about the "self-help" aspect to the burgeoning Wallace cult. Wisdom is one of the things we hope for from literature, of course, and since Wallace was, I think, a writer primarily concerned with moral issues, it makes perfect sense to look to him for guidance. I have to confess that several things he said to me during my own conversation with him—about clichés, about lying, and about the way that wronging others also wrongs ourselves—did have a significant effect on me in this department.

What I reflexively want to push back against is the creeping prevalence of the view of literature as a message-delivery system. I've heard many people say lately that they don't read fiction anymore because they'd rather get the material in a more forthright and straightforward manner—whether it's David Shields touting the memoir as more authentic than the novel or just regular readers who tell me that they prefer to read nonfiction because they can learn, or at least get real information from it. I asked the last guy who told me this about his vast collection of music and what useful information he got out of that, but he looked at me as if I were nuts. The understanding that fiction, like music, communicates an experience, not a lesson, seems to be atrophying.

On the other hand, I'm exactly the sort of critic who contributes to this mentality, since it's this aspect of a book I most like to write about. And Wallace is catnip to critics like me because there are so many ideas there, and they're so integrated into his formal choices. (I also suspect that this is the reason a primarily aesthetic critic like James Wood took so long to come around to appreciating DFW.) But it's a slippery slope, and I wince whenever I hear people (it's usually left-brainish types or modern-day Puritans) explaining the merits of any literary work in terms of the lessons it conveys.

A few more thoughts on the context of the publication of Infinite Jest: The Lipsky book gives the impression that the novel was universally embraced, but that is not my memory. I vividly recall a lukewarm Publishers Weekly forecast! But, more important, at the time several interns at Salon told me that the interview had laid to rest their wariness about DFW. They were very suspicious of someone being sold to them as a generational spokesman/next big thing. This was at the tail end of a series of books—Bright Lights, Big City; Generation X—that were publicized in this way, and even when some readers embraced those books, many others objected to them on the grounds that they weren't representative of their own lives. Think about it: Today it would be inconceivable that Little, Brown, The New York Times Magazine, and Sunday book-review sections in metro dailies would take it upon themselves, in concert, to tell young people who their important writers are. They'd be mercilessly ridiculed for it.

One final curiosity that struck me is the degree to which public conversations about drug use and abuse have changed. Until I read Although ... , I'd entirely forgotten how much followers of countercultural arts figures would fixate on whether Pynchon or whoever had taken drugs. Public figures, for the most part, just didn't talk about this aspect of their pasts; it was a private and often shameful secret. And because famous people refused to discuss it, it became the focus of intense curiosity, especially from fans who used drugs themselves and wanted validation about that from their idols.

Now it's almost routine for a creative figure to admit to a period of substance abuse and recovery in the past. DFW was exceptionally vigilant about his privacy, but if the interview were taking place today, I wonder if either (1) it would be much easier for DFW to admit that he was the guy in the halfway house, or (2) Lipsky wouldn't be a lot less interested in establishing exactly how much of the substance-abuse material in Infinite Jest was autobiographical.

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