Why Literary Chauvinists Love David Foster Wallace

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Photo: Modern Man Films

Just a penis with a thesaurus”: so went the standard withering dismissal of John Updike that David Foster Wallace quoted in a 1997 review. Wallace was describing the scorn that readers his age felt for the mid-century writers he called “Great Male Narcissists” — Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, too, but John Updike in particular. Updike was the one who inspired real disdain; he was shorthand for literary male chauvinism, for all the hoary tomfoolery that might lead an enlightened reader of the '90s to roll her eyes. Wallace claimed to be something of an Updike fan (or, at least, not a total hater), but he was ultimately sympathetic to this attitude.

How strange, then, that Wallace, too, has become lit-bro shorthand. This occurred to me last week, after listening to a friend discuss the foibles of a bookish male acquaintance with a man-bun. “That guy,” she said. “I just feel like he’s first in line to see the David Foster Wallace movie.”

Her audience (female) laughed appreciatively. She was mining a familiar vein. For another example, take a story that Jason Segel — who plays Wallace in the new movie The End of the Tour — has trotted out in press appearances. He’d been preparing for the role by reading Wallace’s work, and he was picking up Infinite Jest at a bookstore. He put the book on the counter and the woman at the register rolled her eyes. “Infinite Jest,” he remembers her saying. “Every guy I’ve ever dated has an unread copy on his bookshelf.”

Make a passing reference to the “David Foster Wallace fanboy” and you can assume the reader knows whom you’re talking about; he’s the type who’s pestered at least one woman to the point that she quit reading Infinite Jest in public. Infinite Jest — a novel that appears high on the list of “Books That Literally All White Men Own.”

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?

First: It seems important to note that the guys in the Segel anecdote have not in fact read Infinite Jest. This is not about the writing itself, at least not primarily. Second: It is telling that Segel’s shop clerk is talking about men she once dated — men she was willing to hang out with, say, three to five times a week for three to five months apiece. In other words: They seemed like nice enough guys at the time.

The literary chauvinist, as we now imagine him, doesn’t go in for anything so blatant as calling your vagina a “sacred several-lipped gateway to the procreative darkness” (Updike) or stabbing his wife at a party (Mailer). Rather, he is the kind of man Adelle Waldman pinned in a specimen box with The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., her 2013 novel of contemporary romantic ethics. Waldman’s hero, a writer, is “a product of a postfeminist, 1980s childhood and politically correct, 1990s college education”; he has “learned all about male privilege.” He’s friends with women whom he respects intellectually — it would be dull and possibly shaming to surround himself with dumb women — and often chooses to date them, too, though intellectual respect is not an absolute requirement in that category. “If only, like those cock-swinging writers of the last century — Mailer, Roth, et al. — he could see the satisfaction of his desire as a triumph of the spirit,” he reflects wistfully. He knows he must officially disapprove. (The one unabashed misogynist in the novel is a lecherous buffoon who, crucially, enjoys little success with the ladies.)

What might attract such a guy to Wallace in particular? Here, The End of the Tour is illuminating.

The movie draws on the 1996 interviews that became David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and it finds Wallace bracing himself against the publicity that accompanied Infinite Jest. Lipsky, a writer a few years younger, has just published a slim autobiographical novel that no one cares about because they’re too busy having their minds blown by Wallace. Infinite Jest is huge, and promoted as such, attracting the kind of praise reserved for successors to Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow. Its irrefutable bigness is a dare. Half grudgingly, Lipsky picks up a copy and soon becomes an admirer, too. He persuades Rolling Stone to send him on Wallace’s book tour.

At this point, Wallace has already begun to amass a young-man following. The movie (and Wallace, in the actual interviews) accepts a certain degree of gender essentialism around taste. “The people who seem most enthusiastic and most moved by [Infinite Jest] are young men,” Wallace tells Lipsky. “I think it’s a fairly male book.” Perhaps to underscore the distinction, the movie follows this conversation onscreen with a scene in which Lipsky and Wallace go to the movies with two women. They debate what to see, and Wallace warns that Broken Arrow is a “dumb boy movie” (another line taken from the recordings); they go anyway, and lo, the girls hate it.

More important to understanding Wallace’s following, though, is the engine of competition that propels the movie. As Waldman suggests in Nathaniel P., the obsolescence of “cock-swinging” hasn’t ended literary machismo; it’s just made it 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.

Throughout the film, Lipsky’s watchful insecurity is urgent — who is he, if not a writer? What if he’s a writer but only an okay one? As he tries to untangle his envy and admiration, you’re never quite sure what he most wants to find: proof that Wallace is worth admiring unreservedly, or some flaw that will let him off the hook. Nor is the watchfulness wholly one-sided. Wallace is uneasy with Lipsky’s power to control his story, threatened when he thinks Lipsky is moving in on his grad-school ex. These are not the writerly ways in which Lipsky might wish to threaten Wallace, perhaps, but they’re still intimidating; they make the two men, at least in some sense, peers.

In The Folded Clock — a funny, formally inventive, stealthily ambitious book published earlier this year — Heidi Julavits recalls overhearing a conversation between two male writers, her friends. They’re talking about an absent third. “He’s not a threat,” one tells the other.

Julavits is startled. Would these men talk about her that way? Would they ever perceive her as “a threat”? Indeed, “has any female writer ever been considered a threat by a male one?”

On the other hand, has any male writer ever not felt threatened by David Foster Wallace? His stature is bound up in masculine competition, whether the rival in question is a temporary interloper like Lipsky or a longtime friend like Jonathan Franzen. (“I felt, Shit, this guy’s really done it,Franzen has said of reading Infinite Jest. “It was clear that it was not going to be appropriate of me to try to compete at the level of rhetoric and the level of formal invention that he had achieved.”) For these men, Wallace stands as a challenge to be confronted, just as the paperback brick of Infinite Jest stands as a challenge to the guy hauling it on the G train.

Near the end of the movie (and the book), Lipsky asks Wallace whether it isn’t reassuring to be recognized as “a strong writer.” The word choice is poignantly strange — who talks about being a “strong” writer? Fourth-grade teachers doing progress reports in language arts? But strength is indeed what he means, because what’s at stake here is being a man.

And this may be what drives some women to treat “loves DFW” as synonymous with “is one of those motherfuckers”: The sense that Wallace’s status depends on something in which their participation is tacitly not required, a clamoring among men for one another’s esteem.

Am I a threat?” Julavits asks her friend later. “I asked it in jest,” she writes, “but I was not kidding.” She presses him to use the same language he applied before; he dodges her with compliments of gentler sorts. She doesn’t get a satisfactory answer, and eventually, uncomfortably, they agree to stop talking about it.

But if his guard isn’t up, perhaps that’s his problem, not hers.