Questions on Respect: David Foster Wallace

It’s strange, my freshmen year of undergrad, I was interested in hanging out with writers but never actually put in the work to become one. I was an English major who didn’t enjoy reading and a “writer” who gained all his pleasure from talking about writing when in reality I couldn’t remember the last time I put something substantial on the page and gave no thought to word counts. I was sort of like Nick from New Girl when he says “writers don’t read, they write.”

Anyway, this was when I first heard about David Foster Wallace. It was 2010 and he was still the “it” writer for young white men with ironic tattoos on their forearms and who only smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. I remember the first time looking at Infinite Jest and just thinking “damn I should just sparknote that shit.”

But as years passed, and I actually did find a genuine love for reading and writing I still could not get into David Foster Wallace. I thought something had to be wrong with me. I mean all the “writers” I knew loved him. They quoted his work like it was the Bible (sort of the same way I quote King now lol). These were the guys who went on to get their MFAs or gave up on writing altogether because the world just wasn’t ready for their vision. These were the people I looked to, to tell me what was good writing and what was bad writing like it was all a multiple choice test and I was always circling the wrong answer.

At the time I had no idea we decide what good writing is, and that talent is all arbitrary and no matter how great we see our accomplishments it’s all inconsequential in the grand scheme of the universe; no planets will explode, or mountains will shift because someone decided to take a risk with syntax or dialect in a novel.

So I continued to think the problem was me. It had to be my taste.

Then, I decided just for fun, to get to know the man before I read his book. I watched his interviews on Youtube, I read articles of first-hand accounts, how people felt in his presence and this resonated with me. It was not some “Messiah of Middle Brow” as my high school English teacher recently called him in an email exchange.

It was a man, rather nervous with how the world perceived him (or at least he seemed to be) asking questions about our existence/purpose, then writing fiction around those questions. This was something I could definitely get on board with so I decided to give his masterpiece a real go.

And you know what happened!?

I still couldn’t finish it. I think I will one of these days but I only got 200 pages into it. This go around things were different though. I really wanted to love him. My idol Stephen King said this was the most important book since Catch-22 (which is a book I LOVE) and though I could see similarities I couldn’t get into it the same way I could Heller’s tale.

The difference this time though was I didn’t put the fault on myself. I didn’t put fault anywhere. Instead, I asked a question that is still bouncing around in my mind today and if you have an answer I invite you to share it with me.

Can you respect someone, without enjoying their work?

I feel a profound respect for Wallace’s impact. I know plenty of people see him as the greatest American novelist (at least the greatest contemporary), and I respect that. I respect his place in history, I respect his message, and I respect his writing. But how is that possible without enjoying it? Without ever finishing his masterpiece.

So ask you, have you had a similar experience? Is this possible? Or am I just being a little crazy?


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