Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Feminist Argument in Favor of Reading Infinite Jest

Some weeks ago, I read this article, and I got into a conversation with my friend Marissa about it. Marissa is one of my favorite people for too many reasons to list here, but here are two relevant to this post: she is an exuberant feminist and a beautiful reader. These things combine to make her spurn books by men in a way I admire. She can correct this memory if I've screwed it up, but I think it happened that she spent a year reading books only by women, and then when she finished the year and started a book by a man, it reminded her of all the crappy qualities of male writers and the reasons why she did the project in the first place. She metaphorically (or literally?) tossed it at the wall and went back to solely women writers.

(A number of other writers have done this year-long project. The article I remembered best about it was this one on (cringe) XOJane, but you can also find work about it on Flavorwire, Medium, and elsewhere. Some of the articles, like this one on the Post, even include helpful lists of women's books, because Lord knows no one can independently find women writers, hidden as they are behind vacuum cleaners and under changing tables.)

Marissa and I had a Facebook conversation about this article* on DFW, joined by other women who've experienced the same phenomenon of Men Recommending DFW. It got sort of philosophical, running to the question of why people recommend things to other people in the first place. How to distinguish between recommending as condescension and recommending as genuine interest and exchange?

The main question I wanted to ask was why not having read something must be linked to insecurity. I'm not trying to accuse the writer, but what I mean is -
I wanted to become the right kind of person: savvy, culturally literate, respected by the metropolitan elite that might assume by default the cultural illiteracy of someone from Virginia. For a long time, I’d respond to men’s Wallace recommendations with “he’s on my list,” or “I’ve been meaning to — totally.” And for a long time, I meant it. 
Why not just say "No, I haven't" without assuring the asker that you intend to? It might be because you want to keep the conversation moving smoothly, which is completely reasonable. But it reads to me as "Oh, yes, I recognize that he's Important and I fully intend to comply with society's expectation that I read him."
This is how you become the right kind of person: if you’re not in a position of power, identify your oppressors — well-intentioned, oblivious, or otherwise — and love their art. This is why it’s hard to distinguish my reaction to Wallace from my reaction to patriarchy. This insistence that I read his work feels like yet another insistence that The Thing That’s Good Is The Thing Men Like. 
Of course, I know female DFW fans. But when women have talked to me about Wallace, their commentary is usually “he’s funny,” or “I liked A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” It has never been “Go read Infinite Jest,” or “You haven’t read any of his work?” It should also be noted that, upon hearing about this essay, male Wallace fans have specifically listed women they know who like Wallace — as if this invalidates my disinterest somehow. 
So, okay. This is all fair and true and real. Coyle is right on the money when she talks about The Thing That's Good and the kind of person who generally tends to like/recommend DFW (white, male, pretentious, self-centered).** But I still don't understand why the answer isn't merely "No, I haven't read him." I mean, who cares? Why try to be the right kind of person? Why fall into resisting male insistence? No one wins that way. The resister looks passive-aggressive and the insister looks like a dick.

Moreover, why not reply with asking if the recommender has read Elena Ferrante? Or Zadie Smith? Or Clarice Lispector? Why is the response "Of course I'll correct this oversight" instead of "Hey, so there's literature in the world not written by men"? The latter might lead to an interesting conversation, or at least one where you get the measure of who's talking to you and why they're recommending DFW. Anyone who would say "You haven't read any of his work?" isn't particularly someone I want to talk to about books.

One of the main points of Coyle's article (as should be obvious from the quotes above) is the sense that gender divides contribute significantly to who recommends DFW.
The men in my life who love Wallace also love legions of stylistically similar male writers I’m not interested in (Pynchon, DeLillo, Barth). I began checking out of literary conversations with them altogether. Now, when getting into book discussions with a certain kind of man, I often say “I can’t read” as soon as possible. 
I genuinely love that answer. From now on, if someone says "You've never read any of his work?" about Philip Roth, I'll definitely say I can't read. But part of what I resist about Coyle's point of view is electing to shut down irritating DFW recommenders by...not reading his work. What I usually do with an annoyingly omnipresent writer is read his work, and then explain why I don't like him to people who ask. Knowledge is power, y'know, whether in the classroom or at a cocktail party. Being able to stand next to the most obnoxiously erudite person in the room and talk about DFW is, in my opinion, better than saying I can't read. If only slightly. 

As I wrote in that Facebook conversation: read Wallace and make up your own mind. Don't let DFW fanboys tell you what they think forever; tell them what you think.

Doing that requires you to read an awful lot,*** because the target for pretentious people is constantly shifting. But I think it's possible not to be forever saying "He's on my list," between a combination of reading a lot and not giving a damn about whether you've read this or that book. If you care about whether you've read it or not, read it. If you don't, don't. (I mean, why is this so hard that we write feminist essays about it?!) I won't let people talk down to me about books, because I've read a lot of them, and not having read a particular book probably means I've read a different one instead.

Plus, it turns out that a lot of people are faking their knowledge.**** The women in this Facebook conversation noted that most copies of Infinite Jest go unread by their purchasers; pretentious dudes don't often have the discipline to actually get through 1,000 pages of dense intellectual trickery. I, however, have read it. Which means I can keep up a conversation about DFW if you start one and I will know if you're pretending you've read it. Knowledge = power.

And look, I'm not saying Coyle should give in and read DFW like the patriarchy wants her to, but instead to choose reading him as the most powerful option. Don't let them teach you how to use a table saw, or (more accurately) talk to you about how useful the saw could be if only you could get your tiny woman-brain around the challenge of its operation. Read the manual and use it yourself.

Don't let them devalue your opinion, love. Read and speak some more.
Their ignorance shouldn't infect you.

Marissa pointed out that the way Men Recommending DFW see the person/woman they're recommending it to is as "an empty vessel waiting to be filled with male intellect". Ugh. Probably. So turn that around. Read more books than anyone in the room. Have an opinion. Don't let anyone make you feel small because you never got around to Jude the Obscure. Read Middlemarch instead and talk about Victorian realism vs. the waning influence of minimalism, and how since postmodernism we've strayed from the genuine novel form into a kind of extended short story, and how you can see this if you read Sophie's Choice against something like 11/22/63. Those ideas are free from me to you. Enjoy them.

The rest of this post is just extended footnotes, because of course it is.


*I'm annoyed that Coyle (or her editor) picked Brief Interviews with Hideous Men to read for the article, because I think it's the least intellectually interesting of his work I've read. He's so mean in it, so heartless, an empty center where the humanism of many of his other works goes. The title says it all: the book is a series of experiments in depravity, rather than in transcendence, which is how I see some of his other work. He's unkind in other stuff, too - the state fair essay, and the essay on porn - but I barely enjoyed Brief Interviews. I'd've picked "Mister Squishy" or just Oblivion to give you a real idea of him. But then I guess Brief Interviews is the most hostile and pretentious Wallace gets, which might be the Wallace fanboys like best. Yuck. 

**It bothers me so much that these are Wallace's strongest recommenders. It's like Richard Wagner: he'll never get the taint of Hitler off of him, even though his art has no meaningful connection with Nazism. 

It has become clear to me over time that everyone who loves Wallace loves him for completely different reasons. The people who are most vocal about loving him seem to love him for the worst reasons: because they think they're as smart as him (or they want to be); because they find his superiority towering instead of hollow, as he eventually did; and because he writes about the minefield of self-awareness, by which sensitive people both male and female, both wonderful and dreadful, are consumed. (The dreadful ones just talk about it a lot more.) I love him because of his excavation of that minefield, and because he likes words more than any writer I've ever read, and because he can write in approximately 6,874 modes, which is 6,873 more than most writers. Among other reasons. But the smart is much less interesting to me than the heart in his work. Fanboys seem to have it turned the other way. 

***I've written elsewhere about the benefits of omnivoracious reading: here, re: YA, and here, re: motivation for reading fancy books. I suspect I'll be writing about this topic in one way or another for the rest of my life. 

****I was COMPLETELY HORRIFIED by this Buzzfeed list and others like it. Why would you pretend to have read anything? It's just going to get you into trouble when people ask what you think! But it cuts both ways. People apparently lie about the books they've read all the time, so you've got the edge if you really do read them. (I've read 15 of those 22.) 

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