Thursday, July 1, 2010

David Foster Wallace, Book Reviews, and the Need to Believe in One's Work

The review by Wyatt Mason of David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace in the July 5, 2010 (vol LVII, num. 12) issue of the New York Review of Books is interesting on many levels. What struck me, however, is Mason's discussion of some of the earlier reviews of Wallaces's books, reviews that disparaged Wallaces work as "not edited," "excessive," "self-indulgent," "gibberish," "nonsense," etc.

Though Mason generously accounts for how some of those reviewers might have come by their opinions (deadlines that required hurried reading, for example), what stands out, in light of how we're beginning to understand Wallace today, is how un-generous and shortsighted those reviews were. Could it have been otherwise? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps only in time do we come to fully appreciate, or re-evaluate, a writer's work. Perhaps something truly new, truly innovative, must inevitably endure ridicule and misunderstanding before the prevailing culture catches up with its genius. The Beats, Kerouac in particular, come to mind.

Of course, the object lesson here for aspiring writers, writers willing to chart new territory, to experiment with form, to break with tradition, is to believe in oneself and to disregard the tenor and substance of negative reviews. It's a daunting task to be sure, one that, in Kerouac's case, could not be achieved. It seems clear that, despite Wallace's suicide, his belief in his work never wavered. Though in interviews Wallace admitted to  doubts he had about his fiction, the work itself belies those admissions. The force of certainty pervades his novels, stories, and essays and while every writer is to be afforded his or her apprehension about their work, ultimately the work stands on its own.

In the case of the reviews that Mason cites, what comes through clearly are the peevish, harried, pedestrian minds of the reviewers. Genius comes to light slowly while banality is always plain to see.

1 comment:

  1. This is the necessary plight of a writer. It is the writer that pushes at the edges of current cultural/societal boundaries, creating distinct ripples and waves that make those living within the boundaries bristle at the sudden churning. It is the writer who possesses clairvoyant insight into the ills of the current system, who has the ability to clearly elucidate from beyond the fog of mass-ideology and instead from his/her own bodily-felt location. This is why writers - the excellent ones anyway - are always "ahead of their time". They see things that most people can't (or don't want) to see until they have safe enough distance to reflect many years later in hindsight.