Ten Years Later: Remembering David Foster Wallace with Kindness in the Age of #MeToo

Steve Rhodes (CC BY 2.0) / Mark Riechers (TTBOOK)

In assembling a show on rethinking how readers should approach an author like David Foster Wallace, we’ve heard from many readers struggling to reconcile the depth and craft of his insight with his treatment of women. In this essay, Katie Paulson talks through her own thoughts on that dilemma.

Reading after #MeToo is exhausting. I want to read women writers; I want to read stories that destroy the stereotypes of femininity that I have internalized myself. I want to read for change, read in the hope that if enough of us prioritize stories by and about women, we can overthrow the current canon. But even as I have begun to think critically about who and what I read, I still can’t turn away from David Foster Wallace.

Wallace jumpstarted a literary revolution with his philosophizing, verbose novels, stories, and essays that reflect and critique the modern media- and entertainment-centered world. This month marks the tenth anniversary of his suicide, which followed a battle with depression that spanned most of his life. However, Wallace’s death has not left him immune to the cultural present of #MeToo. As accusations against many respected authors surfaced in the past year, acclaimed poet and essayist Mary Karr reminded us that the man who wrote Infinite Jest once stalked and abused her.

In May, after allegations against Dominican American novelist Junot Díaz arose, Karr took to Twitter to detail the abuses that Wallace biographer D. T. Max largely ignored:

Karr’s account of Wallace’s violence has not been disputed. In an interview with The Atlantic, Max recalled his surprise upon learning that Wallace once considered murdering Karr’s then-husband: “I didn’t know that David had that in him,” he said. “I was surprised, in general, with the intensity of violence in his personality.”

In his biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Max writes that Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest, was driven by his “dysfunctional yearning for Mary Karr.” Asked to clarify in an interview with The Atlantic, he explained:

He was trying to impress her. He really wants her to think he’s doing wonderful work, and I think when she, at various times, breaks up with him, he’s thrown into those negative spirals that can also be enormously productive for a person, a creative spiral of anger. Almost like something out of a Hollywood movie. There’s a note in one of my files where he says something like, “Infinite Jest was just a means to Mary Karr’s end, as it were.” A sexual pun.

In the years since Wallace’s death, his name has, in some circles, become synonymous with an outdated and dangerous hyper-masculinity. In an article in The Guardian, Erin Spampinato dubs Wallace “the patron saint of elevating male bullshit” and places him at the head of a canon of writers who have “repeatedly treated male sexual frustration as if it deserves pride of place among the great issues of Life.” Spampinato sees the “incel rebellion,” which gained prominence earlier this year when Alek Minassian drove a minivan through a Toronto crowd to take vengeance on women, as a product of a literary canon that celebrates work like Wallace’s.

Spampinato is not alone in her sentiments about Wallace. In 2015, New York Magazine referred to Wallace as having become “lit-bro shorthand.” This association is nothing new; it arose soon after Infinite Jest was first published and even Wallace himself recognized the particularly masculine nature of his fan base. In the movie The End of the Tour, Wallace, played by Jason Segal, noted, as Wallace did in real life, “What I’ve noticed at readings, is that the people who seem most enthusiastic and moved by [Infinite Jest] are young men. Which I guess I can understand — I think it’s a fairly male book, and I think it’s a fairly nerdy book.”

But despite the violence that Karr and Max noted in Wallace’s character and the chauvinist reputation that Wallace’s work has developed, his writing remains surprisingly tender. In his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” he declares, “Irony tyrannizes us.” Wallace echoed this statement in an interview with To The Best Of Our Knowledge in 2004. “A great deal of what passes for hip or cool is now highly, highly commercially driven,” he said. “And some of it, I think, is important art. I think The Simpsons is important art. On the other hand, it’s also, in my opinion, relentlessly corrosive to the soul and everything is parodied and everything is ridiculous.” We don’t have a framework for succeeding in a “world of smart, jaded, sophisticated people,” as Wallace put it, without making fun of everything. But Wallace wrote to start his own rebellion.

Infinite Jest, published three years after “E Unibus Pluram,” acts out the sincerity that Wallace called for in the 1993 essay. This style, known as New Sincerity, revolts against postmodernist irony and cynicism and deals earnestly with entertainment culture and addiction. Speaking with To The Best Of Our Knowledge in 1996, Wallace described the titular feature of his futuristic novel: a movie, called “Infinite Jest,” that is “lethally entertaining.” “Once someone’s watched it once, they have the spiritual energies of a moth and want to do nothing more than watch it again and again and again until they die of probably dehydration.” Wallace explained. “The book is meant to seem kind of surreal and outlandish at first and then in sort of a creepy way to seem not all that implausible.”

Behind its ingenious futuristic vision, its cerebral style, and the ocean of footnotes that threaten to drown each of its pages, Infinite Jest is a very real reflection on addiction, an issue with which Wallace personally struggled. He spent time in rehab for alcoholism and drug addiction, and Infinite Jest is filled with characters he met in halfway houses (albeit, often in an “unkind” way, according to Karr). Addiction has become an epidemic, Wallace said. “People in this country are lost and wandering around and looking to give themselves away to something that will maybe love them back as much as they love it.”

Wallace’s body of work radiates honesty and immediacy and, most of all, awareness. That was the topic of his celebrated 2004 commencement speech at Kenyon College, now an essay entitled This Is Water. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day,” he said to the graduating class.

Having just attended my own undergraduate commencement after four years studying literature, I find myself returning to this single sentence. As I head out into the wide world of reading for pleasure, I need to remember that reading, taking the time to hear someone else’s story, is a freedom to care. It’s a freedom that requires time and compassion and dedication — and maybe that’s why it has become so exhausting.

But as I read to break barriers, I also need to read for me. I need to read work that understands how energy-sapping this freedom can be. In the age of #MeToo, I turn to Wallace because even though he contributed to a culture of male violence, he recognizes the exhaustion that comes from a life inculcated with messaging. Whether this messaging comes from thirty-second television advertisements or from vitally important movements like #MeToo, it can tear you down if you’re not careful.

Ten years out, it’s a little dangerous to express outright praise of David Foster Wallace. Genius no longer protects from controversy. However, remembering Wallace solely through the lens of #MeToo fails to account for the sincerity and awareness and attention to the under-observed that’s the essence of his writing and also the essence of #MeToo. “He was the best listener I have ever met in my life,” Wallace’s younger sister, Amy Wallace-Havens, told To The Best Of Our Knowledge in 2009, and this description of Wallace’s character is just as visible in his work as Karr’s account of his chauvinist aggression.

Ten years after his death, we can see David Foster Wallace a little more clearly, a little more honestly, with a little more awareness of others who played a role in his story, and that might be exactly what he would’ve hoped of us.