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Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
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Oct 12 Every Love Story...Max > Issues of Composition

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message 1: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sophia | 1323 comments Mod
Does Max do a good job at dramatizing how Wallace struggled with his writing?

And is Wallace redeemed by his gift for self-exposure, when he manages to turn his sexual boastfulness and self-doubt into interesting fiction?


Thing Two (thingtwo) Almost too good! I asked this on an earlier post, but why would anyone want to write - ever?!?! He was a gifted writer, a genius, and yet even HE suffered with self-doubt and was criticized - even by the likes of me - for his storytelling abilities. What chance to the rest of us have?

*throws pens in trash*


message 3: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sophia | 1323 comments Mod
I found myself less convinced by his genius after reading this book - at least in the storytelling department. Opinion was - and is - divided about whether or not he was a truly original thinker.

Do you think he did break new ground?


Thing Two (thingtwo) I've only read The Pale King and since I primarily listened to it on CD, I don't feel qualified to answer this, yet.

I do know he was one of the first to write what has been called "Hysterical Realism" which I tend to gravitate towards. And, he graduated the top of his class - or would have, I suppose - at Amherst. That speaks of genius material to me. I certainly cannot make that claim!


message 5: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sophia | 1323 comments Mod
Me neither!

Would he have come up with another genre? Was it likely?


message 6: by Will (new)

Will (wjmcomposer) As for this entire topic, I'm reminded of a friend of the family, a sometime art gallery owner, art professor, and of course, artist in a number of disciplines, and notably so. His answer to the question of whether something was good or bad was with a question: "How long do you want to look at it?" If you kept staring at it, and wanted to look at it a lot, then it's good. If you really disliked looking at it, or it just didn't capture your eye, then it was bad. This is of course a very subjective measure. But it works, and is completely correct.

You can pick apart his books, you can say he's not original, drawn almost entirely from his own life, doesn't break enough new ground, etc etc...

And yet we're reading him, reading books ABOUT him, and talking about him. Flower arrangers don't create flowers from dust, either. Sometimes the arrangement of materials IS the art. Not always, but sometimes.

And reading a book written by someone you've known well is endlessly creepy, because ALL authors draw tons and tons of things directly from their (and YOUR) lives. You read and think, 'Wait! That was us that time when we saw that guy in that place!'

I think one's class placement at Amherst is probably not meaningful either in skill or career prospects.

And a writer (or any artist) creates their art because they HAVE to, not because it's popular or fun. Sometimes it is. Usually it's a terrible drag. There's an old saying, "Everybody thinks they can write a book...except writers." Self-doubt is part and parcel of it for everyone. But that's the definition of courage, not that you don't feel the fear, but that you do what needs doing even though you feel nearly paralyzed by it. I often taught that you knew what you were doing was useful because it was terrifying.


message 7: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sophia | 1323 comments Mod
So, Wallace was terrified. And then what? He was paralysed by his work. It killed him.

Was this a price worth paying?


Thing Two (thingtwo) Sophia wrote: "So, Wallace was terrified. And then what? He was paralysed by his work. It killed him.

Was this a price worth paying?"


I don't believe not writing was an option for him. But I also don't believe it had anything to do with his chemical imbalance. He would've been just as "crazy" being a plumber, or an attorney, or an enlisted serviceman, IMHO. I don't believe his work paralyzed him as much as the inherited genetic cocktail screwed with his sense of reality.


message 9: by Will (new)

Will (wjmcomposer) Thing Two wrote: "I don't believe not writing was an option for him. But I But I also don't believe it had anything to do with his chemical imbalance. He would've been just as "crazy" being a plumber, or an attorney, or an enlisted serviceman, IMHO. I don't believe his work paralyzed him as much as the inherited genetic cocktail screwed with his sense of reality. "

I quoted the entire post, because I could not possibly agree with it more than I do.

All evidence points (I say this based upon the dozen or more interviews and articles with firsthand accounts) to his illness detracting and distracting from his work. Both his father and wife have said that he wasn't writing when depressed. So I would say that NOT writing wasn't an option, and he would have been an imbalanced plumber, as Thing Two said so clearly.

To take another route though, about the "was this a price worth paying" part: Let's say he was either a completely unknown writer, never published, and killed himself. Or, an insurance salesman instead, who didn't. Either case, nothing was left behind, really. Sure, maybe family, children, or some random inspirational moment that changed a kids life, or they pulled the next president of a country out of the way of a runaway taxi. These rare events are certainly important, but difficult to quantify in their absence, and I think so much so as to not be a factor into our thoughts here because, quite frankly, most people utterly fail to impact their world much.

Wallace did. You can hate him like one famous author so publicly has recently, but you'd have to lie to not admit that there are a vast number of readers who feel their lives enriched by his writing. He effected his world with his work. I believe strongly that his depression actually hurt his work, and took from us not only the novels he might have lived to write later, but possibly even a novel or two during his life. And if I'm wrong in that, and the depression was the motivator in his writing (I cannot begin to express how much I disagree with that, based upon my OWN career, the career of people I know personally, and those I only know OF)...even if that IS the case, then YES the price was worth it. I'm sorry, it's not fair to his family or friends at all, but it that's the price (it's not) then it's worth it from the viewpoint of humanity, of living creatures. We forget often times to look at anything from the bigger viewpoint, it's become quite unpopular in this age. I think people need to do more of it.


message 10: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sophia | 1323 comments Mod
I agree; I very much doubt that depression was what fuelled Wallace's writing, although I do have my doubts that suicide was a price worth paying. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, no matter how great a writer.

I know a lot more about Virginia Woolfe's writing (which I greatly admire) than I do Wallace’s; but I'd happily forgo ALL her work if it meant she’d lived a more balanced and contented life. (But, I wonder if she would?) Would Wallace?

In the case of Woolfe it would have changed the literary map considerably, although someone else would have picked up the baton, surely. Can we say that Wallace's contribution was unique/irreplaceable even from this distance?


message 11: by Will (new)

Will (wjmcomposer) That's a fascinating question! I just don't know. I even can't decide if we'll know in another decade or not.

I'm positive that millions of people would be the lesser for not having V.W. though. And multiply that by another thousand for the works other authors wouldn't have produced. I just don't think it's an either/or. And from the viewpoint of humanity, it's still worth it. We can always ignore the viewpoint of humanity, and the fact that we do so and continue to think "locally" is probably why we haven't solved energy issue, or live in a utopian paradise where oh, by the way, we might have solved this sort of mental problem, since basic research divorced from commercial exploitation would be a major effort of that society. Forward O Pioneers of Man!


message 12: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sophia | 1323 comments Mod
You most definitely have a point about local/global thinking when it comes to the energy issue!

When - and how do - people enter the canon? If Wallace is considered to have written something ground-breaking then I sincerely hope he'll be in there. But didn't Pychon do it before him - to name but one? What does make Wallace special/unique?


message 13: by Will (new)

Will (wjmcomposer) I take your point and agree with it, but it might be impossible to quantify. I think it really doesn't matter where you enter the cannon though. Really does teaching science depend on teaching the history of science? That's a debate they've been having for nearly a century now. Same with art, does understanding realism make understanding impressionism, and thus german expressionism then dadaism, abstract expressionism and such really effect a child's ability to enjoy Monet? Or to make that question REALLY hard, what about Rothko? I know at 12 I had ZERO interest in Rothko, yet in April I saw some original Roktho whilst visiting L.A. and was quite moved. As a child studying, I really didn't like the music of Mahler, but now not only is it beloved by me, but I consider him a personal hero. Some things are acquired tastes, and it might be the reader/listener/viewer/taster that is changing that makes the difference, but what exactly IS that change? Is it mostly the somewhat undefinable that occurs with age, or is it through experience? Obviously there's a little of both, but is there one more than the others? I think we'll never be able to answer that question to anyone's satisfaction, and failing such, perhaps people should just be encouraged to experiment and bounce around the spectrum finding what they love.


message 14: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sophia | 1323 comments Mod
Yes, many things are an acquired taste. As to the changes that occur - I liken them to a broadening as we encounter connections.

Meanwhile, back at the reading coal-face I've just started reading 'Infinite Jest' and have to say that reading this biography has really enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I say that, because I had no problems at all with 'The Pale King' (engaged with it immediately); but I feel a lot less enthusiastic about 'Infinite Jest'. If I'd not read something about Wallace - such that I have some idea of what he was trying to do - I'd have found ‘Infinite Jest’ even more laboured than I do already (!).

I can’t help but wonder, though, if it would have been a more honest move (on my part) to approach his work knowing nothing about his background, aims, etc. Do you think it's ever possible to tackle a text in an entirely innocent way? Or has our world become so media-soaked that this is just a dream?


message 15: by Jason (last edited Oct 29, 2012 05:13AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jason Baldwin-Stephens | 131 comments (First off, my apologies for being so absent from the discussion this month.)

I do think it's possible to approach something like Infinite Jest in an entirely innocent way I just think it happens to be a lot harder to do these days because one has to consciously decide not to do something as simple as go to Wikipedia just to read a basic bio on the author/work that you're about to digest.

I think in the case of Wallace though, the question is should you approach his work in an entirely innocent way? Wallace, I feel, is much like Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce, and Kerouac in that understanding the individual is the key to unlocking their work.

Hemingway is the author I most often think of when this topic is brought up. In high school I read Old Man and Sea, Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls and my teachers did not bother teaching me anything about the man or existentialism so while I sort of enjoyed the novels I, for the most part, just found them to be very depressing pieces of work.

Fast forward many years to a college course I took on Hemingway and the first few weeks were spent on reading a biography on Hemingway and lessons in existentialism. That right there was the key for me that opened to the door to recognizing his work, especially Old Man and the Sea, for the genius that it is.


message 16: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sophia | 1323 comments Mod
Jason wrote: "Wallace, I feel, is much like Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce, and Kerouac in that understanding the individual is the key to unlocking their work."

I think you're right, although I did enjoy Hemingway without needing to know the background; equally Joyce. But to know something (a LOT, actually) about Woolf enhanced my appreciation enormously.

So, was Wallace a genius?


message 17: by Will (new)

Will (wjmcomposer) I believe you're both right as well, except I think it terribly important to do all this backwards.

I've gotten in the habit, espially where I'm going to lead a discussion, of reading the book cold, then researching the author at great detail. Interviews on that and previous (and later if available) works, wikipedia, their own website, professional reviews, everything. It's almost the same sensation of reading the book twice, and very enjoyable. After a while, you read the book and begin to file away all these questions you know you're going to ask yourself about it, knowing that you'll embark on detective work as soon as the last page is read. I find that doing this, and in this order, adds immensely to my enjoyment AND my understanding, and also avoids the trap of coming into a book with preconceived ideas and notions. Of course if you're already familiar with an author, this is somewhat impossible.

And yes, as of little value the term is probably to us, I'd suggest Wallace was a genius. However it's still not a term I place much stock into, other than it's value as a conversational hyperbole. Speaking of which, this chicken I'm eating is life-changing, and today's weather is the best


message 18: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sophia | 1323 comments Mod
I like what you say about doing it all backwards. Save there are exceptions. I didn't like Woolf's work - at all - when I first read it, although I'd long been fascinated by her life and read a lot of biographies. It was only when I'd done the lit. crit. research that I was able to go back and appreciate how and why she wrote what she did. And because I was under no obligation to read her books again it was only my overwhelming interest in her, as a person, that made me do the work.

I'll let you know if I think Wallace is a genius when I've finished 'Infinite Jest'. Right now I'm thinking 'ingenious', but…


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