David Foster Wallace and the Ouroboros


David Foster Wallace, the celebrated author of “Infinite Jest,” would be bewildered by today's accusations that he is a great male narcissist. (Daniel Silliman/Creative Commons)

David Foster Wallace, the celebrated author of “Infinite Jest,” would be bewildered by today’s accusations that he is a great male narcissist. (Daniel Silliman/Creative Commons)

David Foster Wallace, the celebrated author of “Infinite Jest,” once opened a review of a John Updike book by calling Updike, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth the “Great Male Narcissists” of modern American literature. He referred to the three as solipsists, senescent, radically self-absorbed and generally disliked by women. If Wallace were alive today, he would be bewildered by accusations that he, too, is a great male narcissist.

This bewilderment would be rational. Wallace was active in the battle against misogyny. He penned a series of stories entitled “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” The men in these stories are supposedly ugly, but their physical appearance is not as repulsive as their emotional vapidity, disdain for women and sexual violence. Through these stories, Wallace attempted to illuminate the ways in which men unwittingly repel women through their desiccated personalities and rabid sexism.

This work, as well as Wallace’s opposition to “Great Male Narcissism,” his critique of the burgeoning porn industry “Big Red Son,” and the depressive disorder which ultimately took his life, ought to endear him to the far-left contingency of the literati. Like Mailer, Updike and Roth, Wallace will certainly continue to be read in the coming decades, but will also have his name sullied with accusations of misogyny.

The articles are not difficult to come by. A piece from Electricliterature.com excoriated Wallace for writing a book about misogyny and sexual assault (“Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”) while simultaneously committing the odious crime of being a “straight cis man”. A blog called The-Toast.net put “Infinite Jest” on a list of books that “Literally All White Men Own”. Though the article is a joke, its laziness and inclusion of renowned American classics like “The Great Gatsby,” not to mention the incorrect use of “literally” in the title, are regrettable. The Guardian has published several articles about Wallace’s sexism, including “Enough David Foster Wallace, Already!” and “Can Male Writers Avoid Misogyny?”   

In her essay for The New York Review of Books, contributor Elaine Blair stated that part of the “legacy” set by “Great Male Narcissists” such as Mailer, Roth and Updike involved writing relationships that were characterized by “successful seduction” but rarely with a female character superior to the male protagonist “in wit, brains, fineness of perception, or vitality”. While I am not very familiar with the oeuvres of Mailer or Updike, I can think of no leading lady in a Philip Roth novel that is not her lover’s superior in one or more of the specified ways. Drenka surpasses Mickey Sabbath in vitality, Eve Frame surpasses Ira Ringold in fineness of perception and Amy Bellette, Consuela Castillo, Lucy Nelson and Faunia Farley surpass their lovers in three or four categories. The accusation of sexism, by her own standard, does not stand for Philip Roth.

Most of the culture commentators who believe Wallace to be a misogynist do not believe it because he ever said or did anything misogynistic. They believe it because Wallace is white, well-educated and straight. In his article about the Great Male Narcissists, Wallace dismissed much of the work of three major American authors because they were, in his opinion, sexist. Maybe it is only fitting that the method Wallace used to sneeze at Roth, Mailer and Updike is the same method being employed against him by prominent culture critics. Think of the Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail. Wallace pioneered the now-omnipresent practice of writing fallacious reviews driven more by identity politics than literary spirit and succumbed to that same vicious practice after his death.  

Alex Klein is a campus correspondent for the Daily Campus and can be reached via email at alex.klein@uconn.edu

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