What Grieving People Wish You Knew by Nancy Guthrie, Free for CAPC Members
Nancy Guthrie’s overwhelming message in What Grieving People Wish You Knew is to enter into the awkwardness and difficulty of loving grieving people.
Deidre Coyle frames her review of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men very carefully. The first paragraph establishes the inescapably personal nature of her response: “For a while, I was seeing a guy who really liked David Foster Wallace. He once forced me to do cocaine by shoving it inside me during sex. He wasn’t the first man to recommend Wallace, but he’s the last whose suggestion I pretended to consider. So while I’ve never read a book by Wallace, I’m preemptively uninterested in your opinion about it.” The candid nature of these remarks is more than disarming; it effectively short-circuits any direct challenges to Coyle’s principled apathy. To argue that she should care about Wallace’s work, for instance, amounts to the callous suggestion that she somehow disassociate it from this traumatic incident in her life. It can’t be done; it shouldn’t be done.Being a loving fan means, among other things, respecting the fact that many people will consider some of the art I love to be not only offensive, but also personally harmful, and possibly traumatic.
The review is part of Electric Literature’s “Late to the Party” series, wherein contemporary writers are invited to review an “important” author they’ve not yet read. Given Coyle’s background and reservations regarding Wallace, the editor’s pick makes a certain amount of thematic sense. However, it also smacks of instigation. True, asking Coyle to tackle the mammoth-sized Infinite Jest would be a bit of a tall order. But it’s also difficult to overlook the fact that Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is arguably Wallace’s most thematically challenging and confrontational book. If Electric Literature wanted to push Coyle past her chilly nonchalance regarding his work, they certainly got their wish.
It’s undeniable that fans are frequently liabilities for artists. Most of us can easily name songwriters, authors, and directors whose work has been seriously compromised by the insufferable antics of their respective audiences. These fans play an integral role in shaping a subculture that surrounds a particular artist or work of art. Interestingly, the artist often exercises very little control over the subculture that’s spawned by their work. I’m fairly certain that the Star Wars subculture is in large part responsible for my wife’s resistance to all things sci-fi, and I know firsthand that the Harry Potter subculture is responsible for my disinclination to ever read a single entry in the series, or watch one of its many cinematic counterparts. As trivial as these examples may seem, they do illustrate just how difficult it can be to separate an artist from their fanbase.
A large part of the problem lies with a given fan’s enthusiasm. I think we can all admit that there’s a fine line between being an outspoken champion of a particular artist and being an obnoxious lout whose incorrigible enthusiasm becomes downright oppressive to the people around them. I ruin numerous movies when this tendency goes unchecked. I have it on good authority that David Lynch owes me no favors in this regard. Obliviously, my jabbering doesn’t impede the quality of his films. It does impede another person’s perception and subsequent reception of them because said jabbering drowns out some of the unique qualities that are best experienced firsthand. Naturally, a certain degree of this interference is unavoidable. After all, we can no more isolate a movie from the cacophony of human noise than we can view it with pure, disinterested contemplation, like some kind of extraterrestrial observer. However, these annoying moments do bring to mind the word from which fan is derived: fanatic.
Coyle’s assessment of Wallace’s fanbase is much more sobering: “What feels worse is having this man’s work recommended to you, over and over, by men who have talked over you, talked down to you, coerced you into certain things, physically forced you into others, and devalued your opinion in ways too subtle to be worth explaining in an essay (as in the interviews, where the hideous men are the only characters we hear from). Either these Wallace-recommending men don’t realize that they’re the hideous men in question, or they think self-awareness is the best anyone could expect from them.” As a male Wallace fan, I’m part of the very subculture Coyle is describing, so reading her article is a bit surreal, though, for the record, I don’t listen to the Mountain Goats, and I’ve never played a game of ultimate Frisbee in my life. I do, however, consider Brief Interviews with Hideous Men to be one of Wallace’s finest achievements.
Has Coyle persuaded me to reconsider Wallace and his troubling book? No, but she’s certainly opened my eyes to the fact that something as seemingly innocuous as a book recommendation is far from neutral, can in fact send a very condescending, invasive, and even hostile message, regardless of my intentions. Coyle has persuaded me to be more circumspect in my recommendations, to temper my enthusiasm, and to respect the fact that the interplay between a work of art and the circumstances of a person’s life is often exceedingly complex. In a word, Coyle has persuaded me to try and be a less hideous Wallace fan.
In some ways, “Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me” functions as a less formal iteration of Amy Hungerford’s principled opposition to reading and teaching Infinite Jest. In the article, Hungerford draws attention to the fact that the modern publishing industry has created an embarrassment of riches for today’s literary scholars. A phalanx of prolific reviewers (including “machine reading”) is not sufficient to handle the groundswell in literary activity. In this environment, discriminating reading is not so much a virtue as it is a necessity. Trying to stay abreast of all these contemporary voices is a recipe for frustration and failure.
According to Hungerford, today’s literary critics may come to be defined as much by what they don’t read as by what they choose to read. She concludes the article by offering a professional example: “My small act of countercultural scholarly agency has been to refuse to continue reading or assigning the work of David Foster Wallace. The machine of his celebrity masks, I have argued, the limited benefits of spending the time required to read his work. Our time is better spent elsewhere.” Infinite Jest is the specific text Hungerford has in mind. She justifies her premature evaluation in the following way: “I have read and taught some of his stories and nonfiction, have read some critical essays on Wallace’s work, and have read D. T. Max’s biography of Wallace — and [no longer feel] professionally obligated to spend a month reading Infinite Jest in order to be absolutely sure I’m right.”
Some Wallace scholars have said that they don’t really understand Hungerford’s argument here. That response makes sense to me because I can’t detect an argument. While it’s certainly possible to gain a general feel for an author’s voice by performing reconnaissance on their short stories and nonfiction, it doesn’t guarantee any sound conclusions regarding the work you haven’t read. The fact that Wallace’s name appears on both Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Infinite Jest doesn’t mean that the two are equivalent, or even necessarily similar. Your evaluation of the one doesn’t extend to the other. Obviously, Hungerford is perfectly within her rights to abstain from reading and teaching Wallace. But if she’s contending that her passing familiarity with odd bits of his oeuvre, as well as her reading of select critical pieces and D. T. Max’s biography is sufficient grounds for issuing a critical dismissal of Infinite Jest, I think she’s wrong. Then again, I’m sure as heck not going to recommend the book to people who share Hungerford’s sentiments. I care too much about Wallace’s work to risk ruining it for anyone else.
Which brings us back to Coyle. In her article, she characterizes the typical male Wallace reader as white, straight, and “cis.” I am all of those things, and I am currently writing a thesis on Wallace. Though it would seem that my culturally retrograde status is complete, I can actually complicate Coyle’s list by adding another descriptor: I’m a born-again Christian, and, as cheesy as it may sound—Wallace would’ve said “gooey”—I view Coyle’s article as an invitation to a very particular form of neighborly love, namely, a steadfast commitment to being a loving and considerate fan. Being a loving fan means, among other things, respecting the fact that many people will consider some of the art I love to be not only offensive, but also personally harmful, and possibly traumatic. In this context, effusive praise for an artist translates to a kind of backhanded scorn. Art is not neutral and neither is being a fan.
Ironically, Wallace taught me this lesson better than any minister ever did. One of Infinite Jest‘s many eccentric cast members offers the following thought in broken English: “Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, do they teach you it comes from the Latin for ‘temple’? It is meaning, literally, ‘worshiper at the temple.’” Consequently, choosing your temple is a matter of the utmost importance. Asked about prioritizing instinct over choice in the matter of what we love, this same character responds: “Then in such a case your temple is self and sentiment. Then in such an instant you are fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self’s sentiments; a citizen of nothing. You become a citizen of nothing. You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself.” Wallace would eventually shed the fictional mask, and express these ideas much more directly in his famous commencement address at Kenyon College.
We are all of us worshipers and hence fanatics. Speaking as a Christian, I’ll add that one of the major differences between a good fanatic and a bad fanatic has a lot to do with the selfishness that ensues when we worship anyone or anything less than Jesus Christ. If I hear some of the appalling details of Coyle’s story and still insist that she should care about Wallace, I think it’s pretty clear that I’ve so prioritized my own tastes and perspective that I’ve shut her out completely. In other words, my recommendation to her is really all about me. My love of Wallace becomes part of my identity and thus my praise for him is a kind of camouflaged self-disclosure, and what I’m actually doing is asking Coyle to affirm me by reading his work; I’m being a hideous fan. If I’m worshiping at the temple of Wallace, I’m still kneeling to myself.
Part of the reason I love Wallace’s work is that he has taught me about the importance of fanaticism, of worship. He’s also showed me the ugliness of worship at the “temple of self,” of being “a citizen of nothing.” For this reason, Coyle’s indifference is not a threat to me; it’s an invitation to be a better fan, a kinder neighbor, a more devoted follower of Christ.
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