Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

“David Foster Wallace a Hottie?”

by Patrick Stephenson,
emotionally disfigured howling fantod

WRITE ON RADIO // Not even acclaimed novelists are safe from criticism at Rate My Professors, a site where alum can bash—or praise—their profs according to criteria like Easiness, Clarity and Hotness (symbolized by a spicy red pepper; always an important quality). DFWThose in search of proof need look no farther than the ratings given to novelist David Foster Wallace, who’s taught at California’s highly ranked Pomona College since 2002. In 1996, a Newsday review of Wallace’s heavyweight, door-stop second novel, Infinite Jest, called reading his work “an exhilarating, breathtaking experience,” and in 1997, he received the MacArthur Genius Grant. However, that adulation hasn’t prevented Wallace’s Pomona students from calling him a “neurotic” who “just like to hear himself talk,” and awarding him an average score of 2.8/5, well below a passing grade. That’s a rare F on Wallace’s report card. (Way back when, he failed math, too.)

Concerning his classes, Wallace told Dave Eggers in a 2003 The Believer interview that “the formal duties are light, the students all have way better SAT scores than I did, and I get to do more or less what I want. I’m doing Intro Fiction right now, which is fun because it’s a chance to take kids who are very experienced in literary criticism and paper-writing and to show them there’s a totally—in some ways diametrically—different way to read and write.” Admittedly, only two reviews of Wallace’s professorial skills have been posted (so far), with around a year between their admission, but for Wallace’s stalker-fans, myself included, any tidbit about the life of the dog-owner/author behind the logorrhea is fascinating. Wallace’s non-fiction, in particular, is an invitation into his oscillant, detail-absorbent mind, and his work focuses on topics both high and low, albeit in a way that still astounds and that is accessible, funny and often profound. As a result, you want to meet him—or at least read about him in the same way that other people do about Julia Roberts and Ben Affleck—and to absorb second-hand or third-hand gossip about his life and then envy his future wife, even though you’re a heterosexual male (in my case).

However, Rate My Professor’s insights might be misleading. The first one, in particular, which appeared on the site in October 2003, seems formed from Wallace’s media persona. “[Wallace is] very particular about usage,” the poster writes, “[and] excellent at explaining concepts. Very neurotic and tends to chew tobacco and spit in a cup while lecturing. If you are a female, do NOT fall under his spell…he’s a heartbreaker.” The usage comment plays into expectations created by Wallace’s 2001 Harper’s article, “Tense Present,” wherein he probed “the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography,” and explained the definition of SNOOT, a self-applied term Wallace uses for “grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police.” In addition, Wallace’s affinity for chewing tobacco is a famed aspect of his personality. A 1997 Toronto Globe and Mail article included mention of his embarrassment about chewing during an interview: “’Hey, look over there,” Wallace suddenly points — a cheap dodge to draw attention away from another unpleasant gob of tobacco heading toward the teacup. He smirks, apologizes for his own discomfort…”

(Should I mention that, in that same year-old interview with Dave Eggers, which I assume took place sometime before November 2003, Wallace claimed he’d been off the chew for “a little over three months”? In effect, is it possible that the supposed student in question, if he/she was really in the middle of Pomona’s 2003 fall semester, would never have seen him chew?)

The “heartbreaker” comment at the end strengthens our trust in the post, because it reflects our own feelings about Wallace as readers. His style is unique, and, if we’ve read much of his work, we’ve been seduced by it (an 800-plus page book that devotes a hundred of those to footnotes requires some kind of seduction and commitment) and naturally want to believe the Wallace we know in print is the same as, or at least similar to, the one we’d know in person. Consequently, the post fools us into believing we’ve read something new about Wallace, even though it’s founded on information we already know about him, and confirms what we think, based upon his writing and what we’ve read about his writing, he might be like. Obviously, though, reflection after a first reading creates doubt, and doubt creates distrust and dismissal.

The second review on the site appeared last month, and uses the same techniques as the first. “I took this class because of Prof. Wallace’s reputation as an author,” the poster writes. “What a mistake! This guy just likes to hear himself talk, and he won’t shut up. He knows how to play the part of a enigmatic ‘genius’ all right.” Again, this comment accords too neatly with Wallace’s public persona. However, the assumptions it makes, if they aren’t really truths, seem derived from his work rather than interviews and articles. Most especially in Oblivion, a short story collection wherein Wallace examines characters with painful (emotional, physical) disfigurations, his narrators aren’t so likeable, and they always go on and on and on, sometimes in a jargon-filled, detail-stuffed way that intentionally suffocates a reader instead of inviting her in. Although we’d like to believe that Wallace is most similar to the likeable aspects of his writing, we fear he’ll be more similar to some of his characters—unbearable, wordy and pretentious bores, obsessed with medications.

No matter the accuracy of either interpretation, our, i.e. my, ability to deconstruct the website’s reviews of Wallace means we know way too much about his life. For that, we’re ashamed. Sadly, though, neither poster believes that David Foster Wallace is a hottie. Sorry, DFW, no peppers for you.

— P.S., for Write On Radio, October 2004

Written by patiomensch

February 28, 2007 at 7:14 pm

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