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August 20, 2006 11:01 AM   Subscribe

Federer as Religious Experience by David Foster Wallace.
posted by The Jesse Helms (93 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
so, basically this is Infinite Jest again except real short instead of 1,000 pages of drivel.

one trick pony.
posted by wbm$tr at 11:06 AM on August 20, 2006


ain't federer that guy who's married to britney?
posted by quonsar at 11:12 AM on August 20, 2006


Can somebody please post a interesting or insightful comment so Ican test the fave feature and haven't a chance to use it lately.
posted by srboisvert at 11:17 AM on August 20, 2006


so, basically this is Infinite Jest again except real short instead of 1,000 pages of drivel.

one trick pony.
posted by wbm$tr at 11:06 AM PST on August 20


You managed to come to MetaFilter, read five pages, come back and post, all within five minutes? That's pretty impressive. Almost as impressive as calling someone with two wildly different novels, dozens of wildly different short stories, two collections of essays, and a non-fiction book on rap a "one-trick pony."

Let's check out your brilliant prose: Meanwhile, Boston’s pitching staff is being methodically exposed. And in the vein of the Mike Mussina heist, it’s becoming obviouser and obviouser that Boston’s offseason loss of Johnny Damon was devastating for the Sawx. And the Arroyo trade, which came down after pbdot’s annual baseball preview, was the dumbest thing to come out of Fenway since ‘Cowboy Up.’ OK so I liked ‘Cowboy Up,’ it’s true. I, however, am I lover of things stupid. The dumber the better.

I guess that answers the question well enough.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:18 AM on August 20, 2006 [5 favorites]


Can somebody please post a interesting or insightful comment so Ican test the fave feature and haven't a chance to use it lately.

Despite appearances I am not having a stroke. Do not call 999.
posted by srboisvert at 11:20 AM on August 20, 2006


If you want to snipe at DFW, at least do so with some grace and accuracy.

This article is much more in the spirit of his essay "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness."

And, frankly, if you're looking to be snippy, that title is a good starting point.
posted by rachelpapers at 11:22 AM on August 20, 2006


Wallace was on Weekend Edition yesterday, talking about this article. I find him every bit as annoying on the radio as he is in print, but I suppose that those of you who disagree with me might enjoy the interview.
posted by .kobayashi. at 11:24 AM on August 20, 2006


And all just in time for a kid from my neck of the woods to thrash the Fed in straight sets. Yeehaw!
posted by imperium at 11:45 AM on August 20, 2006


And incidentally, thanks for the post. I'm not a huge tennis fan, but the analysis and background in this long article went down very well here.
posted by imperium at 11:56 AM on August 20, 2006


Let's check out your brilliant prose: Meanwhile, Boston’s pitching staff is being methodically exposed. And in the vein of the Mike Mussina heist, it’s becoming obviouser and obviouser that Boston’s offseason loss of Johnny Damon was devastating for the Sawx. And the Arroyo trade, which came down after pbdot’s annual baseball preview, was the dumbest thing to come out of Fenway since ‘Cowboy Up.’ OK so I liked ‘Cowboy Up,’ it’s true. I, however, am I lover of things stupid. The dumber the better.

... and he knows nothing about baseball. 13-5, yep damon would have helped with that.
posted by justgary at 12:20 PM on August 20, 2006


There’s a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes, one with the distinctive butterfly shape of today’s power-baseline game, Federer and Agassi yanking each other from side to side, each trying to set up the baseline winner...until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (=left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer’s scrambling to reverse and get back to center, Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does — Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centerline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot in to the net at an angle from the backhand side...and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner — Federer’s still dancing backward as it lands.
Yes kids that is a single sentence. This sort of thing is why I found Infinite Jest unreadable.
posted by localroger at 12:28 PM on August 20, 2006


So is it OK for me to enjoy the article or not? I'd really like to know what I should think of it before I read it.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 12:29 PM on August 20, 2006


Yes kids that is a single sentence. This sort of thing is why I found Infinite Jest unreadable.
posted by localroger at 12:28 PM PST on August 20


Good lord. It's a perfectly fine sentence. Think about the speed of tennis, the complexity of the ball's motion, and the contortions and footwork of world-class tennis guys mid-match. Now describe and explain five seconds of your typical world-class tennis match and post it here for a critique.

Go on.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:47 PM on August 20, 2006


Wow. Dick move. Somebody's got an uncontrollable crush on DFW.
posted by eyeballkid at 12:54 PM on August 20, 2006


"Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" is possibly my favorite piece of sportswriting ever. This week's piece is not quite up to that standard, but I'm always happy to have a new chunk of DFW. I think at this stage he may have become too much in demand as a feature writer -- a sentence like this piece's "Ultimately, these tics are helpful because they serve as reminders of how appallingly young he really is" would not have made it through the editing process of a novel -- "ultimately" isn't doing much work and "appallingly" is much too thoughtless and easy a joke. But when writing on deadline for a news magazine, such things creep in -- or, better, they are not sliced out. Seriously, everybody, read the older essays (like Michael Joyce, or "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again") or the fiction. Broom of the System is a lot smaller than Infinite Jest and makes the case for DFW's prose just as well.
posted by escabeche at 12:58 PM on August 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I think he's one of our best living writers. So when some no-talent ESL motherfucker decides to shit on a fine article without reading it, I get a little upset. It's okay to not like Wallace. I don't care. But at least do the man the favor of reading his work before taking issue with his entire catalog.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:59 PM on August 20, 2006


Well, I enjoy Mr. Wallace's writing, and this article. I like reading essays by people talented at putting words together write about non-literary subjects like tennis and especially Neal Stephenson's In the Beginning There Was the Command Line.

I have two questions: DFW wrote an article for Esquire about ten years ago where he profiled the 100th ranked player on the ATP tour. I've tried to find the text online and haven't been successful. If somebody could point me to a copy I'd be greatful.

Second, have any mefites had DFW as a professor? How was he in the classroom.
posted by MarvinTheCat at 1:01 PM on August 20, 2006


Reminds me of John McPhee's play-by-play retelling of the match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner in Levels of the Game.
posted by It ain't over yet at 1:03 PM on August 20, 2006


MarvinTheCat, that is the essay with the long title, I'm nearly certain, the one about Michael Joyce. It's in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'd Never Do Again, which is worth picking up for the other essays to.
posted by furiousthought at 1:11 PM on August 20, 2006


What an unexpected amount of bile in this thread. I can't claim to have had any opinion (positive or negative) about this Wallace guy, but while reading the article I was thinking, "Wow, this guy's really excited about tennis. And you know, he's kinda making me excited about tennis too."

To me, that's good sports writing.
posted by Galvatron at 1:11 PM on August 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


From the tennis geek's perspective, I think DFW does a great job of expressing his love for the game and deep appreciation for Fed's talent and abilities. I am never one who responds well to excessive hype and praise but I never tire of hearing the same for Fed. Roger Federer is a paragon of sport.

And given how many times I exclaim, "Oh my god," while watching him play, calling it a religious experience is apt.

Some points I liked from the essay:

Roger Federer is now dominating the largest, strongest, fittest, best-trained and -coached field of male pros who’ve ever existed

Roger Federer is a first-rate, kick-ass power-baseliner. It’s just that that’s not all he is. There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace — all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.
posted by effwerd at 1:13 PM on August 20, 2006


God dammit. I never do that. I am shamed.
posted by furiousthought at 1:13 PM on August 20, 2006


Yes kids that is a single sentence. This sort of thing is why I found Infinite Jest unreadable.

Funny, because I read that sentance and marvelled that a: it's grammtically perfect, and b: the sentence's grammer and structure are doing what the sentence is describing. One example: everything in the sentence after "one" is a long dependent clause which contains a series of yet more dependent clauses, each connected by either a comma or an "and", so that none of the secondary dependent clauses is given less emphasis in terms of structure than any other, but instead seem as if they're part of a give and take which is also a progression or, as a tennis player might describe it, an exchange of groundstrokes. At the end of this, Wallce describes Fedarer still walking backwards using what would be an independent clause if not connected to the end of the rhetorical volley by the emdash. The only other syntactic unit that self-contained is the sentence's beginning, so that, in effect, structurally, the sentene has gone backward.

Most writers don't even bother with that sort of thing any more.
posted by eustacescrubb at 1:17 PM on August 20, 2006 [2 favorites]


It was a long volley. That was a long sentence.
posted by riotgrrl69 at 1:22 PM on August 20, 2006


Funny, because I read that sentance and marvelled...

Some people just don't like long sentences. IMO, if you can pull them off, they can be a fantastically effective tool. Especially when changed up with short ones.

All that having been said, this essay is a great example of the effect of screen display on readability. That long paragraph (containing that long sentence) is just plain tiring; yet, as I read through it again and audibilize it in my head, I can see that it would be fine in print.
posted by lodurr at 1:30 PM on August 20, 2006


Yes kids that is a single sentence. This sort of thing is why I found Infinite Jest unreadable.

Pish. You just have to learn to take breaks now and then—stop at the third subordinate clause, have a cup of tea, pick up where you left off. You don't have to take it at a dead sprint.
posted by cortex at 1:47 PM on August 20, 2006


Metafilter: If I don't like something, it must suck.
posted by callmejay at 1:55 PM on August 20, 2006


Galvatron, Infinite Jest did that same excitement-inducing thing for me, too. Only about freebasing, not tennis.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:09 PM on August 20, 2006


To get off DFW* for a moment...

I don't really follow tennis very much, but I do recall now and then hearing commentators bemoan the end of the game's evolution. Which I find to be a strange idea.

Money is a powerful influence on natural selection. The more money is at stake (speaking loosely), the bigger and faster the competitors will be. (Doesn't hold, obviously, for sports where size doesn't matter.)

Consider basketball. In Chamberlain's day, if a player was 6'6", htat was pretty good. Now he's short. And if he was very tall, he was most likely kind of spindly. Now we've got Shaq. (What's he weigh -- 330? 340?)

Consider football. The massively huge linemen can run as fast (for 40 yards) as the wide receivers.

That all happens because there's enough money to attract a large enough field of comers that you eventually get someone who's not justfast, not jus big, but big, fast, and smart in the bargain. (Us non-jocks should remember: Pro athletes tend to have well above-average IQs.)

So I find it odd when DFW and others find it odd when someone like Federer comes along: Someone who can play the power game but also is a master of the subleties. Somebody who's not just powerful, not just fast, but powerful and fast and smart. Really, it's exactly what I expect. It's natural selection in action, with money as the driver.

--
*Do people really call him that? I mean, it makes him sound like an airport.

posted by lodurr at 2:13 PM on August 20, 2006


The last link is good too, a free 50-minute audio-reading of the Lobster story.
posted by stbalbach at 2:15 PM on August 20, 2006


Without singling people out: those of you who don't like Foster Wallace's prose are entitled to your opinions, but your distaste points strongly to your inability to recognize superb rhetorical styling and unambiguous linguistic mastery. Foster Wallace's prose is complex, direct, funny, challenging, and fulfilling. It is also many other things: infuriating, difficult, and pretentious.

If those of you whining about the length|difficulty|challenge|dullness of the long sentence oft-referenced above would take a minute to read the article, you would either recognize the piece is characteristically brilliant or would continue to be gypped by your remedial reading capacities.
posted by mistersquid at 2:17 PM on August 20, 2006


Good lord. It's a perfectly fine sentence.

Maybe, but I'm pretty sure my highschool english teachers would have thrown a fit. It has 15 commas, not two mention two elipsies and two emdashes...
posted by delmoi at 2:29 PM on August 20, 2006


Without singling people out: those of you who think that the world is divided into geniuses who appreciate David Foster Wallace's prose and slack-witted remedial dullards need to review your logical fallacies. This is a false dilemma. One can reasonably be put off by DFW's preciousness without misunderstanding him.
posted by .kobayashi. at 2:32 PM on August 20, 2006


Consider basketball. In Chamberlain's day, if a player was 6'6", htat was pretty good. Now he's short. And if he was very tall, he was most likely kind of spindly. Now we've got Shaq. (What's he weigh -- 330? 340?)

Do they drug test in the NBA?
posted by delmoi at 2:33 PM on August 20, 2006


One can reasonably be put off by DFW's preciousness without misunderstanding him.

Hm. A good point and one I can live with.

For the record, though, I do suspect (read: pure, unadulterated bias) people who are not simpatico with Foster Wallace's writing can't read as well as they claim. Also, I wouldn't describe Foster Wallace's writing as "precious," but I can see how|that someone would.
posted by mistersquid at 2:46 PM on August 20, 2006


So I find it odd when DFW and others find it odd when someone like Federer comes along

Did he claim to find it odd? Or just decide to talk about it? Honest question, haven't dug in to the article. (Busy Sundays, only time for idle chatter, you know how it is.)

Also, where the hell is languagehat?
posted by cortex at 2:49 PM on August 20, 2006


I don't really follow tennis very much . . .

So I find it odd when DFW and others find it odd when someone like Federer comes along: Someone who can play the power game but also is a master of the subleties. Somebody who's not just powerful, not just fast, but powerful and fast and smart. Really, it's exactly what I expect. It's natural selection in action, with money as the driver.


Since you don't follow tennis, how exactly are your conjectures apt? Or are you of the ilk who considers yourself keeper of important opinions, even and perhaps particularly of things that you don't care about? Because, honestly, bub, Federer's dominance is pretty much exactly not what a person who follows and has followed tennis would expect from a player. He's a freak, not an eventuality.
posted by billysumday at 2:51 PM on August 20, 2006


I thought it was interesting, although I got lost in some of the tennis terminology. I'm not a huge fan, though, so I expected as much.

I like how there are enough footnotes to fill another article.
posted by danb at 2:52 PM on August 20, 2006


Well, I can't stand David Foster Wallace. He's everything that's wrong with young writers today: he's arrogant, and he's really quick to point out how much he's read. What's more- and I could forgive arrogance and elitism if this weren't true- he's read the wrong books. Literary criticism nowadays is a dead end, and David Wallace is a bright, shining emblem of that.

But I really liked this article. Even the long sentence. I've never enjoyed reading about tennis more. (And anyone who's read Mr. Wallace before knows to skip the footnotes.) Thanks, Helms.
posted by koeselitz at 3:08 PM on August 20, 2006


[. . .] like trying to whistle Mozart during a Metallica concert.

Language lives for similes such as that.
posted by mistersquid at 3:14 PM on August 20, 2006


those of you who think that the world is divided into geniuses who appreciate David Foster Wallace's prose and slack-witted remedial dullards need to review your logical fallacies. This is a false dilemma.

Wheras your characterization of us would be a...

ding ding!

straw man!
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:14 PM on August 20, 2006


mistersquid: "For the record, though, I do suspect (read: pure, unadulterated bias) people who are not simpatico with Foster Wallace's writing can't read as well as they claim."

In time when Kurt Vonnegut is revered as a pinnacle of literature, I don't expect that many people have a very high reading capability. However, David Foster Wallace isn't exactly Faulkner or Joyce, even on the readability scale.
posted by koeselitz at 3:19 PM on August 20, 2006


eustacescrubb: That's actually really funny. But do you seriously think I've grossly misrepresented this position?
posted by .kobayashi. at 3:24 PM on August 20, 2006


I agree with .kobayashi. and think he's characterized mistersquid's stated position quite well. And I am not a huge fan of Wallace's exceedingly (to my mind, excessively) mannered prose; I leave it to others to judge my reading skills.
posted by languagehat at 3:28 PM on August 20, 2006


I mostly don't care for DFW's writing... except when he writes about tennis, something the he is clearly, and exuberantly passionate about. It's a thing to behold. Great post.
posted by Hypnic jerk at 3:35 PM on August 20, 2006


Christ almighty, I love reading DFW on tennis. Modern pro tennis is right in his wheelhouse, which is to say, the sweet spot subjectwise of the most talented prose stylist and aggressive/generous intellectual omnivore in English-language lit this side of Thomas Pynchon. And he's got a semi-separate knack for gushing quite well.

The Michael Joyce essay is 'White Album'-level greatness, hands down.

This comment, on the other hand, is just plain stupid:
(And anyone who's read Mr. Wallace before knows to skip the footnotes.)
The number of ways in which this comment is stupid is actually kind of impressive. I mean that's a lot of different aspects of a writer's work to utterly misunderstand. Congrats!

Feel free to add me to the 'People who claim to hate DFW mostly hate what he represents, because he's too humane and serious and evocative a writer to be "hated" on the merits of his writing' chorus. Though the view of art-comprehension implied by that comment I will likely disavow tomorrow, when I claim that people dislike DFW because he reminds them of their limitations, and those of their own hobbyhorse-type writers.
posted by waxbanks at 3:35 PM on August 20, 2006


billysunday: Since you don't follow tennis, how exactly are your conjectures apt?

Untwist your knickers for a minute and re-read what you extracted from context: "I don't really follow tennis very much, but I do recall now and then hearing commentators bemoan the end of the game's evolution. Which I find to be a strange idea."

Now, explain to me again what the hell you're talking about?

And perhaps your pissy response is an illustration of perhaps why my observations are apt, and yours aren't? Perhaps, in other words -- if I'm to judge by you -- tennis afficianados are shot-sighted folk who can't see the inevitable when it's staring them right in the face in the form of very large purses and endorsement contracts?
posted by lodurr at 3:35 PM on August 20, 2006


That all happens because there's enough money to attract a large enough field of comers that you eventually get someone who's not justfast, not jus big, but big, fast, and smart in the bargain. (Us non-jocks should remember: Pro athletes tend to have well above-average IQs.)

Yeah, but apparently – and honestly, I'm going off what I read in DFW's earlier essay, the Michael Joyce essay – a fair amount of the changes in tennis play have to do with changes in equipment, the use of composites in rackets as opposed to the old wooden ones. Changes in equipment do change the way sports are played a lot, as a general proposition, so this rang true to me.
posted by furiousthought at 3:35 PM on August 20, 2006


he's arrogant, and he's really quick to point out how much he's read.

This seems like a strange criticism to me -- quick to point out how big his vocabulary is, quick to point out how self-aware he is, sure, but quick to point out how much he's read? I don't think Wallace's books tend to say much about other books at all.
posted by escabeche at 3:44 PM on August 20, 2006


... changes in equipment ...

No doubt. Sport does not exist in a vacuum. The equipment changes are a part of teh environment just like the money is, and they are also driven by it, to some extent. People seek an advantage through technology; technology makes a more exciting game, which boosts revenues; higher revenues mean bigger endorsements, which means in turn that the value of a tournement victory is enhanced; and so on.

If there is one thing that you can predict, it's that athletes will get better. If there's a major advance in one area of the game, other areas will catch up, as long as rules and equipment don't conspire ot make those things irrelevant. That is, as long as it confers an advantage to be good at things other than baseline play, we should have anticipated the emergence of someone wiht Federer's skillset.

That's not to take anything at all away from Federer. All I'm saying is that the "gee, we never expected anyone like him!" business is just silly. If they didn't expect him, they were either idiots, or they weren't actually thinking about what the future of teh sport was.

Now, if someone actually wanted to argue against my case, they could use an example I've already cited, and turn that against me: Basketball. Because it's arguable that (with a few notable exceptions like Jordon) there's been a degradation in skill. (Note to knee-jerk critics of teh Billysunday school: "... it's arguable.") But then, they'd have to factor in the institution of teh shot clock in the NCAA, and the effect of incessant rule-tampering to make the game more "exciting."
posted by lodurr at 3:46 PM on August 20, 2006


waxbanks: "The number of ways in which this comment is stupid is actually kind of impressive. I mean that's a lot of different aspects of a writer's work to utterly misunderstand. Congrats!

Gee, you might get the idea that that little comment was satirical. Imagine that, saying "skip the footnotes" about a writer whose primary mode is footnoted prose as a joke. Hmm.

posted by koeselitz at 3:57 PM on August 20, 2006


Koeselitz - mea very fucking serious culpa. The thread set a pretty strong precedent for deeply stupid comments. :)
posted by waxbanks at 3:58 PM on August 20, 2006


Feel free to add me to the 'People who claim to hate DFW mostly hate what he represents, because he's too humane and serious and evocative a writer to be "hated" on the merits of his writing' chorus. Though the view of art-comprehension implied by that comment I will likely disavow tomorrow, when I claim that people dislike DFW because he reminds them of their limitations, and those of their own hobbyhorse-type writers.

Is this what all DFW-hate comes down to? Alpha-male/frustrated writer jealousy? There may be somethign to that in some cases, but for the most part, these threads are ridiculous.

Mefi#1: "I hate DFW, he's pretentious."
Mefi#2: "You're stupid and obviously don't understand him."
Mefi#1: "I understand him, but his prose annoys me."
Mefi#2: "His prose only annoys you because you couldn't write so fluently in your wildest dreams, you frustrated hack."

And on an on.

Every DFW thread turns into some pissing match between those that love him, and those that hate him, which has less to do with how and what he actually writes than some kind of weird fetish on both sides.

At least for the moment, this is an excellent piece on a sport that I love, and I enjoyed reading because DFW is obviously a gifted writer whose love the for the game equals my own. So there.
posted by Hypnic jerk at 3:59 PM on August 20, 2006


Alright, Mr. Wallace, you've got to be a MeFite. Please stop cackling and chime in.
posted by MarvinTheCat at 4:10 PM on August 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


So, to sum up thus far, athletes get better; writers do not. Although technology may have increased the spin: Joyce had his racket's racquet, the pencil — a dryad's dowry — resonant but with a smaller sweet spot for returns (pace, lovers of Finnegan's). Pynchon transitional, a graceless smasher on his Selectric, sheer will changing the game. Wallace on a word processor, his 'liquid whip' of words, the approaching hiss of his intimidating (either arrogant or appropriate) erudition (shedding footnotes on the bounce); he a freak or an eventuality. Got it.

As was pointed out earlier, this was a most rancorous thread. Shouldn't we be all rioting at a Stravinsky debut or something?
posted by Haruspex at 4:18 PM on August 20, 2006 [3 favorites]


However, David Foster Wallace isn't exactly Faulkner or Joyce, even on the readability scale.
posted by koeselitz at 6:19 PM EST on August 20 [+] [!]


Jesus, Koeselitz, are you high? Have you even read any of the lit Big Men you just mentioned or are you just spewing out a bunch of Eng. Lit 101 names that were on your syllabus? DFW scans a million times more fluidly, esp. to the 21st. C. North American ear.

Every freaking time. Every freaking time someone puts up a DFW FPP I fall for it, read yr ill-informed tetchy little comments, and get all riled up because you're so insecure around his big glorious writing dick. It makes the whole Iraqi war debate look sedate. AntiDFWites, you are ON NOTICE! Keep it up and you'll be as dead to me as the "can girls rock?" contingent that pops up every six months or so.
posted by DenOfSizer at 4:21 PM on August 20, 2006


Hypnic jerk - no no no! You said:
Mefi#1: "I hate DFW, he's pretentious."
Mefi#2: "You're stupid and obviously don't understand him."
Mefi#1: "I understand him, but his prose annoys me."
Mefi#2: "His prose only annoys you because you couldn't write so fluently in your wildest dreams, you frustrated hack."
For fans of DFW, the frustration in exchanges of this type is that the first mistake - "he's pretentious" - is a crippling one.

David Foster Wallace isn't pretentious. There, I said it. So what is he? A very, very serious student of the craft of prose-writing, possessed of an effectively limitless capacity for verbal invention (count the varied voices in Infinite Jest and the tonal shifts in his essays) and an almost in a weird way simpleminded generosity of intellect. He knows lots of words and is hypersensitive to the nuances of their use, is preoccupied with the various levels of precision achieved by different kinds of speech and writing. That's not pretension - it's the application of a verbal method to a topical and thematic concern. In other words The Craft of Prose Writing.

All of which tumbles into a second irritating claim, "I understand him, but his prose annoys me." This complaint isn't an aesthetic judgment, it's a gesture (because the followup question is rarely asked and more rarely answered, i.e. 'What exactly is annoying about it?'); more importantly it's unrelated to the accusation of pretension. Most writers are in fact frustrated hacks, indeed most readers are frustrated hacks of one or another type, but leave that aside. My appreciation of David Foster Wallace's writing isn't a 'My fetish is more authentic than yours' gesture, it's the recognition that he does more, in more ways, more beautifully and passionately and through-a-signature-style-compellingly, than almost everyone else currently batting around the English language. Claims that he's pretentious are so often nothing more than ways of dodging the issue of whether he's an effective prose stylist who has important things to say, and who does so in a way that deepens his message instead of compromising or unmaking it.

Lots of people are stupid. Lots of people don't understand lots of things. But the refusal to invest in the process of learning - i.e. the refusal to engage in an expansion of aesthetic consciousness through sustained engagement with and reflection on a text - that refusal is worthy of scorn. And on a site so fond of e.g. the 'conservatism is anti-intellectual' trope and its variants, I should think we'd be suspicious of 'I am put off by this reductive, anti-intellectual reading of this author, never mind that the textual evidence does not actually stand in my corner' as 'criticism' of DFW. That measly gesture does not rise to the level of 'criticism.'

There are ways of criticising his work; check out James Wood, for instance, who has smart critical things to say even when he's getting DFW's stories and their plots wrong in a fundamental Reading Comp 101 way. I find some of his writing irritating, and believe he's better at nonfiction than novels (and meets very mixed success with his short fiction), at least so far.

But 'Nyah nyah he's a smarty-pants!' isn't criticism, man. And most of the anti-DFW stuff on this site, the overwhelming majority of it in fact, amounts to nothing more. It may be arrogant to say 'You're just not getting it,' but that claim's assholery may well be mitigated by its mere correctness.

Yep yep?
posted by waxbanks at 4:29 PM on August 20, 2006 [8 favorites]


I'd have prefered just a LITTLE more tennis talk here...
posted by cccorlew at 4:33 PM on August 20, 2006


All else aside, BTW, this paragraph is a kick in the ass...
According to reliable sources, honorary coin-tosser William Caines’s backstory is that one day, when he was 2½, his mother found a lump in his tummy, and took him to the doctor, and the lump was diagnosed as a malignant liver tumor. At which point one cannot, of course, imagine...a tiny child undergoing chemo, serious chemo, his mother having to watch, carry him home, nurse him, then bring him back to that place for more chemo. How did she answer her child’s question — the big one, the obvious one? And who could answer hers? What could any priest or pastor say that wouldn’t be grotesque?
...which pays off here, in the last footnote:
By the way, it’s right around here, or the next game, watching, that three separate inner-type things come together and mesh. One is a feeling of deep personal privilege at being alive to get to see this; another is the thought that William Caines is probably somewhere here in the Centre Court crowd, too, watching, maybe with his mum. The third thing is a sudden memory of the earnest way the press bus driver promised just this experience. Because there is one. It’s hard to describe — it’s like a thought that’s also a feeling. One wouldn’t want to make too much of it, or to pretend that it’s any sort of equitable balance; that would be grotesque. But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.
Reading that footnote again I can't remember whether the repetition of the word 'grotesque' pulled me out of the flow of the text or registered only retroactively, and now I can't decide whether I like it or find it mannered. Regardless of which it's difficult to uncry tears (what if you could?!), so worries about mannerism sort of take second place in the wake of that awesome first paragraph. No one reads this man's writing for big words anymore than people read Bret Easton Ellis because they're fond of goddamn brand names.
posted by waxbanks at 4:37 PM on August 20, 2006


Well I like some of DFW's writing; I thought A Supposedly Fun Thing was a very fine essay. DFW's problem is that he over-writes, and he overdoes the over-writing. He seems to be at his worst in this regard when he is very excited about something, which I am sure is why we have the dreadful 284 word sentence on the very first page of the linked essay.

Use of language, craft of writing, or whatever, every school of writing I have ever paid any attention to has told me that you do not write 284 word sentences, that it is the kind of pretentious, dreadfully conceited thing a writer does to prove how much smarter he is than the reader, and that the first thing you learn about editing your own work is to shitcan cute tricks like that going into the second draft.

I realize DFW has made this his entire schtick, and there are some people (including my wife) who love it and think it's brilliant. But it gives me a headache, which is exactly what my high school lit professor warned me it would do to my own readers.
posted by localroger at 4:52 PM on August 20, 2006


This thread should be about Federer, not DFW's level of pretension.

I've played some tennis and watch it whenever I can. Federer is the most incredibly gifted player I've ever seen. I find myself breathlessly watching his rallies and saying "holy shit" or "oh my god" constantly. His fluidity is amazing and if you ever watch him play on grass, notice his shoes when he leaves the court--they won't have a single grass stain on them.
posted by null terminated at 5:11 PM on August 20, 2006


localroger:
every school of writing I have ever paid any attention to has told me that you do not write 284 word sentences
May well be true, but enforced mediocrity isn't the point here. Long sentences aren't conceited, they're just long. The average school of writing would probably have told Melville to skip the cetology chapters of that big whale book, or recommended that Pynchon cut those stupid limericks goddamnit from that one World War Two book. Hemingway and his clipped macho bullshit. Gaddis and the whole unattributed-dialogue 'I hate my readers' thing, never mind it's holy-shit laugh-out-loud funny. Woolf with the weird all-those-voices thing in The Waves. This overlong abstract 'To be or not to be' speech in the middle of basically a detective-in-the-family procedural in which almost nothing actually happens. Ellis with the run-on sentences, oy gevalt. Didion, learn to actually give a shit about something. Hoban can't you just tell your story without making up this ridiculous ironic I'm-so-clever private language, you and that Burgess fellow. And Joyce, you ignorant self-hating mick: what's with the last chapter here? I only see like eight periods over several dozen pages! (But Joyce was actually conceited, of course, he was just good enough at storytelling and otherworldly enough in his use of language to get away with it.) Irrelevant. The average school of writing should be attended, passed, and then forgotten. It matters to genius only in violation.

Nothing about Wallace suggests actual conceit, only the desire to find a new language for new ideas (and old). Invocation of conceit as a weakness of his writing suggests that he claimant has nothing else up his sleeve, and little more. A substantive criticism - e.g. of the irritating disingenuous faux-naivete he strikes up in such close proximity to his Enormous Vocabulary Cock passages, as a 'literary effect' the effect of which is to draw attention only to itself, in spite of what I take to be his desire to keep these tonal shifts as tools instead of exhibits - would land more heavily.
posted by waxbanks at 5:21 PM on August 20, 2006 [5 favorites]


Waxbanks, I get your point. Many of the tricks you list did work brilliantly, and even Wallace's schtick seems to work well for a lot of his readers. It's just that from my POV Wallace's writing does exactly what I was warned it would do. Sometimes that shit they teach you isn't total bullshit, it's there for a reason.

Of course I have a lot of room to talk since the over the top first chapter of my only novel length work reliably drives away half the readers for other reasons. But I knew I was doing that when I wrote it. I'm not sure whether Wallace knows or cares. Unlike you I do get a sense of conceit from Wallace, the kind of Ivy League conceit that manages to be devastating even as it pretends it doesn't exist.
posted by localroger at 5:36 PM on August 20, 2006


Waxbanks: yep. Nicely put, and you even turned me around on the sick kid thing, which I had thought was a rare misstep.
Localroger: nope, don't even understand what yr point is. DFW went to Amherst and U. Ariz., if I recall.
posted by DenOfSizer at 5:50 PM on August 20, 2006


ok some people like DFW some people don't let's go eat dinner now good lord people
posted by xmutex at 6:09 PM on August 20, 2006


every school of writing I have ever paid any attention to has told me that you do not write 284 word sentences

that sums it up quite nicely; i'm rather grateful dfw isn't bound by those same schools
posted by troybob at 6:27 PM on August 20, 2006


...on a curious note, though: is it possible that what you view as conceit has more to do with your seeming bound by such rules than that dfw doesn't seem to be?
posted by troybob at 6:32 PM on August 20, 2006


oops, i'm sorry...directing it personally like that made it a bit rude...i'm genuinely curious whether the dislike of dfw is in part to do with the professor's voice in one's head saying 'this shouldn't be possible'
posted by troybob at 6:36 PM on August 20, 2006


Telling people learning who are learning how to write not to write 200 + word sentences is good advice. Like telling high school basketball players to just make a lay up instead of trying to dunk. But its hardly proof that one shouldn't dunk or write 200+ word sentences if one is capable of doing a good job.
posted by I Foody at 6:55 PM on August 20, 2006


localroger:

I thought The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect was fantastic! The shorter work you did on K5 was great as well, maybe you should start writing for the internet somewhere else now that Kuro5hin is dead, maybe post a link to projects?
If you don't know who he is, here's a brief summary of his major work.
posted by blasdelf at 7:00 PM on August 20, 2006


I found the article boring, made more so by Wallace's insistence on deplying all his favorite stylistic tics. (After all, he knows that when an editor contracts with him to do a piece, they expect certain DFW-ish trappings, after all, and he's not one to let them down.) I'm talking about:

-- The cutesy capitalization of certain concepts DFW wants to emphasize, like "the Moment."
-- The signature footnotes ... yes, even in a NYT article. (Jesus, give it a rest.)
-- Abundant use of abbreviated or slang words -- "chemo," "tummy," "stat." (Spelling the words out would be so boring and pedestrian.)
-- The ostentatious flaunting of seemingly technical knowledge about an area of specialty.

I've seen DFW a couple of times on Charlie Rose (you can see the episodes on Google Video), and really, the guy comes across as insufferable. My favorite moment of one of his Charlie Rose appearances was when, in explaining his reluctance to respond to one of Rose's questions, Wallace says something like, "But it seems so pretentious!" And Rose says, "Stop being so focused on how you seem -- just be!" I thought Rose very nicely exposed DFW's adolescent self-absorption --- already so evident in his prose style --- in that remark.
posted by jayder at 7:44 PM on August 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


Say what you will about DFW threads, but this has produced some really great comments and I've marked like four of them as favorites.

Oh, and jayder, of all the things to take issue with - chemo? tummy? stat? The first is an abbreviation in wide, wide use, the second pretty appropriate when you're talking about a kid plus a nice counterpoint to the horrfying disease thing, and the third is Latin but almost exclusively said and abbreviated in English as "stat." Should he have said statim? Wouldn't he then be under fire for using the original Latin when the accepted English version would have worked just fine? There's no pleasing some people.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:45 PM on August 20, 2006


Dallas/Fort Worth.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 10:44 PM on August 20, 2006



posted by nlindstrom at 11:26 PM on August 20, 2006


I like the lay-up:dunk::short sentences:long sentences analogy.

The example given well demonstrates the difficulty of the long sentence. DFW has compressed this Moment as much as he thinks he can, but the action struggles, undermined by "is"'s in critical places. Why? I doubt it's because of aesthetic sensibilities but thematic ones. DFW wants to meditate on the crapshoot of life; how some are given cancer and others are given the reflexes and stamina to become champion tennis players. This example sets it up.

It seems probable that DFW drafted a sentence (or perhaps a paragraph) describing this match that would make readers breathless with excitement and astonishment. Later, as he began working on the meat of the essay, he had refactor it to serve the big picture, and he tried to keep as much of the action and intensity as possible. This is what he came up with. It doesn't seem like showing-off to me, but a compromise. Of course I would have done it differently but I can't fault him for handling the way he did.

DFW saves the good stuff for the Nadal/Federer match and the climax of the piece (and in the last footnote). Here he's focused on action more than being, with the longer sentences recreating the inertia that Federer worked into Nadal. Sports writing is fun, also tricky, but well exercises principles which are the foundation of good writing generally.

See also Frank Deford anticipating the Federer/Nadal match.

See also Joyce Carol Oates observing Mike Tyson's career.

The weakest stuff here ("in my opinion" of course) is the stuff about tennis rackets and the evolution of tennis-play into the modern game. Why put endnote worthy material in the body of the piece and save powerful human-interest stuff for a endnote? To see who's paying attention? Anyway it's symptomatic of the essay's most serious fault (IMO): it's poor taste to put exposition of facts ahead of human storytelling. This fault is endemic to this essay.

In writing class they say, "write what you know" and I don't disagree with this. I just think "write what you love" is better advice. Of course, maybe DFW loves tennis rackets and tennis strategy more than little kids with cancer and the nice swiss men who champion them, however reflexively. It's hard to fault him for this. Most people don't want to get involved in the sorry lives of the panhandlers who cross their paths (a comparison which is, likely, grievously unjust). That's difficult, dirty work, and frankly, not appropriate to the sports pages.
posted by wobh at 11:37 PM on August 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


Does DFW live in DFW?
posted by A189Nut at 1:25 AM on August 21, 2006


I just finished reading Everything and More, which I enjoyed very much despite not actually understanding anything at all after about half of the foreword. But he did manage to convey the strangeness of mathematics - a purely abstract something that is nonetheless intricately bound up in the physical universe.
posted by Grangousier at 2:23 AM on August 21, 2006


I don't hate David Foster Wallace, but I find him irritating. His writing isn't atrocious, just a bit overdone. Maybe if I keep reading his stuff I'll come to like him, but there are just so many books out there which don't annoy me in the same way.

Does that make me a bad person?
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:53 AM on August 21, 2006


This was really good. Excellent writing about an amazing tennis player. Made my morning.
posted by slimepuppy at 3:43 AM on August 21, 2006


Does that make me a bad person?

Yes, but don't worry. I'm sure there's a 12 step for it.
posted by lodurr at 5:17 AM on August 21, 2006


Fedder is to religion as
stone is to hot lunch
posted by rinkjustice at 6:15 AM on August 21, 2006


...Federer works too.
posted by rinkjustice at 6:15 AM on August 21, 2006


DFW <3 Eddie Vedder
posted by cortex at 6:48 AM on August 21, 2006


Optimus Chyme,

Uh. Dude thanks for visiting my site.

It's becoming obviouser and obviouser that David Foster Wallace sucks and you're sick about it.

That's why you can't refute the fact that Infinite Jest sucked infinitely and dood went to tennis camp one time and got religion and can't shut up about it.
posted by wbm$tr at 6:52 AM on August 21, 2006


wbm$tr, was that an attempt at:

1. a zing?
2. X-treem sarcasm?
3. trolling?
posted by cortex at 7:39 AM on August 21, 2006


Ha! David Foster Wallace can suck it! HP Lovecraft is the finest writer in the English language of the last 100 years!

Find these titles to satisfy your preternatural appetite for Gothic tennis horror:

The Creeping Volley and Other Tales
The Doom That Came to Forest Hills
The Roland Garros Horror
Foot-fault at Centre Court and Other Tales of the Macabre
The Big Giant Tennis Racquet

posted by Mister_A at 7:54 AM on August 21, 2006


To say nothing of Hemmingway's work on the subject. True At First Serve, To Fault and Fault Not...

And that wonderful pithy couplet:

"He went to the Open, and the Open was there."
posted by cortex at 8:05 AM on August 21, 2006


Uh. Dude thanks for visiting my site.

Yeah, it's pretty unpleasant when someone judges your worth as a person based off of a 200 word writing sample, isn't it? But I wouldn't worry about repeat visits from me.

It's becoming obviouser and obviouser that David Foster Wallace sucks and you're sick about it.

Well, all you've said so far is that he's a one-trick pony, and that's pretty soundly countered by the breadth of his published material. Like I said, it's okay to not like Wallace. But when you're describing your hatred, try not to sound like such a retard.

That's why you can't refute the fact that Infinite Jest sucked infinitely and dood went to tennis camp one time and got religion and can't shut up about it.

It would help if you actually told us why it sucked, instead of sounding exactly like a jealous would-be sportswriter.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:36 AM on August 21, 2006


Hemmingway's .... wonderful pithy couplet:
"He went to the Open, and the Open was there."


Now THERE was a writer. And a real man, too. No overdose for Ernest!
posted by lodurr at 12:01 PM on August 21, 2006


Can we talk about tennis?

Federer really impresses me, but I cannot climb on board the "best of all time" bandwagon just yet. I have seen a lot of players in my day that brutalized their opposition. McEnroe in 1984 comes immediately to mind. Think about how good McEnroe had to be to dominate the game with those odd looking strokes of his. Also, Sampras, used to make guys like Lendl, Becker, Edberg and Courier look downright silly on a routine basis.

As for Federer's rivals? Federer has dominated an Agassi in deep decline at the very tail end of his career, a monstrously overrated Andy Roddick, and an overmatched Lleyton Hewitt. I still think Marat Safin, when he's in shape and has his head in the game, can take Roger more than half the time, and I think we've yet to see Nadal's best tennis. So, we'll see.

Roger is an amazing player, he's got tremendously fluid strokes and speed to burn, and he's dominated tennis for about 3+ years now, but frankly, he's dominated in an era that was lacking in truly top flight competition.

That Roger Federer is the greatest of all time thing smacks to me of cynical promotion. Until he wins two true (calendar year) grand slams a near decade apart (like Laver did), or beats Sampras's slam record AND wins at Roland Garros, I think he's still got quite a bit of work to do; DFW's effusiveness notwithstanding.
posted by Hypnic jerk at 2:05 PM on August 21, 2006


Thank you for talking about tennis Hypnic, instead of DFW. What the fuck happened to this post. Anyways:

I think that Federer had all of the elements for being the greatest ever except one: Nadal. Nadal is his villain, his nemesis, his (as DFW puts it) Dionysian coupling (to his Appolonisian drive).

When we watched him steamroll oponents for the last few years, there was a sense that the rest of men's tennis hadn't evolved at the same rate that Roger had, and that is truly a testament to how great he was. He took this generation's semi-greats like Lleyton Hewwit, Marat Safin, Andy Roddick (semi-great or semi-goat!) etc... and made them, for the most part, obsolete; footnotes in an era reigned by him.

However, Nadal came along as a hybrid prototype; a kryptonite to Federer's superman. He exposes what many have called Federer's greatest weakness, his fear of what he might not be able to defeat.

When Federer lost to Nadal in this year's French, many questioned his mental toughness in the face of, what appeared to be, his first true adversary. I watched the game and sometimes questioned his drive. He seemed to wilt in the face of Nadal's exuberance and self-confidence. It was a demoralizing loss, one that looked like a domino effect that would topple a giant. All the truly great ones have been able to master their era's rivals(e.g. Sampras over Aggasi), but this remains a lynchpoint for Roger.

With the Wimbeldon victory taken aside, I think this year's US Open and the Australian will be the testament to Roger's ability to ascend into the spotlight of greatest ever. It is a neutral ground, one that Federer has the advantage over Nadal, skill-wise, but mentally there are doubts.

If Federer faces Nadal in the final, it will be the defining moment of his career, a singular and quintessential moment in the birth of greatness. They both took home slams on their best soil against each other (Nadal in Roland Garros, Federer in Wimbeldeon), but this match would enter a new era of their rivalry. If Federer could win the matchup (provided they both reach the final) and carry that momentum to a victory over Nadal at the French, I think he will be the greatest to have ever lived. I have that much respect for Rafa's game, and of course, Roger's.
posted by stratastar at 3:49 PM on August 21, 2006


This is a pretty good blog post positing that Wallace is washed up.
posted by jayder at 7:27 PM on August 23, 2006


This is a pretty good blog post positing that Wallace is washed up.
posted by jayder at 7:27 PM PST on August 23


wbm$tr, take note: That is what a reasonable and interesting critique looks like. Thanks, jayder.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:17 PM on August 23, 2006


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