The New Yorker asks: “Is Louis C.K. our Gogol?“
I couldn’t tell you. I always just assumed that Yakov Smirnoff covered the entire Russian canon. But this seemed close enough to literary to warrant a link.
- Michael Moats
So much happened in the first half of 2012/YEAR OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE that it turns out I missed a few things. On 21 February, Wallace’s birthday, Berfrois ran “The Depressed Person in The Marriage Plot,” in which Daniel Roberts takes a closer look at the connections between Wallace and the character Leonard in Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest book. Adding to the steady march in April, Publishers Weekly began a two-week countdown of “The Top 10 Infinite Jest Characters,” starting with #10 (Barry Loach) and moving toward #1 (see here). Also, on 21 April came the long-awaited (by me at least) end of the “live” part in “Words, Words, Words: The Infinite Jest Liveblog.”
After a relatively uneventful May and June, YEAR OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE came roaring back in July. The monthly issue of GQ featured an interview with Nick Offerman, better known as Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation,” in which Offerman talked about being “halfway through Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – a writer who escaped my notice until a few years ago, when posthumously his final novel, The Pale King, came out.” In the very same issue of GQ, a Wells Tower piece on the pornstar James Deen made a Wallace-esque mention of one of Deen’s colleagues: “Kayden Kross, a wholly winning and improbably bookish young woman who reads the short fiction of David Foster Wallace between takes.” On 8 July, as noted, Roger Federer won Wimbledon, which led to Wallace-Federer references in The Telegraph, The Daily Beast, The Week, and GQ.com. There was even a weird piece on Wallace’s faith titled “Roger Federer Killed David Foster Wallace,” as well as an anti-Federer piece on the LRB Blog which noted that “‘Federer Moments’, as David Foster Wallace famously called them, are part of what I dislike. ‘Federer as Religious Experience’ says more about Wallace’s genius than Federer’s.” The following day, Michael Cunningham took to The New Yorker‘s Page Turner blog to explain why Wallace (and others) didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Also on 9 July, the “Nieman Watchdog” at Harvard University offered “Lessons on covering politics from the late David Foster Wallace.” On the 11th, Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians books used his first impressions of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story to talk about hysterical realism. On 13 July, Page Turner posted a piece about subsidized time. Federer’s victory was still yielding DFW alerts when there came, on 16 July, the other significant non-book event in the YODFW: the launch of “Infinite Boston.” The project was an ambitious effort by William Beutler to photograph and write about the real-life equivalents of various IJ locations:
I traveled to Boston, Massachusetts with the express purpose of visiting as many of the landmarks and lesser known precincts that appear in, or provide inspiration for, the late David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest as I could manage…now I am pleased to present what I am calling “Infinite Boston”: a ruminative travelogue and photographic tour of some fifty or so of these locations, comprising one entry each non-holiday weekday, from now until sometime in early autumn.
“Infinite Boston” attracted broad interest, showing up on The Millions, The Rumpus, National Geographic’s The Radar, Fast Company’s Co.Create blog, and from there the technology section of nbcnews.com, among others. The notice was well deserved. “Infinite Boston” is thorough and artfully done — well worth exploring for anyone who loves Infinite Jest, or is currently working their way through it. The project also had a number of spinoffs, including the super cool, Google-maps enabled “Infinite Atlas” and some other cool stuff available for sale at the Infinite Shop.
The first few weeks of July were pretty good — but the end of July illustrated the scope of what was happening in YODFW. On the 19th, CNN ran an online story about porn stars using Twitter to gain mainstream fame. One of the stars the mentioned was Kayden Kross, upon whom they bestowed the title “The Smartest Woman in Porn” and mentioned: “She often tweets about her favorite authors, David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo.” Four days later, the Wall Street Journal reported on a past meeting between DFW and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The two men had lunch and bonded over their shared enjoyment and rigor over language and grammar. Apparently the meeting led to some book Scalia wrote, which is not important. What is important is that, within the space of a few days, we could read about how a porn star and an arch-conservative Supreme Court justice both have strong affinities for our man.
Welcome back to YEAR OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE.
David Foster Wallace would have had his 50th birthday on February 21, 2012. If he had lived, and maintained the course he was on, he probably would have been the subject of articles about “David Foster Wallace at 50,” “Boy Genius Grows Up,” etc, covering important topics like his shorter haircut, his apparently happy marriage, and his steady teaching job. If Wallace had let The Pale King see the light of day by now, you can bet we would be reading reviews about the “mature” and “grown up” successor to the kinetic Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace Moves to the Suburbs. Instead, 2012 passed without much notice of the milestone, which four years after his death only serves to remind us that Wallace didn’t live to see it.
But it turns out that the world was not at all silent on the matter of David Foster Wallace this year. In the last 12 months, Wallace was the subject of three books, and author of one posthumous collection of essays. This level of attention is significant in and of itself, but it was not all that happened — not by a long shot. Over the year there came a steady flow of news, blog posts and small insights. There were stage adaptations, a Pulitzer controversy, displays of affection from a porn star and a Supreme Court Justice, and references in TV shows, a commercial, a web video and a proper movie. There was a conference and a year-end fundraiser and an unfortunate moment of our present looking too much like Wallace’s near-future dystopia. The internet – which, it was revealed this year, Wallace once referred to as “the bathroom wall of the U.S. psyche” – would not stop saying his name*. Four years after his death, David Foster Wallace is on our minds more than ever.
Some of this was foreordained. There is now an annual cycle, starting mid-May and running through June, of pieces referring to Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon University commencement address. His remarks have become a standard against which the hot speeches of the season are measured, and the address tends to show up on Best Speeches lists and be offered as wisdom that the Class of 20-whatever should take to heart.
A similar phenomenon took place with the 2012 Republican primary and presidential election. Wallace’s John McCain piece “Up Simba” (or any of the various names it was published under in magazine and book and anthology forms) became relevant again, and was often cited as the kind of meaningful political journalism we long for in today’s sorry-ass punditocracy.
But four books and a few recurring occasions do not a YEAR OF make. Most of what happened took place independent of annual or quadrennial events, spontaneously, a result of whatever weird energy was flowing in 2012. It was an event that was both random and regularized that sealed it for me. In early July – just as I was beginning to think that “Boy, I am really hearing a lot about David Foster Wallace this year” – Roger Federer defeated Andy Murray 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 to win his 7th Wimbledon. Writers, journalists, bloggers and WordPressers across print and online media launched a thousand pieces with some variation of, “The late author David Foster Wallace once called Roger Federer…etc.” and Google alerts lit up my inbox like a DFW-themed Christmas tree. That was when I knew. Welcome to YEAR OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE.
In the second half of his piece on the Pulitzer selection process, Michael Cunningham continues the discussion on the, like, third most important prize in literature — maybe fourth, depending on how you feel about The Critical Hit Awards – by worrying over the question of “How to Define Greatness?”:
It’s easy to attribute past oversights to some imaginary band of the cowardly and nearsighted (one pictures them in dowdily sensible outfits, owl-eyed, prim, and self-righteous, speaking to one another in carefully rehearsed boarding-school accents). And, yes, the cowardly and nearsighted do exist in the realm of literature. They sometimes thrive.
It’s more interesting, though, to think about how elusive greatness can be before history delivers its verdict, even to those who are neither prim nor self-righteous.
End of quote.
- Michael Moats
On The New Yorker‘s Page Turner blog, novelist Michael Cunningham opens the curtains on the Pulitzer Prize process:
We were, all three of us [jurors], shocked by the board’s decision (non-decision), because we were, in fact, thrilled, not only by the books we’d nominated but also by several other books that came within millimeteres of the final cut. We never felt as if we were scraping around for books that were passable enough to slap a prize onto. We agreed, by the end of all our reading and discussion, that contemporary American fiction is diverse, inventive, ambitious, and (maybe most important) still a lively, and therefore living, art form.
And yet, no prize at all in 2012.
How did that happen?
The board’s deliberations are sealed. No one outside the board will ever know why they decided to withhold the prize.
I did, however, learn a good deal about how short lists are formed, how “best” books are selected—a process that had hitherto been mysterious to me.
Cunningham’s post is the first of two, and offers an interesting look into how the three finalists were selected out of 300 books, before being sent to the Pulitzer Board for nothing to happen.
The post also intrigues with descriptions of the books that came close, but were eventually eliminated:
A ravishingly beautiful, original novel went down when one of us pointed out that, lovely as the book was, Toni Morrison had already told a version of that particular story, to similarly powerful effect, in a single chapter of “Beloved.”
A third fell under the wheel (and this one was particularly heartbreaking to all of us) when we reluctantly acknowledged that although it was wonderfully written and fabulously inventive, its central love story, while moving, was insufficiently complicated and a bit sentimental; that it failed to depict the body of darker emotions that are integral to love: moments of rage, disappointment, pettiness, and greed, to name a few. All three of us wished love to be as simple as the author imagined it to be, but we acknowledged that love, as far as we could tell, is not only not simple, but that part of its glory is its ability to survive incidents of rage, disappointment, and etc.
Any guesses on which books these are?
- Michael Moats
Today’s winner: The New Yorker. This morning the magazine launched a new books blog called Page-Turner, billed as a place for “Criticism, contention, and conversation about books that matter.” Sasha Weiss elaborates on its mission:
We’ll debate about books under-noticed or too much noticed, and celebrate writers we’ve returned to again and again. We’ll look to works in translation and at the politics of literary scenes beyond the English-speaking world. We’ll think about technology and the reading life. We’ll recommend and we’ll theorize. Daily essays will be the blog’s mainstay, with books as an anchor for wide-ranging cultural comment.
Like Fiction Advocate, Page-Turner will not be specifically focused on fiction; it will (also like Fiction Advocate) promote smart writing of all kinds. Early contributors include Salman Rushdie on censorship, cartoonist Bob Mankoff pulling together a slideshow of New Yorker cartoons about books, and Giles Harvey using a pun I should have gotten to first to talk about “Death of a Salesman.”
- Michael Moats
This post appeared previously on Fiction Advocate:
The New Yorker has picked up a thread by our very own Michael Moats, who continues to teach the world a thing or two about Holden Caulfield. We released Mike’s long essay, “The Real Holden Caulfield,” several months ago, and it’s been on the bestseller list here at Fiction Advocate ever since. The nod from The New Yorker is only the latest in a long string of attention and praise.
To celebrate its ongoing success we’re making “The Real Holden Caulfield” available in every format you can possibly think of. Do you have a Kindle? We have a MOBI file. Do you have a Nook? We have EPUB. Do you have a slab of mud with a USB port? We can probably accommodate that.
If you purchase “The Real Holden Caulfield” now, we’ll send you every format under the sun. If you’ve already purchased it and you’d like a format other than PDF, write to us at fictionadvocate AT gmail DOT com and we’ll hook you up.
TO MARK THE SECOND ANNIVERSARY of J.D. Salinger’s death, The New Yorker has turned again to Lillian Ross, Salinger’s friend and colleague. Ross wrote some lovely remembrances on the occasion of Salinger’s death in 2010, and her latest is also worth reading:
He was his own man, and I always found him to be grateful for his own inventions, the books that made it financially possible for him to live as he wished. There was not a false note in what he said or did. It came unforgettably entwined with his original humor. He was incapable of duplicity.
From Ross’ piece, it’s a quick hop to “In the Labyrinth: A User’s Guide to Bolaño” by Giles Harvey. There has been a rush of material from Bolaño’s estate in the last few years, and Harvey provides a good guide for sorting it all out.
The job they did of sifting through his unpublished writings in the immediate aftermath of Bolaño’s death in 2003 can’t have been especially thorough, for every other week, it seems, they find themselves tripping over another stout stack of papers, which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a new thousand-page opus on pornography, obscure minor poets, and the end of the world. If you’re a Bolaño neophyte, this must look intimidating. Where to enter?
Harvey then lists his suggestions for where, and where not, to start with Bolaño.
Trade Paperbacks has already broken with his suggestion to “Avoid “2666” for as long as possible, and for heaven’s sake, don’t start with it.” Find out what happened when we did.