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The chasm remaining from the demise ten years ago of David Foster Wallace still stuns members of the literati. His words marked a shift in the tone, atmosphere, and tenor of the current state of the written word. A decade ago on this date, Wallace ended his own life by hanging. All of the idealism, thought, and childlike wonder got swallowed up by Death. But his legacy remains. Because of the fact that he left a tome of over one thousand words, Infinite Jest (1996), replete with footnotes and musings on the Postmodernist school all while writing in the school that he critiqued. One of the targets of Wallace’s pen was irony. Deep in the psyche of the current figures within the culture, the ironical is a key component of the modern author.
Other writers from Zadie Smith to Jonathan Franzen have claimed allegiance to the ideas of Mr. Wallace. Since his death, the Postmodernist movement has been taken to new lows. Creators concoct stories almost totally devoid of plot. The characters seem to putter around and not do anything of consequence or inline with ethics. There may be a definable style but it is usually overshadowed by the fact that the novel or short story or play or screenplay has a theme that is not worth covering.
So get your New Sincerity letters ready for Reason First: How Romanticism Wins Against Every School of Art.
Wallace brought a whole generation to the literary table.
Talented and a brainiac, Mr. Wallace was a unicorn. Like the tech term that describes extremely successful private companies, Mr. Wallace stood on the mountaintop of the school of Postmodernism. But he felt that the cynicism so ingrained in the works of his contemporaries had to be challenged. An entire generation of authors have sprung up to try to match Mr. Wallace’s aesthetic. When he wrote with sincerity and passion, the response was to take his work and show worlds that are about nothing and go nowhere.
Boredom, doldrums, and the banal continue to fuel the literary output of the writers that have appeared on the stage in Mr. Wallace’s wake. Super smart people are left to contend in their novels and their other works the thought that post-Postmodernism is the answer. They feel that it is their duty to record the daily events of humdrum people eking out a living with their crummy work and rotten family. But the prose is often poetic, lifting from the page in waves of emotion and even clarity. The problem is that the whole time the reader might be thinking, “who cares?” What is it about an IRS worker and his role in figuring out his way in the bureaucracy? What is it about a drug-addled misfit who cannot grapple with reality without shooting up more heroin in his arm?
Yet the authors of such tripe seem to get all the awards, magazine covers, and other media attention. It’s like the literary world is shaped by defeated geniuses who do brilliant work about non-brilliant people. Mr. Wallace was at least honest about his role in all of this. He maintained that he couldn’t even define what Postmodernism really is. His school that he perfected, New Sincerity, raised young writers into being at least slightly less sardonic in their approach.
This generation witnessed the death of the father of New Sincerity. He wished to get away from the Postmodern and post-Postmodern schtick. This generation that has appeared inspired mainly by Wallace now seek to etch their names in the halls of the literary canon. By doing so, they’re dragging their photographs of ordinary life said beautifully. Their words are like a corpse dressed finely and well lit but the fact remains that this school of art is about unremitting inertia. Bold and convincing, sharp and precise, the words pour out from this generation like blood oozing from a wound. These writers cash-in on the idealism of the past, instead of looking forward to advancing literature and making it interesting as a story, not just with supercilious words strung together to make it look like they’re doing something outstanding.
What the writers that have come after Mr. Wallace fail to see and what he saw but could not grasp is that regular life is not for the page, stage, or screen. It is for the news clips. Let the journalist record the day-to-day habits of a farmer who injects semen into cows. Let the newsman cover the quadriplegic who can doodle abstract paintings onto canvas using only her eyes. After Mr. Wallace’s suicide it seemed apropos to claim the “best writer since David Foster Wallace.” He probably would be spinning in his grave every time that phrase appeared but he still would be too apathetic in announcements like that to care.
If anything, Mr. Wallace receives probably the most amount of press as a dead writer ten years after his expiry. Lists often include him in their top-ten categories of the best fiction of past twenty five years. He is the subject of films like The End of the Tour (2015) and is widely discussed in high school and college campuses around the world. So, his work and life have been portrayed on the big screen and written about ad infinitum in magazines.
His considerations of tennis, lobsters, and other interests seem to resonate with the nonfiction crowd. And that’s not to say that you cannot make a Romantic work about lobsters or tennis. It just means that Mr. Wallace chose to cover adult film award shows and discuss the political aspirations of the now late Senator John McCain. Highly influential, David Foster Wallace holds onto a piece of American literature that few have achieved. His magnum opus, Jest, is a testament to the power of prose.
People outside of the literary faction include Wallace as a hero to the mundane. He was some sort of poet to the common man in uncommon times. His role in shaping modern literature has never gone out of style. Upon his death, he became a martyr in a way. Before people wished and hoped and prayed about writing about the day-to-day functions of the mentally retarded and the philandering college professor. Awards had been issued, plenty of quotes in places like TIME and the New Yorker had filled the margins but it wasn’t cool until Mr. Wallace leapt onto the scene. The alleged staleness of American life is at the forefront of Mr. Wallace’s works. Constantly, through hundreds of pages of footnotes, he reminds the reader that all of this is just the nature of the United States and its people. Americans are supposed to go to school, get a job, raise a family and make the best of it. In between the author allows educational dishonesty, infidelity, random behavior, and anti-heroes to populate their novels.
Mr. Wallace is either blamed for or lionized for the dearth of Romanticism within today’s culture. His death should have been a knell for the anti-art of Postmodernism and post-Postmodernism. It could still be today. It is not too late for students yearning to break free from the bonds of the current curricula. It is not too late for them to discover works that speak to the best in man and how things are or ought to be. Mr. Wallace championed the aesthetic that he either hated or had little pleasure in discussing. His way of thinking far outpaced most of the writers that continue to churn out manuscript after manuscript of drivel.
Wallace garnered the most support when his ability to display wondrous thought, that the genre of fiction in which he was writing, never came to the point of outright bitterness. What the school of Romanticism would do in a case like Mr. Wallace, it would’ve presented an immense array of characters and plots that resonate with the human soul. The proponents of Mr. Wallace ought to take a look at the legacy of Romantic art that could contend with Mr. Wallace. It is a shame that he either never experienced this school or disregarded it or never thought about incorporating it into his body of work.
A Legacy Hanging in the Balance
The only thing that stands between Mr. Wallace and his aftermath are allegations that the deceased writer walked around as a misogynist and a physical abuser. The #MeToo movement is moving in on the legacies of the dead now, apparently. Even from the grave, now man is safe from the swift and defining voices of mostly women who are standing up and speaking out against men behaving badly. Mr. Wallace is said to have assaulted American author Mary Karr. This revelation speaks to the power that these women have, even over the dead.
It should be pointed out that the main idea of the movement is to bring awareness of all abuses past, present, future, living or dead. Mr. Wallace’s sterling reputation as a “tortured genius” seems to be thrown into the atmosphere with these allegations. Miss Karr seems adamant about ensuring that when people approach Mr. Wallace’s work, they carry a piece of salt the size of a small boulder. She wants people to know that the hailed man who took his own life was a debauchee when it came to women and that he was ready to get physically forceful in a given situation.
Miss Karr is on the frontlines battling a war that may not be ever won. With the death of Mr. Wallace, only his estate and collection of papers can tell what the man thought but not what he did. In the moments during home visits, Miss Karr witnessed Wallace take out his frustration and rage on her. He threatened her and even laid hands on her. He went so far as to attempt to purchase a firearm to kill Karr’s husband. Wallace kicked Karr, followed her five-year-old son and obtained her phone number after she distanced himself from her over months and months.
The books and fame might have been cool, but the abusive nature of Mr. Wallace must be reckoned with today. While he will never be able to impart his side of the story, the facts remain. Mr. Wallace was an abusive, troubled man. Miss Karr’s admission to the truth about Wallace brings his whole life and work into jeopardy. Even through the turmoil that she experienced, Karr still promotes the reading of Wallace’s books. She is not acrimonious toward the whole situation. She’s rather confident in her stance regarding Mr. Wallace. What this movement also does is present a clear-eyed view of the way that the best minds in an array of businesses and fields still have the capacity to be creeps. Karr is throwing a spotlight on the grave of Mr. Wallace because of the desire to show that no matter when the offenses took place, they still happened.
And that is what the school of Romantic art would do even for the #MeToo movement. It would present a heroine who stands up to and wins (or attempts to win) against the man or men who have crossed the boundaries of decency and grace. Romanticism could portray these men not as having been abused or assaulted themselves during childhood trauma, but with the ideas that being a male is better than being a man. A male can only approach a woman through brusque force and indignities. A man stands up and meets that woman as lover, friend, but most of all, a human being.
Romanticism, if it had been applied to Wallace’s work, may have lead to a groundswell of authors wishing to depict man or woman at his best. Instead of Wallace being an abuser he could have used his literary powers for the good of himself and by extension shared those talents with the world. Mr. Wallace does not get let off of the hook for his misdeeds. While it is proper to remember his impact on the literary scene, it is ever more significant to remind ourselves that it is the man that makes the words.