I’m reading D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace. Early in his writing career, Wallace was sent a galley of Jonathan Franzen’s first novel. He loved it, but he wrote back to Franzen’s editor:
I’m having a lot of trouble with my own stuff right now, and this book, a freaking first novel, seems so much more sophisticated than anything I could do plot-wise, so precocious in its marriage of theme and character and verisimilitude and phantasm, so simultaneously wild and controlled, that I found myself hugging criticisms of it to myself in unabashed self-defense (a subspecies of envy).
The trickiness of being inspired by others: the person needs to be better/faster/stronger than us in some way but not so much so that a) the chance of one day having that superior quality yourself seems utterly unrealistic or b) the person’s superior quality engenders an unproductive amount of envy and related depression.
In my essay Lessons Learned and Reflections on Publishing a Bestselling Business Book, I said I didn’t read many books outside the career field because I didn’t want to get depressed reading the prose of some world class novelist. It reminded me of a note I got from Cal Newport when he was writing his book: “I took a break from my manuscript writing and read a novel by a Nobel prize winner in literature. Remind me never to do that again.”
By the way, I love DFW’s use of “sub-species” as a phrase.
5 comments on “So Much Better Than Yours That You Hug Criticisms of It In Self-Defense”
Ben – this is SO on point…thanks for posting. It really “inspired” me. 😉 Really, though, it did. Hope you’re well.
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That’s not a bad bit of prose by David Foster Wallace, the “Mr. Squishy” of modern literature.
It hints at the self-destructive impulses of a neurotic man who admitted he was at “war against himself”, but it also suggests that he must have been conscious how much of his writing reads like “insulation that people spin between themselves and the sharp edges of their condition”.
If I were forced to read every list of banal minutiae compiled by DFW, I would feel like committing suicide, too.
I believe that habits of mind can actually alter brain chemistry, and Wallace’s habits of mind were the sort that engender suicidal thoughts. As a commentator said, “In Wallace’s world relationships represent another loss of individual identity”— that’s the way of the solipsist.
David Foster Wallace can teach us nothing about how to live, except by his example of how not to live.
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