I’m reading The New Yorker profile of David Foster Wallace. In 1990 he was feeling burnt out and low, and he wrote in a letter to Jonathan Franzen that he envied any young literary type who was producing pages: “Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David fuckwad Leavitt.” I like that, the “fuckwad” thing. These literary guys talk just like me!
The thing is, I have nothing much against David Leavitt, nothing sizable. I really liked “The Term Paper Artist.” There’s a lot of good in it, though I admit that I must help the piece across the finish line by invoking the Woody Allen Principle. This holds that any pervasive flaw in a favored work is actually meant as satire. (The term gets its name from Interiors, Allen’s Bergman ripoff, which is as dull and cold and solemn as a night in a parking lot with a stringy-haired girl who thinks she has read Kierkegaard. Confused diehards wanted to think Allen was making fun of dim pretentiousness, a project he has apparently stuck with.) To me, “Artist” makes the most sense as an elaborate fuck-you to Stephen Spender and others who objected when Leavitt hijacked one of Spender’s books in the interest of gay outness. I mean, I think that’s how Leavitt saw the controversy; Spender may just have felt he was being plagiarized. Anyway, “Artist” piles on the proud-out-gay touchstones, right down to the boy who gets in touch with his desires, starts doing it with guys, decides his lifework will be helping HIV patients, and takes his next vacation in Florence. He’s even a Mormon; very Angels in America. [UPDATE: I wrote Stephen “Spencer” first time out and just noticed my mistake. Oh well.]
I haven’t read much D. F. Wallace, just a few of the stories in Girl with Curious Hair. They weren’t my sort of thing, but one had a great line. An unlikable girl in a graduate writing program keeps bugging her professors with elaborately postmoden stories. One has the line “Nouns verbed by, adverbially adjectival,” which Wallace’s narrator follows with this one-word interjection: “Imagine!” Or so I remember it.
UPDATE: Another thing about that New Yorker piece. It says that when Wallace really hit bottom, he did manage to find one book that perked up his interest in writing. The article identifies this as “Flight to Fear, a teen adventure book.” You might think it was quite a book, given that it helped revive an intelligent young author going thru clinical depression. You might think it deserved a few words of description, or at least a byline. But it gets none of that, I suppose because it was written as entertainment and not as literature. For the record, the Library of Congress says the book’s author is Tom Belina and that it was published in 1979 by Children’s Press.
UPDATE: A fellow who taught with Wallace at Illinois State says he learned “really, really quickly” that when talking with Wallace it was better “not to go beyond the equivalent of ‘How’s the weather?'” Why? Well, because the guy told Wallace he liked one of his essays and Wallace “did this gesture of wiping the butt with one hand and pointing at his mouth with the other.” So maybe this profane, Beavis and Butthead, “fuckwad” style of discourse isn’t so great after all. At least a guy can be polite.