Lit Bro

On the way back from the swamp yesterday, my wife turned on an episode of 10 Minute Writer’s Workshop, this one with Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman and other books, a script writer for a television show she created with her sister, and a newspaper columnist, among other things. They asked her what she does when she comes up against a wall and she said honestly I never do. Every time I sit down it comes easily, I just sit and start and it flows, because it has to, because this is my schedule I’ve created, this is what I have to do with the life I’ve built. I’d love to give you a story of anguish and overcoming but I just can’t. I don’t have one. It’s always easy.

I actually flipped off the radio, Suki-style. (Suki is my friend who is known for her fabulous laugh, kindness to animals, and for flipping off inanimate objects that give her the slightest displeasure.) This is like if a marathon were held on a circular track, the start line is the finish line, and there you are about to set off, trying to psych yourself up, when you look behind you and there’s Caitlin about to cross the finish, being interviewed, smiling, not sweating, not even remotely out of breath while the interviewer herself is already gasping having kept pace for like a hundred yards, saying Oh it’s so easy to run a marathon, just one foot in front of the other, I mean obviously, how else do you expect it’s done, no no I’m not competing I do this everyday just for kicks, just because I’m so fucking good at it.

Sorry, Caitlin.

This morning I found an article on Facebook called “Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me” which I read because I like DFW quite a bit but more because a former fiction workshop classmate of mine has an absolute disdain not only for the man’s writing but for the man himself, but although I think I understand her reasons as she lists them, I’ve never understood where it’s all coming from, like what could be worth the effort required for such a bitter resentment, and I wondered if maybe this is it. Maybe it’s because people are always, unfortunately for them, suggesting she should read him.

In any case, that’s what baited my click. The author of the article was taking part in a regular series on Electric Literature which asks authors to read a book by someone whom for whatever reason they’ve never read before. Deirdre Coyle, her name is. She starts it off by referring to a man who recommended DFW to her, who also forced cocaine inside her during sex, an action which makes me wish hell were real and full of ironic punishments as it is so often depicted. The first half of the article, which I gather is supposed to be the author reflecting on reasons why they have never picked up a book by this person before, followed by a second half with the author’s impressions on their first time experience, was filled with examples of the type of men who recommended DFW to her, which informed her conclusions on what DFW books were like. None of these characterizations were flattering. 

So here’s me, a male and a DFW fan, someone who has recommended DFW to people before, although I wouldn’t call myself a rabid proselytizer, but yes I’ve recommended him to women. Not like because they were women, but because they were readers. Still, though. Deirdre’s experience of DFW fans seems an exclusive group of what she calls literary bros, or I guess she quotes New York magazine which calls them lit-bros, people whose enthusiasm for the man is evidently rooted in the perception of being a DFW fan. In other words, chronic hipsters. Men of the liberal arts generation who don’t know what masculinity is anymore and latch onto, not exactly DFW himself, but the identity of a DFW reader.

Now, nobody knows what masculinity is anymore. Some people opt to be WWE fans and enjoy basking in the ridiculousness of what masculinity once was, watching it puff itself up like a threatened toad and laughing at the futility, the game of it. Then, I guess, they go home and, what. Feel comfortable just waiting around for something new to fill the steroidal void? Who knows, but the implication of “Men Recommend” is that the liberal generation sees something void-filling in the work of DFW.

The only consistent adjective I see associated with DFW by many authors, reviewers, and reactionaries is “self-indulgent.” This seems like the safest bet in trying to describe his writing, whether you love it or hate it or don’t give a damn. The footnotes alone are easy to point at and say that, that right there, unnecessary stylistic fluff, does nothing for the story, does nothing for the essay, they exist purely for the author, thereby I deem this work self-indulgent. Which, this strikes me as easy. There are a lot of things I miss about being in writers’ workshops but one thing I don’t is the inevitable slog through the easy criticisms, the safety-first ice breakers, the one-plus-one arithmetic no-nos. If this, then that. Like, how about, this story is told in second person, therefore it’s talking to me, the reader, and at times it made me uncomfortable to be addressed like that. No, shut up, in fact most second-person stories have no intention of addressing the reader, shut up, shut up.

If you want to see self-indulgent, read a blog sometime. This. This is pure self-indulgence. I’m not saying that the lit-bro persona isn’t interested in self-indulgence, but I am saying that I don’t agree that all cases of DFW exhibiting some stylistic flair qualify. In fact, most of his fiction I would not label as self-indulgent (some of the nonfiction, though, especially the paid pieces for like Harper’s or whatever, a lot of those feel like the editors had to erase penciled-in Freudian slips from the margins, like “I can’t believe these dolts are really paying me cash money for this, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha”). Often it strikes me as very labor-intensive, i.e. not exactly something you’d put yourself through just for kicks, but more to the point it seems specifically designed to dictate the effect on the reader, to direct every aspect of the story as it lands in your brain, even how it bounces off again, almost maniacally trying to shape every last divot left in your folds.

Whatever DFW’s fiction is or is not in terms of indulgence and whether the self is the motive behind it, there is undeniably a lot of style involved. And this style, Coyle concludes, is not really for her. She didn’t hate it, she found some quality in at least one of the stories, but it’s not for her. Which is fine, and nicely matches up to her point in the first half of the essay (“I haven’t read it because I doubt I’ll like it, thanks bro bye”), sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, possibly, but even if she did find a way to come at it clean, trying to read the favorite author of her drug-rapist, and still didn’t like it, it’s totally fine, so what, who cares. And if it is self-fulfilling, also who cares, but she’s letting on like it’s not. She makes a point to say she only laughed once during the whole book (Brief Interviews), as if to answer those women who she mentioned had recommended Wallace to her as well, because he’s funny, they said. But the larger criticism is for the lit-bros, mainly focused on those hideous men.

“It feels bad to read a book by a straight cis man about misogyny,” Coyle says, and the feminist in me wants to agree, and the straight cis man in me says wait, I can’t write about misogyny? Am I not affected by misogyny? Is that not a part of my world, too? Don’t I too have to deal with those ramifications? Maybe she doesn’t mean it like that. Maybe she means this straight cis man, writing with a style that may or may not be self-indulgent, maybe that’s what makes it feel bad to read it. But if she doesn’t mean that? Should I then conclude that all cis straight men, if not outright rooting for misogyny’s team, at least all start out misogynistic and have to learn not to be? So at best a straight cis man can only be a non-native speaking feminist? Am I but a coin-flip away from having turned out Republican? I don’t like, I don’t like!

More to the point, I don’t want to be a lit-bro. Mainly because it sounds derogatory, even if I don’t have a clear definition of what one is, it sounds bad. But also because I don’t want to recommend DFW to you with the expectation that it will alter your perception of who I am. I don’t want my masculinity reflected in my recommendation, mainly because I don’t have a clear definition of what masculinity is (and it, too, sounds bad). I don’t read DFW and think, yeah, unh, yeah baby, this is how a man writes. If I recommend DFW to you, it’s because I think you might see what I see. If you hear me say the phrase to you, You should check out Infinite Jest, it’s because goddamn did that book blow me away, and from what you’ve told me about yourself and your reading habits, I think you too are looking for books that blow you away, with their ambition, and yes, with their style, as in-your-face and possibly self-indulgent as it may be. I do not recommend based on the content of DFW’s character, nor based on mine, nor yours. He didn’t write it for me, or for you. And I didn’t write the thing at all. Even if I wish I had.

Shit, dude. I hope I’m not a lit-bro. I need to go read How to Be a Woman like right now.

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