The Cobainification of David Foster Wallace

Since his death in 2008, David Foster Wallace has receded beneath a mountain of marginalia and reinterpretation - and with a Hollywood film starring Jason Segel due, we are at risk of losing him forever.

What’s the difference between Doctor Who and David Foster Wallace?

One’s a questionably dressed cult figure who’s constantly being reinterpreted by white men, and the other’s a Time Lord from Gallifrey.

On Thursday last, plans were announced to film a DFW biopic with Jason Segel – he of How I Met Your Mother and Forgetting Sarah Marshall – taking the role of Wallace.

This is a terrible, terrible idea.

First things first: I’m a huge Wallace fan. I picked Consider the Lobster off a charity-shop shelf about ten years ago and fell for his mix of high culture and lowbrow gags, packed tight in pinballing, funhouse prose. His short stories and novels – Infinite Jest in particular – were like nothing I’d read before, and after his tragic death in 2008 there was the sense that we’d all lost something more than just a zeitgeisty author with a sweating problem.

But a Hollywood DFW? I’m sceptical. It already feels like remembering Wallace has inspired a literary sub-genre all on its own. There’s David Lipsky’s Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Jonathan Franzen’s elegy in the New Yorker and DT Max’s 2012 biography Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story. Even Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest novel contains a bandanna-wearing, tobacco-chewing character who seems strangely familiar.

And it’s not just the memoirists. Like Tupac, Wallace himself seems even more productive in death than in life. A posthumous novel, an essay collection, and (by my count) three other "new" books have appeared since 2008. Some are good, but others seem to have been published with little more in mind than squeezing more cash out of Wallace completists – most notably the reissue of Signifying Rappers, a set of painfully sophomoric reflections on rap jointly written with a college roommate in the summer of 1989.

But what’s even more worrying than the bald-faced cash-in on DFW’s memory is the sense of something more insidious going on. Just as more and more of Wallace’s writings are coming into view – from the syllabuses he set his students at Illinois State University, to marginalia from books he’d owned – the man himself is receding.

If Wallace’s prose sometimes seems difficult, it’s got nothing on its author. DT Max’s 2012 biography offered a nuanced portrait of a very human genius: clear-eyed about his many addictions, neuroses, and his problematic or perverse relationships with those around him. Max’s book was an important corrective to the growing image of Wallace as the wise old genius with all the answers – the author as a kind of Dudebro Confucius.

The weird reverence accorded to DFW means his name is becoming a shibboleth, a byword for with-it-ness. And he’s sexy. Trust me: somewhere in the world, right now, an earnest twenty- or thirty-something bearded male is trying to use David Foster Wallace in order to sleep with someone.

Maybe things started to change when Wallace went viral. His commencement address to a Kenyon College graduating class in 2005 was a massive hit online. Published as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, it’s a pitch-perfect exhortation to mindfulness in everyday life, and a challenge to practice "simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time". And it’s beautiful.

But Wallace isn’t an aphorist. For me, what makes his fiction so good is that it’s hard – not "difficult" in an elitist sense, but just in that it wants you to work with him, to dig towards something half-remembered and hard to grasp and maybe, just maybe, true. The Wallace of This Is Water – and the Wallace of popular culture – is a fortune-cookie merchant: the artist as life coach.

This is why the idea of a Wallace movie makes me so uneasy. Not just because it’s insensitive, and not just because there’s no way it won’t get twisted into some awful, jarring morality tale about genius and suicide. It’s because a Hollywood DFW feels like the final step in the canonisation – or maybe the Cobainification – of David Foster Wallace.

Sure, a film might make people go back and read the work. Back to the tight horror of a short story like "Incarnations of Burned Children", or the screwball picaresque of his finest essays – if anyone else gets to experience that feeling of reading him for the first time and thinking "hey, this is my guy", then that can only be A Good Thing. 

But the stakes are high. I’m worried that we’ll lose a very real, very flawed genius to the romanticising impulse of the big screen. In Infinite Jest, his finest novel, Wallace cast a cold eye on grief, loss, and memory in an age of entertainments. He deserves better than a Hollywood ending, and so do we. 

David Foster Wallace in 2002 and Jason Segel, who will play him in the upcoming film The End of the Tour. Photographs: Getty Images.

John Gallagher is writing a history PhD at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker for 2013/2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @earlymodernjohn.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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