Genius, practice, and David Foster Wallace

Reading selections from the essays of the late David Foster Wallace @ Barnes & Noble this afternoon, I ran smack into what can only be described as pure genius. Funny and erudite, it's unbelievable one person possessed so much raw talent and knew how to harness that into gorgeous writing.

I had to ask myself, can writing of this caliber be learned, or was Wallace just born with the ability? Or, was it a mixture of both?

I've been listening to Walter Isaacson's bio of Ben Franklin on CD, and apparently Franklin turned himself into a great essayist by studying the masters of the genre. He read and copied the styles he admired until eventually he could write just as well, becoming famous for his own essays and other writings. But that's Benjamin Franklin, the undisputed genius with a lot more backbone than an average person.

All these questions because I finally gave serious consideration to reading a few pages of David Foster Wallace, an author I'd only been familiar with previously from attempting and throwing aside his 'Infinite Jest.' Sorry, but I'm not willing to invest the time reading a 1,000 page novel with no point and no resolution – a book in which none of the characters has anything to do with any of the others (sorry: spoiler, you don't find that out 'til the end, apparently). Didn't take long for the sheer incomprehensibility to drive me nuts. Same with Ulysses, though I know a lot of people will take issue with that. And you go right ahead. Don't let me stop you.

That kind of show off, "look what I can do!" writing doesn't appeal to me. That's why I never took DFW all that seriously after my bad experience with IJ. I can't abide grandstanding writers intent upon creating something confusing – yet vaguely "playful" – so critics will fall all over each other proclaiming it ART. Because you aren't supposed to understand ART. It just IS.

ART my arse. You can put that in your Ivory Tower and… throw away the key.

Now I know, after he's gone, DFW wasn't the pompous jerk I thought he was. Because dang, dude could write essays unlike anything I've ever read. I'm left wondering how much of that came to him effortlessly, and how much did he have to sweat over? Because if there was no sweating I'll have to go back to hating him. And hating dead people just has a wrong feeling to it, especially knowing he committed suicide from his heavy-duty depression, associated with a very bad decision to go off the drug that had been keeping him stable and alive. I can't reconcile hating anyone following such a sad ending, even if I did think his novel sucked.

With no evidence to the contrary I'll assume DFW did do some serious sweating while crafting his essays – those genuine works of art. And I will get back to them one of these years, having forgiven him for Infinite Jest – the title of which just may have been intended ironically. Who knows? Maybe he was playing with the critics. Genius enough to create something heavy-duty, perhaps he thought let's try writing something that goes nowhere and see what reception it gets… Then sitting back and laughing when the literati ate it up with a spoon.

Not too many writers could get away with that. But you know I'm beginning to think, just maybe, DFW could. In that case, what a doubly grievous loss to humanity and true art. And how fortunate we are for all the beauty he left behind.

I hope he found the peace he was looking for.


"The problem is that once the rules of art are
debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are
revealed and diagnosed, "then" what do we do?

– David Foster Wallace

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