Staggering Geniuses

by Paul Mathers

This article has been eating at me all day.

If you don’t want to read the article, it’s about Dave Eggers’ introduction to the 10 year anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I think I own that edition and I think I skipped the introduction. The problem that the journalist of this article seems to have is that Eggers’ introduction gushes superlatives over the book, but when the book was initially released in 1996, Eggers wrote a negative (-ish, I would say) review of it. A lot of questions spring to my mind.

Did Eggers turncoat because the book is now widely considered one of the great literary works of our time? Did he maybe do it for the money and notoriety (Eggers seems to like money and notoriety)? But also, why are we talking about the introduction to an 8 year old edition of a book right now? 2006 was before Wallace did his quietus make, so what did Wallace think of Eggers’ writing of the introduction? I genuinely don’t know and the article doesn’t seem to address that unless it’s in the link to Wallace-l mailing list that directs me to a page that my browser says is of untrustworthy security. I already find the journalist unreliable, so I’m not going to click on “I know the risks.” And I don’t care enough to dig around and see if Wallace ever commented on it. It is my intention that, by the end of this blog post, you will understand why.

Does Wallace really need for people to jump to his defense?

I disliked the article because it struck me as a character assassination job on Eggers. While I’m no Eggers fan (more on that in a moment), I don’t like ad hominem attacks (or any of the other logical fallacies employed in the article). Pieces where the writer is “taking the subject down a few pegs”, especially in the literary world, always make me think, “Ok. Where’s your masterpiece to eclipse anything the author in question has written? I’m looking forward to reading that, because clearly you’re sitting on a solid literary gold throne to be making sweeping pronouncements like this.” Seems a bit… easy to me. A bit like sour grapes. And, anyway, it’s entirely possible that even if Eggers did write a book romanticizing a domestic abuser, that may not be related to his introduction of Infinite Jest in any way. If a person makes a mistake at one point, that does not mean that everything they do everywhere else in their life is a manifestation of that same mistake. In the complexity of existence, it is possible for someone who you disagree with on one or more points to have within them the capacity to behave admirably on other points. That’s part of what’s so frustrating about the monsters in, as it were, the real world. They call their mothers and give to charity and might have good table manners. Part of what’s so unnerving about real world villains is that they end up looking a lot like us.

Maybe Eggers forgot that he wrote that review. Maybe Eggers changed his mind in that 10 years (people are also allowed to do that). Or maybe it was a crass money and notoriety grab.

It does seem odd that Eggers wouldn’t address it. I don’t think, as the journalist seems to, Eggers has some sort of shadow government with the power to suppress an older piece of his writing (and I guess we should give this journalist a medal for posting the original book review. He’s like V from V for Vendetta or something, right?).

And people can disavow things they’ve written in the past. Personally, I disown a great deal of what I’ve written in my past. But Eggers isn’t even doing that. He is saying nothing and, if the article is correct, he is safely stowed in his high tower behind a moat of PR.

So we don’t know!

I’m preparing a class on art of the early Christian church this week and I’ve been struck by the variety of interpretations that art historians bring to the material. This one has a vine and therefore must be aligning itself with the Dionysian. That one has a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders, much like another statue of Greek origin depicting a man bringing a sheep to sacrifice to Athena. It’s the old “early Christianity stole from the pagans” game. Maybe. Or maybe two pieces of art of a man with a lamb can exist contemporaneously without relation to one another. It is possible that the objective truth is the surface appearance of The Good Shepherd being a Christian metaphor concocted for their own purposes.

Likewise, Eggers is not speaking and so we are left to interpret the information on our own. If we hate Eggers already, we can use this as evidence to support our case, but that does not mean it is objectively true. This is what is called a pre-supposition and it t’ain’t necessarily so. We could assume that Eggers forgot or changed his mind, but that also does not mean it is objectively true. We don’t know. As with any artwork produced by an artist whose full biography we do not know (which, when you think about it, is every artwork except for the ones we have personally created) there is a large percentage of our reaction that should be focused on the work itself rather than the signature, the person who produced it. Art should be able to stand on its own and transcend the sins of the father.

I also couldn’t help noticing that while the journalist reproduces the 1996 review with all the glee of The Gawker producing the Donald Sterling tapes, he suddenly grows a healthy fear of copyright infringement over the 2006 introduction. We have to take his word for how glowing an introduction Eggers published. If the two pieces were placed side by side, perhaps we, the readers, could be trusted to draw conclusions for ourselves?!!?

Now for my personal big reveal: I’ve read both Eggers and Wallace. I found Eggers’ work to, indeed, contain a great deal of what I dislike about my own time. I found him to be dazzled by his own precious cleverness. I’m sure in conversations I’ve described AHWOSG as “a book by a privileged, white, Bay Area man who was almost on MTV’s The Real World. Imagine a work of literature by such a person and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’s like.” Although I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Just because an individual has had certain advantages in life does not mean that they are of poor moral character or that they do not feel as other humans do or that they are incapable of producing a great work of art. In fact, while all I’ve said so far of my reaction is true, I also found him to be an enjoyable read and at least half as clever as he seems to think he is. But, yes, I would agree with the assessment that Eggers here is the pot calling the kettle “self-indulgent.”

Wallace is more of what I like of my own time. He stands on the shoulders of previous literature, notably the post-modernists who were of his father’s generation, but he created literature that was decidedly literature and decidedly of our time. He was to academia what Eggers is to the current mindset of seeking advertising and entertainment that will keep you transfixed until you die (yeah, I said it!). Yet Wallace retains an emotional sincerity without ever growing soppy. He has a sort of icy humanity that resonates with me. It’s honest with baroque complexity. Of the two, I prefer Wallace as an author, and suspect, as much as anyone can know such a thing, I would prefer him as a human given what I know of the two. But at this point and to me in my little life, the former is of much greater importance. I’ve read both and enjoyed both. I imagine that I will read more of Wallace before I die. Possible not so of Eggers.

In the end, I think that Wallace’s work can survive anything Eggers said or didn’t say about it. I think it highly likely that Wallace will be studied long after Eggers and I certainly think that Wallace will age much better than Eggers. All of which will not change because of anything I’ve written here or anything dude wrote in his article about the Faberge Eggers scandal. So what ate at me enough to compel me to write a lengthy blog article about it?

I don’t like sloppy arguments.