Have you seen Geoff Dyer’s I’m-just-thinking-out-loud-here piece: “My literary allergy,” a pseudo-contrarian response to the work of David Foster Wallace, a piece that seemingly cuts through the hagiographic haze enhaloing Wallace?
In the ill-considered piece, Dyer uses the conceit of an allergy to justify his own ignorance, his own inability to offer even an adequate response to Wallace’s work. This kind of dodge is similar to all of those shrugging schmucks out there who will say the most heinous things only to cover themselves with that asinine phrase: “Just sayin.” Dyer wants his readers to believe that his “literary allergy” “should not be confused with a “negative value judgment,” that “it is simply a reaction.” It’s a clever move, as clever as the sly moves some used-up nobody will use to sell you some snake oil, but it’s a smokescreen, nevertheless. I’m not a doctor, but even I know that an allergy is a hypersensitivity disorder of the immune system, and that allergies are strongly familial, that they’re genetic, in other words. So what Dyer is just sayin’ is that since his response is genetically predisposed, he cannot be blamed for his ignorance. You might say, it’s a metaphor, that he’s joking, of course, that it’s all in good fun, of course, that he’s just sayin’. This isn’t how I read it. No, the conceit is a shameless dodge from criticism.
Dyer, after just sayin’ (about Wallace’s work) that “a page—sometimes even a sentence, or an essay title—brings me out in hives,” shrugs his shoulders and says, “This is not a literary judgement; I have not been able to read enough of him to form one.” This kind of ignorance is infuriating, and I know that it’s meant to be, and that Dyer is just being an instigative stick in the mud. Oh wait, his response is a bit more nuanced than that. He does admit to reading and liking “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and that he “actually like[d] [Wallace’s] writing,” though it did make him “break out in a mental rash.” Dyer would like us to think that he’s just like that person who may like how strawberries taste, but, who, because of a genetic predisposition, will have a negative response to it. Balderdash. The analogy is not only a weak one, but a false one. Literary dislikes are choices, they are learnable prejudices. Dyer is free to dislike whatever he wants to dislike, of course, but he isn’t, as a wannabe critic, free to make false arguments. Later in his piece, he goes on to make judgments on the quality of Wallace’s prose:
I guess it’s a question of tone. I react against the variously contrived sloppinesses of all those “sort ofs” and “kind ofs” in tandem with, sometimes followed by, the magisterial flamboyant (“Existentiovoyeuristic conundra notwithstanding”). Or the grunge affectation of the double “though” in: “There are big differences between Agassi’s and Joyce’s games, though. Though Joyce…” It’s not that I dislike the extravagance, the excess, the beanie-baroque, the phat loquacity. They just bug the crap out of me. As do the obsessive parenthesising, insistent italicising, footnote-generating footnotes and typographical gimmickry that reaches a kind of apotheosis of unreadability in “Host,” from Consider the Lobster. And it bugs me, of course, that his style is catching, highly infectious.
So much for critical acumen. Okay, it’s sort of clear what Dyer doesn’t like about Wallace’s writing, and it’s kind of clear that he wants to pretend that he’s not simply a philistine; but what is doubly clear is what really bothers Dyer, that is, that others, maybe many others, are imitating Wallace’s style. So why does this “bug” Dyer, anyway? This is left unanswered in Dyer’s piece.
Another thing that’s embedded in Dyer’s junk criticism is his preference for another kind of prose. He would prefer to live in a literary world of concision, brevity, simplicity, a world, in other words, that goes the Heming-way (although Hemingway’s work is much richer than the ever-prevalent stereotype about it). He quotes Hemingway as saying “that the test of a good book is how much you can throw away.” This is utter nonsense. This is not the measure of a good book and Papa and Dyer should know better. Dyer writes: “Start taking away from DFW, and you don’t know where to stop.” In other words, Dyer prefers a particular aesthetic, one that that privileges concision, brevity, simplicity, a preferred kind of readability; and will not allow himself to engage work that deviates from those norms.
I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.