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Ignorance Is a Kind of Sickness

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.”

14 thoughts on “Ignorance Is a Kind of Sickness

    1. Unfortunately, the commenter from the link above misconstrued the thrust of my argument. He or she makes the mistake that my criticism of Geoff Dyer’s sloppy style is some kind of cry against negative criticism, that I am somehow promoting the idea that writers are “supposed to love one another.” No, I’m not criticizing Dyer because he did not write about Wallace in a laudatory manner; I am criticizing Dyer for his faulty analogy, for his thin glosses of the little of Wallace that he’s actually read, for the ways he waves his ignorance like a flag.

      I actually really enjoy reading well-rendered negative criticism of books, especially negative criticism of books from writers I admire. Take for instance, W.M. Spackman’s critique of Henry James’s fiction. While I find myself often disagreeing with Spackman, I can’t help but admire the quality of his thinking. Dyer’s piece doesn’t come close to that kind of careful scrutiny.

  1. Hi John, I only linked to Big Other because your post directed me to the Prospect article–just wanted to give credit where credit was due. I certainly wasn’t analyzing your argument; if anything, I was admitting a naive wish that all the writers I admire love one another, too, and directing my blog readers to another site of interest. I too like negative criticism, but it’s a shame you misconstrued my well-intended blog post as such.

    1. Hi, Tori.

      I have to admit that it’s still unclear to me what you meant by your post.

      You ask: “Geoff Dyer, why, why did you have to write about DFW in a manner that wasn’t purely laudatory? Aren’t all the writers I love supposed to love one another?”

      And then add:
      “Thanks to Big Other for breaking the bad news.”

      From the way it’s phrased, it’s hard for me to see that you were sincerely asking Dyer why he “had to write about DFW in a manner that wasn’t purely laudatory,” and that you were asking him to respond to your understanding (what you’re now calling your “naive wish”) that all the “writers [you] love are supposed to love one another.” But thanks for the clarification that that’s what you were sincerely asking.

      And what’s the “bad news” that Big Other “broke”?

      1. John,

        If I sincerely wished for Dyer to tell me why he wasn’t singing Wallace’s praises, I would probably have used a more direct means of communication rather than dropping an ironic throwaway line on a blog with a small readership (mine, that is).

        Now that I’m considering it, my surprise at Dyer not loving Wallace’s work didn’t come so much from a “naive wish” that all the “writers I love are supposed to love one another,” but maybe the shock of recognition of literary industry competitiveness. I’m wondering if Dyer, in dismissing Wallace, is just trying to play contrarian in the midst of all the Wallace-worship that’s erupted since The Pale King’s publication. “Remember me? I’m a brilliant critic and a memorable stylist who also writes about drugs and media and the human condition and my new book published this month, too.”

        As for your question, the “bad news” that Big Other “broke” is that Geoff Dyer does not love Wallace as he, a formidable literary talent–usually with excellent taste–“should.”

        Thanks for prodding me to clarify my thoughts on this.

        1. Hey Tori,

          It’s hard to say what Dyer’s motivations are, but a critic always needs to check him- or herself, check to see if his or her lens is more mud-spattered than usual.

          I’m not one to think that every good writer should like every good writer. In fact, it’s probably impossible, and most likely a bad idea for literature.

          I would like to see more negative criticism that is careful, smart, and well-written, criticism that takes the work it scrutinizes, seriously. Then, I might actually be prodded to think differently about something I may or may not admire.

  2. Dyer’s is a strange piece of non-committal commitment to sticking a finger in the hottest literary debate of the season. If he did more than just name the offending traits, saying how the footnotes don’t work in Wallace’s enterprises, that might have been more constructive.

    1. Well, Dyer would have his work cut out for him if he wanted to critique Wallace’s use of footnotes. As I argued, elsewhere, one of the purposes of footnotes (and Wallace was not the first to use them in literature) is to draw attention to artifice, to the mechanics of narrative, to the puppeteer behind the theater. Also, not only does Wallace use them as a tool to critique or otherwise comment on the narrative, but also to form intertwining narratives, to create levels and layers of meaning. Also, reading footnotes is always optional, and therefore disrupt the narrative minimally, if at all (although I guess you could argue that, whether ignored or not, they graphically call attention to themselves). Since it is choice that dictates whether or not footnotes are read, it isn’t the writer, really, who disrupts the narrative, but the reader.

      Negative critiques of the use of footnotes in fiction merely sound like an appeal to some imagined standard of what a novel is, that is, that the novel must proceed linearly, while still allowing for some deviations from that progression, a standard, that, if anything, is a more recent standard, since any history of the novel must include the far older tradition of disjunction, fracture, and digression, elements which may be frowned on in contemporary mainstream literature, but elements that are, historically, much more prevalent than the more conventional and static ideas of what the novel should be. DFW’s footnotes are intentional. From Wikipedia: “On the Charlie Rose show in 1997, Wallace claimed that the notes were used to disrupt the linearity of the narrative, to reflect his perception of reality without jumbling the entire structure. He suggested that he could have instead jumbled up the sentences, ‘but then no one would read it.'” So, Wallace’s footnotes do the work they were intended to do; they are an excellent vehicle to invite disruption, among other things.

  3. Didn’t Geoff Dyer just recently write an essay about how he can’t read books (anymore)?

    Silly man.

  4. John,
    You’re right to call B.S. where you’ve seen it. I don’t believe there are any absolute rules for writing, but “Don’t Lie” comes pretty close. It’s one thing for your friend Tori to write what she meant and then backpedal on the obvious meaning – her primary mistake was linking to an arena where the contributors are in a different rhetorical weight class.

    Dyer’s article, however, is indefensible in that he’s built up credibility as an essayist, but in this particular piece, he clearly doesn’t believe a word of his premise. The metaphor of the food allergy isn’t all that elegant, but it begins at a true place – readers have personal biases that prevent them from appreciating certain works on their own terms. Even the most open-minded reader recognizes they cannot read every worthwhile book in creation, so on some level, a narrowing process is inevitable and they marginalize certain styles or subjects or eras or whatever. Personally, I have a blind spot for speculative fiction – I would tell Vonnegut to lose the Tralfamadorians. I would be categorically wrong, and everything I have to say about Slaughter-House-Five is dead wrong because I lack the ability to read the book on its own terms.

    Dyer starts out with a similar point about reading biases, suggesting that someone inclined to like strawberries might still break out from swallowing them. Halfway through, however, he switches gears and starts leveling very loaded jabs: “contrived,” “flamboyant,” “affectation,” “gimmickry,” etc. Obviously, he does not have some guileless allergy, he thinks strawberries are cloying and sticky and messy and he friggin’ hates the way the seeds stick in his back molars.

    He has every right to develop and express an unflattering appraisal of another writer’s work. The point is that he should have the courage of his convictions. Offer an opinion and stand behind it, but don’t say that a genetic level you are unable to offer a fair appraisal, and then proceed to offer a very pointed critique.

    Thanks for a good post.

    1. Thanks, Nathan. I definitely agree with you that Dyer has “every right to develop and express an unflattering appraisal of another writer’s work.” And like you, I found his disingenuous stance appalling. I’d rather Dyer just came out and said what he dislikes about Wallace’s writing, demonstrating what are, to him, its failures.

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