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Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story

October 1, 2013

The older I get, the less I like reading biography. Perhaps it’s because the few biographies I’ve read lately have been of writers and it’s not good for me to know much about their lives; it can dull the light they’ve shed. This is particularly true of David Foster Wallace, and I knew that even before I read Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max.

Why did I read it? Because D.T. Max spoke at Kenyon this evening, talking about the 2005 graduation speech “This Is Water” in the context of DFW’s life. Because of the introduction to the biography, which declares that “for Wallace, fiction, to be important, had to fill a need, like faith or love.” Definitely in spite of Max’s declared interest, in the introduction to his talk, in going “beyond literary fanaticism.”

The parts of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story that I found most interesting are the parts that feed my fanaticism by showing that others shared it, like that one of DFW’s college professors “restricted papers to five pages, because he thought that compression made for better thinking. Wallace, in thrall to his galloping mind, could not write short. One time [the prof] had Wallace count the words in one of his papers and found he had squeezed five hundred onto each page, nearly double the norm. He gave Wallace an A-plus in the class anyway.”

I like knowing that “in workshops his written comments on his fellow students’ papers were as generous as his spoken comments could be spiky.” I like knowing some of the stories about things he did:
“One day he put the words ‘pulchritudinous, ‘miniscule,’ ‘big,’ and ‘misspelled’ on the blackboard. He asked his students what the four words had in common, and when no one knew, happily pointed out that the appearance of each was the opposite of its meaning: ‘pulchritudinous’ was ugly, ‘miniscule’ was big, ‘big’ was small, and ‘misspelled’ was spelled correctly.”

I like finding out about his attitude toward the way his literary friendship with the author of The Corrections and Freedom began: “This Jonathan Franzen guy…keeps sending me these 15-page missives describing how I’ve violated every precept of ‘fiction as a moral exercise, an affirmation of life.’”

I love the way Max describes the effect of reading DFW: “making the head throb heart-like.”

What I don’t like, though, is seeing how the magic tricks are done, especially this one: “At one point, Wallace describes being too afraid to go into the Poultry Building, explaining that as a child he had once been attacked by a chicken ‘without provocation, flown at and pecked by a renegade fowl, savagely, just under the right eye.’ The story was likely made up, but its exaggerated stance toward the traumas of childhood captured something readers began to want from him. They too, this affluent and confused generation, had felt the large reverberations inherent in small events. That Wallace was a slightly more neurotic version of his reader helped forge a bond….”

DFW’s best trick, as I said the first time I finished reading Infinite Jest, is that “so many parts of Infinite Jest make you think yes, that’s it, that’s what it’s like.” I don’t want to know how the trick is done. It’s not a Blanche DuBois wish for magic, no paper shade on a bare light bulb, but a reader’s longing to see a little longer by one of the brightest lights of the age.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 2, 2013 9:19 pm

    Hm. I think I’d rather have the generous spoken comments, and the spiky written ones, if it were me. You don’t have to sit and look like you liked it when someone’s written spiky comments. You can process it emotionally on your own time and get straight through to being grateful for their insights.

    Galloping mind or not, I think DFW should have learned to write short. At least discovered that he was capable of it! I think it would have been a salutary exercise. I’m awfully fond of his writing, but I can’t take too much of it at one time. (Infinite Jest, I’ve begun to suspect, is never going to happen. I will always get fed up with the outpouring of words in the middle and go read some Janet Malcolm to refresh my mind.)

    • October 4, 2013 8:21 am

      I’m in the middle of writing responses to student papers, and although I try not to make them spiky, I fear some of them will be perceived that way, so I like what you say about having the time to process.
      Really, I don’t think anybody’s writing should be made to conform to someone else’s arbitrary standards. I love it when students fight back by doing something so well you can’t fault them for the way it’s done.

  2. October 3, 2013 12:19 pm

    I love a good biography especially if it is about a writer. Max must have been a really interesting speaker if he got you to read the bio!

    • October 4, 2013 8:23 am

      I read the bio in anticipation of his visit. Currently, I’m in the middle of one of my phases when I try to take advantage of living in a place where writers come to visit and you can ask them questions.
      I didn’t ask any questions at his talk, but he was an engaging speaker.

  3. October 4, 2013 2:53 am

    I wonder if biographies aren’t eventually going to disappear. A lot of these details for future writers will be easily accessible online, without really needing someone to come and quote from them. And the interpretations and “revelations” would probably work better in a different type of book than a straight-up biography, in such a way that readers who prefer to be in the dark about the tricks can easily find what to read and what to avoid… Just a thought.

    • October 4, 2013 8:34 am

      Interesting thought. I think there will always be people who like biographies–my father was one of them, and I’ve always kind of assumed that I’d like them better as I got older. So far, though, no.
      What you say is already true, to some extent, in that some authors have an online presence, so you can learn a lot about them first-hand. You can know everything about John Scalzi if you read Whatever. You can see Jo Walton’s writing process if you read her live journal, and you can see Joan Slonczewski think about science if you read Ultraphyte.
      I started thinking about why the first examples that came to mind are SF authors, and then the second round are YA authors, and it might be because those audiences are obviously already on the internets. Maybe more authors will follow.

      • Jenny permalink
        October 4, 2013 1:37 pm

        Yes, but biographers — good ones, anyway — put that together in a narrative we can follow, like reading a novel about someone we know, and they give relevant historical and cultural context, which authors can’t usually rise above themselves to do for themselves. Hence the difference between memoir and biography.

        I don’t think of good writing as a trick that can be spoiled by revealing it, like the Wizard of Oz. I think of it as craft, and the more I know about how it’s done, the more in awe I am of the artisan.

        • October 4, 2013 1:40 pm

          Good points. It’s not the writing I think of as a trick, but the details of the life– I don’t want to know if DFW wrote this bit or that while he was cycling up or down on the manic depressive rollercoaster of his life.

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