His reputation preceded him. I had heard David Foster Wallace’s name long before I read any of his work—I started with Consider the Lobster, for those who are curious—and I knew that Infinite Jest was worshipped by a sizable cadre of devotees well before I had internalized the image of a scruffy, long-haired, bandana-wearing genius.
And then, reading DFW as a twenty-something aspiring writer who had studied archaeology rather than English, I was overwhelmed. Who wrote like that? DFW casually and regularly used words that made the SAT analogy test seem like Goodnight Moon. He effortlessly referenced obscure philosophers and even more obscure novelists. I couldn’t believe that one person could have so much knowledge and wield it so easily. How did someone become that?
Like so many mysteries, the answer is painfully boring. DFW put in the work. He read books—including dictionaries and thesauruses—like weightlifters lift weights. Reading DFW a decade after first diving into his work, his once-mystical power is revealed as extraordinarily mortal. His writings were the natural outgrowth of his talent and all that work. Demystification doesn’t make his achievements any less impressive.
It also doesn’t make his work any more accessible. What was once overwhelmingly impressive now seems impressive but needlessly obtuse, fireworks when a match would do. I’ve become a proponent of plain language, an adherent to the teachings of Le Guin and Hemingway. (I did try to do DFW a solid up above by referencing his “sizable cadre of devotees,” though.) As my tastes have developed, I’ve come to believe in communicating in as few words as possible but also, when nothing is sacrificed, in the plainest language possible.
It’s here where I have to note that DFW might have believed that he was doing exactly this, only that he was expressing such complex thoughts that the verbose way he approached them was the only way they could be approached. The result is that his writing feels exclusionary to me now in a way that it didn’t back when his linguistic pyrotechnics alone were enough to keep me reading. If you have a pre-existing understanding of what DFW is discussing—tennis, let’s say—then his discussions are so extravagantly nuanced that they’ll likely be satisfying in the way that any late-night diner conversation with an over-caffeinated friend is satisfying. But if you’re unfamiliar with the subject at hand, DFW has no patience for explanation. In that way, he’s the antithesis of someone like Malcolm Gladwell, who goes to great pains to bring every conceivable reader into the fold. (The exception that must be mentioned is This Is Water.)
A decade after I started reading him, I still love DFW. His talent is undeniable and the work that he put in to hone that talent is remarkable. In becoming a better reader—and, hopefully, writer—I have come to understand his work better and while that understanding has stripped away the literally overwhelming nature of his work, exposing room for criticism where before there was none, it has done nothing to diminish my appreciation for a generational, singular creator. I don’t always agree with his approach, but I’ll never argue with the caliber of his effort.