Belated Book Review: David Foster Wallace’s ‘Both Flesh and Not’

The most recent book, a posthumous essay collection.*

*Which I just read in hard cover though it’s two years old, because the public library just acquired it or just shelved it with new books. It makes me want to throw over the whole idea of reviewing books when they first drop and do belated reviews of ones that have great titles such as British Manly Exercises, Containing Rowing and Sailing, Riding & Driving, &c.,&c (1837), by Donald Walker.


June 15, 2014

Both Flesh and Not. David Foster Wallace. Back Bay Books, 2013. $17 paper, $10 e-book.

Both Flesh and Not (2012) is the latest DFW book to be published since his death in 2008[1]. This collection comprises 15 essays published over a 20-year span, and you’ve likely read some of them, in the New York Times, Spin, Tennis magazine, Science, or elsewhere. Several are book or movie reviews; there’s an intro to Best American Essays, “word notes” Wallace contributed to a writer’s thesaurus, and pieces on the US Open and on Roger Federer. Being the work of a polymath, they often become base camps from which Wallace climbs to other places: “In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.”

That “today” is terribly true, since the socio-politico-literary contexts he wrote about over the decades still exist. In historical time he was just here of course, but he didn’t live to see the “Decider,” at whom he pokes fun, leave office, eg, and an avowedly more progressive president step in. Then again, the liberal president continued or intensified programs the Decider endorsed, so what Wallace has to say about “Guantanamo...warrantless surveillance...corporate contractors performing military functions...” is still pertinent. If anything, some of his topics—the utility of MFA programs, the culture wars in writing, and the problem of how to be a moral person in the digital age—have intensified in interest.

This is the best thing about this book: It’s comforting to have him still here, flesh or not, talking with us about the glut of data we confront every day, and how we must learn to farm out some of our decidering to compilers and editors we can trust or else risk an “immature” form of knowing.[2] Wallace presumably played no role in the selection or arrangement of this book, so the collection’s unevenness falls on the deciders who shaped it.[3] But the writing is usually brilliant and informed and is sometimes prescient, so I trust him when he essays forth. This quality of his work, a comforting yet challenging trustworthiness, will not soon fade.

Wallace had a talent for explaining complicated concepts, especially in things he had long experience with, such as math, philosophy, fiction, nonfiction, and tennis:

“The [Federer] Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do.” “[T]here’s the fact that you’re not putting a static object into motion here but rather reversing the flight and (to a varying extent) spin of a projectile coming toward you...at speeds that make conscious thought impossible. [...] Since it’s seventy-eight feet from [Mario] Ancic’s baseline to yours, that means it takes 0.41 seconds for his serve to reach you. This is less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.”[4]

The reminder that he understood, acknowledged, and worried deeply over the complexity of life, thought, and language is the second best thing about this book. Sometimes he even has a tendency to what might be called conservative values. Not politically conservative, but in terms of honoring things of the past for their applicability to the present, and for making judgments on aspects of contemporary culture that are facile. This might surprise some fans, given that he’s a seminal figure in what came after whatever came before the ‘80s, and that many believe the most exciting thing about our time is that anything is good as long as it’s subjectively likable, enjoyable, or popularly accepted.[5]

When DFW talks about MFA programs in creative writing, eg, he doesn’t worry as much about common things students worry about—that programs might be adjunct factories, or that they don’t give students enough time to write because there are too many other duties to manage[6], or that they aren’t introducing students to writing from their own time—as he does about programs being terrifically anti-intellectual and lacking in rigor. He says in “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” a complement to his famous essay “E Unibus Pluram”[7]:


[A] lot of Creative Writing Programs are an unfunny joke. Few require of applicants any significant preparation in history, literature, criticism, composition, foreign languages, art, or philosophy; fewer still make attempts to provide it in curricula or require it as a criterion for graduation. [...] Way too many students are being ‘certified’ to go out there and try to do meaningful work on the cutting edge of an artistic discipline of whose underpinnings, history, and greatest achievements they are largely ignorant. The obligatory survey of ‘Writers Who Are Important to You’ at the start of each term seems to suggest that Homer[8] and Milton, Cervantes and Shakespeare, Maupassant and Gogol—to say nothing of the Testaments—have receded into the mists of Straight Lit...we’re supposed to want to be writers, here. We as a generation are in danger of justifying Eliot at his zaniest if via a blend of academic stasis and intellectual disinterest we show to the dissatisfaction of all that culture is either cumulative or it is dead, empty on either side of a social Now that admits neither passion about the future nor curiosity about the past.[9][10]


Wallace also believes workshops look at wrong things, or too-easy things,


...the sorts of simple, surface concerns that a dozen or so people can talk about coherently: straightforward mechanics of traditional fiction production like fidelity to point-of-view, consistency of tense and tone, development of character, verisimilitude of setting, etc. Faults or virtues that cannot quickly be identified or discussed between bells—little things like interestingness, depth of vision, originality, political assumptions and agendas, the question whether deviation from norm is in some cases OK—must, for sound Program-pedagogical reasons, be ignored or discouraged. Too, in order to remain both helpful and sane, the professional writer/teacher has got to develop, consciously or not, an aesthetic doctrine, a static set of principles about how a ‘good’ story works. Otherwise he’d have to start from intuitive scratch with each student piece he reads, and that way the liquor cabinet lies.[11]

Wallace of course is so fair and balanced, to re-employ a phrase from our sophistic media, that it’s hard to anticipate his rhetorical moves or even easily summarize his final positions, which is the whole point. He sinks so deeply into musings that he not only considers all sides of a topic—one reason his length is justified—he often comes out the other sides of them into more transcendent statements. By the time he says, “Most germane is the frequent charge of a certain numbing sameness about much contemporary young writing. To a certain extent anyone who reads widely must agree with it,” he has already taken the views of both old guard and young rebels sympathetically into account, and it’s hard not to agree and already be scrambling up the slope of some bigger idea in his company.

E.g., he says ignoring TV and other pop culture is a failure of older writers, as “there are uncountable ways in which...popular entertainment affects the existential predicaments of both persons and groups.” (50) But:


Entertainment professionals have apparently done research: audiences find the deaths of those with whom they identify a downer, and are less apt to watch dramas in which danger is creatively connected to the death that makes danger dangerous. The natural consequence is that today’s dramatic heroes tend to be ‘immortal’ within the frame that makes them heroes and objects of identification....” “The danger is that, as entertainment’s denials of the truth [ie, mortality] get even more effective and pervasive and seductive, we will eventually forget what they’re denials of.  This is scary. Because it seems transparent to me that, if we forget how to die, we’re going to forget how to live. / And if you think contemporary literary artists...are above blinking at a reality we all find unpleasant, consider the number of serious American fictional enterprises in the last decade [written in 1988] that have dealt with what’s acknowledged to be the single greatest organized threat to our persons and society. Try to name, say, two. Maybe the real question is—how serious can people who have a right to be entertained permit ‘serious’ fiction to be anymore?


Correspondingly, “Today’s trash writers are entertainers working artists’ turf. [...] My complaint against trash isn’t that it’s vulgar art, or irritatingly dumb art, but that, given what makes fiction art at all, trash is simply unreal, empty....”[12][13][14]

Elsewhere, with a stroke he cuts through the dichotomy of the aesthetic wars and shames you for thinking there were sides at all: “This doesn’t mean that Metafiction and Minimalism, the two most starkly self-conscious of the movements that exploit human beings’ wary and excited new attention to language, compose or even indicate the directions in which the serious fiction of ‘whole new generations’ will move. Both these forms strike me as simple engines of self-reference (Metafiction overtly so, Minimalism a bit sneakier); they are primitive, crude, and seem already to have reached the Clang-Bird-esque horizon of their own possibility....”

That is, DFW is too good to be merely partisan, as when he questions postmodernism’s limits, in a mini-review of Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito: “Since any great poem communicates an emotional urgency that postmodernism’s integument of irony renders facile or banal, postmodern poets have a tough row to hoe.”[15] Or, in a terrific review he wrote of a collection of prose poems:


Basic aesthetic/ideological raison d’etre of the above forms: to comment on, complicate, subvert, defamiliarize, transgress against, or otherwise fuck with received ideas of genre, category, and (especially) formal conventions/constraints. [...] Big paradox/oxymoron behind this raison and the current trendiness of transgeneric forms: In fact, these putatively 'transgressive' forms depend heavily on received ideas of genre, category, and formal conventions, since without such an established context there’s nothing much to transgress against.” “[A] prose poem very consciously calls itself a poem, which of course sends the reader a message, namely that this a particular kind of literary art that demands a particular kind of reading—slow, careful, with extra attention paid to certain special characteristics. Not least of these special characteristics are the compression and multivalence of the poem’s syntax and the particular rhythms and tensions of the poem’s music. These are what give a poem the weird special urgency that both justifies and rewards the extra work a reader has to put into reading it. [T]he absence of formal controls seems like the major reason why so many of [the collection’s] p.p.’s seem not just non-urgent but incoherent; most of them literally fall apart under the close, concentrated attention that poetry’s supposed to demand.


He very nearly describes his own compulsive footnoting at this point when he says in a footnote, “N.B. that this sort of problem is endemic to many of the trendy literary forms that identify/congratulate themselves as transgressive. And it’s easy to see why. In regarding formal conventions primarily as ‘rules’ to rebel against, the Professional Transgressor fails to see that conventions often become conventions precisely because of their power and utility[16], i.e., because of the paradoxical freedoms they permit the artist who understands how to use (not merely ‘obey’) them.” (254). DFW used footnotes to try to inject more meaning into linear text, and he knew he hadn’t invented their use. DFW imitators[17] have sometimes used them because he used them, so they’re merely stylistic mannerisms.

Another delight is DFW’s so-conservative-it's-conservationist love for and interest in words and their proper usage. His pronouncements (“Utilize...A noxious puff-word”) can be more severe than a canonical style guide (Strunk/White: “Utilize. Prefer use.”) There are 19 pages of these definitions, prescriptions, and etymologies here. “Now go do the right thing,” he instructs. The Publisher’s Note at the start of the book says, “On his computer [DFW] constantly updated a list of words that he wanted to learn...[a] selection from this vocabulary list [also] appears before each essay of Both Flesh and Not.”[18] The “publisher” (no editor listed) adds, “It was one of the great thrills of Wallace’s life to be invited to serve on the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary.”[19]

It’s hard to keep in mind how young DFW was when he started and finished, or that this “encyclopedic” writer didn’t examine everything, but some of these essays are reminders. His review of Terminator 2 is based on a conceit of “F/X porn,” fair and fun enough, but when he says some movie called Titanic, by the same director, is coming out soon, and a “nation is even now pricing trenchcoats and lubricants in anticipation of its release,” he pushes the trope a little toward the young-man obvious. In another essay he borrows the metaphor from Don DeLillo of one’s own writing as a “hideously damaged infant” and goes on about it for a page, overworking it to the point of being even more grotesque for comedy’s sake (“you love it and dandle it and wipe the cerebrospinal fluid off its slack chin”), then trying to claim, “The whole thing’s all very messed up and sad, but simultaneously it’s also tender and moving and noble and cool....” (194) There’s that word, cool, intelligence married to emotional sterility, the young writer who had no child, let alone a compromised one.[20]

DFW talks in his BAE intro about some of the writing in that anthology serving as “a model for what free, informed adulthood might look like in the context of Total Noise: not just the intelligence to discern one’s own error or stupidity, but the humility to address it, absorb it, and move on and out therefrom, bravely, toward the next revealed error. This is probably the sincerest, most biased account of ‘Best’ your Decider can give: these pieces are models—not templates, but models—of ways I wish I could think and live in what seems to me this world." The publisher made this the penultimate essay in the book, no doubt for its resonance with DFW’s own work.[21]


[1] But it almost certainly won’t be the last.

[2] “It may possibly be that acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to is now the real measure of informed adulthood.”

[3] His other collections were uneven too, truth be told.

[4] That’s assuming a reader is in the mood for that much intensity, footnotes and all...for 63 pages.

[5] In an age touchy about the word "genre" as unfairly pejorative, he says this about genre fiction [not literary writing with genre elements, which is different]: “The evaluative criteria tend to be rather special for genre fiction. Instead of the basically aesthetic assay the reviewer gets to make of most literary fiction—‘Is this piece of fiction good?’—criticism of genre fiction is ultimately more rhetorical—‘To whom will this piece of fiction appeal’?”

[6] Certainly some applicants enthuse they want to do an MFA in order “to have time to only write,” a hint that the academic program they’re applying for might not be the right fit, with its blend of academic, craft, and workshop classes, as well as teaching duties for the assistantship.

[7] In the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

[8] I’ve also had many students interested only in what they call the “super-contemporary,” and one who chided all of us for praising a student story that had Homeric references. Without addressing what was working well, she went ad hominem: “I just feel there’s nothing of interest in this story because I’m not interested in Homer, and I don’t care about the canon.”

[9] From a well-known website about MFA programs: “I was wondering if you could explain the purpose of including literature classes in an MFA curriculum? Do such courses focus on the study of an author’s actual technique, or are they more of the lit-crit analysis of theme, symbol, etc. I endured as an undergraduate? Moreover, at the risk of sounding arrogant, what is the point of studying a text (story) in this manner if so much of the creative process is governed by the unconscious mind? Shouldn’t an MFA program emphasize craft over literary analysis?”

[10] In the introduction DFW wrote to Best American Essays 2007, he points to the inevitable failure of editors (and by extension workshop leaders) if someone denies their authority hard enough. If someone chose “to ask just what principles Mr. Atwan [series editor] uses to determine ‘achievement’ and ‘awareness’ and ‘forcefulness’ (not to mention ‘literary,’)” the whole enterprise would come apart, as “specific questions would entail specific answers that then would raise more questions, and so on...a point will be reached at which any Decider is going to look either (a) arrogant and arbitrary (‘It’s literary because I say so’) or else (b) weak and incoherent (as he thrashes around in endless little definitions and exceptions and qualifications and apparent flip-flops). It’s true. Press either R. Atwan or D. Wallace hard enough on any of our criteria or reasons...and you’ll eventually get either paralyzed silence or the abysmal, Legionish babble of every last perceived fact and value. [...] Plus I have no real problem, emotionally or politically, with stopping at any given point in any theoretical Q & A & Q and simply shrugging and saying that I hear the caviling voices but am...the Decider, and...get to define and decide what’s Best...and that if you don’t like it then basically tough titty.” In the end, there has to be a sort of mutual respect or at least professional forbearance in matters such as workshop or else everybody should go home and drink Diet Coke.)

[11] Yes, I wondered why my rare two fingers became three in recent years. In any case, this belief in deep understanding—developing a worldview, even—will probably play against the expectations of writers who profess to admire DFW but who might be called the Village Ecstatics: Serial killer in a story? Cool. A wordy ramble that fizzles like a sparkler? Awesome! But why read Richard Wright? He’s old and conventional, and the onomatopoeic start of Native Son is clunky beyond belief. James Baldwin? Is nothing, because he’s too bound up in a canon that I played no role in deciding, and which is forced upon me.

[12] The notion of “unserious fiction” was in the air, then as now. See this from 1982. And this passage from John Gardner’s Art of Fiction, 1983. Gardner is sometimes reviled for his conservatism, including his famous phrase “moral fiction,” so it’s interesting that Wallace makes similar value judgments despite being a “hysterical realist” and anti-mimetic postmodernist.

[13] The New Yorker after his death: “’Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,’ [DFW] once said. Good writing should help readers to ‘become less alone inside.’ Wallace’s desire to write ‘morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,’ as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems.” “Wallace worried that he had been driven by a ‘basically vapid urge to be avant-garde . . . and linguistically calisthenic.’” This echoes something I remember being said of Joyce, that at the end of his life he regretted his stylistic experiments and said he’d made a wrong turn after Dubliners. This may be apocryphal. But watching DFW struggle with it is like watching Jacob wrestle with the angel.

[14] The deeper connection between Gardner and Wallace, or anybody else, is that, style aside, there is, as Wallace says: “The need to get the words & voices not only out—outside the sixteen-inch diameter of bone that both births and imprisons them—but also down, trusting them neither to the insubstantial country of the mind nor to the transient venue of cords & air & ear...as for anyone from a Flaubert to a diarist to a letter-fiend—a necessary affirmation of an outside, some Exterior one’s written record can not only communicate but inhabit.”

[15] Eastern European and Latin American poets “have succeeded in marrying the stuff of the spirit and human feeling to the parodic detachment the postmodern experience seems to require,” he says.

[16] DFW says that notes “allow . . . me to make the primary-text an easier read while at once 1) allowing a discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story, 2) mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence. 3) have a lot more technical/medical verisimilitude 4) allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns . . . 5) feel emotionally like I’m satisfying your request for compression of text without sacrificing enormous amounts of stuff.”

[17] C’est moi, I suppose, though in the reviewer’s defense—third-person referring to himself another mannerism of DFW’s—this hungry need for something beyond the bounds of straight linearity in the sentences becomes viral, moving from host/primary text [the slash yet another stylistic tic] to review/secondary text.

[18] But Bandoleer? Berm? Docent? Patois? WYSIWYG? These are words DFW “wanted to learn”?

[19] I guess, though no source is cited, and I would think publishing his undergrad honors thesis as his first novel might more fairly have been described as a great thrill. Also: “The definitions in his vocabulary list [are] from that excellent reference work,” the publisher says; I note that both this collection and the dictionary in question are from Hachette Book Group.

[20] His sister “spoke of the ‘magical uncle’ who wasn’t so big on kids....”

[21] They’re right about that.



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