Came across an interesting article in Prospect Magazine. In it, Geoff Dyer explains his reasons why he doesn’t like David Foster Wallace’s writing. It’s not that he’s read it, of course, he hasn’t even read Infinite Jest (which, he concedes, is like evaluating Joyce without reading Ulysses) but the fact that he has difficulty reading it because of a “literary allergy.”
These styles are inextricably bound up with the tics, mannerisms, compulsions and quirks they display between points and games. Now, as a writer DFW is all tics, quirks and obsessive compulsions. These are not decorative additions to his game, his style, they’re absolutely integral to it. Federer’s style is about maximum economy and grace of action. Between games he just sits there. Barely even sweats. DFW, by contrast, is forever picking his shorts out of his arse like Nadal, bouncing the balls as many times as Djokovic, tugging his cap forwards and backwards like Roddick, or twitching like Lleyton Hewitt. He is the least Federer-like writer imaginable.
I disagree with him, of course. I find Wallace’s writing dense, but likable, as if he was a super-cool-professor-who’s-also-a-friend. Plus, for those of us who grew up thinking hypertext was text, his frequent use of footnotes is natural and helps with our short attention spans. But let’s examine his main point for a minute–is it possible to have a “literary allergy?” What constitutes a literary allergy? I’ve read lots of things for class that I don’t care for, but does that mean that I have a literary allergy to 15th century morality plays? Do you have to make a repeated but failing attempt to read the same author? In that case, I’ve been trying to crack Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners for ages. (But at least unlike Dyer w/r/t DFW, I read Ulysses) Do you need a physical reaction to the writing itself? Is it good enough if you just feel sick and throw up a little, or do you have to break out in hives? I think it’s like pollen, for two weeks in the spring there’s no way I can read Barthe, but the season will pass.
Or we can all agree that the concept of “literary allergy” is a foolish one. There’s so much art, writing, music, etc in the world that it’s a foregone conclusion that there’s something that you’ll miss, whether it’s for reasons of style –a literary allergy–or for reasons of ignorance.