DFW vs BEE

Kinda curious here if anyone who reads this blog will actually stand up for Bret Easton Ellis as a better writer than David Foster Wallace. My understanding of Ellis is that he wrote one good book (American Psycho) and a bunch of stuff that helped define a scene but that probably won’t last. But, then again, I don’t know Ellis’ work that well.

When he gets going like this, and he does often, it’s tempting to dismiss Ellis as only a provocateur or a troll with an unusually high brow (and profile). Indeed, he’s obsessed with a class of filter-less provocateurs that he praises as “post-Empire”—celebrities like Charlie Sheen, John Mayer, and Eminem. And Ellis has attracted controversy several times himself. In 2010 he suggested that women are inherently ill-equipped for directing movies. Just last month he declared that Matt Bomer couldn’t play the title role in a film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey because he’s too gay. Hours after J.D. Salinger died, he tweeted, “Yeah!! Thank God he’s finally dead. I’ve been waiting for this day for-fucking-ever. Party tonight!!!”

But there’s something older than trolling going on here. In fact, this literary beef is more than two decades old, and Ellis’s weren’t the first shots fired. DFW had similarly harsh words—if less ad hominem—for Ellis all the way back in his earliest published essay, from 1988. In “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” Wallace criticized Ellis’s subcategory of novelists (he called them the “Catatonics”) for their “naïve pretension.” Wallace’s argument, characteristically, defies easy summary, but in short he didn’t think they could turn TV and other popular entertainment into something profound “simply by inverting [their] values.”

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I don’t really think BEE is superior to DFW but that Slate article is contributing and enabling BEE’s obvious asshole provocateur tactics by unloading a lot of psychologizing horse dung on this whole “BEE vs. DFW” thing which is like the literary equivalent of Kayne West vs. 50 Cent. A superficial, media-driven dispute between the two writers that we don’t even know exists or existed. I wish Forrest Wickman had actually talked to BEE about his shit-talking instead.

I’ve never read BEE, but I honestly don’t think I have to to know that DFW is superior.

I read a bunch of Ellis when I was younger, and while his prose can be sharp it’s almost always shallow. Wallace’s statements nailed him to the wall; I had turned against Ellis years before I found out about Wallace, and his statements confirmed, articulated, and expanded upon how I had felt. On the other hand, Wallace at his worst–in, say, some of the Brief Interviews–uses irony in a purely destructive way which recalls his criticisms of Ellis. His worst writing is a little lower in quality than Ellis’ best, in other words.

But while I don’t agree wholeheartedly with anything Ellis has said, a germ of it makes sense: take, for example, how the moralizing of Wallace can be outright nauseating: e.g. a character as contrived as Mario or Leonard Steyk presented as moral hero; or Wallace’s sophistry and rationalization around his practical God; or the entirety of This is Water, which I agree with in general but let’s be honest: it’s nothing new, and those who worship him for it seem purblind.

Apples to oranges. Wait, what, AMERICAN PSYCHO is a good book in what universe? Still, THE RULES OF ATTRACTION has more ethnographic accuracy about New England private college life than any other book i know expect maybe Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY and she was Ellis’ friend and classmate at Bennington.

Cleary Ellis is trying to get some attention for himself, and it seems to have worked. I don’t care for his fiction and stopped reading him after The Rules of Attraction–and yet he has a point about Wallace being overrated. I admire some of DFW’s work, particularly the essays, and a few of the stories like “Forever Overhead”, “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” and “Incarnations of Burned Children”, but his status as “Greatest Writer of His Generation” seems mostly unearned and frankly a bit ridiculous.

I chaired a seminar which had a paper each on BEE and DFW. Conclusion: Discussion of BEE is less worthwhile than discussion of DFW.

This year’s Spring/Summer issue of Dutch fashion magazine Fantastic Man featured an intersting oral history of late 80’s New York menswear designer Bill Robinson who died of AIDS related complications in 1993 at age 45. It is an interesting little biography of one of the lost generation of gay creators. Presented in the article as proof to the part this forgotten designer played in developing the look of the 80’s the article quotes a paragraph from American Psycho:

“I debate between two outfits. One is a wool crepe suit by Bill Robinson I bought at Saks with this cotton jacquard shirt from Charivari and an Armani tie. Or a wool and cashmere sport coat with blue plaid, a cotton shirt and pleated wool trousers by Alexander Julian, with a polka-dot silk tie by Bill Bass. The Julian might be a little too warm for May but if Patricia’s wearing this outfit by Karl Lagerfeld that I think she’s going to, then maybe I will go with the Julian, because it would go well with her suit. The shoes are crocodile loafers by A. Testoni.”

I’ve only ever read Less Than Zero by Ellis – sometime as a teenager in the late 80’s. I can’t remember anything about it. I remember more clearly the music video for the Bangles version of Hazy Shade of Winter from the soundtrack to the film version starring Robert Downey Jr. McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City is more memorable a book from that era, and likely more worth re-reading than Ellis.
But, what struck me most when I read this one paragraph from American Psycho in this article a couple months ago is how completely vapid and obvious Ellis’ writing is. He wants to show how shallow his character is and so does so with a list of names he probably just pulled from an issue of W or something he grabbed of a news stand that day. It made good documentation for the biography of the designer because it was reportage, not fiction or litertature. I can’t imagine making my way through an entire book as boring as that paragraph.
Meanwhile, in a fashion spread titled “Phonies” in June’s Vice (their 2012 fiction issue) that takes inspiration from characters from great works of fiction: who resides beside the likes of Holden Caulfied, Captain Ahab, Lady MacBeth, Jay Gatsby, Lolita and Ignatius J. Reilly but one Michael Pemulis.
So, Ellis tries to use popular culture to critique society, yet it is popular culture which ultimately defines over time who and what is a great artitic creation.

oblivion (imo) > infinite jest > bret’s works >>>>>> brief interviews and the articles and the other DFW novel

both are valuable writers IMO.

there are way better writers than both being talked about on this blog every single other post too.

the american/british literary scene and readership habits is goofy, insular, sad, provincial. a dumb little boxing arena where bret feels he should throw some punches at the overrated bandanna guy.

DFW is goofily overrated and there’s something irritating about how easily he charms people and works to charm people of average intelligence. how hard he works to try and establish intellectual ‘standing’, with sophomoric pharmacology and mathematics. how hard everyone falls for it, to the point where they no longer engage with the work as full persons. (it’s reminiscent of Nabokov love but at least he enchanted people with beautiful effects, not just trying to show off with what is basically very introductory understandings of most things.)

the research in DFW’s writing is not as well incorporated as, say, in Pynchon’s information-infused worlds. Gravity’s Rainbow is full of math and science because they are integrally bound up with the work, with the metaphysics.

also, Pynchon has a much better understanding of his information, and he actually has NEW ideas for them, he moves forward knowledge.

DFW is halfway there, but the other half is — again — clumsy attempts to establish the writer’s authority as a smart guy. That is at least half, often more, of the attempted function. I say clumsy, but it works for his fans I guess. “wow, so smart” is their response. but if you can see through it, it just honestly comes off as pretty stupid and desperate.

however, he certainly was serious and passionate and ended up doing a lot of good work, especially when he got carried away …

Bret’s not so bad, but worse I think.

The film American Psycho is a lot better than the novel, which I don’t think is some moral failure as DFW suggests, just because he doesn’t solve the character’s derangement. That’s a really stupid problem to have with it.

The actual issue with the novel American Psycho is that it’s monotonous, which I suppose DFW was getting at too, IIRC. Because it’s the same shi forever — it’s a novel of an Idea, the idea is this character and the tenuous reality formed in the interface with his mind, and you get the Idea — and then it just goes on. it’s not a failure of moral development, it’s a failure of intellectual span.

failure of fucking imagination. which delimits his work in the novel and in his corpus generally.

i think they both kind of had that problem somewhat honestly.

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