Dyer Slams Wallace in Prospect

I have great admiration for Geoff Dyer as a critic, so I’m going to repress the urge to call this David Foster Wallace mini-takedown a contrived piece of literary critical theater. The fact is that he’s better than that. But the fact also is that this is all too predictable.

  • Hot new literary commodity hits the scene
  • Critics collectively bathe it in a flurry of gushy accolade
  • Grouchy critic comes along and tells them all to calm down
  • Instant controversy!
  • (And not to mention, Dyer is also on a book tour selling his latest book at the moment.)

This, minus the book tour, was pretty much exactly what happened with Freedom, and now with Pale King it’s beginning to feel very scripted, in the way that the latest season of Survivor, or Glee, or any other show purporting to depict an obviously constructed reality becomes predictable in its unpredictableness.

Anyway, grouchy tirade over. Dyer’s critique seems to have something to do with Wallace’s style, which he seems to think is excessively showy and gimmicky. Although he doesn’t really write enough to get very precise in his critique, so maybe he’ll follow this up some day with something more valid.

One other thing: it’s weirdly interesting that he finds “Host” an “apotheosis of unreadability,” since I’ve always considered that essay one of Wallace’s tightest. However, I have noticed many older friends of mine–even those who otherwise like Wallace–seem to think as Dyer does about “Host.” Maybe it’s a generational thing.

I guess it’s a question of tone. I react against the variously contrived sloppinesses of all those “sort ofs” and “kind ofs” in tandem with, sometimes followed by, the magisterial flamboyant (“Existentiovoyeuristic conundra notwithstanding”). Or the grunge affectation of the double “though” in: “There are big differences between Agassi’s and Joyce’s games, though. Though Joyce…” It’s not that I dislike the extravagance, the excess, the beanie-baroque, the phat loquacity. They just bug the crap out of me. As do the obsessive parenthesising, insistent italicising, footnote-generating footnotes and typographical gimmickry that reaches a kind of apotheosis of unreadability in “Host,” from Consider the Lobster.

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To me, the key difference between this fluffy essay and the pitchfork-wielding attacks on “Freedom” is the tone. Dyer doesn’t appear to harbor any ill will. He just seems to dislike Wallace’s affectations. No crime there. I found this little piece pretty inconsequential, but I appreciated it for being so; too often, takedowns of revered writers are incredibly self-important.

I need to read some Dyer. Where to start?


    Depends on what you want and what your interests are (and also where you are). If you are in the US get his latest set of essays – Otherwise Known As The Human Condition. If you are in the UK I would grab Anglo-English Attitudes and then Working The Room (from which OKATHC is drawn). But Beautiful is his best book even if you don’t like jazz. Ongoing Moment is one of the best photography books of recent years. And Paris Trance is my favourite of his fiction (but his non-fiction is better). There are lots of essays online but there is something special about having them together.

It’s probably worth pointing out that while DFW has become a totemic figure in contemporary American literature, he enjoys no such status in the UK. Indeed, while DFW’s essays and Infinite Jest dominate a lot of literary chatter in the US, neither DFW’s fiction for his non-fiction figure that prominently in British literary discussion and the British gaze on US literary culture tends to take in the DeLillos and the Franzens far more readily than it does the postmodernists like Pynchon and Wallace.

DFW’s simply not big enough in the UK for Ryman to feel the need to take him down as an act of contrarianism. See also the review in the recent London Review of Books which effectively goes “some really nice bits but meh…”.

If you wanted to read political motivations into Ryman’s dislike of the Pale King I’d think it more likely that the piece was about the encroachment of US cultural values into the British literary sphere.


I saw that LRB review and actually called it one of the best pieces I’d read on PK (on my Twitter feed). If I recall correctly, Infinite Jest was praised fairly highly therein, and I thought the treatment of PK was very fair.

It’s interesting that you note that DeLillo is kumped with Franzen in the UK. Most here (in the U.S.) would consider him a postmodernist, certainly closer to Pynchon than he is to Franzen.

But at any rate, I see Wallace much more as continuing the modernist tradition in postmodernist times than in being a garden-variety postmodernist.

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