There are sections in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that make me feel like I am not alone in the universe, that I am understood, that my fears are shared, and there is true kinship among souls. That doesn’t matter to Professor Amy Hungerford, Dean of Humanities at Yale, who decided that Wallace’s reported mistreatment of poet Mary Karr meant that he shouldn’t be read anymore. She replaced his work on her syllabus with a selection from graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, whose most important contribution is to insist that women’s dialogue in movies have a content quota system.
The argument against Wallace, and against so many of these male writers whose books are being ripped from college syllabi, is that their “genius” is no excuse for their bad behaviour. In the Atlantic article that reported on Wallace’s bad behaviour toward Karr, the concept of genius itself is derided as chauvinistic. “Genius, a male condition that inflicts its maleness on the individual soul. Genius, an object of worship. Genius, perhaps slightly demonic… Genius itself, the way we typically conceive of it, remains infused with the male gaze, or perhaps more aptly, the male haze: It is gendered by implication. It is a designation reserved, almost exclusively, for men.”
So, fuck that I guess? Great work written by male geniuses who suck at life is no longer worthwhile because … men? The article goes on to ridicule Wallace’s biographer for making Karr “a slight character” in a biography about Wallace. Perhaps Karr should have been the main character in Wallace’s biography, perhaps his reported shittiness in their relationship should have been the main thrust of the entire narrative of Wallace’s life (which Wallace took in 2008). Clearly, he was unwell, and had difficulties coping with life. But because he was such a dick, which probably had something to do with whatever demons would pursue him eventually to self-inflicted death, his work should be chucked from the curriculum.
In college, I was assigned Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. There is a section where a German general hires a prostitute to defecate into his mouth, in an unflinching metaphor about the horrors of World War Two. This laid bare the atrocities of what human beings are capable of doing to one another despite the fact that it’s totally derogatory towards women, probably, to show them as whores or something. Am I getting this right? Or was it okay because the whore in question was probably a Nazi collaborator? Can’t we just read?
It was in this same course that I read Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?, a difficult read for both content and style. It was about the feeling of a time and place I could only experience through Mailer’s work. But maybe I shouldn’t have read it because he was misogynistic? Am I supposed to believe that there was somewhere else, someone else, who could have given me this gift of clarity about war?
In Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, he speaks about the difficulty between trying to write and trying to live that, at 17, spoke to me so deeply I carried the book around and reread passages over and over.
I knew that Henry Miller was not a believer in women’s equality, but that perspective was irrelevant to his overall point. I knew from stories about Anais Nin, and his wife June, and his own words, that his ideas on women’s worth were entirely based in their use as objects for sex. I didn’t care. It became clear that there were loads of male authors who spoke to my heart that I would not want in my bed, or to teach my children, or even to hang out with for very long, if at all. But I spent hours reading their work, and those are hours I would never give back.
Is it that these authors don’t deserve to be read? These men who have behaved like brutes, are they to be punished for all time because of that behaviour? Are they to be wiped clean from literary history for the crime of being total assholes in their personal lives? Are we really supposed to believe that there are authors out there who are super fucking kind to puppies, volunteer at soup kitchens every week, never say mean things, or give into their worst impulses, lack vices, keep their wives and kids happy, and are still so good at writing that they can make us stop questioning whether or not we’re truly alone in the universe? Can make us weep with words? Can make us feel our hearts pounding out across the damned earth and make us grateful for it?
Or is it that the work is somehow tainted by the author’s views toward women, or in Wallace’s case, lack of self-control? Are we to believe that it is an author’s unconscious biases that are impacting negatively on the work itself, and that these unconscious biases will somehow become our unconscious biases? Are we readers and students not clever enough to tell the difference between our own thoughts and those of the author? Do profs really think the kids are that incapable of discernment?
This penchant for wiping the slate of male authors as some kind of retribution against their maleness, their chauvinism, machismo, misogyny, pick your dirty word, isn’t going to punish them, most of them are dead anyways. It’s going to punish us. We are the ones who will miss out. We are the ones who will lose for loss of these words. Maybe colleges aren’t the place to go learn anymore, maybe instead we should go back to browsing the stacks looking for kinship and recognition across time and pages. Colleges are teaching the wrong things. If authors are to be held accountable for their actions as well as their words, we should get accustomed to mediocrity. But I guess we’re already there.