The trajectory of writer-worrier David Foster Wallace
Both Flesh and Not:
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown and Company
$26.99 List Price
BOTH FLESH AND NOT is David Foster Wallace at his best and his worst, but the thing about Wallace’s best was that it usually contained his worst: He was his most consequentially gracious when his tenderness and generosity were only barely outpacing his capacity to be a total dickhead. It’s appropriate, then, that this final nonfiction collection should include the last great essays he wrote alongside at least a few pieces he declined to include in not only one collection but two, first in 1997’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and again in 2005’s Consider the Lobster. These were, as it turns out, the sorts of pieces that made it rather difficult to like him. Wallace wanted to be liked but hated himself for it; that he wrote only to be liked was perhaps his greatest worry.
What does it mean—for art, for well-being—to write for approval? This question was at the center of Wallace’s whole literary-anxiety complex: All of his pet worries were modes of wondering what, and whom, writing was for. When he wasn’t worrying about the traps of self-consciousness, solipsism, and radical skepticism, he was worrying about irony, slickness, or seduction. He could probably be described as the great writer-worrier of his time, and he taught a generation of essayist-reporters—those who practice what John Jeremiah Sullivan called, in a slyly patricidal piece about The Pale King for GQ, “magazine writing”—what we ought to be worrying about. Disproportionate anxiety is what differentiates magazine writing from “magazine writing,” consummate professionals such as David Grann
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