My Outsider Opinion Of David Foster Wallace

I’ve been geeking out on David Foster Wallace. Until a few days ago, I hadn’t read a word of his writing, but we’re doing a show on him this Monday so in the last couple of days I’ve been reading everything about and by him that I can get my hands on. Unfortunately, I find myself plagued by a case of the howling fantods. When someone asked me today what DFW was about I found I still couldn’t really explain him. Anyway, here are some quick thoughts as I still work out in my head who DFW was and what he may have stood for.

  • DFW’s genius was how he viewed the world. On our best days, we all think like DFW did. It’s just that we can’t articulate our vision of the world as eloquently as he was able to do time and time again. DFW observed things about cruise ships, tennis and lobsters that all of us have thought, but could never say so completely and so well. And that’s DFW’s universal appeal – his ability to paint a clear vision of the world that is simultaneously articulate and remarkably accessible.
  • DFW’s experience with 12 step programs informed his populist streak. Maria Bustillos (who is incredible, by the way) explained this to me today. DFW struggled with addiction and depression his entire life. The idea of someone as brilliant as DFW turning to someone like John Bradshaw for life’s eternal truths seems really surprising. But as Bustillos explained, Bradshaw was all the rage in AA circles at the time. Bradshaw’s The Family along with books like Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child really “nailed and revealed” DFW to himself. They helped form his very raw way of writing, but more importantly they influenced DFW’s ability to write about issues at the forefront of the average person’s mind. DFW was a heady academic, but he had an uncanny ability to write about very grounded and real themes.
  • DFW draws in so many young readers because he is so not a canon writer. I guess this is obvious, but high school and college students are forced to swim in the canon of the “classics” for their entire lives. Teachers make them read scholars and intellectuals who proudly bear those labels.  DFW was both a scholar and an intellectual, but I think they were labels he largely shrugged and categories his writing refused to adhere to. Both DFW’s fiction and his nonfiction constantly worked to make itself as “uncanon” as possible. And that rebellious streak is very appealing to young readers. Heck, it’s appealing to journalists too.
  • DFW didn’t influence how we speak online. Again, I side with Bustillos here. While it is true people write and speak online today in a lot of the ways that DFW wrote and spoke, that’s not because DFW’s writing was so influential that it established some kind of hard-to-define “voice of the Internet.” It’s because, today, a lot of “every mans” are writing on the Internet and it just so happens that DFW wrote and spoke like an “every man.” A hyper-intelligent and remarkably articulate “every man,” but an “every man” just the same. The voice of the Internet is diverse – shaped as much by the medium in which people are writing (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.)  as it is in the writers who have influenced the styles of its authors. To pin that much influence on the shoulders of one man is a bit of an overreach.
OK, that’s it.
Go ahead DFW nerds, tell me how wrong I am.

What The Great Ate

Food has played a starring role in the lives of countless famous (and infamous) people.

Matthew & Mark Jacob outline it all in their new book, What the Great Ate.


Nikola Tesla, the Serbian American genius who did a lot with electricity and radio, was well-known for his eccentric behavior when it came to dinner. No matter what Tesla was eating, he followed very strict rules:

  • The table cloth had to be fresh, with a stack of clean cloth napkins on the table’s left side. The supply of napkins had to be divisible by three (he was obsessed with that), but reports varied on whether he required two dozen napkins or merely 18.
  • He would wipe each dish and utensil with a napkin and then drop the napkin to the floor
  • His table could not be used by anyone else when he was not there
  • Plates and bowls had to be oval
  • Nearby diners could NOT wear pearls.
  • If a fly landed on the table, he considered it fair cause to have the entire table stripped of its contents and the meal begun anew.

Astronaut John Young smuggled a corn beef sandwich on the Gemeni 3 mission in 1965. He stashed the food in his spacesuit and once in orbit offered the sandwich to fellow astronaut Gus Grissom, who accepted. Ground control freaked and told the astronauts to stow the sandwich before corn beef debris clogged all of the ship’s expensive instruments. Later, a NASA official appeared before congress and promised to “prevent the recurrence of corned beef sandwiches on future flights.”

North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il always asked for extra portions of toro, his favorite type of sushi. According to his former personal chef, although Kim only knew a few words of English he would always inexplicably utter the words “one more” to inform his chef he was ready for more toro.

Alexander the Great introduced the peach to Europe. Following his conquest of Persia in 334 BCE, the leader sent a few peach pits back to Greece. Alexander called them “Persian Apples.” Roman general Lucullus did similar wonders for the cherry (and apricot), conquering lands throughout the Armenian peninsula and sending back cherry seeds, which soon spread far and wide across western Europe. It wasn’t the region’s first cherry, but it was a highly superior (and sought after) variety.

Gary Cooper was known to consume an entire can of sauerkraut each morning to keep his digestive tract regular.

Italian premier Benito Mussolini believed meals should not take more than three minutes and that no one should devote more than 10 minutes a day to eating. Not surprisingly, his hurry-up style of eating saddled him with severe stomach problems. Mussolini drank three liters of milk on a typical day.

Female co-stars often complained about Clark Gable’s breath. The food he was most passionate about was raw onions, which he would eat with or without bread.

Elvis Presley hated seafood. The smell disgusted him. He would ask his wife, Priscilla, not to eat fish when he was around. Presley’s hatred of seafood would culminate later in the so-called “Cathfish Incident” in Norfolk, Virginia in 1975.

Nancy Springer – ‘Iris’

Ce: F&SF

Most old women like me don’t bother with a Christmas tree. “Like me” means on a fixed income, which equals poor, and also means getting more lonely and scared each day as the other old women you know die off. Lonely is when you buy postage stamps one at a time, so when there’s something to mail you can walk to the post office and talk to somebody. Scared is when you realize you already own all the clothes you’re ever going to need, including something decent for your funeral.

Show me some “Q-Tip,” some “wrinkly,” some small-town “senior citizen” like me who says they’re not scared of dying, and I’ll show you a liar. No matter how much peace and light some of us talk, we all go around with perturbed shadows inside of us

Writers: Pro Tip #1

Go ahead and get learned, courtesy Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

The narrative influence of time (Pt. I – Faulkner)

Recently I made the mistake of taking William Faulkner‘s “As I Lay Dying” off the shelf and thinking, “Hm. Looks short. Probably can read it over the weekend.”

Four months later – I’m only up to page 68.

Which left me puzzled. I mean I read a lot, so my struggles with Faulkner weren’t rooted in me not having the time to spend with him.  And the chapters are remarkably quick, the shortest being five words long.

All things considered, “As I Lay Dying” should have clipped along at the pace of an airport novella.

Except that it didn’t. The book turned out to be one of the most complicated things I’d ever read.

[Read more...]

On eyeballs …

Or something deeper:

“Three years ago, you were still a child. You have become a small giant since the day Danny’s ball struck your eye. You do not see it. But I see it. And it is a beautiful thing to see. So listen to what I am going to tell you.” He paused for a moment, as if considering his next words carefully, then continued. “Human beings to not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing mroe than the blink of an eye?” He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on. “I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest.”

The back-and-forth goes on …

Over the whole Black Matrix debacle.

I don’t have the energy to comment on this. But science fiction author (and University of Chicago alumnus!) John Scalzi covers the topic fairly well (again) in comment #12.

Why does this sort of behavior deserve any benefit of the doubt? Why should writers be the one to shoulder the load for the incompetence of this business plan? Writers are not proft participants in Black Matrix’s success; they are not co-owners; they have no “sweat equity” in this business model. All they get — all they will ever get — is what they get paid up front, which is one twenty-fifth of the “pro” rate in the genre — a pro rate which, less we forget, is not actually a whole lot of pay. When you can come to me and suggest that Black Matrix Publishing has convinced every other provider of raw material for its endeavor to get paid at 4% of its industry standard, then we can talk about whether I’m being unfair to Black Matrix regarding its business model being predicated on screwing writers. In the meantime, I’m hard-pressed to see why I should be nice to these people. Rude is what they deserve. People starting businesses with bad business plans that depend on screwing writers should be condescended to, and it is in fact eminently fair to do so.

On Jerry Oltion …

If you’ve been reading Analog recently, you’ve probably stumbled across an Oltion story.
Oltion (prn. OL-tee-un) has a prestigious publishing record, with more than 100 stories and 15 novels to his credit over the last 27 years.
I found his two most recent Analog submissions to be delightful. A quick briefing:

“Foreign Exchange” – On Earth, if a person leaves their car doors open with the keys in the ignition, it’s a safe bet that vehicle won’t be around in the morning. So let’s take that idea and extend it. What about all these fully-fueled pods NASA plans to leave on the moon and Mars? Say you’re just passing through the Milky Way and your ship breaks down. You’re stranded and lost. No communication. Minimal food. Hope seems to be fading until, to your unexpected delight, you spot a spaceship parked on the horizon. Approaching you find it mysterious. You open the door and there’s food and water. And and a blinking red “launch” light. Would you push it? And where would the journey really be your salvation?

“The Jolly Old Boyfriend” - Old Saint Nick appears in a “unique” way for this funny holiday tale. Short and sweet with lots of coal and pepper spray. Coal and pepper spray? How ISN’T that a winning combination? Check it out.

Books: Tuesday Toofer

In light of me having anything interesting to say, here’s two short fiction previews:

  • “In the Autumn of the Empire,” Jerry Oltion. Analog: Science Fiction and Fact (Oct. 2009) – We all know that world leaders can be pretty stupid. But what if they had absolute power to correct all of their blunders? Oltion spells out a fun story chronicling an emperor who can’t wrap his head around that axial tilt thing, and goes to extreme means to cover up his ignorance.
  • “The Hanged Man,” William Gleason. Analog: Science Fiction and Fact (Oct. 2009) – Moral of the story: don’t leave a friend behind on a planet with sketchy natives and a propensity for revenge. They might convince your pal to, you know, hunt you down and kill you. Or something. Worth checking out, but I’m still not 100 percent sure what Gleanson was going for with this one …

Books: Monday Musings

I know, “Monday Musings” doesn’t have the same cowboy vibe as “Friday Roundup.”
But go with me here … I’m performing a public service, after all.

“To Climb A Flat Mountain,” G. David Nordley - Analog, November 2009 – Starts off as your typical crash survivor on a mysterious world story, before changing into your typical crash survivor on a really mysterious world story.
It’s a decent (if overplayed) premise, but Nordley does a commendable job at building a freaky world that’s pretty darn engaging. And the mystery for the first few chapters is really well parsed out. It’s a page turner.
Then Nordley introduces our hero to a bunch of other survivors and it gets … well … I’ll let you be the judge.
Give the story a try. It’s the first section of a two part serial, the conclusion to be released in December.

“Joan,” John G. Henry - Analog, November 2009 – Ever looked up to someone in history? Wondered what it would be like to meet with them? Would you make a new BFF or just another frenemy?
Being a history nerd, I think a lot about this stuff.
In “Joan” we get to live out that fantasy, traveling back in time as Kate, a young woman obsessed with the legend of Joan of Arc.
The story goes something like this: girl meets girl. Girl saves girl from death at the stake by tossing a few flashbangs. Girl takes girl on ride through countryside whilst killing the British.
You know, it’s your basic medieval romance.
Bottom line: It’s a bit long, but the ending (kinda) makes it all worth it. The conclusion of “Joan” was one of those “well I feel pretty good for having read all of this” kind of moments.
And that’s never a bad thing. Check it out.