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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I Was Never a Fan of David Foster Wallace

posted by on September 16 at 15:53 PM

One of the most brutal articles I wrote for The Stranger was not a review of a play (as my fondest detractors might suspect) but a cruel vivisection of David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞. I stand by my verdict: It is a shitty, useless book.

But even I, DFW hater extraordinaire, felt compelled to pay tribute in that review to a grammatical quirk the man just couldn’t quit:

Everything is the first volume in the “Great Discoveries” series, through which the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, intends to “bring new voices to the telling of stories of scientific achievement.” Which goal, as DFW’s habitual syntax would have it, is somewhat suspicious.

He does it within the first 600 words of the Rolling Stone John McCain story Paul linked to:

In October of ‘67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi.

I never had a class in grammar as a kid, which neglect almost certainly condemned me to a life spent obsessing over the subject. So, my question for grammarians and those with access to Ask a Librarian: What do you call this construction? An adjectival dependent pronoun followed by—err, I’m getting lost here—a relative clause? Are any of those things even things? Is my “which neglect” proper above, or do you have to have some version of “neglect” in the original sentence?

I’m confused. And I’m really sad that David Foster Wallace isn’t around to answer my question.

RSS icon Comments


Wow, tasteless AND pointless. Want to try this post again?

Posted by DENVEROPOLIS | September 16, 2008 3:59 PM

I think the word he was looking for here is "whose," which would make the sentence fine. Maybe he objected using such a persony-sounding word with an inanimate object.

What can you say - he was a language dork.

Posted by Free Lunch | September 16, 2008 4:04 PM

I'm no expert on how long detractors of the recently-deceased should refrain from speaking their minds, but at least regarding your opening paragraph...

...too soon. Show some class.

Posted by Hernandez | September 16, 2008 4:05 PM

Oh please. DFW wasn't one for obligatory obeisance, as you would know if you'd bothered to read any of his books. And I like this goddamn grammatical quirk--which is not, @2, a mistake. David Foster Wallace knew what he was doing when it came to grammar.

Posted by annie | September 16, 2008 4:10 PM


Posted by josh | September 16, 2008 4:12 PM

Useless and disgusting. Run your mouth to your cubicle-mate, not spread your poison in a public forum. You should be ashamed.

Posted by Denglander | September 16, 2008 4:13 PM

Why didn't he do it the first time?

"...he had to eject, which ejection basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke..."

Posted by w7ngman | September 16, 2008 4:13 PM

I have made one concession to the thought police--I changed the title from "I Never Liked DFW" to "I Was Never a Fan..." I didn't know the guy; I don't want to give the wrong impression. And I do like his famous essay on grammar. But I am not a fan.

@7: Well, I guess because there's no grammatical reason to restate the subject of the clause there. But I'm not sure that he never did that; he just didn't do it there.

Posted by annie | September 16, 2008 4:19 PM

Yes, probably too soon. But, also, do some research. DFW was far from the first writer to use this construction. It's fallen out of favor, but was used frequently in the 19th century by such writers as Charles Dickens. And some authors striving for that old-fiction sound, such as Neal Stephenson, continue to use it today.

Posted by Joel | September 16, 2008 4:20 PM

Where did I say he was the first to use that construction? I just want to know what it is called, because I like it. People are so aggro today.

Posted by annie | September 16, 2008 4:24 PM

@7 - That would be completely different. "Which ejection" refers to the specific ejection, the first "which" refers to what it actually means to eject.

@2 - He wasn't looking for a word and settled on "which"; I guarantee you he knew exactly what he was doing. "Whose" would not have been the same either.

Annie, thanks for changing the title.

Posted by Levislade | September 16, 2008 4:28 PM

I wonder why people got the "wrong" impression: you wrote a post called "I never liked DFW" in which you remind us that you thought his book was so shitty and useless that it inspired your most brutal article.

Posted by josh | September 16, 2008 4:29 PM
Posted by Darby McDevitt | September 16, 2008 4:31 PM

I love that construction too (though this is not a particularly graceful example). The attempted improvements @2&7 are misguided. And yes, I've always assumed it was common (even standard?) in the 19th century -- just last night I was admiring such a construction in Child's "English and Scottish Popular Ballads".

Posted by David | September 16, 2008 4:36 PM

I wan't questioning his grammar, @2. It's not a grammar issue. It's a usage issue. I doubt there's a reference that shows this as an accepted usage of "which."

Accepted by whom? Good question. Staler folks than DFW, apparently. Nothing wrong with stretching the language. That's what language dorks do. And stuff like that made his writing stand out.

Posted by Free Lunch | September 16, 2008 4:37 PM

#7 wasn't an improvement. I just wondered why he did it in one place and not in another basically identical place.

Posted by w7ngman | September 16, 2008 4:43 PM

Dale Peck is a David Foster Wallace hater extraordinaire. You are a DFW hater of the extremely "ordinaire" variety, Annie.

Posted by book and film cricket | September 16, 2008 4:46 PM

You little old decorum and decency ladies should try some Metamucil for that. Annie rocks.

Posted by elenchos | September 16, 2008 4:49 PM

16 - They're really not "basically identical." Really.

Posted by Levislade | September 16, 2008 4:51 PM

Thanks for this post, Annie. I've been feeling quite alone in my disliike of DFW's work.
My high school's English program had everyone spend two years diagramming sentences. A part of that involved fixing run-on messes like the one you quote, because otherwise the simple puzzle of diagramming gets complicated. (The high school also began in eighth grade, and eigth-graders were called Thetamores--someday that will be useful in a bar bet, I'm sure. All of this probably makes me sound like I'm 85.)

Posted by alight | September 16, 2008 5:04 PM

#19, yes, I realized what he was doing and read your post after I made #16. This is all beside the point, though, which point is that this David Foster Wallace fellow is simply un-American.

Posted by w7ngman | September 16, 2008 5:05 PM

Girl no like math much, more interest in self. Me Me Me Me Me Me. Disgusting display Girl, Girl need get better. Maybe then Girl not be personified stereotype. Maybe.

Posted by monotype | September 16, 2008 5:20 PM

Send your question to one of these guys at If they deign to answer, you'll get a cogent, non-prescriptivist, real-life linguist's answer. It might even spark some dialog on the Language Log blog.

P.S. For nerds only. Of which I am one.

Posted by DaiBando | September 16, 2008 5:22 PM

It's just a relative clause that repeats the referent noun. It was all the rage three or four hundred years ago.

Posted by Hypatia | September 16, 2008 5:24 PM

I'm a fan of David Foster Wallace, and I'm going to take the time to spell out his name. However, I do not think that Annie's post is disrespectful, and like Annie, I know very little when it comes to grammer. I never had a class in grammer, but jesus fucking christ I think Annie should be allowed to speak her mind.

How are her thoughts, publicly displayed, any more disrespectful than the people who've finally made it to the library or bookstore to finally read the David Foster Wallace book they've always intended to pick up?

Posted by In MN | September 16, 2008 5:30 PM

One more thing. Perhaps one idea for why, oh why, David decided his life wasn't worth living, is because he recognized the utter insanity of the back and forthness of these comments, and commentary generally seen on the Tee Vee.

Posted by In MN | September 16, 2008 5:37 PM

I always thought he was hilarious in interviews, but I couldn't make it more than a couple of pages in any of his books. I mean, who talks like that?

Great for some, not for me.

Posted by carlita | September 16, 2008 5:38 PM

Get fucking over yourselves, whiners.

David Foster Wallace is not a big deal.

His death is not a big deal, either.

Posted by hold it just one second | September 16, 2008 5:58 PM

It's called a Strunk aneurism.

Posted by Greg | September 16, 2008 6:17 PM

Wow, why are people jumping all over Annie for this? That is very weird. It's not as if DFW was without his detractors... he was sort of polarizing in that way, so it's not at all surprising to hear someone say that they didn't like his work. The very first thing my husband said when I told him DFW had died was, man, that guy wrote some shitty fiction.

And, unless you people have a personal relationship with him, I don't see how it's "too soon". That's ridiculous...

Posted by Julie in Chicago | September 16, 2008 6:27 PM

Who is Anne or "Annie" Wagner? Could somebody point out which novel or collection of short stories by her I should pick up next time at Powell's or Amazon?


Posted by Bob | September 16, 2008 7:51 PM


Bob, sign up at your local library for an Internet web browsing class so you don't end up reading the Slog when you really wanted The New York Review of Books.

Posted by elenchos | September 16, 2008 9:08 PM

Elenchos, if you're going to hump every one of my posts like some sad eyed little pomeranian with a glandular disease, at least try to nibble on me a little. Or you know how much I dig it when your little tongue hangs out all panting. But the endless unfunny dry humping? Not so much.

Posted by Bob | September 16, 2008 9:48 PM

Not too soon. I think your post in a nice homage to his sentence structure. I have never been a fan of grammar but I appreciate your post.

Posted by Papayas | September 16, 2008 10:38 PM

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum you pickers of nit...

Posted by RHETT ORACLE | September 16, 2008 10:54 PM

Ah, yes, Annie. A beloved writer who has legions of fans who are crushed over his tragic loss (and the horrible suffering that preceded it) deserves a post all about Annie and why she thought DFW sucks.

Well done, bitch, well done. You win this year's award for Crass Bullshit LOOKITME Post of the Year.

When someone you love and revere dies tragically I'll do my best to be there to tell you their life's work was shit.

Posted by Ryan | September 17, 2008 9:38 AM

You were never a fan? Wow, how interesting. Thanks for sharing that with the five people on the face of the earth who give a shit what you think about anything.

The point isn't that if you don't have anything nice to say, you shouldn't say anything. It is that if you don't have anything to say, you shouldn't say anything.

Posted by joe friday | September 17, 2008 1:40 PM

I find it distasteful, this fragging of Ms. Wagner just because she felt the need to offer a slightly different perspective on DFW's death. Then again, I find it equally base and unnecessary, her compulsion to now, in this moment, renew her declaration that one of his books is "shitty" and "useless." From the tone of the rest of the post and her subsequent replies, I'm guessing she liked at least something he wrote, beyond individual sentences containing the "Which" construction. Too difficult to offer something of that in there to balance it out? Or would it then lack the proper authenticity? Pff.

Posted by c | September 17, 2008 2:51 PM

annie's post was no big deal, she merely posted an inquiry. Which inquiry was, however, not only at once insipid and irrelevant, but additionally an obvious attempt to redirect the attention surrounding Wallace's death to herself, most likely to compensate for a hug or two her mother forgot to administer to her as a child. If you had something substantive to add, annie, it wouldn't matter if it ran contrary to dominant opinion. What is hard for me to witness is you so clumsily and embarrassingly trolling someone's death.

Posted by ramsey | September 17, 2008 5:41 PM

38 & 39: You're right. Annie's obviously entitled and welcome to her opinion about Wallace's work.

Annie: It was still a bad post done in poor taste and without an ounce of compassion. But I don't know if you're a bitch or not so I take that back. Please accept my most, uh, tepid apologies.

Posted by Ryan | September 17, 2008 6:19 PM

I simply cannot believe the tone of some of these comments! @37, clearly you must be one of the five people who gives a shit about her writing, because well, you're reading and commenting on it. I thought that this post, by citing a rivalry of sorts and then focusing on a feature of this gentleman's writing that the author admires, embodies on the whole the laconic sense of loss of the last sentence.

From reading the comments, one would think that this gentleman who died (whose death is lamentable, to be sure, as is anyone else's) was some kind of untouchable literary demiurge. I, for one, hadn't heard of him until now, and I hold a PhD in Literature. I imagine he was some kind of cult figure among would-be litterateurs, much like the galling Slavoj Žižek is among would-be literary theorists, to which fact one is readily alerted by the use of his initials alone to reference him. This would be a pity, since there is no indication in anything I have read about him today to suggest that he himself was a hack. May he rest in peace, and may his hysterical groupies get over themselves!

Posted by David | September 18, 2008 10:05 AM

I want to believe that it's possible to critique an (admittedly provocative) action without also provoking a trigger-happy First Amendment or moral defense. See, when people spend so much time trying so hard to toe so many lines, and then spend so much time and energy defending themselves and their actions and their "rights" to act as they did, what can get lost is this: even provocative actions can be critiqued apart from their provocative nature.

So. I hope it's possible, without any implicit moral undertones whatsoever, to simply say that what's annoying about this post is the fact that it is, as @39 adeptly pointed out, so much more about the post-writer than the ostensible subject of the post.

Case in point: There are, roughly speaking, about 10 references that she makes to herself; there are about 3 references to David Foster Wallace.

This post would have been interesting two months ago, or five months from now. As it is, though, it was written a few days after his death, and its awkwardness resides in the fact is that it's so obviously so much more about Annie than anything else. (I tried to avoid using your name in order to avoid seeming attacking, but the whole "the writer" thing was creating my own kind of awkward)

Anyway. It's not a morality judgment; it's just kinda hard to watch.

Posted by Bones | September 18, 2008 10:46 AM

@41: You have PhD in Literature and you've never heard of David Foster Wallace?

You need to give your degree back, post haste.

Posted by Ryan | September 18, 2008 3:39 PM

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