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Being a bad friend to David Foster Wallace (the-tls.co.uk)
61 points by the-enemy 10 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments





Subversion by sincerity

I strive to be sincere, although as my life has taught me, people can rarely be trusted. In my experience, when I do finally find someone that can be trusted, it is then that the fruits of my sincerity show.

I'm often sincere simply because it makes me smile when someone did not expect it, and watching them attempt to process/respond is something that brings me joy. Simply by exposure to sincerity, many have returned in kind; this has allowed me to help others, and even get advice for situations that one would only usually ever save for an advice columnist. (which rarely actually give you the advice you need, easier to give you want you want to hear, and it will keep you reading)

After reading this, I could not help but reflect on my own decisions when striving for sincerity. It's not exactly free of pain or the subsequent shame that can often follow, but why do I feel the need to stick with it? I think it comes down to my personality, I have rough edges and can take a royal beating, which is the kind of constitution you must have if you ever want to be sincere.

With sincerity, there is vulnerability, and while many consider that to be weakness, I count it a strength. Just don't be surprised if someone hurts you after you were sincere, it does not protect you, and to some, me included, we don't care, and neither should you. Pain is part of life; much better to be real and to be present then to be without pain and truly alone.


> With sincerity, there is vulnerability, and while many consider that to be weakness, I count it a strength.

I, too, count vulnerability a strength. There's an essay I keep meaning to write about it, but the short of it is that each of us has needs (and 'rough edges'), that can't be filled by self-sufficiency, but by connection. And vulnerability is what makes connection possible.


Wallace's writing never resonated with me, which is strange based on my longtime interest in Hunter S. Thompson. In many ways there are parallels in their respective fame / accolades / audiences and yet, to me, Wallace seemed inexcusably contrived compared to Thompson's seeming dismissal of convention was out of necessity (at least initially - it did become an act of sorts later).

I did find one part of this article worth considering beyond just a discussion of Wallace:

>For twenty years, his entire career, Wallace wrestled with a question: How much of myself am I willing to give away to get what I want?

...followed by...

>He got what he wanted and didn’t want.

If there's any one dynamic that is willfully ignored by almost everybody in modern society - especially in the rise of Social Media Stardom (aka Soundcloud Rappers & Influencers) - this hits the nail on the head.

Wallace, to me, is more interesting as a case study of failure in success than as a literary powerhouse. Not everybody can be like Jerry Lewis and keep up an act for a lifetime.


May you live in interesting times

May you find what you are looking for

May you come to the attention of somebody important

AKA the three curses.


The people I know to whom DFW appeals tend to be those who think they’re smarter than they are. There is no judgement inherent in this observation.

A lot of people who consider others as "thinking to be smarter than they are" are simply anti-intellectual in general, and tend to see any effort towards the arts, reading, philosophy, etc that's not marketable or job-related as pretension.

There is some judgement inherent in this observation.


I approve of people thinking they're smarter than they are, because that's a worthy aspiration. Compared to, say, people who think they're hipper or more attractive than they are. If it makes people read literature that stretches their mind, that's great.

Pretension can be the first step towards not needing to pretend.


There's a difference between aspiring to something versus pretending to already have it -- one quality is much more admirable than the other.

Pretension tends to be satisfied with appearances---carrying the literature around rather than actually reading it.

Having it around is a prerequisite to reading it.

It's difficult to think of very many people who are more intelligent than they think they are. I'm not sure why this characterization should be used for any group other than to troll them.

There is significant judgement inherent in this observation.


They're hard to identify because they aren't going around advertising how smart they think they are. You only know it if you get to know them very well.

They're often kids born to lower-middle-class or working class backgrounds.

Or they're likeable people with good social skills who found popularity effortlessly, so never felt the need to look smart. But if you talk to them they're actually really inquisitive and perceptive.

Or they're women or minorities.

I realize that growing up, everyone who I considered to be "really smart" happened to be white, Indian or Asian and male. That means there are whole demographics of smart people I didn't even recognize.

In high school, I was considered to be a top tier "smart kid," and ended up studying physics at Stanford. I thought about a girl I grew up with... who actually ran circles around me in math in 4th grade. And was a better writer than me. But she majored in communications at USC, and is working for People magazine. She was not as beholden to the "I'm so smart" identity that I was.


There’s always a lot of intellectual signalling at play no matter what type of intellectual pursuit is being discussed. It doesn’t mean people are insincere.

Conversely, when people criticize groups that focus on a shared intellectual pleasure, that criticism too is often just more signalling, especially if there is something to be gained by undercutting the value of the intellectual pursuit in question.

Some people are prolific readers and they read things like Infinite Jest and get pleasure from discussing its obscurities.

Then some other people don’t want intellectual merit to be associated with the workload of reading a heavy book they may not particularly like, so they invent some story about how Infinite Jest readers are arrogant.

You could say the same thing about so many things: prolific open source software contribution, prolific consumption of obscure music or music that was lost to history, prolific love of a cult TV show, prolific focus on niche cooking techniques or recipes.

I think any comments that try to apply the negative stereotype to the whole group are just unproductive.

But it will always be this signalling arms race between showing value through obscure intellectual pursuit vs. undercutting that so as to avoid needing to expend the effort while still getting credit for being intellectual.


One of my favorite DFW observations was about how on his press tour following the release of Infinite Jest, he was doing readings two or so weeks after it had released. People were coming up to him and praising him, wanting a piece of him.

He commented to.... Maybe David Lipsky I think? that it would have been nearly impossible for these fans to have read the book in its entirety, and that it made him super self-conscious that people liked the concept/marketing/fame of the book more than the writing itself.

A friend of mine once joked that he wanted to seem like someone who has read Steinbeck's East of Eden, but didn't actually want to read it.


Not abashed myself to admit giving up on Jest around the 1/3 point, and Eden at 1/4.

Hemingway's strengths are high rhetoric, and European politics of the 30's. Wallace: deep journalism in essay form.


It was at almost exactly the halfway point (~page 548 of 1080) of Infinite Jest that the plot coalesced into something coherent that really made me want to keep going to find out what happens. Prior to that point, it was only the strength of the prose itself that kept me reading.

I gave up on it at around the 1/3 point for 10+ years. Trying to read the paperback was a frustrating exercise when I was too OCD to ever skip a footnote.

I went back to it on my Kindle and finally finished it a few years ago and am very glad I did, I really enjoyed it.


That experience is purposeful, it creates a break between the narrative and meta-narrative voices. I didn't think it was too awful with 2 bookmarks - kinda reminded me of doing math hw, some of the one word ones like Sic., etc. did get tiresome though.

i read all of east of eden, but i didn't find it to be as great as advertised. maybe i would have appreciated it more if i had been raised christian (or jewish).

"A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read." --Mark Twain

The important thing is that you've figured out a way to think you're smarter than the people who think they're smarter than they are...

Perhaps you mean “moral judgement”, or something like that, or I've missed something, because this is exactly a judgement.

The only outlets I see DFW discussed regularly online are a few subreddits + 4chan's lit board. I think it may be these location rather than the author. I met a few people in college who shared my love for DFW who I thought were perfectly well adjusted people (then there's me...).

I have read some of DFW's work and mildly like it. (Not enough to pursue more, though.)

DFW strikes me as someone who either (a) is very intelligent and creative and always spinning off new connections and ideas; he's too excited to spend the time to make the ideas clear and simple, or (b) is trying very, very hard to look like (a). (Jonathan Franzen, mentioned in the article, strikes me as trying far too hard.) Good will makes me want to believe (a), while stories like those mentioned in the article lead me to (b). Also, I'll note that the very intelligent and creative people I know tend to spend a lot of time trying to get things clear and simple.

This article, however, is simply blog-spam. Nothing to do with being a bad friend and everything to do dropping factoids about Wallace.


Except you judged both their intelligence and their own perception of their intelligence in the previous sentence.

[edited in response to the valid criticism I received]


If you believe someone is trolling, the correct response is to flag their comment, not to pour gasoline on the thread.

I like DFW. I just think he's a witty entertaining writer. I'm far from what I'd consider an intellectual. Love pop culture, video games and other "dumb" stuff. Thanks for the generalized insult though.

Please don't respond with another swipe. That just makes this place worse.

Your comment would be fine without the last sentence.


I commented to complain about his swipe; you commented to complain about mine. I'm not sure where we're going here.

dang is one of the mods. This comment is the equivalent of telling the cop who pulled you over for speeding that if you were speeding then he must have been too when he pulled you over.

Not so. It would be the equivalent of a cop pulling you over in an unmarked vehicle and without identifying himself as a police officer.

Technically true. They do worse than that, in some cases.

I'm a moderator here; sorry that wasn't clear. It's true that moderation comments are off topic, but we don't know a better way to manage this site.

In case you're not aware, the site guidelines underlying HN moderation are at https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html. It's good to review them periodically.


You should identify yourself if you're going to act in the role of a moderator. I think my comment still stands tho: why do you choose to moderate my comment with a swipe but not the original parent comment?

That's kind of how I feel about Rick and Morty. I watched a few eps and liked it, but there's an unpleasant contingent of R&M fandom that use the fact that they like tge show as proof of their intellectual superiority.



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