Think David Foster Wallace is untouchable?
Think again. “American Psycho” author Bret Easton Ellis tore into the late author of the critically acclaimed “Infinite Jest” and “The Pale King” on Twitter last week, and in true Ellis fashion, he didn’t hold back.
“Reading D.T. Max’s bio I continue to find David Foster Wallace the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation,” Ellis tweeted. “David Foster Wallace was so needy, so conservative, so in need of fans – that I find the halo of sentimentality surrounding him embarrassing.” In several more tweets, he continued, “DFW is the best example of a contemporary male writer lusting for a kind of awful greatness that he simply wasn’t able to achieve. A fraud.”
Ellis’s comments came on the heels of a new biography of the late author, D.T. Max’s “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.” (See our review of the biography here.)
In the midst of reading the bio of Wallace, who took his own life in 2008 after a lifelong battle with depression, Ellis told his 300,000 Twitter followers, “OMG is the solemnity of the David Foster Wallace myth on a purely literary level sickening.”
He then turned his attention to DFW fans, saying: "Saint David Foster Wallace: a generation trying to read him feels smart about themselves which is part of the whole bullsh** package. Fools.”
Who does Ellis think he is “being exceptionally hostile and ungenerous toward a tragically tormented writer who, having hanged himself, is in no position to defend himself,” writes Salon.com’s Gerald Howard (who, incidentally, edited both Ellis and Wallace when they were starting out).
For starters, anyone familiar with Ellis knows he’s no stranger to the shock-and-awe method of courting controversy.
He is, after all, the guy who in 2010 suggested women are inherently ill-equipped for directing movies. The guy who just last month declared Matt Bomer unfit for playing the title role of Christian Grey in the film adaption of “50 Shades of Grey,” because he is gay. And the guy who, hours after J.D. Salinger died, tweeted, “Yeah! Thank God he’s finally dead. I’ve been waiting for this day for-****ing ever. Party tonight!”
But there’s more here than meets the eye. Ellis and Wallace are literary rivals that go way back, and Ellis’s hostile tweets are just the latest in a two-decades-old exchange of literary beef.
In 1988, Wallace criticized Ellis’s first published essay, calling Ellis and his category of novelists “Catatonics” for their “naïve pretension,” according to Slate. “Wallace’s argument, characteristically, defies easy summary,” Slate’s Forrest Wickman writes, “…but, in the context of literary critical essay,” is damning.
A few years later, Wallace laid into “American Psycho” in an interview with Larry McCaffery, saying it “panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader itself…You can defend ‘Psycho’ as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.”
“Alternating between PR stunt, outright bullying, vigorous intellectual debate, and exercise in ego-bashing and boosting, literary feuds are nothing if not pure bibliophilic entertainment,” we once wrote in a post on Paulo Coelho’s attack on James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” calling the feuds “as old as literature itself.”
Perhaps, but we’re more inclined to heed the reasoning of The Guardian’s Barbara Ellen.
“It could be that they’re feeling a bit bored, their lives and careers aren’t as exciting as they once were,” she writes, “the coffee is cold, the croissant not delicious enough, and mischievous people are encouraging them, telling them that their bratty behavior and ill-thought-out rantings are 'a breath of fresh air!'”
“They mouth, off, in the process,” she continues, “making themselves look ridiculous and just a tad obsessed with their targets.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.