Avery Edison Hurt my Feelings

I think I’m generally considered by those who know me personally to be like Vulcan-level rational, often to a fault. Rational thought tends to supercede feeling, to the point that I wind up hurting people’s feelings by demanding (or at least expecting, and balking at the lack of) distanced, objective consideration of things that are really more or better felt than considered.

So imagine my surprise when I read Avery Edison’s Infinite Summer post yesterday and found myself becoming defensive and doing this weird rare thing that I think may have been emoting. She doesn’t like the book. She’s reading it with distaste and figures it’s a waste of time. She disdains the style and yearns for more explicit and I suppose active plot rather than what she describes as portraits. When I read (and reread) her post, I find myself getting flushed, feeling angry. She doesn’t deserve this book. She’s somehow profaning the book by owning a copy of it and having these opinions. I wish she’d stop reading it, stop taking pot-shots at it. Why doesn’t she just go get the latest Grisham (not much but plot in those, is there?) or maybe a Harlequin romance? Is she fucking retarded?

Silly, huh? I know rationally that her position is valid and shared by many (for many express similar sentiments in the comments to her post). I know that there are simple matters of taste in literature. And I don’t mean taste as in snobby wine drinkers who’ll buy only from boutique wine shops vs. those of us who are happy enough to drink a Yellow Tail. I mean taste simply as in some people like broccoli and some people don’t, and there’s nothing wrong with either position. I know this. When I read Portrait of a Lady many years ago, I had much the same reaction to it that Avery had to Infinite Jest. Rationally, I understand that this book, and probably most of Wallace’s work, just isn’t for Avery, and I know objectively that that’s ok and doesn’t in any way detract from the book’s value for me.

But still, I feel like she’s denigrating one of my children, or unjustly defaming one of my heroes. It’s hard to get past. And here’s the thing: I don’t feel this way about any other author. I’m a great admirer of the work of William Gaddis, but if somebody told me they couldn’t get past page 4 of JR, I’d be neither surprised nor bothered. I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Pynchon’s work; it took me three or four tries to get through Gravity’s Rainbow, and I’ve false started a couple of his others a couple of times too. I haven’t made it more than halfway through Ulysses yet (despite several tries). Steinbeck is another favorite of mine. He’s more traditional and human, in a way, than these postmodern giants. Where I have no real sense of personal admiration for Gaddis or Pynchon (it’s their work I’m on board with), I feel like Steinbeck was a nice, sort of approachable guy, and I sort of like him. Yet if somebody says they don’t like his work, it doesn’t bother me. No hard feelings.

What is it, then, about this disdain for Infinite Jest that sticks in my craw? I do admire who Wallace seemed to be. I think he was probably a good, nourishing person to know personally. But I didn’t know him personally, so I can’t chalk my hurt feelings up to that. Maybe it’s because he died, but then Steinbeck is dead too. Maybe it’s because he’s the first real author whose prime occurred during my active reading/intellectual prime, and whose life ended during mine. That does make it all more personal to me. I had looked forward to many more books from Wallace, to many more years of not only enjoying his work, but of watching it develop in something more like real-time than for these old or dead authors whose work I admire mostly looking back in time. Reading Wallace’s work has been, in a way, almost like watching a child grow up (though I’m not comfortable with the sort of superior or parental role that simile places me in, so let’s discard that part of it). And now that work is done.

There’s a reference somewhere in Infinite Jest to a character (I think a past boyfriend of Molly Notkin’s) who believes that there’s a finite number of orgasms available in the world, and so he’s crippled by the fear of consuming one of them and thus depriving another person of one of them (side note: it just occurs to me that this orgasm limit and selflessness ties in with the whole can-of-soup discussion Marathe and Steeply have at the end of this week’s milestone). Although I know it’s irrational, I feel almost that way about reading Infinite Jest. If somebody’s going to read it at arm’s length or with a sneer or a frown of distaste, I don’t want her to read it. It’s almost like she’s wasting its time (rather than its wasting hers) or preventing some other person from enjoying this major piece of what sadly turns out to be a finite (and far less prolific than I’d desire) body of work. It’s irrational and stupid, I know, but it’s how I feel. Hashing it out here has helped me step back a little bit, so that I can get past the weird flash of anger or resentment I feel when I think about Avery’s post (and similar reactions), but it still all hurts my feelings a little, makes me feel sad and further bereft.

27 thoughts on “Avery Edison Hurt my Feelings

  1. Aaron July 31, 2009 / 9:55 am

    Thanks for this; I couldn’t quite Identify what it was with Avery’s post that made me leap in to the comments, but this helps. I just feel like Avery (and James Woods, with his so-called “hysterical realism”) are missing what is so powerful about DFW’s writing. I don’t think he’s being “evasive of reality while evading reality itself”–I think he’s acting like the best of satirists *and* dramatists by being as honest as he can, a task which requires you to speak with YOUR voice, and not to merely imitate those who have set down prescribed “rules” before you.

    Chekhov, I believe, called the majority of his dramas “comedies.” If you’ve ever read (or seen a good production of) Uncle Vanya, you’ll understand this idea of laughing at the undeniable bleakness, a bleakness that is somehow all the more approachable and understandable now in the company of such warm, shining lights as Wallace.

  2. Heather Wardell July 31, 2009 / 9:58 am

    I don’t think your reaction is irrational and stupid at all. The book means a lot to you and having someone else not get it is upsetting.

    I WISH I could get it, and I think Avery does too. I’m just not connecting with it, and I’m jealous of the way you and others are. To me it’s like it’s written in another language, of which I know only a few words… I am getting bits and pieces of it but not enough to really sink into it and feel it.

    I’m away at a cottage next week and I’m taking IJ as my main book. With any luck having huge chunks of time to read will help me get into it. Because I really want to.

  3. Pete Mandik July 31, 2009 / 10:18 am

    Right on, Daryl. I was similarly bothered at her post. And similarly bothered at myself for being bothered.

    What consoles me, at least, is the following line of thought. IJ is *so* explicitly concerned with exploring and embodying the very concept of things that are (1) intrinsically difficult yet nonetheless (2) entertaining that it would totally indicate a failure on its part if there *weren’t* lots and lots of people who were totally repelled by it. An alternate IJ with flat-out, hardly-ever-repelled-anybody, mass-appeal would be a total failure of an IJ.

  4. infinitetasks July 31, 2009 / 10:36 am

    For some reason my comment on Avery’s post at IS is “awaiting moderation.” My sense is that she’s not really trying (and the ‘she’ here doesn’t refer to Avery-the-Person but Avery-the-Post-of-7/30). Sure, some people need help with IJ, that is to be expected. Not everyone will be able to generate a dyadic relationship to the book – to any book. But the cool thing about the IS Program is that there’s so much interpretive conversation that catches us up on anything we missed, and gives us a chance to read the book as others read it, and thus to love it as others do. By “not really trying,” then, I mean she’s not reading the work done here by Daryl, or by Gerry, or Aaron, etc. (Note that this is exactly what happened with Eden at IS, who came around in Exactly This Way, thanks to Detox.) The same thing is true of the whingeing at ASFB (most of them will never do again, apparently, Julian excluded).

    To all the haters (or laggers), then, I say, “Keep Coming!”

  5. Daryl Houston July 31, 2009 / 11:03 am

    Thanks for all the good comments, guys (and gal).

  6. ray gunn July 31, 2009 / 12:56 pm

    Hey Daryl.

    Longtime lurker, first time commenter, and a grateful IJ addict.

    Not that I can pretend to crawl inside your head and explain its contents, but allow me to share what it was about Avery’s post yesterday that infuriated me, and maybe you will Identify with some of it.

    My problem with what she was saying isn’t that she dislikes the book or can’t get into it but that she has the audacity to say that Wallace oughtn’t have written it, essentially suggesting that he was a charlatan of a writer and that the right people were duped into publishing him, but if it weren’t for that he’d be just another starving wannabe.

    The sheer presumptuousness of that kind of attitude is what raised my hackles.

    I happen to have a strong distaste for Faulkner, but I don’t go around saying he was a hack writer. I can respect what it was about his work that so many found to be worthy of the canon. On an intellectual level I can appreciate that what he was doing was solid work. I just don’t like it. I don’t beat myself up for not liking it either. Well, not anymore.

    If Avery were to have been less accusatory of Wallace and more objective about her reactions, (instead of mirroring the Excuse/Reason problem the White Flaggers have with the stripper’s story) it would have been less offensive.

    Anyway, keep up the amazing posts here. I love reading them.


  7. Daryl Houston July 31, 2009 / 1:04 pm

    Thanks for delurking, ray gunn. I think you’ve probably captured at least part of what bothered me about Avery’s post. Here’s a funny thing: I can’t even tell you what her post says. As I read your comment, I found myself thinking “yeah, I guess that is pretty much what she said.” But I didn’t remember (on my own) the content of the post itself. I just remembered that it bothered me and sort of dissociated myself from what it actually said.

    Seeing that you have a blog about copy editing, I’ll be eager to read your perspective (adding you to my feed reader now) on Infinite Jest and certain problems in the text.

  8. Michael Namikas July 31, 2009 / 4:36 pm

    I really enjoy reading Infinite Jest, in spite of certain passages which I found unnecessarily difficult or technical. I read with interest the opinions of others who are not enjoying the book. You shouldn’t let how others feel, detract from your enjoyment of a work of art. Some things are not for everyone.

  9. Daryl Houston July 31, 2009 / 8:15 pm

    Hi, Michael. The opinions of others certainly aren’t influencing my enjoyment of the art. In fact, because I grow defensive and somehow territorial or proprietary about it, I almost enjoy it more. But it does bother me — and again let me stress that this is pretty far out of character for me and that I can’t really account for it — and make me feel bad, kind of the way maybe you put something of your own that you have a sort of emotional tie to out there for others to critique and they really wind up trashing it and how that’d make you feel.

  10. Jean August 1, 2009 / 12:48 am

    I’m honestly not too surprised that at this point in the book, some people are just going to say, “To hell with it! You promised me I’d love this book by pg. 200, 300, 400, and I’m there and I don’t, so I’m quitting.” It happens with so many first time readers, many of whom are doing IS just for that very reason. I mean, that’s why Matt conceived this project in the first place.

    I read to around pg. 750, and then restarted with all of you, and believe me when I say, it is much more enlightening on the second time around. There was so much that I missed or just didn’t “get” the first time. I had notes in the margins that were totally wrong and had to scribble them out. I appreciate the input from all of you lit types and all-around smart folks, it increases much understanding and appreciation of the novel a hundred fold.

    I also think that I have more patience with reading IJ because I’ve already read quite of bit of DFW’s other stuff, so I’m already acquainted with and enjoy his unique style. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a Wallace virgin starting IJ, I probably would have quit too.

    Keep up all the great blogs!

    Jean (EverybodyHurts at IS)

  11. Jean August 1, 2009 / 8:25 am

    I’m honestly not too surprised that at this point in the book, some people are just going to say, “To hell with it! You promised me I’d love this book by pg. 200, 300, 400, and I’m there and I don’t, so I’m quitting.” It happens with so many first time readers, many of whom are doing IS just for that very reason. I mean, that’s why Matt conceived this project in the first place.

    I read to around pg. 750, and then restarted with all of you, and believe me when I say, it is much more enlightening on the second time around. There was so much that I missed or just didn’t “get” the first time. I had notes in the margins that were totally wrong and had to scribble them out. I appreciate the input from all of you lit types and all-around smart folks, it increases much understanding and appreciation of the novel a hundred fold.

    I also think that I have more patience with reading IJ because I’ve already read quite of bit of DFW’s other stuff, so I’m already acquainted with and enjoy his unique style. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a Wallace virgin starting IJ, I probably would have quit too.

    Keep up all the great blogs!

    Jean (EverybodyHurts at IS)
    Sorry… forgot to say great post – can’t wait to read your next one!

  12. Tom Collins August 3, 2009 / 7:44 am

    A very few comments on a grave subject. The violence, or simply the emotion if you prefer, of your reaction to Avery Edison’s post remains a question mark after all these exchanges. The violence is their remainder. I’m not sure it’s the case for you, but from outside, the violence seems to be intact, and not at all metabolized or digested.

    Avery Edison doesn’t hear or doesn’t gthe beat of the drum. An escape route consists in talking about tastes and preferences in literature and in art. Everytime people come up with the “solution” stipulating that every taste and opinion on the face of the earth is possible, is a sure sign that somenthing has occured.

    I can envisage having to get back to this many times, but here’s my reaction, without notes and without going back over the evidence. Infinite Jest is tainted and guilty literature. It’s literature for junkies, or post-junkies. Hound-dogs, as Elvis used to say. Avery rejects this literature, not because it’s her right to do so, but because she’s right to reject it! This is stuff that begs to be rejected! Rejection is the password to get into it! Let me begin again.

    Infinite Jest is, at the end of the day, unreadable. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t reading it, loving it, eating it up, and getting off on it; it means that nobody’s going to present a reading of this “thing”d that isn’t already previewed and anticipated inside it, and cut to shreads. One cannot defend IJ because it succeeds in being undefendable. Avery comes along and lo and behold, the only thing we have to offer are nutcases and failed lives which, for some strange reason, have kept us up at night. Just like music. Just like drugs. Just like sex. Just like high-power sports. Avery is a reminder that we’re dealing with a pharmakon, a gift/poison that can’t be declared a gift without paying one’s dues to the poisonous side of the affair. And it makes no sense to say, or demand, that everybody get high in order to understand this genius.

    I believe this is poison, and that the other side (of the moon) of this gift is not offered within the limits of the novel. To look for them is to pay last-minute allegeance to the spider.

    I’ll stop here. It goes without saying that I “enjoyed” your posts.

  13. Daryl Houston August 3, 2009 / 8:20 am

    Thanks for speaking up, Tom. I’m not sure I’m on board with you, though. Maybe I’m not understanding everything you’re saying. When I came to Infinite Jest, I was just about Avery’s age, not a junkie, kind of an average guy from a middle class type family attending a state university and accustomed to reading a very different sort of literature (literature born out of a sort of privilege within its time, I suppose). Yet I found Infinite Jest to be dazzling and ambitious and funny and amazing. I read it in 10 days.

    The more I read Infinite Jest now, the less, in fact, I think it is literature that’s made to be rejected and the less I think it’s in any way antagonistic to the reader. There’s so much humanity in it. This becomes more apparent, I guess, as you get further into the book and start seeing things through Gately’s eyes.

    All that said, I do think you may be right that the book can resonate at deeper levels with people who have a history of some sort of chemical dependency. So there may be something to what you say after all. Still, before I was the guy who had to occasionally lay off alcohol for a while to prove to himself he wasn’t an alcoholic, the book meant a lot to me. As I grow older, it just means more.

  14. Todeswalzer August 3, 2009 / 4:59 pm


    I’m a first-time reader of IJ (having come across it only because of Infinite Summer), and finished reading the novel in slightly less than a month — so, way ahead of schedule. What’s interesting though is the difference between my reaction to Avery’s post as compared to your reaction. When I read of her frustration at “having to work so hard” to “get” the novel, I was more sad that she was missing such a brilliant work of fiction rather than frustrated or angry that her comments might be understood as bashing it.

    And perhaps this is why: having suffered from depression myself, the novel resonated with me on a very personal level. Reading IJ after having stepped back from the precipice meant finding that someone had put into words the ideas and connections that I had only vaguely understood on an intuitive level. My life is substantially different from what it would have been had depression never hit, and Infinite Jest goes a long way to explaining how and why. (For people who have finished the novel, imagine the alternate paths that Hal might have taken, if x or not-y.)

    To think that the world has access to such an ingenious and articulate exposition of what I experienced, and of the profound truths of the human condition that were therein revealed to me, but that they are unable or unwilling to expend the effort to truly make sense of it, is — yes, infuriating, on some level — but more than anything else sad for the loss that it represents. It is for that reason that I, unlike many people commenting on Avery’s post, encouraged her to continue, in the hope that she still might uncover that Truth.


  15. Daryl Houston August 4, 2009 / 8:12 am

    Well-put, Todeswalzer. The book will definitely resonate more strongly with those for whom parts of it represent a sort of shared experience. And as you say, there’s a sense that Avery (among others) is missing out on something meaningful. Thanks for saying it. 🙂

  16. stephanie August 9, 2009 / 4:05 am

    I’ve been participating in Infinite Summer on the main page blogs and discussion board but hadn’t ventured out onto any outside blogs until today. I’m glad I did! I am set to read all of your blog, but this post caught my eye, and I wanted to chime in, albeit a little late:

    I reacted similarly to Avery’s post, and I had to really temper my response. I tried to use my response to the book and the feelings it elicits in me – namely, the importance of empathy – to keep me from attacking back. (As I see it, the post was really antagonistic.)

    I agree with the point that both you and Ray gunn made: it wasn’t not Avery’s criticism of the book that upset me, but instead the sneer she delivered it with. And the certainty of her words: “DFW is explaining the wrong stuff.” I keep saying this, but to me, he is nothing if not deliberate. Just because she feels a certain way does not mean it’s like, some objective truth about the book.

    And then her next post, about how she now likes the book, included a similar jab – about how we’d all fail at AA, because we weren’t supportive enough of her first post. I know that it was a joke, but it was a poor one, and sort of confused.

    Mainly – I think her intention is to be funny, and she’s attempted that in her previous posts as well, but I’m actually finding her posts offensive. She kind of embodies an attitude that DFW criticized every chance he got: cynical, “over-it,” and post-ironic. When she said that she was “the cool, young chick that’ll bring in the 18-35 demographic we so desperately crave so that we can make muchos advertising dollars off of David Foster Wallace’s back,” she was being sarcastic but acknowledging this larger gross point in an unashamed way. So far, IJ seems to be about empathy and sincerity, and her whole shtick (sp?) is the polar opposite.

    Jeez, this is long. But like you, I responded really personally. The book means so much to me already, and I still have another 300 pages to go. It’s all I want to think/talk about. It’s inspiring me to read and study things I skipped over while in school because they were too intimidating. It’s facilitated deeper discussion with my friends, not just about the book but about existence, consciousness, language, etc.

    I’ll shut up now. But one last thing re: Avery/irony – DFW in an interview in 1993:

    “Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone… Now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff.

    “Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”


  17. Daryl Houston August 9, 2009 / 8:28 am

    Thanks, Stephanie. I don’t really have any desire to publicly run Avery down any more than I already have (in fact, I want to like her and to appreciate the perspective she brings; I follow her on twitter and check her blog with an open mind), but I kind of agree with what you’ve said. The quotes you’ve given here are ones to live by when reading DFW’s work. Thanks again.

    • stephanie August 9, 2009 / 11:53 am

      Hmm, maybe I should delete my comment. I wasn’t deliberately trying to run her down, though I see how it totally came out that way. I guess her writing just brought out something in me… I should be clear that it’s her posts on the IS blog that I didn’t respond well to, but not her as a person, or her other writing, because I don’t know anything else about her and could have totally missed the mark here.

      And I do agree with Todeswalzer and what I had originally replied to her post: it’s a shame that she’s missing out on something that we’re all benefitting from so much, and I do hope it resonates with her and is able to touch her the way it has for us.

      • Daryl Houston August 9, 2009 / 7:11 pm

        Oh, please don’t delete your comment. It’s part of the conversation. I started it all, so I’m really sort of to blame. That said, like you, I was trying to express something about my gut reaction to her post and not anything about her as a person.

  18. naptimewriting September 28, 2009 / 11:23 pm

    I was resigned to having Avery feel the same way throughout the process. I know there are people who just don’t like this book.
    So why am I now almost giddy that Wallace won over another fan? In the same irrational way that I was frustrated by her not feeling it earlier, I’m now impishly giggling that she does now.
    Thanks for this post. I still don’t know what makes me defensive about this book, but I share your willingness to shrug off friends disliking other books I like, but rather shocking need to reconsider relationships and overall perspectives about other people who just don’t like this particular novel.

  19. Daryl Houston September 29, 2009 / 8:03 am

    Naptimewriting, maybe it’s the original sting of Avery’s comments informing my impression of her conversion, but I have difficulty viewing it as a real conversion. If your reaction to forging through to the end is “well, at least it’s got me reading books again and I watched a half hour of tennis,” I suppose that’s a nice enough outcome, but it’s not exactly a singing endorsement for the book itself. And some of her statements about the book during these later weeks have just rung a little hollow for me, as if she figures she’s signed up for this thing and had better seem to show some sort of growth or else be considered something of an intellectual failure. And here I reverse my original sentiment in a way: If you don’t like the book, I’d rather you just be up front about it rather than feigning a conversion. I feel now as if maybe Avery is one of those people who’s read the book so she can say she has, which is a sort of posing very much at odds with the authenticity that Wallace’s work demands of itself and showcases a lack of in many of its characters. I guess poor Avery is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t with me, and I know that’s not fair. Or maybe it’s not quite that I think she’s wrong-headed for not having liked the book, but that her reason, or her way of expressing it, was off, and that trying to make a sort of reparations by feigning a conversion in yet another kind of off-kilter way falls short.

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