Written by Danielle Ely, Diversity Team Member
I first read David Foster Wallace in the summer of 2009. At the same time, I was a graduate student studying for my Master’s degree in English Literature at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. While reading Wallace for the first time, I also read a great deal of feminist and gender theory in an “Introduction to Literary Theory” course. Granted, I had read some feminist and gender theory before as an undergraduate, but mostly to apply one critical essay to one work of literature. Never before had I experienced what happened when I read feminist theory alongside a book like Infinite Jest. I was in crisis. I felt guilty for the fact that Hal was my favorite character. I wondered: Am I a traitor to my gender identity because I like Hal more than Avril or Joelle? At the end of the summer semester, I submitted my first paper on Infinite Jest—titled something dumb and grammatically improper like “Where the women at?” Then, I paid a visit to the blogs on “Infinite Summer” which was wrapping up a read through Infinite Jest around the same time I was. I found that I was not alone. I found that other readers were finding their reading experience hostile because of Infinite Jest’s lack of female characters or their less than flattering representation. Some were even “putting the book down and slowly walking away.” That’s precisely when the guilt over loving the novel kicked in. I wondered: 1) Why do I love a novel that seems to hate me? and 2) How can I work around, or put the reaction I’m having to work? These two questions were the real genesis of all my future writing about Wallace and Wallace studies.
I continued exploring my own “blind-spots” toward women in Infinite Jest and I found that the “blind-spots” carried over into scholarly and public discussion of the novel. I knew a feminist reading of Infinite Jest was against tradition considering the novel’s focus on mostly male characters, but I was shocked to be met with hostility in the vein of— you’re missing the point of Wallace’s writing. I don’t mean to offend anyone who initially gave me kudos and support in my project, but there was nothing so inspiring as being told I shouldn’t or couldn’t do what I was doing.
At the First Annual David Foster Wallace Conference, I was told about a Tumblr page dedicated to “all white-male panel shaming” that I was previously unaware of. At the second, I asked a young woman why she walked out of the panel she originally intended on seeing and she said “look around…I had to show my support.” And we did just that—looking around at a mostly white-male audience. Now, I share this story/experience simply as an origin story. What initially brought me to Wallace studies and ultimately to the Diversity Team was resistance—that there were people out there who saw my admittedly against-the-grain reading of Infinite Jest as wrong. This gave my project expedience. As someone who believes in a Barthesian reading of novels; “everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered … writing is to be ranged over, not pierced.” I don’t want to solve the problems of Infinite Jest or any of Wallace’s writing for that matter. The problems are where I see the beauty. The problems are the reason I love Wallace’s writing. The problems are what keep me writing about Wallace’s writing and speaking up.
It can be difficult to predict or even encourage diversity in the exact way or place we want it. But we must let each other speak for ourselves, on our own behalf, lest we learn nothing from the way characters interact in Infinite Jest. The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies, The International David Foster Wallace Society, Wallace-I, and the conferences strive for inclusivity. But our inclusivity means nothing if our actions are merely perfunctory and symbolic. We must avoid tokenism at all costs. For now, it’s okay that there are “blind-spots.” Someone will notice and someone will speak up. I did. And now I get to be motivated by inclusivity, support, and a much more open community than I ever expected when I first began my long and beautiful journey through Wallace’s writing.
Danielle S. Ely is an adjunct professor of English at Columbia-Greene Community College and Hudson Valley Community College, both in upstate New York. Her Master’s Thesis called “Into the Womb of Solipsism: The Entertainment as Speculum,” completed in 2011, is available for free on Proquest. Her work also appears in LitFestPress’ “Collected Works” from the First and Second Annual David Foster Wallace Conferences.