A Short Meditation on the Whiteness of David Foster Wallace’s Writing

Written by Sean Gandert, Guest Contributor

Every now and then I have a conversation with a friend about a book or movie or television show with all (or at least predominantly) white characters. We complain about the work’s lack of diversity, about the way it would have been so goddamn easy to feature maybe a single black character with no involvement in drugs, or a hispanic character who wasn’t doing menial labor. The way its gay characters are all inoffensive suburbanites and its lesbian characters sultry sexpots. There’s no excuse, we say. It can’t take that much imagination to depict people without these lazy stereotypes, especially since the only imagination required is stepping outside and really paying attention to non-white, non-hetero, non-cis people as they pass through your life for a change.

But at some point I always end up asking a question along the lines of, “Well, do you really want to see [insert white male writer’s name here] writing about what it’s like to be a half-Korean lesbian?” Suddenly the conversation gets a little weird. The question of what it is we’re looking for stumbles a bit, because suddenly the situation feels less cut-and-dry. We don’t want to be absent, certainly the erasure of non-white populations from Western literature is a historic evil, but we also know that it’s far more likely that what ends up on the page is disastrous. Remember Jonathan Franzen’s attempt at writing Indian characters, or T.C. Boyle’s at writing Mexican ones? Better absent than present as a caricature, right? Maybe? Hmm.

I love David Foster Wallace’s work to a somewhat disgusting extent, yet it is whiter than an arctic fox, and, worse than that, sometimes it’s (unintentionally, I would hope) simply racist—primarily in his masterwork Infinite Jest. Wallace the writer always seemed ashamed of this part of himself, even as he was unable to erase it from what he put on the page. Case in point: one of the oddities of his bibliography is the full-length work he published right before Jest,co-written with Mark Costollo: Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present. Not that you would know it if you started reading his work during his lifetime, as that book was generally left off the bibliography at the front of Wallace’s books, presumably at his request. Wallace’s first section of the book (though by Costello’s account, Wallace in fact heavily edited the entire manuscript) begins with an attempt at answering the question “Why do you …?”, as in why do you think this is your subject to write about? “Please know we’re very sensitive to this question: what business have 2 white yuppies trying to do a sampler on rap?” This question never gets answered, though, aside from the implicit “because we feel like it” that eliding any real answer denotes. If real rap is “Black music, of and for blacks,” as Wallace claims, then writing about it, especially in the vaguely ethnographic way that he does so, is a form of appropriation.

Signifying Rappers is incredibly dated, problematic (to use that word we all hate yet feel the need to grasp onto because it’s nevertheless the only word that encompasses the situation), and quite a good essay. It’s not entirely about rap; it’s more a long meditation about what it’s like to be two white guys in 1989 who’re into rap and want other people, i.e. white guys,  to understand why the form is so damn vital. But it’s also embarrassing because maybe it shouldn’t have existed at all, even with its clear outsider point of view and no attempt whatsoever at ventriloquizing blackness or pretending to be in any way part of the scene itself. It remains that weird book on any big David Foster Wallace fan’s shelf, the one we’re vaguely embarrassed to own despite some virtuoso passages, keen observations, and an honest and pure goal at its center. We kind of want to leave it off his bibliography, too.

Put another way: the first section of Signifying Rappers is called “Entitlement.” This, in a book published in early 1990. The authors’ awareness of their own privilege bleeds off the page, but whether or not that awareness saves the work is still up for question. How much credit should we give for trying?

Back to Infinite Jest, though, the almost unassailable epic that’s nonetheless riddled with unnecessary racial slurs and a complete lack of non-white point of view characters despite a sprawling cast so large that, having read through the book half a dozen times, I still find myself forgetting dozens of minor characters. It’s those minor characters who matter, though, the ones who are black and Asian and hispanic, the ones who only get mentioned for a couple paragraphs as they work in the background of Enfield Tennis Academy’s program serving lunch and doing custodial duty. One of his projects with the book was to remove figurants, to give voice to the multitude and not forget that the background characters of life also have stories, but when it came to non-white characters he did a terrible job. Again, we have that problem of imagination cropping up. Wallace doesn’t seem to be able to imagine a world without diversity, but he also seems fundamentally incapable of imaging non-white characters in any but subservient or otherwise racist roles. Would Infinite Jest be better off if these characters were omitted entirely?

The close third-person point of view that’s used in the majority of Infinite Jest is unusual in that it’s both within characters’ thoughts, and also divorced from them (at a couple key points in the novel the seemingly third-person narrator even drops a couple of first-person “I”s into the narration) and willing to think for himself—a pronoun I’m using because the narrator might be James Incandenza, his son Hal, Wallace himself, or none of these characters, but certainly isn’t a woman. This creates a problem, though, when the narration channels a racist character’s thoughts. When Randy Lenz spends sentence after sentence considering the basic traits of an “Orientoid” person, we’re within his racist head. And while that’s certainly a commentary about how nasty of a character he is, we’re also being buffeted with these racist thoughts by the narrator. At one point the narrator censors a slur for black people and tells us that he’s done this in a footnote, which begs the question of why this is happening here and not, say, everywhere else? Does the narrator realize some aspects of racism but not others? Is there a breakdown of authorial control happening when it gets through? And why, even when contemplating the mind of a racist character, do we need that many sentences and repetitions of words like the one I (perhaps needlessly) repeated earlier?

At one point a character describes the historical actions of people in a list that includes, “Spic Separatists, [and] the Ragheads.” Another character interrupts him to say with the utmost derision, “Very charming. These are attractive terms.” The acknowledgment of racism, though, doesn’t negate it. The racist character continues on in fashion, repeating one of these slurs, and nothing changes. Beyond this, the greater fact remains that it would be just as easy for this dialogue to exist without the slurs entirely. Maybe the American character here needs to be racist—I can see thematic reasons for that—but that doesn’t mean this passage fails to work as a synecdoche for the entire work, where an acknowledgment of racism exists rather than removing its presence entirely. Wallace recognizes racism and that this is a hateful, harmful thing, but doesn’t question its existence, doesn’t problematize its role in the world. Instead, he recreates it.

The telling part of what’s happening appears, of course, in a footnote. Part of footnote 293 reads: “Joelle van Dyne, by the way, was acculturated in a part of the U.S.A. where verbal attitudes toward black people are dated and unconsciously derisive, and is doing pretty much the best she can—colored and so on—and anyway is a paragon of racial sensitivity compared to the sort of culture Don Gately was conditioned in.” Wallace is like Joelle. He can’t omit non-white characters altogether, but he too was acculturated in a part of our nation where attitudes toward all other races are “dated and unconsciously derisive.” He is trying to be racially sensitive, but failing at times rather miserably. Do we give him credit for trying, for telling us that these are racist characters living in a racist world and that the non-white people in his dystopian reality are, as ever, being marginalized? Or is it impossible not to take these racist tropes at face value, especially since sometimes they seem to truly be unintended by the writer? Both, probably.

I may be wrong about this, but I can’t recall any non-white characters appearing in Wallace’s fiction post-Infinite Jest. Being able to omit other races and commentary about race from his stories is a privileged position, but I wonder if maybe this is also somehow a good thing, because had the white casts of these stories interacted with people of color, those people would likely have been more stereotypes, and we would’ve heard more unnecessary slurs in an attempt at “realism.” His fiction is a wall of incandescent white, yet I find myself happier about that than those few times he butts against questions of race and ethnicity, parts of the world where Wallace, smart as he may be, doesn’t seem to know what the hell he’s doing. When he’s not trying to depict diversity, I’m not distracted by how strangely tone-deaf he is to offensive language and imagery and can enjoy his fiction for the multitude of things it does well.

Recently, I attended a Q&A session hosted by a prominent black poet and editor. A woman in the audience, an accomplished author of several books, asked him for help with a problem she had with her writing. As a white writer, she felt that her non-white characters were never as real as they needed to be and she felt presumptuous writing from their point of view, yet of course she didn’t want to leave non-white characters out of her fiction for obvious reasons. It was a good question, not only because of its relevance in the mostly-white room this was happening in, but also because it signified that intelligent white writers now realize that although it’s their privilege to ignore characters of color in their writing, it should also be their responsibility not to. She was told to pay more attention, to look and listen with empathy, to go out more and do the type of life research that good fiction requires. But I left feeling like the question was still sitting there in the room, not really answered because maybe there wasn’t a real answer to give.

I’ve sat in workshops before and read stories where writers really tried to empathize with characters of races other than their own, did their best to tell the stories they felt weren’t being told because they involved marginalized people, yet created works far more offensive and disastrous than Wallace did. Could they ever improve enough with their “craft” to do so? While I want everyone to be able to write characters of races other than their own well, to give them depth and acuity and intelligence and humanity, the reality of the situation is that for some people that may not be possible. Unfortunately, I think Wallace was one of those people; quite possibly almost all of us are. Maybe sometimes the best of intentions and a willingness to empathize isn’t necessarily enough. But then, if that’s true it’s only a short step to recreating a world of literature in which the marginalized, unless writing about themselves, remain that way. I don’t have any answers. It’s sad, though, that I have an easier time imagining a version of Infinite Jest in which non-white races are erased entirely than one in which they’re not denigrated. Infinite Jest is a problematic text, utterly brilliant and repeatedly offensive, completely worth reading but also something I’m at times embarrassed to recommend. I’m still trying to come to grips with how I feel about it, the way a book that moves me so deeply every time I read it can also feature numerous passages that are aggressively and unnecessarily hateful. I don’t know that I ever will.


Sean Gandert, despite the name, is a hispanic writer from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gandert is the author of the novel Lost in Arcadia. His next book, American Saint, will be published in early 2019.

Photo credit: Miguel Gandert

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