Written by Nina Berman, Guest Contributor
A friend of mine shared Ashlie Kontos’s essay on being a woman who loves DFW. After typing and retyping a comment under the link, I sent her a long message. This is the gist of it:
Kontos diagnoses the recent cluster of anti-DFW, anti-Infinite Jest op-eds and hot takes as writers’ personal dislike of DFW’s writing; their ambient misandry posing as cultural critique. She argues that when the DFW-recommending men described in these op-eds tell the writers, “you should read Infinite Jest,” they are only trying to share something they love. For her, the op-ed writers are shrill and man-hating, when really they should be more open-minded and omnivorous readers of literature. For Kontos, these writers should be open to authors of all genders, and not seek to discriminate in their reading choices.
These feminist critics take a big swing when they dismiss DFW and Infinite Jest. But when they react against DFW and Infinite Jest, they are not just reacting against one author and one text, but against a whole constellation of normative reading practices.
Feminist criticism is not about replacing patriarchy with matriarchy. Frankly, it has never been about that in a real way, and yet this old straw man still seems to persist. The kind of feminist criticism that leads me to side with the critics against DFW is the kind that reminds me that everything we love is problematic and that we need to consciously make space for marginalized voices if we are going to expand our communal ideas about what it means to live in this world with one another. It’s less about male authors and female authors and more about looking at the systems behind what books become canonical, whose voices are amplified, and what kinds of stories we circulate.
What Kontos sees as an issue of personal taste is really about canon. You can like DFW. You can not like DFW. But to think that this is just an issue of personal preference in either writing style or author gender is to miss the ways in which literary tastes are embedded in systems of power and dominance (your classic race/class/gender, for starters).
Regardless of its literary merits or my personal reaction to Infinite Jest, it is part of a long history of patriarchal literary taste-making mechanisms. Long, sprawling books written by troubled white men are published, reviewed, taught, loved, passed down. They are considered Great Books about the human condition whereas books written by people who are not white men are considered marginal or niche. These Great Books long difficult books are anthologized, excerpted and assigned in survey courses.
This is not to say that feminists can’t or shouldn’t love those books; can’t find truth, solace, or companionship in their pages. But it is to say that we as critical readers need to contextualize our relationships to books in a different way. I love my fair share of big difficult books by sad, dead, white men. They have gotten me through some of the most painful moments in my life. They made me feel seen and understood. But that doesn’t somehow exempt them from the racist, sexist, classist machinations of canon-formation. Feminist criticism at its best shows readers how to hold our deep love for books in tension with their position vis-a-vis discourses of power and oppression.
When these women writers react against Infinite Jest, they are responding to a long history of marginalized readers being told who is good, who is important, who is essential. And, in the case of Infinite Jest, these women (of which I am one) have been told these things by men who see themselves as progressive, liberal, almost definitely left of center in some way or another, and not at all the enforcers of dominant, normative approaches to culture.
When men have recommended Infinite Jest, I wish it had felt like a free exchange of recommendations. Instead, Infinite Jest has always felt like a prerequisite to having an opinion about books. As though in order to be a serious reader and thinker about books, one has to have read and loved Infinite Jest. The liberal, progressive men in my life; friends, classmates, exes, and crushes, who have recommended Infinite Jest to me seem unwilling or unable to see the ways that they, DFW, and Infinite Jest are embedded in larger issues of canon, privilege, and power.
Kontos just wants to talk about what she loves; which is powerful and important. That’s why we find ourselves here–because we love books and talking about them. But that’s not really what we’re here to do. We are here in this space of literary criticism to dig deep, to pick apart, to find the nuance and contradictions, to look at the gaps and silences. We are here to hold in our minds multiple conflicting truths at once; that many people can genuinely love Infinite Jest and that its place in culture is inextricably bound up in oppressive hierarchies. And that if we are going to start making space for other voices and other kinds of narratives, we need to actively seek them out and make space for them on our book shelves and in our syllabi.
Nina Berman is a writer based in Queens, NY. She received her MA in English Literature from Loyola University Chicago. She is interested in developing feminist and queer research practices and ethics around interdisciplinary work.