Alex Moran: Wallace as Genre Writer
Wallace and Genre
While in graduate school, I was trying to find a few Jonathan Lethem books in my local library. Though I found a couple in the “fiction” section, I could not find his novel Motherless Brooklyn (1999) anywhere, despite it being clearly stated as available and on the shelf. I suddenly realized that Lethem’s novel might be filed in the “mystery” section of the library, away from his other work, and lo and behold, there it was. What this anecdote demonstrates is that American contemporary writers – Lethem, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead, and many more – are challenging traditional categories of “genre fiction” and “literary fiction,” and largely rendering such distinctions redundant.In her wonderful introductory account of genre theory, Heather Dubrow suggests that: “When an author chooses to write in a given genre, he is not merely responding to the achievements and the pronouncements of others; he himself is issuing certain statements about his art and often about art in general. The very act of adopting a literary form, especially a well-established one, implies a respect for the past, or at least for one particular period or school within it” (1982, 10).Troubling use of gendered pronouns apart, it is evident that Lethem and many writers like him are choosing to make pronouncements with their formal choices and are placing their fiction in specific generic traditions. Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen, seemingly attempting to revive a realist tradition, are nonetheless – and in Franzen’s case, often quite literally so – making pronouncements about their art through their formal choices. In novels such as Franzen’s The Corrections(2001) and Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot (2011), both these writers are attempting to adjoin their work to a particular past. Similarly, Lethem, Egan, Whitehead, Karen Joy Fowler, and, as I will suggest here, Wallace, are similarly issuing pronouncements about their art in the relationships they form with particular literary genres.
Many critics have noted and explored this recent phenomenon whereby authors are turning to genre forms, typified by such investigations such as Theodore Martin’s sterling recent book, Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present (2017), which follows on the heels of Andrew Hoberek, Tim Lazendörfer, and many others. What I wish to outline in this piece are the ways in which Wallace’s relationship with popular genres is overlooked, particularly regarding his most well-known piece of fiction, Infinite Jest. I argue that Wallace’s relationship with genre is an understudied aspect of his work, and one that could be particularly fruitful for Wallace scholars to investigate. This post serves as the first in a series that intends to explore Wallace’s writing alongside theories, ideas, and fields beyond the usual scope of Wallace studies.
First, I briefly outline the role of genre in contemporary criticism, and how Wallace’s writing figures in this debate. I then discuss three popular genres Wallace’s fiction is animated and informed by: science fiction, the gothic, and mystery fiction. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these are the three clearest popular genres that can be seen to play a role in his fiction. Science fiction is evident in the near future setting of Jestand the distant future world of stories such as “Datum Centurio,” collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. The gothic is clear in the ghosts that feature in both Jest and The Pale King, and a particularly unsettling gothic energy indeed defines much of his work. Towards the end of this article, I outline the ways in which Jestis a “whodunnit,” a mystery that has brought thousands of readers together trying to piece together what happens in this novel. I conclude by suggesting why understanding Wallace’s relationship with genres is important for Wallace scholars.
Genre in Wallace’s fiction
It is important to consider the context in which this recent turn to genre has taken place. Wallace’s near contemporaries were by no means the first “literary” authors to embrace generic forms. While the relationship of modernism and genre forms is now slowly coming to the fore as the study of modernism is transformed by New Modernist studies, postmodern/postwar writers such as Thomas Pynchon embody what Mark McGurl has labelled “meta-genrefiction, where a popular genre—romance, western, science fiction, fantasy and detective fiction—is both instantiated and ironized to the point of becoming dysfunctional in the production of its conventional pleasures” (2009, 217). More recently, the trend among authors has not been to ironize or distance oneself from these conventional pleasures, but to embrace and work within these limits and strictures of these forms. InfiniteJestwas published at a moment when writers’ relationships with popular genres was about to transform; this novel sits between the world of meta-genre fiction and the more open embrace of genre seen in the fiction of Chabon, Whitehead, Egan, and many more.
It is perhaps for this reason that Hoberek suggests that Wallace’s most famous novel plays an “anticipatory” role in the recent turn to “literary genre” (2016, 498). He outlines the ways in which Jestis a conscious return to the form of the postmodern epic, a tradition represented by writers such as Pynchon, William Gaddis, and William Gass. However, what I wish to argue here is not only that Jestis an example of the postmodern novel – even if it is, as Tom LeClair and Stephen Burn have explored, an encyclopedic novel in that vein – but also that his fiction evidences clear connections to numerous literary genres. Indeed, as well as the formal tricks Wallace is often discussed as employing, his fiction also works within and pushes against the limits of genre forms. Lucas Thompson convincingly demonstrates the ways in which Wallace draws from many international literary traditions – some categories of which, such as the American South, have clear connections to the gothic– and here I wish to posit that Wallace’s relationships with popular genres is another means to expand our understanding of his fiction.
The most obvious relationship to genre is Wallace’s connection to science fiction. Indeed, in one of his earliest short stories, “Planet Trillophon as it Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing” (1984), the protagonist has created another world to represent his depression. At this early point of his career, then, Wallace’s connection to the world of science fiction is made clear. David Lipsky notes that during their time together Wallace was reading the pioneering sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein, further suggesting at least some relationship with the genre. Furthermore, when one considers the near-future setting, alternate history, and the ubiquitous “teleputer” technology that appears in so much of the novel, Infinite Jest is in many ways a work of science fiction.
One strain of the sci-fi genre that Wallace’s work shares a kinship with is the post-apocalyptic genre. Hoberek argues that the defining feature of what he terms post-postmodern fiction is the post-apocalyptic genre. Since the release of Jestthere has been an explosion of post-apocalyptic fiction: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010), Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2010), Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), to name a few. Infinite Jestis definitively part of a recent turn towards post-apocalyptic fiction, with plagues or wars also featuring towards the end of largely realist texts such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010) and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia(2011). In this sense, Infinite Jestis, to use Hoberek’s own term, anticipatory, as the text finishes at precisely the moment the apocalyptic events of the novel are going to happen. Wallace’s connection to the traditions of science fiction, and his place in the recent uptick of interest in the genre, is something for Wallace scholars to consider.
The gothic is also another obvious presence in Wallace’s fiction. At DFW16, Melissa Holton’s exploration of Infinite Jest’s ties to the gothic was one the first pieces of criticism to look at Wallace as a writer whose fiction has clear relationships to genre forms and tropes.While her paper is the place to look to see an in-depth look of Wallace and the gothic, here I will just note a few of the clearest connections. Beyond the hauntings and wraiths seen throughout his work, there is also the setting of Jest, with ETA in some ways resembling a gothic castle, replete with underground passageways, Lyle, moving objects, and, during the Interdependence Day celebrations, Avril wears a witch’s hat. There is also the distinctly gothic theme of entombment that Orin experiences towards the end of the novel.The importance of Boston to the novel is also evocative of this gothic past, as New England is an area infused with a gothic literary tradition, from Nathaniel Hawthorne, to H. P. Lovecraft, to Stephen King (a writer Wallace is often noted as admiring), and John Updike’s generally quite terrible Witches of Eastwick (1984) (Updike being another writer Wallace states he is a fan of, something he slips in as he eviscerates Updike’s late novel, Toward the End of Time(1997), in his now infamous review). As well as this setting, many of Wallace’s forebears, contemporaries, and followers – such as Joyce Carol Oates, Bret Easton Ellis, Jennifer Egan, and Justin Cronin – are just some of the contemporary writers to have embraced the gothic. To see how a gothic energy animates so much of Wallace’s writing recasts much of his fiction in a new light. As with viewing Jestthrough the lens of science fiction, seeing how Wallace actively engages with the gothic tradition is an approach that expands the ways in which it is possible to interpret and understand his fiction. Moreover, such an approach challenges both how Wallace’s fiction is understood and the ways in which the gothic is defined.
Finally, when one considers the subreddits, the wikis, Infinite Summer, the discussion boards, the listserv, the conferences, and other more ad-hoc groups Infinite Jesthas inspired, it is hard to overlook that Jestis in many ways a “whodunnit”. For over 20 years now, readers have tried to parse out the mysteries of Wallace’s text. Infinite Jestis in many ways a mystery; not only in the opaque reasons for why Hal cannot communicate at the start of the novel, or the fate of the tape that grounds so much of the plot, but in James Incandenza’s mysterious death, the intrigues around Avril’s motivations, or the almost incalculable other lines of inquiry readers are asked to piece together. Moreover, when looked at as a mystery, Hugh/Helen Steeply is brought into clearer focus. This enables a contrast of Steeply’s character with the great tradition of detectives – such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade – and also connects Wallace’s novel with Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, where the Tourette’s ridden protagonist, Lionel Essrog, reformulates the way the detective is supposed to work. This tradition of inverting the detective genre dates back at least to Mark Twain’s “The Stolen White Elephant” (1882), and is a lineage that one can perhaps situate Jestwithin when Steeply becomes the focus. To see Infinite Jest– and many of Wallace’s short stories – as connected to these genres enables readers to delve into what forms and techniques Wallace is taking from these traditions, and to situate his writing as part of wider trends seen across recent fiction. Indeed, to return to Dubrow’s point, by discussing Wallace’s relationships with genre forms we can begin to widen our understanding of what pronouncements Wallace’s use of generic forms and tropes is making about his own fiction and art in general.
Conclusion – Why does this all matter?
In her keynote at DFW18, Clare Hayes-Brady persuasively argued for Wallace Studies to avoid “ghettoizing”; that we, as Wallace scholars, should constantly strive to place his work in new contexts, to unsettle our assumptions about his writing, and constantly look to situate Wallace alongside new writers. Otherwise, Wallace studies could possibly become cut off from the wider literary world. Lucas Thompson’s study is one such instance of Wallace scholarship that challenges previous assumptions about Wallace as an American writer; what I have loosely sketched here are some of the ways Wallace cannot be easily categorized as simply a writer of “literary fiction,” or “post-postmodern fiction” (whatever those terms actually mean).Instead, Wallace’s work is part of a wider embrace of genre forms seen across fiction in the last couple of decades. While admittedly what defines a text as part of a specific genre is at best fluid, this malleability of genre means Wallace’s fiction can simultaneously operate within many literary traditions. When looked at in relation to genre, Wallace’s fiction can be discussed as part of a series of literary and cultural traditions that his fiction is often seen as separate from.
In his Foucauldian definitions of genre, John Frow states that it is through genre“in which texts seek to control the uncertainty of communication, and it may also do so by building in figures of itself, models of how it should be read”. But this does not mean that seeing the genre influences on Wallace closes off interpretation, as Frow goes on to argue of genre more broadly: “The complexity of genre means, however, that these models can never be taken as straightforward guidelines, and indeed that notions of a one-way flow between genre and text can never be particularly useful” (2015, 4-5). That science fiction, the gothic, and mystery fiction inform the form and content of Wallace’s fiction are part of a huge patchwork of influences and connections – some conscious, some that we as critics will make – that scholars are only just beginning to countenance and extrapolate as the field of Wallace studies develops. Wallace’s use and relationship to genre forms is one such means to push the boundaries of how his writing is understood, and to perhaps nudge Wallace scholarship into new critical contexts at conferences, in journals, and more broadly to challenge our assumptions about Wallace’s place in the contemporary canon.
There is so much potential for Wallace studies to expand further afield and to move beyond conference panels dedicated to exclusively to Wallace. Genre is just one way to nudge discussions of Wallace into different contexts and histories. In this blog post series, both Wallace’s fiction and nonfiction will be discussed alongside numerous underexplored connections, from disability studies, to poetry, to post-criticism, to math, and to many other surprising places. If you would like to pitch an entry, please email the society and we will be happy to work with you on bringing your ideas to fruition.
Dubrow, Heather. Genre. New York: Methuen, 1982.
Egan, Jennifer. “Introduction.” In The Best American Short Stories 2014. Edited by Jennifer Egan and Heidi Pitlor, xiii – xix. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
Frow, John. Genre. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Hoberek, Andrew. “Epilogue: 2001, 2008, and After.” In The Cambridge History of Postmodern Literature, edited by Brian McHale and Len Platt, 497–514. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Holton, Melissa. “The Darkly Delicious Thing: Explorations of the Gothic in Infinite Jest.” In Normal 2016: Selected Works from the Third Annual David Foster Wallace Conference, edited by Jeff Jarot, Ashlie Kontos, Brian Monday, and Carissa Kampmeier, 43 – 52. Gilson, IL: Lit Fest Press, 2017.
McGurl, Mark. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Sedgwick, Eve. The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Routledge, 1986.
This phenomenon can be seen in other national literatures – Kazuo Ishiguro and China Miéville in British literature, for instance – but it is perhaps nowhere more concentrated than in current US letters.
If someone wanted to look into the development of genre theory, comparing Dubrow’s excellent 1982 Genrewith John Frow’s similarly brilliant introductory volume from 2015 is a great way to start.
This excellent paper can be found in the 2016 conference proceedings.
See Eve Sedgwick’s The Coherence of Gothic Conventions(1980) for more on this trope of live burial in Gothic fiction, particularly the second chapter.
I tend to agree with Jennifer Egan that we really do not need another “ism,” an idea she briefly discusses in her introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2014(2014, xviii – xix).