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Please Leave 'Infinite Jest' Alone

The joke about a certain kind of man reading David Foster Wallace's massive 1996 novel has been done to death. Let's all agree to move on.
October 6, 2020, 8:34pm
White man with glasses reading a book
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Anyone who spends too much time on Twitter has likely noticed how the same cultural conversations surface over and over again: How being a gifted kid supposedly leads to being a depressed adult; whether or not it's okay for a millennial to like Steely Dan; how bisexual people all reportedly do the same vague thing. These are opinions that have taken over the daily discourse on a seemingly endless loop for the past several years. But the one joke (if you can call it that) that gets under my skin the most essentially boils down to: “Men own copies of the book Infinite Jest.” And wouldn’t you know it—it’s back, this time via Tiktok!

I am not here to defend men. I’m not even necessarily here to defend David Foster Wallace, who died by suicide in 2008 and surely does not deserve all of this. I am simply begging you to get new material.

Infinite Jest, for those unfamiliar, is a novel Wallace wrote that was published in 1996. It's typically regarded as difficult reading, due partly to its narrative structure, but mostly because of its length. Infinite Jest is 1,079 pages long, making it not ideal for subway reading but extremely effective as an emergency doorstop.

There are several other books and authors that routinely get roped into the “books guys brag about reading” discourse. Hemingway and Bukowski get flak for their perceived machismo, and Lolita is in trouble for its subject material (despite the should-be-obvious fact that writing about a pedophile is not akin to endorsing pedophilia, and its gorgeous prose deserves the praise it receives). But for some reason, maybe just the simple fact of its enormous physical heft, Infinite Jest is the one novel that crops up in this conversation every time without fail. The trope of the Infinite Jest guy has been written about in Reductress, The Toast, and The Cut. It’s at the point where the book has practically become a metonym for pretension and sexism.

But to make David Foster Wallace the poster boy of white male pretension is unfair. Yes, he makes copious use of long-winded footnotes, and yes, his writing is dense and his vocabulary sophisticated. But if you read his essay writing and journalism, you’ll know that it’s also insightful and drily hilarious. “Big Red Son,” his essay on the porn industry, and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” which he wrote about his experience on a cruise ship, are endlessly entertaining and nuanced pieces of first-person journalism.

Most importantly, people need to stop rehashing the same tired arguments, especially when there is such a rich trove of other ways to poke fun at men. Listen, it’s not like the criticism is coming from left field. We all knew that guy in college who mostly only read male authors, who took up class time with his bloviating, who possibly talked down to you, or insisted that the Brontës sucked. There’s a whole Twitter account dedicated to this stereotype. That’s a real type of guy, but that guy is 21 years old. How old are you?

Undoubtedly, we should all be reading literature from a more diverse group of people and perspectives than the same few dozen white men assigned to us in college. This is inarguable. But can we really blame the end users alone for the racial and gender makeup of what constitutes “the canon”? Ultimately, the issue is with structural patriarchy and structural racism as a whole, which filters through our publishing houses and academic institutes. Cultural hegemony is not the fault of one guy you had a bad date with.

In any case, the point has already been made, more times than I can count. Retreading the same territory won’t get us any further. Moreover, the joke simply isn’t funny anymore, if it ever really was. The dead horse has been beaten to dust.

So let’s move on and find some new crap to argue about, if we must. I’d rather see people debate whether or not something is a sandwich for the millionth time than read Infinite Jest discourse ever again. We can encourage and promote diversifying peoples’ bookshelves without dragging them to hell and back for what they’ve already read. But on the issue of Infinite Jest, we should consider the books closed.