I just read a wonderful essay by Sasha Chapin on the effect David Foster Wallace has on aspiring writers: He makes them want to imitate his style. Wallace, though widely hailed as a once-in-a-century genius, does not really write like a genius in my view. Instead he writes cleverly, but extremely so. He draws on extensive knowledge and vast vocabulary to draw relatively simple pictures that line up to create off-kilter stories. Chapin writes that Wallace appeals to a readership who is “into being smart”. People who are snobbish about their intelligence tend to gravitate towards the works of Wallace, in the sense that people who are snobbish about wine gravitate toward obscure vintages of Romanee Conti. They are enticed by the illusion that consuming it enhances their personal worth as human beings.
Being an old bilingual reader gives you a different perspective about these things. I was raised a snobbish reader in a long line of snobbish readers who collectively believed that reading high-brow material enhanced your standing like notches on a Lothario’s bedpost. And writers like Lu Xun, Natsume Soseki, Ueda Bin, Nitobe Inazo, and Mori Ogai who peppered their prose with preposterous levels of scholarship and an overwhelming armory of pedagogy, blended seamlessly into similes and metaphors, were sought after like starlets for the philanderer’s bed.
Writers who bedazzle their readers with astute observations and tidal waves of learning are not unusual in Asian literature. Lately, Kyogoku Natsuhiko has adopted the style. He writes thousand-plus-page tomes which are basically creepy ghost stories with some cerebral detective plots written in vocabulary drawn from the past thousand years of Japanese literature and some foreign languages. Think of a cross between J. K. Rowling and Stephen King in the stylistic hybrid of Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie.
Chapin writes that he spent years in a futile effort to imitate Wallace’s style. His problem was that he was trying to fly by flapping his bare arms, and not by building an airplane. Writing like a scholar takes actual scholarship. You cannot just try to imitate a style when the style is based on deep rooted knowledge. That would be like sticking olive leaves in a flower pot hoping it will take root.
This epidemic of the desire to imitate Wallace, which Chapin calls “Wallace Disease”, reflects how naive American readers are to true scholarship. Jessa Crispin (of Bookslut fame) recently wrote for the Guardian that she found Infinite Jest a waste of time (“Ack! Men!”) while she enjoyed Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language, but only because “it makes me feel clever for getting the jokes. It references and sends up French structuralists and post-structuralists, makes jokes about gender studies and analytical philosophy, name-drops figures like Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and others whom I have already read.” She points out that people like Infinite Jest and The Seventh Function of Language because it fits their prefabricated tastes. She then asks “But shouldn’t art do the opposite? Shouldn’t it make us curious about other worldviews, other demographics, other ideas and ways of living? Shouldn’t it be expansive and disruptive, rather than reinforcing?”
Yes, sort of, but that is not the whole story. Pedantic literature is just one style out of many. Some people just love to draw on their encyclopedic knowledge of whatever they know and insert it into their work. Hayashi Joji is a writer with an incredibly intimate knowledge of World War II military technology which he uses to map out fantasy scenarios of how Japan could have won the war against the United States in his alternate history novels. Not the stuff of high-brow literature, but an impressive flexing of scholarly muscle on display. His metaphors are clever to the extreme and his observations are sharper than a trooper’s bayonet. But that does not make it high literature, only cerebral entertainment.
Japanese readers have been celebrating pedantic intellectualism in literature since at least Sei Shonagon‘s time. If Americans would stop insisting that Latin is a dead language and look into the cultural heritage stored in it, they will find the same could be said about Europeans for at least as long. The world is full of Wallaces and Binets. People read them as indulgences: Sort of inside jokes that mark them as in-the-know, as well as oyster forks to distinguish themselves from the arrivistes. They are not expansive or disruptive. They are country clubs on a page.
Chapin writes that as a young boy he thought “one day, I was convinced, the girls who wouldn’t dream of touching my greasy teenage hair might regret that decision” when he produced evidence of his superior intellect, in his case through writing. He may not know how close he was to the mark in thinking so. Every bit of pedantic knowledge is a point you earn, or a Pokemon you collect, in the long game of amassing enough scores to gain entry into the secret club of intellectualism where the members are bonded by mutual sapio-attraction, and where the pecking order is decided by the notches on your bedpost.