It feels as if we’ve spent the past two weeks (if not four years) creating distinctions between the philosophies of two different groups of people. On the one hand are those still clinging to decades-old styles and ideas, while on the other, are those looking to innovate and progress and create change (for the better) in whichever institutions they deal with. These distinctive philosophies are ones of conservatism versus liberalism, but also of romanticism versus pragmatism; these are philosophies which, for the most part, are prevalent in nearly every aspect of our lives.
Late last week, author Bret Easton Ellis took to Twitter to rant about the late David Foster Wallace, calling him “the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation.”* As Slate points out, this wasn’t exactly unprovoked – this was actually a grudge that Ellis has held since the year I was born, and which was (likely) resurrected with the recent release of D.T. Max’s much anticipated DFW biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.
*This seems a silly thing to say. First off, Wallace was clearly tortured – the man committed suicide – to feel the need to say so shows a complete lack of empathy towards him and his family. Secondly, calling him “pretentious” is exactly what he wants. If Ellis had ever read “Authority and American Usage” in Consider the Lobster he would know that Wallace refers to himself (proudly) as a “SNOOT,” who is someone he loosely defines as “somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it.” “SNOOTs,” he continues “are just about the last remaining kind of truly elitist nerd.” If Ellis wanted to offend the late Wallace’s memory (or his readership) “pretentious” was probably the last word he should have used. Wallace was pretentious, and he was proud of it, and it was one of his most compelling characteristics.
In 1987 Wallace published an essay titled “Fictional Features and the Conspicuously Young,” in which he criticizes the writers of his generation (whom he refers to as “Conspicuously Young” or “C.Y.”), the Creative Writing Programs (words he chooses to capitalize) found in many colleges and universities and the rising Nielsen-induced, capitalistic approach towards art of all forms. One of the C.Y. writers Wallace refers to in the essay was none other than Bret Easton Ellis (though Wallace, conspicuously, omits the “Easton”), whose work – among others – Wallace refers to as “trash,” saying: “My complaint against trash isn’t that it’s vulgar art, or irritatingly dumb art, but that, given what makes ﬁction art at all, trash is simply unreal, empty—and that (aided by mores of and by TV) it seduces the market writers need and the culture that needs writers away from what is real, full, meaningful.”
No doubt, when Ellis began reading D.T. Max’s book (which spends time discussing DFW’s critique of Ellis) his grudge toward Wallace resurfaced. Now, the idea that someone would hold a grudge against another writer who called his work “trash” isn’t exactly earth-shattering. What is, though, is Ellis’ posthumous critique (really just a bashing) of Wallace, his catalogue, and his fans.
David Foster Wallace has been called a “genius” on more than one occasion, and while in most instances this term is used hyperbolically, it is correctly applied in this case. He was a visionary who changed the landscape of literature – fiction and non-fiction. He was an author whose catalogue has withstood time – mostly because he had such an otherworldly ability to analyze and describe the minutiae of any given moment in such vivid ways, ways in which no one else could – and whose influence continues to grow (even, and especially, after his death), which can be seen in the works of contemporary writers, whether it’s Chad Harbach or Chuck Klosterman.
Brett Easton Ellis published Less Than Zero at the age of twenty-one. He released The Rules of Attraction two years later. Four years after that he released the infamous American Psycho. I read each of these novels when I was eighteen years old, and I – for the most part – enjoyed them. They all shared commons themes, themes of angst and lust, which, at that age, are easy to relate to. After American Psycho, though, Ellis hasn’t really produced anything of note. In 2010 he released the sequel to Less Than Zero, a novel called Imperial Bedrooms – a book which I started last year, read about 35 pages of and could no longer continue.
The thing about Ellis is that his prose, his own personal writing style, his character development and his themes haven’t evolved as he’s aged, and as the literary world has evolved. His catalogue (as short as it is) has not aged well. As my friend Ankur Thakkar wrote, if you once liked The Rules of Attraction, try reading it now. Ellis is still living as if it’s the late-80’s, as if he’s still the rising star of the publishing world at a time before Wallace ever published Infinite Jest. In Ellis’ mind, the Brat Pack, C.Y. fiction of the 80’s is still a smarter, more viable option than the truly brilliant writing of David Foster Wallace whose work has inspired countless young writers of the internet generation (and beyond).
I tweeted following Ellis’ rant that, if nothing else, he seemed bitter and jealous of Wallace and his success, especially when juxtaposed with his own lack thereof. His rant was emblematic of (small-“C”) conservatism in today’s age – his ramblings are those of a faction of people chained to their own past, hoping to escape but struggling to achieve any semblance of relevancy in the modern world.