Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Last Great American Writer

What, then, is a serious, literary writer today but a kind of ghost, haunting the information/media wasteland Stephen Henighan has dubbed the afterlife of culture? Every literary bio is a ghost story.

In this interesting review by Alex Good of a biography of David Foster Wallace he seems to be making the point that there is no last great American writer.  There are few second acts in American literature, and in our time many of the first acts have been remarkably brief. One of the hot new names contemporary with Wallace was, according to Max, Mark Leyner. I had never heard of him before reading this book. Meanwhile, is any member of the "brat pack" of Conspicuously Young Authors - Jay MacInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz - read today? (The fourth "official" member of the pack, Mark Lindquist, isn't even mentioned here.) Elizabeth Wurtzel (who Wallace tried, unsuccessfully, to bed) seems to have vanished without a trace. Even among Wallace's acolytes the process of dynamic obsolescence is working in overdrive. How many people can name a David Eggers novel after A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and this despite the fact that he continues to receive excellent reviews? The painful fact is that by the time he was 40 Wallace knew in his bones that his fifteen minutes were over, and indeed said as much.

But isn't the best writing, writing we call 'literature' that rises to the level of art by definition supposed to defy this process he calls 'dynamic obsolescence'? Maybe Wallace understood something that added to his despair. That today's culture is one in which there is no distinction between high and low, everything is mere 'product' and therefore nothing lasts. Or rather in our democratizing digital culture everything lasts equally, serving to accelerate the process of devaluation and the transforming of all creativity into so much clogging expendable cultural detritus. Maybe Wallace understood (what Warhol understood before him) ie. that in this hyper-proliferized environment it is the iconic persona that lasts in our culture, and the surest way to safeguard a lasting legacy - one beyond the alloted 15 minutes - was, not in the work one produced, but ironically, in dying tragically young. 

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