Why does Bret Easton Ellis hate David Foster Wallace?

Gerald Howard edited the first books of both Bret Easton Ellis and David Foster Wallace and wrote recently about why they didn’t like each other. Ellis recently read the new Wallace biography and took to Twitter to be a bitch about it. As Howard tells it, criticism of Wallace’s first book used Ellis’s minimalist first book as a foil and that stuck in Ellis’s craw. Then it was off to the races. Anyway, it seems like Howard sides with Ellis, so, I don’t know.

The reviews were pretty much all one could desire for a first novel, and a number of them drew a sharp distinction between Wallace’s hyperintelligent and maximalist approach and the work of the Brat Packers, who were already being set up for a critical flogging. Bret Ellis being one of those writers on whom nothing is lost, these invidious comparisons would not have escaped his attention. The anschluss arrived with the publication of his underrated second novel, “The Rules of Attraction,” which we would also reprint at Penguin despite a cascade of disapprobration. Not pretty and really not fair.

In late 1988 I moved from Penguin to W. W. Norton, taking with me David’s second book, the collection “Girl With Curious Hair,” which Penguin had refused to publish for legal reasons. (Long story.) The title story, about a bunch of L.A. punks misbehaving at a Keith Jarrett concert, struck me as an obvious and expert parody of Bret Ellis’ affectless tone and subject matter and I said so. David, ever disingenuous about his influences (you could barely get him to admit he’d even read Pynchon), denied ever having read a word of Bret’s work – an obvious lie that I let pass. I am certain, though, that Bret took peeved notice when the book was published.

Why does Bret Easton Ellis hate David Foster Wallace?

Unpublished David Foster Wallace interview

Sagatrope pointed to an interview Tom Scocca did with David Foster Wallace in February 1998. Excerpts of it were published in the Boston Phoenix then, but on a cruise (get it) for Thanksgiving, Scocca took the time to transcribe it. It’s in 5 parts, and entirely worth reading.

Part 1

Part 2

I think Esquire, Esqiure did leave a couple of those in, and I remember my mom, you know, reading that and just, kind of, her eyes being very wide the next time she saw me. There was something about Brooke Shields looking like somebody you’d masturbate to a picture of but not have sex with, that was really one of those four-in-the-morning, 15-cup-of-coffee-really, if I’d been in my right mind, I wouldn’t have put it in the final draft, but I did. And then Esquire, I remember, left it in. Being Esquire. You know, wanting to create as much unpleasantness as possible. So.

Part 3

Q: How do you handle being responsible for facts, writing nonfiction, after writing fiction? Coming to a genre where the things you say have to be on some level verifiably true?
DFW: That’s a real good question. And the first one of these that I did, in order, the first one I did was the very first one, about playing tennis as a Midwesterner. Where I had some shit that I just, that was like impressionistic, and I didn’t know, and I’d never dealt with a fact-checker before. And they’re like, “We discovered there is no yacht and tennis club in Aurora, Illinois, what are we to do?” And I was like, oh, God.

So after that I just started to take better notes and be willing to back stuff up. The thing is, really—between you and me and the Boston Phoenix’s understanding readers—you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there’s going to be the occasional bit of embellishment.

Not to mention the fact that, like, when people tell you stuff, very often it comes out real stilted. If you just write down exactly what they said. And so you sort of have to rewrite it so it sounds more out-loud, which I think means putting in some “likes” or taking out some punctuation that the person might originally have said. And I don’t really make any apologies for that.

Part 4

The footnotes, the honest thing is, is the footnotes were an intentional, programmatic part of Infinite Jest, and they get to be kind of—you get sort of addicted to ’em. And for me, a lot of those pieces were written around the time that I was typing and working on Infinite Jest, and so it’s just, it’s a kind of loopy way of thinking, that it seems to me is in some ways mimetic.

Part 5

Q: There’s one other thing that I wanted to ask you about, which was the relationship between footnotes and hypertext.

DFW: I’ve had people say that, and I would love them to think that there’s some grand theory. I sometimes use a computer to type when I’ve got a lot of corrections to do, but I don’t have a modem, I’ve never been on the Internet. There’s a guy in my department who teaches hypertext, but I don’t really know anything about it.

Unpublished David Foster Wallace interview

Bret Easton Ellis on David Foster Wallace

Tell us how you really feel, Bret.

Question: David Foster Wallace – as an American writer, what is your opinion now that he has died?

Answer: Is it too soon? It’s too soon right? Well I don’t rate him. The journalism is pedestrian, the stories scattered and full of that Mid-Western faux-sentimentality and Infinite Jest is unreadable. His life story and his battle with depression however is really quite touching…

Now this is how you hold a grudge, people. Wait until someone dies and then respond to a jab from 17 years earlier! DFW on American Psycho in 1993:

DFW: …You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s “American Psycho”: it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.

LM: But at least in the case of “American Psycho” I felt there was something more than just this desire to inflict pain—or that Ellis was being cruel the way you said serious artists need to be willing to be.

DFW: You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend “Psycho” as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

Via Sagatrope

Bret Easton Ellis on David Foster Wallace

Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace

This short story from David Foster Wallace is perfect for those of you who’d like to read more of DFW’s work, but never will because it’s too long. It clocks in at just around 1100 words, half of which seem to be, but aren’t, in the last sentence.

And here’s a bonus Stephen King story called Rest Stop that I haven’t gotten to yet.

Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace