contra, reluctantly, david foster wallace

Geoff Dyer recently wrote an essay about how one has an allergic reaction to certain writers. Dyer’s allergy is to David Foster Wallace. Now, Dyer is by no means my favorite essayist; and it makes sense that a writer as encyclopedic as Wallace could repulse an essayist who once wrote about his “reader’s block” – his struggle with reading new material, aka books, which had come upon him counted myself in middle age. Myself, I have very fine memories of reading Infinite Jest lying in bed in New Haven one winter. I wanted the book to go on and on – and in that sense it was, for a long book, not long enough.
However, perhaps something in my tastes has shifted. I recently checked out Consider the Lobster, DFW’s essay collection, to dip into essays that I remembered as being the most hilarious and clever things ever – and I felt something different about them this time. I felt, well, that they were lazy and not so good.
This surprised me.
It was the first essay in the collection, Big Red Son, which is about the Las vegas adult movie awards, that I was beset with doubts.  I was stopped by the sixth paragraph:

“Though the sub-line vagaries of entertainment accounting are
legendary, it is universally acknowledged that the US adult-film
industry, at $35—41 billion in annual sales, rentals, cable charges,
and video-masturbation-booth revenues, is an even larger and
more efficient moneymaking machine than legitimate mainstream
American cinema (the latter’s annual gross commonly estimated at $22.5 billion). The US adult industry is centered in LA’s San Fer-
nando Valley, just over the mountains from Hollywood.1 Some
insiders like to refer to the adult industry as Hollywood‘s Evil Twin,
others as the mainstream’s Big Red Son.”

I was rather dumbstruck that I didn’t remember this, because one thing sticks out a mile, here: this is complete and utter bullshit. I mean, just on the surface, it smelled of cop statistics – the fearmongering exaggeration that one expects from cops announcing the latest drugbust. The universal acknowledgement here was DFW’s way, in an essay in which he employed the famous style of multiple notes, not to note one thing that should be noted.

Granted, at the time Big Red Son was written, the internet was not the automatic equalizer it has since become, but still, just being conscious of what he was seeing, he should have doubted the whole idea that the industry was making 45 billion a year.

So I did a little elementary research myself, to track down these bogus figures. Luckily, someone had been there before me: Dan Ackman, in an article published in Forbes in 2001. Ackman traces the ridiculous exagerations in the size of the porn industry through an ill researched article by Frank Rich in the NYT that estimated it at 10 billion to 14 billion per year through AVN – the industry that sponsored the very awards ceremony that DFW was reporting on – which claimed, again with no source, that the adult video industry grossed 4 billion dollars annually.

As Ackman, acting like someone who understood what references are all about, soon discovers, there are estimates of the porn industry, or aspects of it – which, contra the ‘universality” of DFW’s claim, diminish radically the size of the industry. I am not being  just a factchecking dick here: the very name of the article signifies one of DFW’s major points about the place of porn in America. It was a point too important to research. But Ackman easily cut through the bullshit of what is “universally acknowledged”:

“The 1998 Forrester report pegs the online adult content market at $750 million to $1 billion, which was an increase from its initial estimate of $150 million. When a study admits that its initial result was off by at least 80%, it’s hard to be confident in the new result. In any event, Tom Rhinelander, a Forrester research director, says they have given up trying to put a price on porn–either on the Internet or otherwise.

Ackman’s article is not a work of art, but it has its funny moments, which sort of squash the funny moments in Big red son:

“Its rival research outfit, Net Ratings , tracks the number of visitors to porn Web sites. It says that in April 2001, there were 22.9 million unique visitors to porn sites. This says nothing about how long each visitor stayed or whether they spent a dime. In any event, the number of visitors is less than the number who visited news sites (41.1 million), finance sites (34.2 million) or greeting card sites (25.5 million). When was the last time you heard anyone talk about how greeting card sites dominate the Net?

The gullibility  DFW  displays in this, one of his premier essays, is symptomatic of a certain blinding conservatism in his work. It’s the acceptance of the cop side of things. I won’t mention the hero worshipping essay about McCain’s run for the presidency in 2000 – in 2000, all of America was temporarily hallucinating. Still, to make a hero of a man whose job was to bomb civilians in North Vietnam and who, even then, was transparent about his mad warmongering personality, is too depressing for me to contemplate.

I couldn’t finish the collection, which I once read with true delight. This saddened me. I haven’t developed an allergy to DFW, but something in me, something provoked by the last decade, has shifted.


jcd said…
Yea, that's no small error. I wonder how it slipped through the editors wherever it was first published; perhaps they were cravenly pushing through something that had the right ring to it--everyone wants to print or post an article that'll be widely read!

There was the kerfluffle a while back about DFW's coverage of some political figure, where he appears to have created personas to give voice to either compiled opinion or his own take on things. Which doesn't sit right. And once you get the sense that a writer plays fast and loose with representing fact, you can't just nestle into their prose any more. You approach it with your shoulders up, suspicious and ready for a feint.