Both Flesh and Not
David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 2012
This is not DFW´s best non-fiction collection, but neither is it superfluous nor is it inferior.
There is quite a lot of literary criticism and non-fiction geared towards readers who arguably would be writers and therefore interested in these subjects. These pieces are:
Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young: on the effect of TV on young writers in the 80's. Young writers get divided into camps that now seem rather obvious and even dated as some no longer really exist: Workshop manufactured, chemically neutered, corpse-grinders ("stories as tough to find fault with as they are to remember after putting them down"); catatonic Carver clones, offshoots of the dirty realism fad created by Carver/Lish/Granta; and yuppie nihilists in the vein of Bret Easton Ellis, which, btw, explains BEE's adolescent twitter attacks against DFW coinciding with the publication of this book. These attacks, amusing and pathetic though they were, reminded me of Franzen´s postmortem evisceration of his best friend in The New Yorker. Waiting for someone to die before you can work up the courage to attack them publicly is always a great demonstration of character.
The Empty Plenum: which explains DFW's claim that Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress was a masterpiece and illuminates Wallace's own admiration for late Wittgenstein and his philosophy of language.
Mr. Cogito: basically a blurb for a Zbigniew Herbert's book.
The Nature of fun: on how publishing and any amount of recognition are bad for writers, who should avoid thinking about the reception of their books like the plague. Jeffers famously said about this: "The only fame that is not harmful to a writer is posterity". Classic Wallace double bind stuff.
Five direly underappreciated US novels: self explanatory.
Rhetoric and Math Melodrama: explains why math and literature should not mix. He would've done well to follow his own advice on this.
The Best of the Prose Poem: on why prose poems do not really exist.
Borges on the Couch: against psychoanalytic biographical interpretaions of literature. This bookends nicely with Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky, from CTL.
Deciderization: DFW was made editor of the Best American Essays volume for 2007. Imagine therefore the amount of essayistic hand-wringing involved in Wallace confronting the concept of deciding why one essay is "better" than another.
That pretty much is the extent of the writer´s writer pieces in the book. The other ones are on tennis (Both Flesh and Not: on Federer and the aesthetics of sports; Democracy and Commerce in the US Open: on just that, same approach as ASFTINDA, but with the US Open and way less passion, thoroughly yawn-inducing), on AIDS as an opportunity to reevaluate what sex is and means (Welcome to New Fire), freedom and terrorism (Just asking), on how Hollywood movies can be art and how good directors get corrupted (Terminator) and words, grammar and usage (24 Word Notes).
This last one tickles me because there is a short video of Wallace explaining his dislike of "puff-words", which is the point of his first word criticism on that 24 word list. Very concisely, Wallace's problem with "utilize" is that it is a puff-word for which a simpler more common word exists: "use". This is funny because I can think of very few writers more attuned to how using a more complex synonym for what you are trying to say colors your prose. Wallace, of course, was always wrestling with this polarity (be erudite to the point of snobbery, but also as casual and street-wise as possible). Further, in the video you can see in Wallace's face his disgust for snobs who will steal one extra third of a second from him by using puff-words in one of those very unusual unguarded moments where he is projecting a really negative emotion publicly. I shudder to imagine him having this same reaction after reading some draft of himself he wasn't satisfied with. Hard.
Here´s the video: