• How David Foster Wallace Used Compromise Aesthetics to Sell Infinite Jest

    Rachel Greenwald Smith on the Treacherous Common Territories of Literary Culture and Capitalism

    “I loathe compromise,” writes Margaret Anderson in a 1916 editorial for her arts and literary magazine, the Little Review. The magazine, now best known as the first periodical to publish parts of James Joyce’s Ulysses, was initially imagined as a vehicle for Anderson’s commitment to challenging mainstream tastes. Along with her partner and lover, Jane Heap, Anderson published anarchist political tracts, work by Dadaists and surrealists, and experimental writing by Sherwood Anderson, Wallace Stevens, and H.D., among others.

    Article continues below

    Anderson loathed compromise in editorial work, in art, and in politics. This was the high point of avant-gardism and school-based writing; compromise was not yet a formal tendency in works of art themselves. But she still saw compromise all around her in the mandate that people, especially women, be even-toned, moderate, and reasonable. Anderson did not want to be reasonable. Writing on feminism in the magazine’s pages, she proclaimed that “a clear-thinking magazine can have only one attitude; the degree of ours is ardent!”

    Ardor characterizes Anderson’s tone, but it also becomes a value in and of itself in her editorial work. “I loathe compromise, and yet I have been compromising in every issue by putting in things that were ‘almost good’ or ‘interesting enough’ or ‘important,’” she writes in this particular issue. “There will be no more of it.”

    Against “good poems” she wants to publish capital-A Art, art that goes beyond simply being the best version of itself. Notably diverging from Poetry magazine’s Open Door policy, Anderson believed that truly great art was not a matter of individual quality; it was a matter of ferocity of commitment. She wanted art that could knock a person over, art that “uses up all the life it can get.” She invokes the modernist credo “art for art’s sake,” but in an avant-garde reversal insists that this means not a retreat from the world of politics and history but a commitment to it. “Revolution is Art,” she explains. “You want free people just as you want the Venus that was modelled by the sea.”

    She ends her editorial with a threat: “If there is only one really beautiful thing for the September number it shall go in and the other pages will be left blank.”

    Article continues below

    She meant it. The September 1916 issue of the Little Review includes 13 blank pages.

    Decisions like this meant that in the early years of the Little Review, Anderson was often broke. Her uncompromising stances didn’t play well with funders, who didn’t want ads for their products appearing alongside paeans to Nietzschean ethics and radical feminism, or placed in issues with mostly blank pages. Evicted from her apartment and then from the magazine’s offices, she even slept in a tent on the shores of Lake Michigan for a period of time.

    The defense of aesthetic compromise in the name of what will successfully seduce the reader assumes a lot about that reader and what she may or may not be into.

    But, as I have come to learn—because these are the kinds of details you always learn about female literary celebrities—her hair was always perfectly done; her suit always clean and flawless. “I possessed one blouse, one hat and one tailored suit,” she writes in her autobiography. “The blouse could be made to serve two days. Then I washed it—by moonlight or by sunrise. Being of crêpe georgette it didn’t need to be ironed.”

    After storms along the lakeside that would leave her drenched, Anderson writes, she would “squeeze a few buckets of water from my suit, pat it gently into shape, hang it on a cord in my tent and go downtown the next morning looking immaculate.”

    In the Wikipedia entry devoted to Anderson, I find this choice phrase highlighted in the center of the page, written by Ben Hecht, a writer she knew:

    Article continues below

    It was surprising to see a coiffure so neat on a noggin so stormy.

    It’s utterly predictable and awful that this brilliant thinker would be characterized by her hairstyle, and yet I’m not sure Anderson would have objected, attesting in her autobiography to the “tributes without which I could not live: You look so beautifully groomed!”

    I’m oddly grateful for this description. I feel as if I can picture Anderson calmly pinning up her hair in whatever mirror she could find, having slept in her tent the night before. Perhaps she is in the bathroom of a lakeside restaurant? In the ladies’ lounge in a downtown hotel? At a cosmetics counter in Marshall Field’s department store? Perhaps she gazes at her hairline in the cracked—no, it would never be cracked—polished mirror of her own tiny compact?

    Do her hands shake? And if they do, is it out of financial worry or rage toward some political or aesthetic position with which she vehemently disagrees? From what I have learned about Anderson, it could easily be either.

    She has become a totem that I invoke on mornings when, after a brief and thin sleep, I twist loops of hair onto the top of my head and pin them with trembling fingers.

    Article continues below

    It occurs to me that many of my friends are Anderson’s progeny: stormy-nogginned women whose overall comportments are carefully composed in direct proportion to their anger, their desperation, their fear, their drive.

    A neat coiffure and a stormy noggin. This is a pairing of two disparate traits. The neat coiffure masks the stormy noggin to some degree.

    Maybe as a matter of survival. Maybe as a matter of social strategy. Is it a compromise?

    If it is, it is not the kind of compromise that turns conflict into a sad peace.

    I find myself looking to Anderson, saint of ardor, revolutionary in crêpe georgette, to learn how to survive in this world, as a woman, as a critic, as a friend and a partner, with this stormy noggin that I cannot seem to hide or tame no matter how carefully I comport myself, no matter how many times I stand at the mirror and beg the flashing-eyed reflection to just try for once, please try to stay calm, to be nice, to fit in.

    Article continues below


    Eighty years after Anderson washed her blouses by moonlight, David Foster Wallace, squirming in discomfort on The Charlie Rose Show, would offer this explanation for the nearly 100 pages of endnotes in his mammoth novel, Infinite Jest:

    I… am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disoriented. There’s got to be some interplay between how difficult you make it for the reader and how seductive it is for the reader so the reader’s willing to do it. The endnotes were, for me, a useful compromise.

    In Wallace’s terms, compromise is a negotiation between how difficult you make it for the reader and how seductive it is for the reader. It’s a formal method aimed at expanding an audience while retaining interest and novelty as aesthetic goals. It’s a gesture that looks democratic, welcoming in a broader audience than experimental fiction would generally allow.

    But this begs the question: What kind of difficulty will this reader consent to and still allow herself to be seduced? Fragmented syntax? Fractured narratives? Will she accept 100 pages of endnotes? What will it take to seduce her into reading a 1,079-page novel?

    In Wallace’s terms, compromise is a negotiation between how difficult you make it for the reader and how seductive it is for the reader.

    “Feminists are always saying this,” Wallace interjects when he’s asked, in the Charlie Rose interview, about the length of Infinite Jest. “Feminists are saying white males say, ‘Okay, I’m going to sit down and write this enormous book and impose my phallus on the consciousness of the world.’”

    Wallace shakes his head. Blinks.

    “And you say?” Rose prods, generously.

    “I… I… if that was going on, it was going on on a level of awareness I do not want to have access to,” Wallace replies with a look of disgust.

    It makes sense that Rose, who we now know had a habit of stroking the upper thighs of his female coworkers without their consent, would want to change the subject. But I am still surprised when he responds with this probing follow-up: “Do you still play tennis?”

    The “feminists” Wallace was referring to may have included Michiko Kakutani, who objected to the length of Infinite Jest in her review in the New York Times. His response is telling: “If the length seems gratuitous, as it did to a very charming Japanese lady from the New York Times, then one arouses ire. I’m aware of that.”

    Literary scholar Amy Hungerford quotes this response as part of a lengthy chronicle of Wallace’s misogyny, including his abusive treatment of the writer Mary Karr. Hungerford argues that Wallace’s conduct in relation to women is relevant to a reading of his fiction because he himself conceived of the relationship between himself and the reader as sexual. It wasn’t only on Charlie Rose that he used the language of seduction to describe the author-reader dynamic. As Hungerford points out, in an early short story an author figure observes that a good story should “treat the reader like it wants to… well, fuck him.”

    “Wallace proposes to fuck me,” Hungerford concludes. “Unlike the ‘charming Japanese lady’ whose job it was to review Infinite Jest for the Times, I can refuse the offer, and so I will.”

    I quote Hungerford not to agree with her decision not to read Infinite Jest, nor to complain about the length of the book. I myself have been successfully seduced by Wallace’s novel, and I do not regret the experience. But I quote her to point out that the defense of aesthetic compromise in the name of what will successfully seduce the reader assumes a lot about that reader and what she may or may not be into.

    Hungerford, for one, has an account of the reader that Wallace successfully seduces: the self-satisfied lit bro, eager to demonstrate his stamina and intelligence. “The book’s marketers were smart,” she writes. “They knew their audience and what kind of dare would provoke them: Are you smart enough and strong enough—indeed, are you man enough—to read a genius’s thousand-page novel?”

    I would add that this marketing campaign is not simply reliant upon what she calls “a Jurassic vision of literary genius.” That Jurassic vision gave us a different set of incredibly long, incredibly difficult books. Ulysses. Gravity’s Rainbow. The Tunnel.

    Wallace’s is a new version of that kind of book, one that markets itself as a compromise. You can both feel smart and be entertained, Infinite Jest insists. Yes, the novel does pitch itself as a dare, as a test of intelligence, but as Wallace says in the Rose interview, the novel is careful to provide enough readerly gratification, payoff, and pleasure that it can be successfully marketed to a mass—albeit disproportionately white and male—audience.


    What changed between Anderson’s time and our own that would make a book like Infinite Jest—a book that styles itself as both experimental masterpiece and accessible pop sensation—desirable, let alone possible? What ushered in a decade in which literary fiction was dominated by such books, books by Dave Eggers, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, and many other authors who produced formally innovative yet digestible works of fiction at the turn of the 21st century?

    Compromise aesthetics take root when the notion of radicalism in art starts to seem naive, as it does now.

    This turn was initiated by a new generation of writers in the 1990s who were educated during a highly polarized moment in literary culture. On the one hand, there were the experimentalists of the 1960s and 70s: Language poets and postmodernists. These writers saw aesthetic difficulty and novelty as the hallmark of literary excellence and, in the case of the Language poets, as modes of political refusal. On the other hand, there were the traditionalists, the conservative New Formalists, the Garrison Keillor populists, and the proponents of MFA programs, which were then perceived to be grooming grounds for traditional, antiexperimental, marketable products.

    The new generation of writers was frustrated by the limitations of these two positions, and as a result rejected the notion that formally inventive literature requires intentional opposition to the norms of mainstream writing and the expectations of mainstream audiences. As Stephanie Burt explains, by the early 90s, young writers “sought something new: something more open to personal emotion, to story and feeling, than Language poetry, but more complicated intellectually than most of the creative-writing programs’ poets allowed.” Compromise was born as a solution to polarization.

    But this version of the story neglects to mention something else that was happening during the 1990s, something that Wallace himself was thinking a lot about. In the 1990s it became more difficult to think of literature as having autonomy from the influence of the market. This was because of changes in art and media—Wallace, for instance, writes extensively about the effect that television has on literary audiences—but it was also because of changes in economics.

    Neoliberal economic policies—policies that were driven toward the expansion of the free market into spheres of life that were not previously subject to market forces—were initially instituted in the United States by the Reagan administration, in the 1980s. But once the Clinton administration took up the mantle of neoliberal reforms and doubled down on those policies, neoliberalization began to look like a permanent state of affairs that would not be challenged. The dissolution of the Soviet Union only furthered this belief, as socialism both domestically and geopolitically no longer appeared to offer either a threat or an alternative to global capitalism. The consequence of this was a general sense that, as neoliberal ideologue Margaret Thatcher put it, there was “no alternative” to the competitive forces of the market.

    Neoliberalism was becoming more than a set of policies; it was changing the horizon of expectations for individuals in a range of activities. As institutions were explicitly privatized or made to adhere to free market principles, it became harder to imagine that one’s activities could meaningfully resist the market. This was true in literary culture as well, as many small publishers disappeared or were brought under the umbrella of large publishers, and as large publishers became international conglomerates that managed hundreds of imprints, some of them operating with relative autonomy but most of them functioning with the expectation that they would need to give a bottom-line rationale for their editorial choices.

    Some independent presses—FC2, Coffee House Press, Dalkey Archive, Graywolf Press, Grove Atlantic, and New Directions, among others—did survive as alternatives to what was once known as “the big six” and is now, with the 2013 merger of Penguin and Random House, “the big five.” And, as many are nonprofits, they have continued to publish work that is not driven exclusively toward sales. Some divisions in large publishing houses also continue to operate without producing enormous profits; they exist primarily to give the press prestige. But between the ideology of neoliberalism that offers up the free market as the model for all activities and the material effects of the changing publishing industry, literature was increasingly subject to the calculus of sales figures and audience.

    Of course, writers want to get paid. The starving artist is a myth that has always served the privileged. Literary culture was never a meritocracy; standards of judgment have always been shaped by social hierarchies including class, gender, and race. It is also the case that the avant-garde has always been attached to the ruling class “by an umbilical cord of gold,” as Clement Greenberg observed in 1939. But despite this attachment, avant-garde movements once could have aspirations to exist outside of the capitalist market; they could therefore see their activities, however idealistically, as challenging to the status quo. Compromise aesthetics take root when the notion of radicalism in art starts to seem naive, as it does now, even to its once most passionate advocates; when art’s inextricability from capitalism is used as evidence by scholars, critics, and practitioners alike to argue that anything like an avant-garde refusal is at best ridiculous and at worst disingenuous.

    In that context, someone like Wallace, who openly discussed the role of aesthetic compromises in making his work marketable, no longer seemed like a sellout in a world in which selling out was inevitable. He just seemed reasonable, democratic, sensible. He just seemed like a good compromiser.


    On Compromise

    Excerpted from On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal. Used with the permission of the publisher, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org. Copyright © 2021 by Rachel Greenwald Smith.

    Rachel Greenwald Smith
    Rachel Greenwald Smith
    Rachel Greenwald Smith is the author of On Compromise and Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism. Her essays have appeared in American Literature, the Account, Mediations, and elsewhere. She teaches at Saint Louis University.

    More Story
    Tales of Bohemian Living with The Lounge Lizards in 1979 New York I had disappeared into hermit mode to edit Men in Orbit when I met Leisa Stroud. Nobody remotely like her had ever been interested...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.