Cool Story, Bro. (Why DFW Appeals to the Male Reader)


There’s something about DFW that makes me think he called people, or was called, “Bro.” Must be the bandanna.

After finishing Infinite Jest and realizing I had no idea what just happened, I found a few reviews on blogs I already follow. I was heartened to find that I was not the only one who finished the book and was completely and utterly confused.

I also noticed that all the Infinite Jest posts were written by males. This might not seem like a big deal, but, the vast majority of book bloggers I follow are female. Indeed, the vast majority of all book bloggers are female. Searching past my own blogosphere, I found numerous articles, reading groups, Twitter accounts, and wikis devoted to DFW and his work, and they were nearly all written by men. What gives? Why are all of DFW’s super fans male?

I talked about the “maleness” of Infinite Jest in my last post – all male main characters, male-dominated settings. DFW’s personal life, as presented in the biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, is also rather male-centric. DFW didn’t seem to have any significant relationships with females other than the romantic kind, and those were volatile at best, and toxic at worst. His influences, mentors, and friends were all male. He had a sister, but wasn’t close to her. He had a fragile relationship with his mom.

DFW and Franzen


The bio also shocked me with the misogny evident in DFW’s relationships with women. There is a reference to an incident when he tried to throw his girlfriend from a moving vehicle that is horrific in it’s matter-of-factness, and to affairs with students and fans that made me queasy. I’m not saying that his work should be judged differently in light of these incidents. There is a post over on Thought Catalog that sums up the problematic bits of DFW’s biography with great clarity and suggests that the “cult” of DFW needs to take a closer look at who they’re idolizing, but the writing is what it is.

So. DFW lived and worked in a male world that’s rife with misogyny – but don’t we all? And yes, he wrote about boys and men and the things that concern them, but the themes are universal. I don’t think that fans of say, Dostoyevsky are split along gender lines, and I would consider him a comparable writer – big, ambitious books, love stories clash with politics, devastation and beauty. Or even Franzen, although you could argue Oprah-effect, I suppose.

And, as for me? Am I a super fan? I haven’t done a proper review of Infinite Jest, and I’m not sure if I ever will. Rating classics is difficult. What kind of judgement can I possibly pass on a book that’s a modern classic, and arguably the most important book of a generation? But, if pressed, I wouldn’t give Infinite Jest five stars. There was something a little sterile about it for my taste. So while I certainly appreciate it for the heartbreaking work of staggering genius that it is, I don’t love it the same way I love Wuthering Heights.

PS: I didn’t know it when I started this post, but, it’s an excellent lead in for my review of The Fault in Our Stars, by noted DFW fanboy John Green, who is seriously in his debt. More on that later! (Spoiler alert: I cried. Lots.)



  1. Andrew

    I keep trying to respond to these question, but I’ve figured out that it would take me about 20 pages and so is probably a bit much for a blog comment. I did, however, reply to the Thought Catalog post you linked to above, so that might at least sum up what I think about the misogyny stuff.

    Without elaborating in the slightest and probably at the risk of essentializing, I think that the reason men seem to disproportionately love DFW is that he expresses a kind of manhood that is a lot more complex than what we see from other authors. It’s a particular kind of male voice, to be sure (white, relatively affluent, fabulously over-educated, deprecatingly self-aware), but that’s basically my CV. So I respond as strongly as I do to his writing because reading, for example, “Good Old Neon” (from Oblivion), with all its insane recursions and analyses of analyses and meditations on depression and death and time and the cliches inherent in being analytical of analysis of meditations on depression and death and time, is a bit like listening to someone else describe to me what it’s like to be in my head. This is not to say that the issues are particularly male. They’re not (or not always), but the voice in which those issues are spoken is right. Really right in a way that other authors don’t get. Because it’s a male voice (again, usually), but it’s one that encompasses a huge number of the difficulties, contradictions, inconsistencies of having a male voice at all.

    It’s probably a bit of a cyclical self-fulfilling thing, biographically. If D.T. Max’s biographical portrait is accurate, Wallace came to trust women less and less as he got older and consequently came to understand them less and less. You can see the trajectory in his work too. The Broom of the System is centred on a female character. Girl With Curious Hair includes way more female characters with real, fleshed-out characteristics than any of his other story collections. As he retreated from the women in his life, and as he developed horrible relationships with the ones he did interact with, he stopped bothering to write about them. So for sort of all the wrong reasons, he spent all his time from Infinite Jest onward crafting an androcentric voice that is wonderfully, beautifully nuanced, but which also had the unfortunate side-effect of totally stifling most of the femininity in his work.

    On a side note, wasn’t it weird to read a novel as long as Infinite Jest that contains almost no traces of romantic love?

    • lauratfrey

      I read your comment on the other post, and yeah, that’s what I was getting at. You don’t need to be a good person (whatever that means) to be a good writer/artist/any job or vocation. Most people compartmentalize their lives, DFW was no different.

      I found the biography jarring in that it just threw out these outrageous incidents with out comment, but, really, what comment can you make? A biograhy isn’t supposed to an essay about how good a person someone is, either.

      I would disagree that IJ had no romantic love! Jolene and Don was a romance. Not consummated but still a romance. And I loved the love story between Remy and his wife, even though she didn’t have a skull 🙂 (Seriously, I did!) I guess it’s weird that the main character, if you want to say Hal was the main character, has zero traces of romantic history or interest.

  2. Andrew

    Yeah, that’s sort of what I was getting at. I haven’t read IJ in about five years, and I suppose I’m really just thinking of Hal who is, after all, the character we most expect to engage in some sort of love story (given our expectations of a narrative in general, his position as main(ish) character, and because he’s an adolescent trying to figure himself out–can you have a more perfect setup for a love story?). I didn’t really notice it as I was reading, but thinking back over the whole, it was a bit jarring.

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