I’ve never read anything by David Foster Wallace, so I was quite pleased when Penguin sent me a collection of his essays entitled Both Flesh and Not. Wallace is the cult author of Infinite Jest (listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die) and also an unfinished novel called The Pale King.
Of course, I was never going to read an essay about Terminator 2 (which is a film I’ve never seen) or the one about Roger Federer (who plays tennis) or about the US Open. In fact I was a bit startled by the idea that a serious essayist would write a 30 page essay about somebody who plays tennis. I mean, it’s just running around on a court hitting a ball with a racquet. For a while, somebody is always going to be the best in the world at that, but so what?
But impressed by this author’s reputation as a wordsmith, I flicked through the Table of Contents to see what I might like to read from this collection.
I chose ‘Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama’ because the essay explores examples of ‘math’s new cachet’ in the book world and I was familiar with some of the texts Wallace discussed. Written in 2000, the essay is about the emergence of books and film about heroes of the mathematical world, such as Fermat’s Last Theorem by Amir D. Aczel (1996) or A Beautiful Mind’ by Sylvia Nasar (1998) which inspired the film starring Russell Crowe. Wallace makes the point that to some extent these books depend on the reader having some understanding about higher maths. In this respect, he says, such books are like other kinds of genre fiction in that they tend to be assessed using evaluative criteria more rhetorical than that used for literary fiction. That is, rather than the critic asking ‘is this piece of fiction good?’ the reviewer of genre fiction asks ‘to whom will this piece of fiction appeal?’
In other words, it’s about the audience rather than the intrinsic qualities of the book. And with ‘mathsy’ books (that’s my word, I just made it up) ‘the precise ways in which they’re not very good, will vary directly with how much the individual reader already knows about the extraordinary field’ being dramatised. Higher maths, he says, is beautiful and interesting, but lots of people are scared off it by how hard it can be at the lower levels that one needs to work through in order to reach the pinnacle.
Well, I’m not about to argue with the likes of David Foster Wallace but I have to say that even though I didn’t understand all the maths and science in Seduced by Logic, by Robyn Arianrhod, I still found it a very interesting book. Of course he could not have read this one because it was published only last year.
But Wallace had also obviously never read Sue Woolfe’s Leaning Towards Infinity (2000) either, (perhaps because books by Australian authors failed to attract his attention), but if he had he would surely have included it in his musings because it was a much better book than Fermat’s Last Theorem, and by the sound of them, the other books he discusses as well.
The publisher has noted that Wallace used to like playing with words and so they have bookended each chapter with vocabulary that he used in the essays, (complete with definitions, of course). In ‘Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama’ I didn’t actually find any that I had to look up. Just lucky, I guess …
What do you think about what Wallace says about reviews of genre fiction? Is it true that the reviewer of genre fiction asks ‘to whom will this piece of fiction appeal?’ rather than ’is this piece of fiction good?’ If you read or write reviews of crime or other genre fiction, do you agree that this is the basis on which these books are reviewed?
Author: David Foster Wallace
Title: Both Flesh and Not
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin) 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia