| November 14, 2019 11:00 PM
When asked in 1993 whom he supposed his readership to be, David Foster Wallace’s response was typically self-deprecating: “Yuppies, I guess, and younger intellectuals, whatever.”
This was three years before the media circus surrounding the publication of Wallace’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest, which exposed him to a much wider readership of yuppies, younger intellectuals, and whatevers. These initial fans would, in turn, pass him on through two successive generations of overeducated dorks. Wallace died in 2008, but today, nearly every millennial college English major has a friend who owned (and probably obsessed over) Infinite Jest. And no wonder: The book, like everything Wallace wrote, is an overstuffed, maxed-out, melancholy joyride about the alienation of modern American life. It will always attract an audience looking to fill itself with something, something meaningful.
The trouble is, as we are often reminded, Wallace’s work has been claimed by the “lit bros.” These are the popular villains of the contemporary literary scene, endlessly satirized in magazine think pieces and parody Twitter accounts. They are soft, emotionally manipulative man-children, whose feminist politics mask their caddish and casually sexist behavior. They are the sort of men that literary women might date for a few months before recoiling in horror. They are bad men, and so their taste in books must also be bad.
Lit bros have a whole canon of heroes. There’s Wallace at the top, of course. But just below him are the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, and Dave Eggers. For the Francophiles, there’s Michel Houellebecq. There are also the lit bro elder statesmen: John Updike, Don DeLillo, and Philip Roth. And there are some other white male authors whose works are, if not bro-ish, at least overbearingly masculine, including Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Cormac McCarthy.
These authors are sometimes knocked for being personally unpleasant. Wallace, famously, once tried to push a woman out of a moving car. But it is their popularity and critical success that is truly unforgivable. Franzen dissed Oprah — Oprah! — and somehow still appeared on the cover of Time in 2010 under the headline “Great American Novelist.” When his novel Freedom was released to rave reviews that year, the novelist Jennifer Weiner came up with a term to describe her discomfort at the praise heaped up this lit bro jerk: “Franzenfreude,” which she defined as “taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen.”
Weiner’s complaint — a minority opinion in 2010 — has since become received wisdom. When an old list of Franzen’s rules for writing resurfaced in 2018, literary Twitter went nuts. Here was this old white dude telling everyone how to write, again. Even after #MeToo, the countless pledges to read only women writers, and the relentless cataloging of these eminent bros’ moral failures, Franzen, Wallace, and their kind just won’t go away.
Why not? The enduring appeal of the lit bro canon was perhaps best articulated by Wallace himself in a 1993 interview with the Review of Contemporary Fiction. “If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still ‘are’ human beings, now. Or can be.”
Wallace was the leading figure of an entire generation of writers wrestling with the emergence of an increasingly fractured, disordered, and consumerist United States. The point of literature was, and still is, to find people, real humans, in this mess. And this is what the lit bro authors do exquisitely well. Wallace pulled it off in Infinite Jest and in his 2000 profile of John McCain, “Up, Simba,” which transformed perceptions of the late senator from a neoconservative war machine into a grizzled truth-teller. And Franzen is the great social novelist of his generation — his major works, including The Corrections (2001), Freedom (2010), and Purity (2015), are all middle-class tragicomedies set against the backdrop of an increasingly delirious American reality. Some of the minor lit bro writers have also shown flashes of brilliance: Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), John Jeremiah Sullivan in his essay collection Pulphead (2011), and more recently, the gonzo-writer Brian Phillips with Impossible Owls (2018).
The high-water mark of lit-broism is Franzen’s Freedom (2010), hailed upon its publication as the “first great novel of the post-Obama era” by the Telegraph. It concerns the lives of the Berglunds, an upper-middle-class family enmeshed in marital infidelities and the neoconservative politics of the Bush administration. While politically heavy-handed, Freedom succeeded at an ambitious project: inhabiting people’s daily lives while at the same time diagnosing the ideas and cultural movements that shaped a generation — the end of history and its abrupt reboot after 9/11.
As long as authors such as Franzen pay attention to the world around them and reproduce it on the page, the lit bro canon will grow and even flourish. After all, the lit bros’ preferred genre, literary realism, is arguably the most enduring novelistic form. This style bends to fit the needs of each generation, but it always maintains its basic aim, which, in the words of Wolfe, is to “portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him.”
That’s a lot to ask of fiction, and usually means big, long books, but some of the best novels of the past 200 years have followed this rubric. Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, and Leo Tolstoy described the hopes and fears of industrial Europeans in the late 19th century. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald covered the anxieties of the early 20th century. Updike, Roth, and DeLillo embraced the confusing polarization of the Cold War. Fan base be damned: These are great authors who wrote great books.
Wallace and Franzen are just the latest entry in a group of greats who, warts and all, excel at writing about human beings.
Nic Rowan is a media analyst at the Washington Free Beacon.