My students weigh in on Cancel Culture

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O P I N I O N


grazianoLast week, I taught David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster” to my College Composition classes, which are dual enrollment courses that offer college credits through Southern New Hampshire University. But I wrestled with this decision before ultimately concluding it could be one of those much-ballyhooed “teachable moments.”

For those of you unfamiliar with Wallace’s work, here are the crib notes.

In 1996, David Foster Wallace published a novel titled “Infinite Jest,” which many critics considered to be the seminal piece of the time, a book that helped to define Gen. X,

Wallace’s novel—a frustrating and borderline-unreadable literary tome, weighing in at more than 1,000 pages—catapulted Wallace to a rock star status with book-nerds [1] and earned him a MacArthur Genius Grant.

[Truth be told: I’ve never finished “Infinite Jest.” I tried to read it once, but I didn’t like it. I found it pretentious and annoying and difficult to follow. So, as befits my own Gen. X DNA, I quit. Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.]

Meanwhile, Wallace was also writing these fantastic pieces of journalism that I consider to be some of the most poignant, honest and exciting pieces of nonfiction writing since Hunter S. Thompson [2].

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David Foster.

In 2008, however, after abruptly stopping his mental illness medication—which anyone in mental health, or with a mental illness, will tell you is potentially catastrophic [3]—Wallace spiraled downward into a major bout of depression.

On Sept. 12 that year, David Foster Wallace, 46, took his own life in his home in California.

But that’s not the whole story.

Posthumously, many women, in light of the #Metoo Movement—including decorated poet and memoirist, Mary Karr—came forward to say that David Foster Wallace was, allegedly, verbally and physically abusive.

Yet—and here was my quandary with teaching the piece—Wallace’s writing, line by line, is brilliant in the way that makes other writers stupidly jealous of his seemingly effortless prose. And nothing in the content itself is aggressive or offensive. “Consider the Lobster” is, in my opinion, a near-perfect profile [4], an exemplar for my students.

But there’s also a cognitive dissonance that needs to occur for me to appreciate the work of an artist who is/was someone who is capable of hurting my daughter, or my wife, or my sister.

So I decided to preface the essay with the accusations about its author—with the option for an alternative reading for students who might find it uncomfortable.

I also consulted a friend, a venerable member of faculty at SNHU about her thoughts and experiences teaching the work of writers and artists whose personal behaviors summon red flags. And she sent an essay by Jeff Spanke titled “Magnificent Things and Terrible Men,” about teaching Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Dairies of a Part-time Indian” following similar allegations by multiple women against Alexie for abhorrent behavior.

So I passed out both essays and asked my students—these bright, ambitious and thoughtful young adults—the same question that Spanke posed to his class: “Should this [“Consider the Lobster, in my case] remain on the syllabus?”

My students’ responses might surprise you.

The general consensus was that it should. One student wrote that we should be able to “appreciate the author’s work without knowing them on a personal level.” Another added that although Wallace was accused of “messed up things [sic]” that it “doesn’t make him any less of a writer.”

These students, who have been handcuffed by this pandemic and still find a way to answer the bell,  largely condemned the current Cancel Culture. Most believed that its PC tornado running through Dr. Seuss, The Potato Heads, Pepe Le Pew and Miss Piggy “makes people more fearful,” as one student wrote.

This begs the question: Are we cleansing the world of toxic presences, or kicking the kitty litter over some uncomfortable truths, topics and conversations?

But unlike the lobsters we feast on, at least we’re not boiling each other alive. Not yet.


[1] A movie adapted from Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky’s book “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” which chronicled a book tour he joined with DFW during the “Infinite Jest” hey-day, was made into 2015 titled “The End of the Tour,” starring Jason Segel as DFW.

[2] For a nice introduction, check out DFW’s 1996 essay “Shipping Out,” where he writes about his experiences on a luxury cruise. If you Google the author and title, you’ll get a free PDF. And if you ever want your human heart to break as it laughs in the same paragraph, read “Big Red Son,” where he covered the AVN (Adult Video News) Awards.

[3] For anyone who has ever been on these meds, we might concur: They make us better, but they’re not preferential.

[4] The perfect profile might be the late-Richard Ben Cramer’s “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” for Esquire. But that might be subjective, seeing I’m a Red Sox fan.


 

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About this Author

Nathan Graziano

Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester with his wife and kids. He's the author of nine collections of fiction and poetry. His most recent book, Born on Good Friday was published by Roadside Press in 2023. He's a high school teacher and freelance writer, and in his free time, he writes bios about himself in the third person. For more information, visit his website: http://www.nathangraziano.com