Loyal as a Book #6

David Beckham, Paul Gascoigne, and the fates of the famous

One Month in a Nepalese Monastery

A Letter From Gandhi to Hitler

Quiz: Which famous author said this about writing?

Sunday Bloody Sunday

The 228 ways to call someone drunk in 1736

“Totally unoriginal, feebly plotted, instantly forgettable.”

Why do we need art?

Christmas in a Siberian labour camp, with Dostoevsky

View More

About Us

(The story of Misfit Press is inextricably linked to the story of Misfit Incorporated, which is inextricably linked to the story of AJ and Melissa Leon. These fascinating stories have been told at length on many other occasions – in newspapers, on TEDx stages, during numerous interviews and chance meetings in wine bars. If you want to explore the weird and wonderful company that is Misfit Incorporated, peruse our site. For the full backstory, check out this video interview.)

Misfit Press itself was established in 2014, with the publication of AJ Leon’s The Life & Times of a Remarkable Misfit. The little-known backstory to The Life & Times is that it was originally slated to be published by a major American publisher, who headhunted AJ after noticing the popularity of his blog, The Pursuit of Everything. About a third of the way through the writing of the book, AJ began to get twitchy about the compromises involved in traditional publishing: uncompromising editorial pressure, a lack of say on issues such as design and artwork. Not long later, AJ bailed on the contract, and decided to publish the book himself. The Misfit team created and ran a Kickstarter, aimed at raising $15,000 to cover publishing costs. By the time the fundraising had run its course, pledges totalled more than treble that amount. With the excess funds, AJ and Misfit decided to go one better than just publishing a book, and also founded a publishing house.

Since its founding, Misfit Press has steadily flourished. In 2015, we took under our wing Wolftree, the finest arts journal in the American Midwest; we released our 2015 Anthology, featuring the finest creative work we encountered over the preceding year; and The Life & Times of a Remarkable Misfit continued to find readers across the globe. In 2016 we published Destination Shakespeare, the debut poetry collection from esteemed Shakespeare academic Paul Edmondson; and we have more Shakespeare-related publications in the works for 2017, including Shakespeare On The Road, a tale of a Shakespearian adventure across the US.

Last  year was a big growth period for the Press, and there is lots more on the way for 2017. As you’ll see from our Forthcoming Publications section, over the next twelve months we will be publishing Saya Sayama: Three Years in Myanmar by incredible photojournalist Spike Johnson, a photonarrative account documenting a unique moment in Myanmar’s history: the violent shift from General Ne Win’s fifty-year dictatorship to the country’s first steps towards democracy. Also imminent is Tangentially Reading, featuring some of the most insightful, shocking, touching, and hilarious moments from the first 200 episodes of Christopher Ryan’s much-loved podcast, Tangentially Speaking.

These are exciting times at Misfit Press. To keep up to date with everything that’s going on, follow us at our blogFacebook, Twitter and/or Instagram. Into the future, we will always continue to work in the fashion we do right now: with authors we like, on projects that matter, in a way that leaves writer, reader and everyone in-between satisfied. We will also never renege on our One-for-One pledge; for every publication we ever sell, a child in India will receive money towards prescription eyeglasses, via the Misfit Foundation.

David Foster Wallace on Dostoevsky’s “ingenious and radiantly human fiction”David Foster Wallace on Dostoevsky’s “ingenious and radiantly human fiction”

w: Matt

David Foster Wallace on Dostoevsky’s “ingenious and radiantly human fiction”

A few years ago, a friend asked me if I had ever read David Foster Wallace’s essay on Fyodor Dostoevsky. It was the last essay, he said, of Wallace’s 2005 collection, Consider the Lobster. Despite being at the exact peak of my Wallace fanboy phase, and having listened through the audiobook of Consider the Lobster more than once, I was certain I’d never heard anything about my favourite Russian novelist. Google revealed the truth: the audiobook was an abridged version. I had been robbed! Happily, a brisk walk into town revealed that Waterstones’ shelves were home to a single copy of the real thing. That evening – in front of a small log-burner of precisely the kind I could imagine nineteenth-century Russian philosophers huddling around – I inhaled the elusive essay.

First published in 1996, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” remains a favourite essay of mine partly for one biased reason: it’s a passionate reading of one of my favourite writers by another one of my favourite writers. The essay is my favourite kind of literary analysis, in that it has nothing to do with the cold hand of Theory, or the forced hand of ideology, and everything to do – as Wallace himself put it in another interview – “with about what it is to be a fucking human being.” Even if you have never read a word of either of the authors concerned, the essay’s insights, and its questions, are to do with the very core of life.

“Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” is curiously structured. In terms of straightforward word count, the bulk of the piece is made up of Wallace’s artful appreciation of “the definitive literary biographer of one of the best fiction writers ever.” Joseph Frank, at the time of Wallace’s essay, had converted “forty years of scholarly labor” into “the first four volumes of a projected five-book study of Dostoevsky’s life and times and writing.” (In 2002, Frank published the fifth and final volume, and in 2013, he passed away, aged 94.) Wallace has spent “pretty much the whole last two months immersed in Dostoevskynalia,” and clearly enjoyed himself. After exploring Frank’s method, Wallace goes on to offer “some sort of argument for why Dostoevsky’s novels ought to be important to us as readers in 1996 America.”

It is this argument (though that doesn’t feel like quite the right word) which, in part, gives the essay its curious structure. Alongside Wallace’s more straightforward explication of Frank and his subject appear asterisked asides, written in a confessional, first person voice. Here is the first, which appears two pages in, completely out of the textual blue:

Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?

This short aside is over as quickly as it began, and Wallace goes on soberly exploring Dostoevsky’s brilliant fiction. We get some details on the Russian’s life – “full of incredible suffering and drama and tragedy and heroism” – including an outline of the extraordinary mock execution suffered by the 28-year old Fyodor, the “the crucial, catalyzing event” in his life. This “near-death experience,” Wallace tells us, “changed a typically vain and trendy young writer…into a person who believed deeply in moral/ spiritual values.” Alongside his exploration of Dostoevsky’s life and work, there are digressions on the nature of literary criticism and the canon and translation and other Wallacian tangents.

Constantly alternating with what is ostensibly Wallace’s main piece of writing, though, are these interjections. (“Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? … Isn’t this kind of a selfish way to live? Forget selfish—isn’t it awful lonely?”) Though they are Wallace’s words, they read as though coming from some other, disembodied ruminator. This structure risks being horribly jarring – nothing signals, or smooths, these transitions – and the first appearance of this other narrative presence is something of a shock. (When I came across the first of these sections, I actually suspected a printing error.) As the piece proceeds, though, these asides start to make an obscure kind of sense, to become the real heart of the essay.

Wallace goes on praising the Russian. “Dostoevsky isn’t just great,” he says, “he’s also fun. His novels almost always have ripping good plots.” The Russian’s characters, Wallace writes, “dramatize the profoundest parts of all humans, the parts most conflicted, most serious—the ones with the most at stake.”

The thrust here is that Dostoevsky wrote fiction about the stuff that’s really important. He wrote fiction about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual vs. spiritual love, greed, freedom, obsession, reason, faith, suicide… His concern was always what it is to be a human being—that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal.

These laudatory sections are followed, again and again, by that second voice:

Is it possible really to love other people? If I’m lonely and in pain, everyone outside me is potential relief—I need them. But can you really love what you need so badly? Isn’t a big part of love caring more about what the other person needs?

Ultimately, the essay reads very strangely. The brilliance of its strange textual arrangement, though, is that the circular, obsessive, self-doubting ruminations of these secondary passages articulate precisely the kind of internal philosophical dialogues which are the real heart of the Russian’s novels. (This comes through especially clearly if one has read even one of Dostoevsky’s meatier works.) More than that, though, they articulate these inner dialogues transmuted through a sort of millennial lens. They are Dostoevsky’s torments (which are everyone’s torments), updated for 1996. “Can I still believe in JC or Mohammed or Whoever even if I don’t believe they were actual relatives of God? Except what would that mean: ‘believe in’?” Wallace asks. This was a question that obsessed Dostoevsky, though only in relation to “JC.” Wallace’s expanded view, a perennial philosophising that can land Jesus, Mohammed and others in the same spiritual category, is distinctly modern. It is both an identical and wildly different question.

In a broader sense, the different sections dramatise a conflict between Wallace’s attempt at a more measured, more objectified style of literary analysis, and then the actual burning dilemmas which make the work so intoxicating on a entirely unmeasured, unobjective level. This structure allows for Wallace to explore the real thrust of his essay. “The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers,” says Wallace “is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we—here, today—cannot or do not permit ourselves.”

Showing his “New Sincerity” stripes – his dissatisfaction with the postmodern detachment that today persists as the apathy and world-weariness of the hipster pose – Wallace writes that Dostoevsky’s work “prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions.” Wallace laments that Dostoevsky’s earnestness, his depth of feeling, would, in a contemporary work of art, “provoke not outrage or invective, but worse—one raised eyebrow and a very cool smile.” Wallace wants these serious convictions:

The really striking, inspiring thing about Dostoevsky isn’t just that he was a genius; he was also brave. He never stopped worrying about his literary reputation, but he also never stopped promulgating unfashionable stuff in which he believed.

“Our intelligentsia distrust strong belief, open conviction,” writes Wallace – that is, they distrust exactly those impulses that make Dostoevsky’s work so brilliant. And the strange shape of Wallace’s essay means that, via the second voice, in an utterly unglossed fashion, we get his own beliefs and convictions, his own “desperate questions.” The asides are entirely unironic. How to escape an animal selfishness; how to truly love; what precisely makes life worth living – these are questions it is hard to be wry about. And the asking of them is made doubly urgent by their modulation through an entirely flawed, entirely human consciousness. Dostoevsky was no saint (Wallace writes that “was in many ways a prick in real life — vain, arrogant, spiteful, selfish.”) Neither, as he would have been the first to admit, was Wallace. And neither are we. The questions are urgent and honest because – as with the Karamazov brothers of my favourite Dostoevsky novel – they are being asked by people who actually need the answers. They are not the pontifications of saints. They are the confusions and hopes of people who, like us, are struggling.

In the end, then, the strange brilliance of the essay’s structure means that this second voice begins to provide precisely what Wallace is asking for. It is as though, despite its attempts at objective analysis and artistic manifesto, the weight of Dostoevky’s work force these moments of sincerity to burst from the seams of the essay right there and then. Wallace accepts the risk of the “one raised eyebrow and a very cool smile” and proceeds anyway, because Dostoevsky has pushed him to it. The second voice is both the secret source and the secret aspiration of the entire piece.

Wallace ends his essay by reiterating his desire for “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction” which is also “ingenious and radiantly human fiction” – and which is so deeply all of these things that in being experienced it would preclude any ironic sneer, any weary rolling of millennial eyes. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the departed author would be to say that he fulfilled his own wish. Wallace’s 2008 suicide casts a long shadow over everything he wrote, and can’t help but risk giving his existential yearnings an air of failure. But he was healthy and happy in 1996, and his words stand. Like the Russian he so admired, Wallace avowedly did find “the guts to even try” and write “ingenious and radiantly human fiction.” For many readers, including this one, he did far more than try, succeeding in a fashion and in a style that was unique. In fact, what Wallace left behind I would describe in precisely the words with which he described Dostoevsky’s body of work: “concrete and alive and terribly instructive.”

1769 words

Like words?



MattMatt is Chief Editor at Misfit Press. Alongside overseeing all activity at the Press, he is in the latter stages of a PhD, working on a thesis examining the intersections between literature, neuroscience and the philosophy of consciousness. Soccer, snowboarding, prog metal, Dostoevsky, a good Chianti and strangers' dogs all rank amongst his favourite things.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.

Literature’s greatest sex scene? Umberto Eco explores lust and love from the Dark Ages to today

Aldous Huxley’s deathbed meditation on Shakespeare, consciousness and waking up

“In touch with another human spirit”: Michel Houellebecq on the Unique Power of Literature

Misfit Press