This is going to sound sanctimonious and overwrought, and you’re probably going to be embarrassed for me reading it — hell, I’m embarrassed for myself just typing it — but here it goes: David Foster Wallace changed my life (and I mean that literally).
I was proceeding nicely through high school — destined to become a tax attorney, or some equally boring white-collar bullshit — until I happened upon Wallace’s essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. People are most enamored of the essay of the same name in that book, where Wallace attends an all-inclusive, seven-day luxury cruise and ponders the existential dread of late-stage American capitalism. But the piece that most moved me was Wallace’s profile of the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.
Springfield is an interesting place — it’s smack dab in the center of Illinois, a state that runs the gamut from cosmopolitan metropolis (Chicago) to small-town farm country, and it’s the de facto home to Abraham Lincoln (who was actually born in Kentucky, although everyone in Springfield conveniently disregards this fact).
But like so much of the Midwest, people tend to dismiss Springfield as some meaningless tract of flyover country inhabited by overweight philistines, instead of a small city with its own particularities and fully realized, sentient beings. My father grew up in Springfield, and we’d make several trips there a year when I was a kid, including an annual trip each August during the fair.
Wallace’s depiction of the fair was so stunningly accurate, so incisive, that it illuminated things about the experience that I immediately recognized as true, but had never been able to identify, let alone articulate, on my own. Reading it was like having a hyper-intelligent alien narrating my subconscious. I didn’t know writing like that was even possible, and at that point, I made a conscious decision to pursue writing and try to create something that funny and intellectually exhilarating.
Now, though, I hide my Wallace idolization in shame — and it’s all because of his asshole fans.
Fans of Wallace have garnered a reputation in recent years for being insufferable literary elitists and/or wannabe-intellectual poseurs. Specifically, they’re notorious for trying to force people to read Infinite Jest, Wallace’s legendary, prophetic sci-fi tome, and demanding they attest to its literary brilliance. Or not reading it at all, but using their general awareness of the book as proof of their intellectual superiority. Actor Jason Segel experienced this negative association when he was preparing to play Wallace in the 2015 film End of the Tour:
“When I went to go buy [Infinite Jest] for the first time to get ready for this movie, there was a real Ghost World kind of a girl behind the counter. I set [the book] down, and she literally rolled her eyes at me and said, ‘Ugh, Infinite Jest, every guy I’ve ever slept with has an unread copy on their nightstand.’”
I’m tired of being associated with these pretentious dickwads, and I’m even more tired of them turning people off Wallace. When a person insists you not only try something they like, but that you enjoy it as much as they do, the natural inclination is to avoid it altogether.
Unfortunately, this is a phenomenon that happens all too often, and in all types of media. Music, film, TV, literature, politics, sports — they all have fanbases that are so vehement and insistent that they ruin what they love for everyone else.
‘Rick and Morty’ Fanboys
For the uninitiated, Rick and Morty is a Cartoon Network animated series about a genius inventor, Rick, who has a portal gun that allows him to travel through space-time and explore the multiverse with his grandson, Morty. In one episode, Rick travels back to 1998, so he can eat the szechuan sauce McDonald’s released as part of a special promotion for Disney’s Mulan.
Inspired by the episode, McDonald’s decided to bring the szechuan sauce back for a limited run, prompting Rick and Morty fans to descend on McDonald’s franchises in droves and act like feral hyenas. More than 1,000 people showed up at one location. Some waited in line for hours for a chance to taste the sauce. The stores eventually ran out of szechuan sauce, prompting fans to berate McDonald’s cashiers — people who earn minimum wage and who should be able to go to work without fear of getting yelled at by a psychotic mob. In one instance, the police needed to be called.
Phish/Grateful Dead/Any Jam Band Fanboys
Being an over-the-top fanboy is a required part of the jam-band experience, with the Grateful Dead and Phish being the foremost examples. Fandom is a binary classification for these fanbases. Either you devote your life to enjoying the band — following them to the ends of the earth, costs and personal hygiene be damned — or you’re not a “real” fan at all.
For those who do qualify as true Deadheads or Phans, fandom becomes an endless competition over who’s a “better” fan among that exclusive group. Who has more knowledge about the band and its catalogue? Who can accumulate more T-shirts and other worthless band-related merchandise? And, most importantly, who has attended more live shows?
“Did you see the live rendition of ‘Franklin’s Tower’ the Dead performed in September 1976 underneath a bridge in the snowy Vermont wilderness? Oh… Well, I did.”
By the way, if you ever want to have fun with a Phish devotee, tell them you’re a fan yourself and “Farmhouse” is your favorite song, and watch them spontaneously combust from anger.
I never got into Radiohead for the same reason people actively avoid Wallace — their fans are intolerable. Every Radiohead fan I’ve ever met is the kind of person who will corner you at a party and not let you leave until they’ve convinced you Thom Yorke is a man of unparalleled musical genius. Meanwhile, I’ll I hear is Bleep, blorp, I’m a depressed robot. Get out of my face with your pretentious nerd rock.
(That said, “High and Dry” is a lovely song.)
‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club’ Fanboys
This year marked the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles album that (as we’ve been reminded many, many times since) redefined rock music and remains most seminal work in modern recording history, half a century later.
As fellow MEL staff writer Tim Grierson wrote earlier this year, that insistence is the exact reason many music fans either actively dislike the album or consider it wildly overrated. “As much as people like discovering new music, we tend to resist when it’s being shoved down our throats,” Grierson writes. “It’s very hard to love something — to really embrace it as ours — when everybody else has already laid claim to it.”
Harry Potter Fanboys and -girls
Harry Potter is the rare pop culture phenomenon that inspires insane levels of devotion in men and women equally. And while we’d normally applaud this kind of gender equality, it only makes matters worse, in that it means double the number of intolerable dweebs. The first Harry Potter book was released 20 years ago, and even now in adulthood, I still have to suffer through Potter fanboys and -girls running around in wizard costumes telling me the Potter series is the height of literary achievement, even though they’re books written for fucking children.
Marvel Comics Fanboys
This group had a collective conniption fit when Donald Glover openly lobbied to play Peter Parker in the new Spider-Man film franchise, a move that would’ve made him the first non-white actor to portray the web-slinger. Glover didn’t get his wish, in part because the filmmakers were so cautious about not running afoul of Spider-Man purists who insist Parker must always be a white guy. Fans of the Marvel Comics universe are so obsessive they think they own the story to some degree — that they deserve (and have) a voice in the creative process instead of being passive consumers. The slightest divergence from the source materials short-circuits their automaton brains.
Tarantino/Scorsese/Coen Brothers Fanboys
Fans of directors Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers are notorious for trying to foist their favorite films on the women in their lives, and in so doing, causing those women to avoid those films entirely. Here’s the thing, though: Your girlfriend will never love The Big Lebowski as much as you do.
Bernie Sanders Fanboys
Aka the Bernie Bros, aka the dirtbag left, aka the only people who actually listen to the “popular” Chapo Trap House podcast—some of the most counterproductive political activists of all time. Their tireless, often misogyny-tinged preference for Bernie caused many lefties to dismiss the politician as a loon with a cultish following.
St. Louis Cardinals Fanboys
It’s very easy to dislike a team whose fans refer to themselves as “the best fans in baseball” without a hint of irony.
There are dogged female fanbases, too, but their insistence is usually reactive. They’re quick to defend their favorite artist against haters online, but they’ll never stop you on the street and force you to listen Lemonade.
And that’s really what makes these fan groups so intolerable, isn’t it? It’s not what they like, it’s that they demand everyone else like it, too.
What these kinds of fanboys never seem to realize is that their evangelism always has an adverse effect. Instead of inspiring interest, it causes people to recoil. And it makes their fellow fans guilty by association.
And I should know. Speaking of, have you ever read Wallace’s short story collection Oblivion? No?! Wow. Okay. You really should. Because the first story in the collection is a beautiful depiction of the emptiness of consumer culture…