To answer our titular question, allow me to briefly engage, as as our subject would, in a maximalist coalescence of arithmetic analysis and pedantry, for to evaluate to what degree David Foster Wallace is underrated requires the assessment of two undefined terms: “he” and “underrated.”
He stands to our modern eyes, fifteen years after his death, as more an entity than a person. In this multiplicity, he becomes split into streams of legacy, distinct niches within the cultural memory, for he is at once that spectacled bandana who delivered that commencement speech, “This Is Water” (if your relationship is limited to this, you may remember him as a hero of empathy in the discontent of our modern world), the brilliance behind Infinite Jest (you now know him as a wall of intellect and pretension to have written such an inaccessible book, revered only by those who want to use his intellect and pretension as their own), and as a symbol of the artist so tortured by his own ambition he was driven to suicide (here he becomes a tragedy, an emblem of how art and substances coalesce).
But even these fail to encapsulate his entirety, for if you go deeper into his bio- and bibliography, you’ll find a history of notable professorship at a number of universities and numerous essays about dictionaries and porn and cruises and tennis alongside a history of terrible, abusive behaviour towards Mary Karr, his former partner. Despite his status as an entity, a style of writing, and a celebrity, he exists as a human too, one of brilliance and follies, horrors and beauties—all the contradictions which make it so difficult to answer the binary question of this article’s title.
There arises a similar issue from the thus-undefined, -uncertain underrated-ness of DFW. “Underrated,” per the Cambridge Dictionary, is defined as, “better or more important than most people believe.” Let us zero in on that final phrase—which of the aforementioned DFWs do most people know? If we take all people who know his name and/or any amount of his writing, he is overrated, for the majority’s relationship halts at “This Is Water,” the tamest and most agreeable of his works. If we instead take all people who are familiar with his Infinite Jest legacy (but may or may not have read anything else), he becomes underrated, as the novel’s size and own legacy intimidates and overshadows its wildly inventive and creative style and narrative. If we take all people who have read a substantial enough amount of his writing to hold a holistic opinion, he becomes, as my friend to whom I lent my Consider the Lobster copy said, “like the disease in The Ring”—if you don’t infect someone else with his writing, you will become consumed.
I fall into the final category. I was introduced first through “This Is Water” by my father (a teacher of education, AP Language, and bioethics) at far too young an age to truly understand its message. Last year, DFW wormed his way back to me through an assignment in English, at which point I fell into a spiral of research and obsession with him, his writing, and his relationship to Genius. While I don’t agree with many, perhaps even most, of his opinions on language or Genius or dogmatism or most other things, I cannot help but compare my world to the world he depicted in his writing and the one I understand he experienced. I have been infected, and it tortures me. I hate him as I read his writing, but to what degree that hatred aligns with jealousy I cannot bear to admit, for he is the most original and engaging writer I have read.
He is then underrated, for my worldview has been filtered through his for the past year. And it has brought a depth to my understanding of art’s relationship to its creators, and an appreciation of all the banalities of life——the little pockets of purpose and passion within what I used to find mundane. Can these perception-filters be found in vehicles less snarky, less problematic, less inaccessible, less obsessive? Yes. And I wish I could say any other source made these lessons stick stronger onto me than the writings of David Foster Wallace. But I cannot.
He once told his editor for Infinite Jest he wished the novel would make “the head throb heartlike” (The Atlantic). It’s a Homeric phrase, both in its enclitic similarization and its ambiguity, for it seems he wants the head-throbbing to be noticeable, as heartbeats are only in high emotion, whether joyful or anxious or angry or terror-filled. I do not know which he wished to evoke, but I would guess he’d like to know it’s them all.