David Foster Wallace on what’s wrong with memoirs, celebrity profiles, & academic writing

From Dwight Garner’s “We Are In a State of Three-Alarm Emergency” (The New York Times Paper Cuts Blog: 11 September 2007):

In his brooding and kaleidoscopic introduction to the new “Best American Essays 2007” – a 5,000-word chunk of it is online – David Foster Wallace doesn’t write so much as shred (in the Jerry Garcian manner) about the idea of compiling collections like this one.

He explains, for example, why he tended to exclude:

A) Memoirs: “The sense I get from a lot of contemporary memoirs is that they have an unconscious and unacknowledged project, which is to make the memoirists seem as endlessly fascinating and important to the reader as they are to themselves.”

B) Celebrity profiles: “Some sort of personal quota was exceeded at around age 35. I now actually want to know less than I know about most celebrities.”

C) Academic writing: “As someone who has a lot of felt trouble being clear, concise, and/or cogent, I tend to be allergic to academic writing, most of which seems to me willfully opaque and pretentious.”

David Foster Wallace on the impossibility of being informed & the seduction of dogma

From David Foster Wallace’s “Introduction” (The Best American Essays 2007):

Here is an overt premise. There is just no way that 2004’s reelection could have taken place—not to mention extraordinary renditions, legalized torture, FISA-flouting, or the
passage of the Military Commissions Act—if we had been paying attention and handling information in a competent grown-up way. ‘We’ meaning as a polity and culture. The premise does not entail specific blame—or rather the problems here are too entangled and systemic for good old-fashioned finger-pointing. It is, for one example, simplistic and wrong to blame the for-profit media for somehow failing to make clear to us the moral and practical hazards of trashing the Geneva Conventions. The for-profit media is highly attuned to what we want and the amount of detail we’ll sit still for. And a ninety-second news piece on the question of whether and how the Geneva Conventions ought to apply in an era of asymmetrical warfare is not going to explain anything; the relevant questions are too numerous and complicated, too fraught with contexts in everything from civil law and military history to ethics and game theory. One could spend a hard month just learning the history of the Conventions’ translation into actual codes of conduct for the U.S. military … and that’s not counting the dramatic changes in those codes since 2002, or the question of just what new practices violate (or don’t) just which Geneva provisions, and according to whom. Or let’s not even mention the amount of research, background, cross- checking, corroboration, and rhetorical parsing required to understand the cataclysm of Iraq, the collapse of congressional oversight, the ideology of neoconservatism, the legal status of presidential signing statements, the political marriage of evangelical Protestantism and corporatist laissez-faire … There’s no way. You’d simply drown. We all would. It’s amazing to me that no one much talks about this—about the fact that whatever our founders and framers thought of as a literate, informed citizenry can no longer exist, at least not without a whole new modern degree of subcontracting and dependence packed into what we mean by ‘informed.’8

8 Hence, by the way, the seduction of partisan dogma. You can drown in dogmatism now, too— radio, Internet, cable, commercial and scholarly print— but this kind of drowning is more like sweet release. Whether hard right or new left or whatever, the seduc- tion and mentality are the same. You don’t have to feel confused or inundated or ignorant. You don’t even have to think, for you already Know, and whatever you choose to learn confirms what you Know. This dog- matic lockstep is not the kind of inevitable dependence I’m talking about—or rather it’s only the most extreme and frightened form of that dependence.

David Foster Wallace on serious vs. commercial art

From David Wiley’s interview of David Foster Wallace, “Transcript of the David Foster Wallace Interview” (The Minnesota Daily: 27 February 1997):

But Plato and John Stuart Mill both take books to talk about different types of pleasure. In my own personal life, I like really arty stuff a lot of the time. But there’s also times I watch an enormous amount of TV, and I’ve read probably 70 percent of Stephen King’s books. And I’ve read them basically because for a little while I want to forget that my name is David Wallace, you know, and that I have limitations, and that I’m sad that my girlfriend yelled at me. I think serious art is supposed to make us confront things that are difficult in ourselves and in the world. And one of the dangers is if we get conditioned to confront less and less and experience more and more pleasure, the commercial stuff’s gonna win out.

David Foster Wallace on postmodernism & waiting for the parents to come home

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody’s got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there’s a cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we’re uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back—I mean, what’s wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren’t ever coming back—which means we’re going to have to be the parents.

David Foster Wallace on the importance of writing within formal constraints

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

You’re probably right about appreciating limits. The sixties’ movement in poetry to radical free verse, in fiction to radically experimental recursive forms—their legacy to my generation of would-be artists is at least an incentive to ask very seriously where literary art’s true relation to limits should be. We’ve seen that you can break any or all of the rules without getting laughed out of town, but we’ve also seen the toxicity that anarchy for its own sake can yield. It’s often useful to dispense with standard formulas, of course, but it’s just as often valuable and brave to see what can be done within a set of rules—which is why formal poetry’s so much more interesting to me than free verse. Maybe our touchstone now should be G. M. Hopkins, who made up his “own” set of formal constraints and then blew everyone’s footwear off from inside them. There’s something about free play within an ordered and disciplined structure that resonates for readers. And there’s something about complete caprice and flux that’s deadening.

David Foster Wallace on the problems with postmodern irony

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates. The virtuous always triumph? Ward Cleaver is the prototypical fifties father? “Sure.” Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.

The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.

David Foster Wallace on being a tourist

From David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” (Gourmet: ):

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

David Foster Wallace on rock, the rise of mass media, & the generation gap

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

Rock music itself bores me, usually. The phenomenon of rock interests me, though, because its birth was part of the rise of popular media, which completely changed the ways the U.S. was unified and split. The mass media unified the country geographically for pretty much the first time. Rock helped change the fundamental splits in the U.S. from geographical splits to generational ones. Very few people I talk to understand what “generation gap” ‘s implications really were. Kids loved rock partly because their parents didn’t, and obversely. In a mass mediated nation, it’s no longer North vs. South. It’s under-thirty vs. over thirty. I don’t think you can understand the sixties and Vietnam and love ins and LSD and the whole era of patricidal rebellion that helped inspire early postmodern fiction’s whole “We’re-going-to-trash-your-Beaver Cleaver-plasticized-G.O.P.-image-of-life-in-America” attitude without understanding rock ‘n roll. Because rock was and is all about busting loose, exceeding limits, and limits are usually set by parents, ancestors, older authorities.

David Foster Wallace on minimalism & metafiction

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

Minimalism’s just the other side of metafictional recursion. The basic problem’s still the one of the mediating narrative consciousness. Both minimalism and metafiction try to resolve the problem in radical ways. Opposed, but both so extreme they end up empty. Recursive metafiction worships the narrative consciousness, makes “it” the subject of the text. Minimalism’s even worse, emptier, because it’s a fraud: it eschews not only self-reference but any narrative personality at all, tries to pretend there “is” no narrative consciousness in its text. This is so fucking American, man: either make something your God and cosmos and then worship it, or else kill it.

David Foster Wallace on the familiar & the strange

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

If you mean a post-industrial, mediated world, it’s inverted one of fiction’s big historical functions, that of providing data on distant cultures and persons. The first real generalization of human experience that novels tried to accomplish. If you lived in Bumfuck, Iowa, a hundred years ago and had no idea what life was like in India, good old Kipling goes over and presents it to you. … Well, but fiction’s presenting function for today’s reader has been reversed: since the whole global village is now presented as familiar, electronically immediate—satellites, microwaves, intrepid PBS anthropologists, Paul Simon’s Zulu back-ups—it’s almost like we need fiction writers to restore strange things’ ineluctable “strangeness,” to defamiliarize stuff, I guess you’d say.

… For our generation, the entire world seems to present itself as “familiar,” but since that’s of course an illusion in terms of anything really important about people, maybe any “realistic” fiction’s job is opposite what it used to be—no longer making the strange familiar but making the familiar strange again. It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most “familiarity” is meditated and delusive.

David Foster Wallace on TV, loneliness, & death

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

One thing TV does is help us deny that we’re lonely. With televised images, we can have the facsimile of a relationship without the work of a real relationship. It’s an anesthesia of “form.” The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness. You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.

David Foster Wallace on fiction’s purpose in dark times

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

Now THAT is fantabulous!

Creative Commons License photo credit: newneonunion

From Roy Kesey’s piece in “Remembering David Foster Wallace” (Edward Champion’s Reluctant Habits: 15 September 2008):

The first story of David’s I ever read was that one Brief Interview that he had in the Paris Review maybe ten or eleven years ago. For me it was paradigm-altering, quietly fantabulous, in exactly the way that having a clay pot broken over your head would be fantabulous if instead of dirt it turned out to be full of cocaine and Slim Jims.

David Foster Wallace on moving mountains

From Bill Katovsky’s “David Foster Wallace: A Profile” (McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: November 2008):

“I spent a lot of time as a volunteer in a nursing home in Amherst last summer. I was reading Dante’s Divine Comedy to an old man, Mr. Shulman. One day, I asked him where he was from. He said, ‘Just east of here, the Rockies.’ I said, ‘Mr. Shulman, the Rockies are west of here.’ He did a voilà with his hands and then said, ‘I move mountains.’ That stuck with me. Fiction either moves mountains or it’s boring; it moves mountains or it sits on its ass.”

David Foster Wallace on David Lynch

From David Foster Wallace’s “David Lynch Keeps His Head” (Premier: September 1996):

AN ACADEMIC DEFINITION of Lynchian might be that the term “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that’s ultimately definable only ostensively – i.e., we know it when we see it. Ted Bundy wasn’t particularly Lynchian, but good old Jeffrey Dahmer, with his victims’ various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread, was thoroughgoingly Lynchian. A recent homicide in Boston, in which the deacon of a South Shore church reportedly gave chase to a vehicle that bad cut him off, forced the car off the road, and shot the driver with a highpowered crossbow, was borderline Lynchian. A Rotary luncheon where everybody’s got a comb-over and a polyester sport coat and is eating bland Rotarian chicken and exchanging Republican platitudes with heartfelt sincerity and yet all are either amputees or neurologically damaged or both would be more Lynchian than not.

David Foster Wallace on Kafka

From David Foster Wallace’s “Laughing With Kafka” (Harper’s Magazine: July 1998, pg. 26):

… the really central Kafka joke – that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.