MARIA BUSTILLOS: I ONLY MET HIM a couple of times, and only for a few minutes each time, but a very striking feature of being in David Foster Wallace’s orbit was his ability to focus on you absolutely. I’ve heard many others say the same. He had a very penetrating gaze, and as he listened it was if you were the only other person in a five-mile radius. His deep capacity for rapt, complete absorption is a big part of the attraction; it militates against the fatal authorial trap of egocentricity. Wallace almost invariably draws you into his own fascination with the world outside.
ERIC BEEN: He described his reported magazine pieces as “experimental essays” on Charlie Rose, saying that his mode was to be “basically an enormous eyeball floating around something, reporting what it sees.” So it’s something he consciously strove for in some of his work.
MB: This collection, like the previous one, attests to that. Maybe just a little less than the previous one. (Was it you, Mike, who referred to these as “B-sides”? Le mot juste, I reckon.)
EB: I think Both Flesh and Not might close the door on nonfiction pieces left to be discovered. There were a few essays I’d never read until checking out this collection, though. For instance,“Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama,” which, despite really sucking at math, I enjoyed. There’s “The Best of the Prose Poem,” which I hope to never read again; and “Mr. Cogito,” which is barely worth mentioning at all. And a lot of the pieces I hadn’t read in years like “Fictional Futures” and the essay on Terminator 2.
So have you noticed that some have been down on the Wallace vocabulary lists that follow each essay in the collection? I know I should be too, but I guess discovering that “hanuman” can mean a “monkey with an eerie humanish face and Amish-looking hair on face” makes them all worthwhile. An issue I do have, though, is that a collection being billed as “15 of Wallace’s seminal essays,” includes “Mr. Cogito,” a barely 200-word capsule review in Spin on Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry book, and a two-page best-of list from Salon called “Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels >1960.” There is some good stuff contained herein, but is any of it really seminal besides “Federer Both Flesh and Not”?
EB: Speaking of “authorial traps,” did anyone read Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s piece over at Bookforum in which he posits that Wallace “was his most consequentially gracious when his tenderness and generosity were only barely outpacing his capacity to be a total dickhead”?
MIKE GOETZMAN: Right, the one where Lewis-Kraus says Wallace hated himself for wanting to be liked, and calls this “perhaps his greatest worry.” I see it the most in “Fictional Futures” — that struggling with the fear of his own narcissism — the concern that he’s compromising his work, that he is simply contributing to the presiding racket of mass-entertainment.
So, as Kraus points out, he over-corrects: suddenly, he’s purposefully obstructionist, introducing the arcane allusions and words that send potential readers fleeing to Franzen. But I’d argue that this rub between Wallace’s needy, writerly ego and his loathing of that side of himself is in part what’s so gripping about his work. There’s a primacy to the personal, especially in his essays. And what some appreciate — that he never hid this struggle from his readers — others distrust. What’s the agenda? Is this merely logorrhea or a desperate attempt at offering all of himself to his readers?
MB: As a reader you have to roll your own: establish your own relationship with an author. This is something like hearing people talk about someone you haven’t yet met; you can’t rely on any of it until you get a chance to form your own impression.
Anyway, what strikes me is how much time and energy Wallace put into this practice he so roundly and frequently condemned — worrying about how one is going to “come off.” The self-loathing this caused in him seems to have been about a trillion times more toxic than the original self-involvement, which everyone is prey to, to some degree. I think grownups in general know themselves well enough to swat away the incessant buzz of their own egos. But not this guy.
It’s really sad to think that having written Infinite Jest, hearing the applause of the whole literary world, he wasn’t like, Okay that is it, I win, I pass go and collect $200 and I never have to worry again about my “talent.”
EB: I’m not sure Wallace was “hearing the applause of the whole literary world” when Infinite Jest was first released. Of course, it garnered tons of praise at the time, but there were a lot of disbelievers as well: Jay McInerney and Michiko Kakatuni gave it mixed reviews in the New York Times; it seemed to baffle David Kipen at the Los Angeles Times and Dave Eggers panned the book before eventually coming back around to it.
The whole “stories so completely transcend[ing] their motive” thing, which is just a rehashing of a lot of the New Criticism/“Death of the Author” arguments, is more a way of approaching fiction than nonfiction, no? There have been some allegations about his reportage — Wallace thinking it was okay to embellish stuff, for instance — that I’m interested to hear y’alls thoughts on.
MG: “Deciderization” might be useful for parsing DFW’s unease with the appellation “journalist,” as well as the Franzen-borne accusations of his being a bit of a fabulist:
Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.
His nonfiction cedes first and foremost to his own subjectivity. And in Slate he has said, plainly, “I am not a journalist and I don’t pretend to be one.” A postmodern mind like Wallace’s has trouble investing in the objective reality traditional journalism lays claim to. If we’re to take his comment on “Fiction’s Abyss” at face value, he sees the experiences that inform essays as “infinite,” and thus his choices — of what to cull from or “interpret” — as justifiable. I’m not much interested in making an ethical judgment here; I wasn’t scandalized when it turned out that Frey had made up large portions of his “memoir,” and I wasn’t down on D’Agata for fudging facts in About a Mountain. I didn’t feel lied to; to me, these books and Wallace’s nonfiction feel no less honest or true for being false.
This isn’t to say that facts don’t matter, but that perhaps we ought to be a little more understanding of the compromises involved in creating art, and that getting bent out of shape once certain liberties are exposed (when just a minute ago we were so thoroughly enthralled!) seems a reaction based more on our uneasiness with our own vulnerability and credulousness than any serious authorial wrongdoing.
EB: I guess I’m ultimately a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to that stuff. I’m just not buying all of D’Agata’s shtick about the essay. On this I’ll defer to Lee Gutkind’s piece in LARB on The Lifespan of a Fact and say I more or less agree with it.
But to Wallace’s credit, he did seem to change his mind about the whole “you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there’s going to be the occasional bit of embellishment” song and dance. In that recently released interview collection, Conversations with David Foster Wallace, he’s asked: “How do you mix journalism and literature? Are the two forms very different or very similar?” Right at the outset, he responds, “I’m not really sure that I do ‘mix journalism and literature.’ I tend to think more in terms of fiction versus nonfiction.” He goes on to give one of his typically zigzagging answers before saying,
For me, there is only one difference between fiction and what you call “journalism.” But it’s a big difference. In nonfiction, everything has to be true, and it also has to be documented, because magazines have fact checkers and lawyers who are very thorough and completely devoid of any sense of humor, and the magazines are very afraid of being sued.
Elsewhere, in an unpublished letter to a professor named Becky Bradway, who asked him about his accuracy standards in nonfiction for a textbook she was writing, he said: “A journalist who misrepresents a speech, or skews quotations or facts in order to lend credence to a political argument or to advance a certain agenda … this is bad faith.”
The “good faith” flipside, I guess, is taking on the responsibility to at least try and get the facts right if you are claiming to do nonfiction. So, for instance, I recently reread this wonderful personal essay by Ellen Willis called “Escape from New York.” In it, she records a lot of conversations and tons of other details from this long bus trip. You know she’s not capturing in that piece everything as it happened in reality, but because it’s an essay we trust that she’s trying, in good faith, to capture those moments as best she can. To have those constraints in place (i.e. trying not to embellish) and still create something consequential is what makes it art. Or, to quote elsewhere from Deciderization, she worked within the “tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective that constitutes Total Noise” and produced something of “value.” Taking liberties like inventing dialogue and whole scenes breaks the rules of those boundaries and decreases a work’s value. If you want to do that, just call it fiction and call it a day.
MB: I once chose A Supposedly Fun Thing for a book group I spent some years in. All women, many of them journalists, and they went absolutely freaking nuts with uncharacteristic anger over even the idea of “creative nonfiction.” Even crazier over Wallace’s bland assertion in a talk at the Writers Guild in 2004: “But it’d just be so much better if the Young Republican projectile-vomits.” It was unforgettable, this very mild-mannered, brilliant, gentle mom of two, hair and glasses askew and pounding the table in a rage. Because Journalism. Many pros I admire leave no wiggle room there, for themselves or anybody. You’re meant never to deviate one atom from the truth — no funny stuff! — and then serve it up. The truth! As if.
So I’m with Wallace on the question — that is, basically dubious of what Pauline Kael so memorably called “saphead objectivity.” Objectivity is a chimerical ideal. The reader has to be on his toes, right? This is always the case, whether you are reading David Foster Wallace or a dry-cleaning coupon.
MB: There’s a wonderfully telling photo of Wallace — he’s around ten or so — participating in one of those University Challenge-type contests, only for an Urbana elementary school. I fancy that a great deal of his character is written in this photo. I mean, it is on his permanent record like I don’t even know. He’s got his hand up and is already nuclear-focused on the question, and he knows the answer and he really, really, really wants to be called on; inside you can see he is all IknowIknowIknow — I know this! There are two teammates, both girls, looking maybe just a bit exasperated. Because I can well imagine that if you were on a trivia team with the 10-year-old David Foster Wallace, this would have been the most infuriating thing ever to happen, and quite tough to maintain one’s poise and sangfroid in the face of probably never getting to answer a single question.
All this by way of saying that we never quite grow out of that. Part of it is just the super fun of competing in an academic setting. Which is every bit as exhilarating as any other challenging exercise of skill and daring. The sheer pleasure of knowing the answer, of finding the right words, of letting oneself just enjoy being so good, was a thing that the adult Wallace seems to have denied himself to some degree. He found it suspect, the whole “prodigy” thing, and why not, it had dogged him all his life, made people dislike him. It drove him wild, too, when Lipsky called him on it, back in 1996: “You’re a tough room,” remember? He was a great deal more at ease telling Franzen and co. how jealous he was of them, of their being able to write. Wallace lived in his humility; his humility had saved him; there was a part of him that was not humble, and it’s sad he was never quite able to just laugh at that part, seemingly, to make friends.
MG: “You’re a tough room.” Maria, I remember reading that bit in your essay “Inside Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library.” It reminds me how much we rely on the accounts of Wallace’s contemporaries for new insights into his “biographical self.” Often these insights tell as much or more about the contemporary as Wallace, which I think is the case in his fraught relationship with Franzen.
Both writers have sort of cohered as character foils in the popular imagination. Jon Baskin talks about this in his piece for The Point, “Coming to Terms,” pointing out that, born within three years of one another, both Franzen and Wallace grew up in provincial Midwestern towns with childhoods that seemed to render them at once ill-prepared for the bombshell of techno-capitalist modernity and acutely sensitive to it; both were depressives (although different types) and both seemed to agree that the primary role of their art was to engage “deep convictions and desperate questions” and, above all, combat loneliness. But for all their similarities, the two are about as stylistically different as it gets — Franzen serving up your traditional realist fare, and Wallace wildly challenging that tradition. And I’m not sure Franzen has gotten over the competitive, fraternal nature of the dynamic, of being framed as the non-innovating conservative.
You’ll remember that after a few years of hinting at the complex admixture of animus and love he harbors for the late Wallace, Franzen eventually seizes the opportunity to vent his account of their relationship in his controversial (someone called it “grave-defiling”) New Yorker essay “Farther Away,” offering what he saw as the real difference between them — their core philosophies. “Close loving relationships,” Franzen says, “which for most of us are a foundational source of meaning, have no standing in the Wallace fictional universe.” He then pits his social novels against Wallace’s novels of the self, the former based on the redemptive power of relationships and the latter on interiority, narcissism, and obsessive self-scrutiny — a common complaint among Wallace detractors.
But it’s a too-facile argument that neglects how Wallace’s fiction of the self was almost always a fiction of self-censure as well, oftentimes bordering on asceticism, particularly in Pale King, which engages the idea of boredom and acute sustained attention as a way to lose the self. It seems the real difference in their philosophy, which Baskin maintains as well, regards a difference in opinion about what constitutes Reality. What Franzen’s “realism,” by definition, claims to have already figured out, much of Wallace’s work spends time negotiating. From Pale King:
It had something to do with paying attention […] There were depths in me that were not bullshit or childish but profound, and were not abstract but much realer than my clothes or self-image, and that blazed in an almost sacred way — I’m being serious; I’m not just trying to make it more dramatic than it was — and that these realest, most profound parts of me involved not drives or appetites but simple attention, awareness.
These seem less the thoughts of a narcissistic author than one trying to evoke a dimension of reality that has likely evaded the realist. I see these ineffable “depths” as the sort of prime movers of Wallace’s fiction, never located or acted upon, but nevertheless setting it all in motion. While both authors understand that to be conscious and human is to struggle with the self, Franzen posits that we can struggle, or we can realize that we’re not alone — that others are going through the same struggle — and can start braving the choppy waters of relationships. But what I think Franzen misses — and what seems to be Wallace’s main point — is that as much as you try to connect with others, at no point can you say with certainty that you’ve done it — that you’ve escaped the island of the self and reached the mainland.
MB: There’s a beautiful essay on this distinction between Wallace and Franzen, from this blogger I love called sancrucensis: it’s called “Freedom is Overrated.”
I don’t know if anybody’s made this distinction yet but it strikes me as a nearly exact parallel to the historic bout of Wittgenstein vs. Popper amid the maniacs of the Moral Sciences Club in Cambridge in 1946. (There is a very good book about that, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, called Wittgenstein’s Poker.)
Wittgenstein’s basic position, as I understand it, is that language can’t bridge the gap between us ever. This is territory Wallace inhabited from early on; his dad was trained by one of Wittgenstein’s disciples, and he remarks several times on his own love of Wittgenstein. His work is everywhere concerned with strategies and experiments in making language bridge the gap — but always in the knowledge that it’s there, and that the instrument is flawed, maybe fatally flawed. He builds the bridge first by saying: “This doesn’t work, right? But here goes.”
Franzen’s work contains exactly zero Wittgenstein. Like Popper, he believes in “the existence of problems,” that language is a working machine, and that there’s no particular percentage in dwelling on the flaws. His contention — and I think it’s a good one, on the face of it, though I imagine the Wittgensteinians among us could run rings around me with good arguments to the contrary — is that you cannot use language to show that language is fatally flawed and all utterances unverifiable. What remains is our obligation to attend to the real world and the real problems in it.
EB: Maria, you pointing to Wallace’s “This doesn’t work, right? But here goes,” made me think of this incredible bit in “Federer”:
A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.
I think it almost perfectly falls in line with that sentiment. Even if language is somehow failing there, he’s masterfully capturing something.
MG: In a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery, Wallace mentions finding solace in Wittgenstein’s idea that “for language to even be possible it must be a function of relationships between persons” [my emphasis]. His investment in this idea as a way out of solipsism not only proves wrong Franzen’s assessment of him as being anti-relationship, but also explains Wallace’s obsession with esoteric words (and not only the words, but every word’s root, usage note, obsolete meaning, etcetera). If you, like Wittgenstein or Wallace, believe that language marks the limits of what we can think or be, then every word is critical, and the dictionary — vocabulary lists — our most precious documents.
Wallace’s “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress” is the longest in the collection. Wallace freaking loved this book — he would later deem it “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country” — and here’s why:
Markson’s WM succeeds in doing what few philosophers glean […] nor [succeed] in communicating: the consequences, for persons, of the practice of theory: the difference, say between espousing “solipsism” as a metaphysical “position” and waking up one fine morning after a personal loss to find your grief apocalyptic, literally millennial.
We might see the difference between the Franzen/Popper and Wallace/Wittgenstein camps, then, as this: some live Theory (or philosophy) while others think about it, occasionally, then return to the land of the living. As a recent n+1 article pointed out, Franzen’s feelings about Theory are evident in The Corrections when Chip Lambert heads to the Strand: “[Chip] piled his Foucault and Greenblatt and hooks and Poovey into shopping bags and sold them all for $115.” That, Franzen is saying, a little ruefully, is what Theory chalks up to: its market value. He again underscores that late capitalism will inexorably crush our ideals, fantasies, and personal philosophies: Hey, that’s just the world we live in, Wallace — “correct” your expectations.
EB: Franzen’s social novels, and Wallace’s declaration that “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being” always seem limited to what it’s like to be human if you’re “hyper educated” and from a privileged background. Although Wallace seemed to be in awe, for instance, of William T. Vollmann, D.T. Max writes that “in person […] Vollmann was too odd for the fundamentally bourgeois Wallace.” And Wallace describes Vollmann as “more than a bubble of lump — prefers bloody venison and chocolate cake washed down with Stout for supper, speaks easily of blow-jobs and cooze while we’re eating.” It’s just striking to me how both Wallace and Franzen’s ideas of “reality” and “struggle,” as dissimilar as they may be, are never really concerned with the types of realities and struggles portrayed in Vollmann’s Rainbow Stories or in, say, Poor People, one of his nonfiction works; for all their “maximalist” worries about comprehending the problems of contemporary America, they sure do/did miss a lot.
Okay, that’s my tirade. Anyone up for discussing that Terminator 2 piece?
MB: Terminator 2!! Yes.
I did not even hate this movie as much as Wallace did, though I take his general point with respect to inverse ratio of effects/budget to quality in Hollywood (and Cameron’s only gotten worse and worse, cf. Titanic and Avatar, yoicks, to say nothing of the many other perfect examples of this theory, e.g., The Amazing (feh!) Spider-Man.) But for me there are many exceptions to this. I loved Inception, for example. Really, really loved it.
This piece strikes me as Wallace in his jocular mood, one that in general I don’t respond to as much as when he’s being a little more serious. Even the title of it is a bit cute, so, stylistically, I’m not on board as much as usual. And then there are what seem to me to be real howlers, here and there: ROI, for instance, is not an “Industry” term, it’s just a regular business one. Not that I’m such a film scholar, but it seems a real stretch to name check Méliès and Lang as inspiration for the “ferrous clanks and pneumatic hisses,” the “ponderous, marvelously built-looking quality” of Cameron’s dystopic future. Metropolis is full of metal but it’s squeaky clean, every bit as “hygienic” as Spielberg (whose futurism I at least have always seen as proceeding in a direct line from Lang); the clockworks of Méliès are so whimsical, so comical and light — I just didn’t see either of those comparisons at all. Indeed Lucas’s half-busted Millennium Falcon seems a far more plausible precursor to the oily, filthy machines of Alien than anything else I can think of, and Wallace lumps Lucas in with Spielberg as a “hygienic” futurist?
But then, the note about Sigourney Weaver really hits it out of the park. (“No male lead in the history of U.S. action film even approaches Weaver’s second Ripley for emotional depth and sheer balls — she makes Stallone, Willis, et al. look muddled and ill.”) I’d forgotten how good that was. Which is the great thing about this essay; it’s just like coming out of the theater with someone and you’re both all high with pleasure and/or rage from the movie and can have this ridiculously passionate conversation and practically come to fisticuffs, which is always fun.
The big thing I think he missed about T2, really my favorite thing about the movie, is the quality of Linda Hamilton’s performance. Wallace completely mischaracterized Sarah Connors’s relationship with her son — he’s all, Oh, my mom is a little weird, heh — it’s so believable and good; it’s a powerful illustration of how motherhood is making you far stronger than you imagined you could be, and also a little crazy?
I think it was Wallace’s aversion to Furlong that basically sank the whole movie for him. That and the admittedly awful, treacly sentimentality of “I understand why you cry.” His string of quotes, there — “Cool! My own Terminator!” “Haven’t you learned that you can’t just go around killing people?” “It’s OK, Mom, he’s here to help” — is very damning. But if we are going to dismiss a movie for its sentimentality then I think you’re going to have to dismiss the first Terminator, as well.
EB: One last chirp about “The Empty Plenum” before we move away from it. I find it pretty fascinating that this book, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, along with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, seem to be two important bridge builders, among others, that get him from the “rut of ‘self-conscious meta-shit” found in The Broom of the System to the “single-entendre principles” of Infinite Jest. It’s a remarkable thing in my mind: singular artworks knocking someone out of a deep theoretical furrow and then propelling them to create something with such intensity and pathos.
In “The Empty Plenum,” there are parts where you see him ecstatically working out some of his issues with the double bind of metafiction (and consequently distancing himself from them), like where he proposes fiction should be “making heads throb heartlike” (rather then just pointing about how dreadful the world is), but also in moments like when he says, “I personally have grown weary of most texts that are narrated self-consciously as written, as ‘textes.’ But WM is different from the Barthian/post-Derridean self-referential hosts.” Or here:
I need to admit here that I have a weird specular stance with respect to this novel’s form as written. I am someone who tries to write, who right now more & more seems to need to write, daily; and who hopes less that the products of that need are lucrative or even liked than simply received, read, seen.
A similar thing happened with Blue Velvet, just after he’d wrapped up The Broom of the System and was beginning to struggle with how to find his own voice in light of the self-referential loop and the apparent exhaustion of originality in a lot of PoMo fiction. This movie comes out of nowhere and just bowls him over. As he once put it:
… I all the sudden realized that the point of being postmodern or being avant-garde wasn’t to follow in a certain kind of tradition, that all that stuff is B.S. imposed by critics and camp followers afterwards. What the really great artists do — and it sounds very trite to say it out loud — but what the really great artists do is they’re entirely themselves. They’re entirely themselves. They’ve got their own vision, their own way of fracturing reality, and that if it’s authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings. And this is what Blue Velvet did for me.
I just love that reading of the film and how, for him, it’s almost like a deus ex machina for his creative life.
Anyway, on to “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2.” So my first thought after rereading this was, “Yep, I can see why this was skipped over for Consider the Lobster.” It has a few funny, memorable moments, like when he coins “Inverse Cost and Quality Law,” and says it “states very simply that the larger a movie’s budget is, the shitter that movie is going to be.” But the essay boils down to the first Terminator being more awesome than the second one, which spawned a lot of senseless popcorn flicks that relay too heavily on F/X, or, “Special Effects Porn.” A perfectly adequate thesis but it’s not anywhere among his top-tier stuff. In these types of argumentative pieces, I think he’s at his best when he’s either struggling with a bunch of ideas you see unfolding on the page — in “E Unibus Pluram” especially — or when, as with “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” he’s completely obsessed with something. Those essays have a kind of sustained curiosity that’s just not in this one. Seems phoned in.
EB: So I’ve been intrigued by the recent taxonomy of Wallace’s style and influence, particularly his being cast as a scion of Hunter S. Thompson. Gonzo 2.0. It’s a pairing he flat out rejected in a 2005 interview with Didier Jacob:
For complicated reasons that I won’t bore you with, I am not very interested in Hunter S. Thompson. In brief, he seems to me to be far more interested in developing himself as a charismatic persona and as a heroic symbol of decadent nihilism and rage than he is in writing honest or powerful nonfiction.
In Garth Risk Hallberg’s New York Times review of Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours, Wallace is listed as one of the progenitors of the “New New New Journalism,” which includes, he says, Wells Tower, Sam Anderson, Elif Batuman, and John Jeremiah Sullivan: “Their godparents are not so much Joan Didion and Gay Talese as Nicholson Baker (Updike, Wikipedia), Geoff Dyer (Rodin, doughnuts) and David Foster Wallace (tennis, infinity).” Hallberg posits that Tower et al. have a new “generational voice: a mash-up of slacker insouciance and hermeneutic vigor.”
Likewise, in the aforementioned Lewis-Kraus piece, Wallace is cast as the “great writer-worrier of his time,” and one who produced parishioners of air-quote “magazine writing,” a designation borrowed from Sullivan’s GQ essay “Too Much Information” on The Pale King. The divide between Wallace’s supposed children and the, uh, New New Journalists — “consummate professionals such as David Grann and Katherine Boo” who just “get on with the task at hand” — is an aesthetics of “fret[ting] about how it’s even possible to do” such things.
I mostly side with Hallberg here with a caveat: I’m not too fond of the New New New Journalism coinage (I mean, wasn’t “New New Journalism” enough of a mouthful?).
MG: Yeah, it’s been in vogue to classify DFW as the progenitor of a certain newfangled taxonomy, but I also think Hallberg’s comes closest — the ascent of the cultural polymath: “the old Bellovian high-low, but with reliable connections for both Wi-Fi and pot. You sense cultural omnivorousness in these writers’ choice of subject matter, too: Tolstoy and traffic school; reality TV and cave painting; ChatRoulette and Derrida.” I think Hallberg’s right to point to Bissell, Batuman, Tower, Anderson, and Sullivan as working in this vein, but I don’t think it’s so much a function of what these guys “just do,” as what, due to the influence of guys like Dyer and DFW, has been demanded of them. That’s what cultural “magazine writing” has become; there is no beat. Or, insofar as there is, it’s everything. Kraus’s mention of “consummate professionals” like David Grann and Katherine Boo also makes sense, since their variety of long-form narrative seems the last bastion of intensely-honed, focused reportage (Grann will work for years on a single piece). So Kraus is maybe sounding out an anxiety about the hegemony of a more discursive, freewheeling, showy kind of journalism.
MB: I would say that Wallace identified all his own forbears perfectly well. He and Costello dedicated Signifying Rappers to Lester Bangs; he wrote in loving depth about Kafka (Number one Big Daddy in my view), Borges, and Dostoevsky. We know he loved Gaddis and Pynchon, and there’s a lot of engagement with DeLillo — correspondence and marked-up DeLillo books in the archive. For someone who read French as well as he evidently did, I find it surprising that Wallace never mentions French authors, and English ones but rarely, let alone Germans or Japanese. He loved Cortázar and Puig, though. I’d love to know what he would have made of Roberto Bolaño.
Anyway, Wallace was something of a square at heart, I think — the SNOOT, the polymath, the dyed-in-the-wool academician — that account of his meeting with Vollmann illustrates this so beautifully. Maybe it follows that the colleague to whom Wallace seems to have reached out the most, and the most often, was the neo-Victorian Franzen.
MG: Did you guys catch the somewhat recent Sullivan piece on Venus and Serena Williams? I couldn’t believe it. It seemed a too-pointed attempt to invite (even more) comparison between the two — and in the same publication where Wallace published “Federer,” no less. It didn’t flesh with the cool, mannered Sullivan I’d witnessed and read. Even more surprising was that the article didn’t seem to grab much attention. In my mind there couldn’t be a more clear throwing down of the gauntlet: Sullivan was returning DFW’s serve with a solid baseline backhand, but there didn’t seem to be a person in the place.
MB: It’s Wallace’s SNOOTiness and basic rhetorical conservatism (as manifested in, e.g., the solid debt to Dostoevsky) that, despite all the bells and whistles, make me balk at Hallberg’s taxonomy. The sources of the ideas matter far more than a few stylistic tics. Like, where would this leave Zadie Smith, who is hugely influenced by Wallace but manifestly in control of her own voice? You could never mistake her work for Wallace’s the way you sometimes might with Sullivan, but she engages Wallace’s ideas about selflessness and generosity, about writing and criticism; it’s a palpable dialogue.
EB: Hear, hear, on the list of some of his forebears, but that’s mostly in regards to his fiction and I was thinking more about his nonfiction. And I’ve seen some love for the French; here and there he mentions Montaigne, and there’s also this charming shout-out to Camus: “He’s very clear, as a thinker, and tough — completely intolerant of bullshit. It makes my soul clean to read him.” As for American influences, there’s Pauline Kael, whom he calls “the best” in that Tom Scocca interview. One that surprises me, given the divergences, was his steady praise of Cynthia Ozick’s nonfiction (which probably stemmed from him being a self-described “usage fanatic” and her near spotless prose).
I mostly agree with you on Smith when it comes to her fiction and criticism. But in her occasional reportage, like that recent Jay-Z profile for the New York Times publication T Magazine (a fantastic piece), I can definitely see Smith checking her “What Would DFW Do?” bracelet for style.
I don’t want to overstate my nod to Hallberg’s piece — hints and hues of that thesis make me recoil as well — but he may be right that there is something exciting going on right now with the American magazine essay and that some of its writers are not holding themselves up, say, to Tom Wolfe’s, as they are to Wallace’s (and others’) standards.
Finally, I think you’re right, Maria, about Wallace being a “square at heart.” And to John Jeremiah Sullivan’s credit, I think he’s much less of one; I see a lot more places where Sullivan attempts to understand and sympathize with “The Other” — not just abstractly but at a more concrete level — than I do in Wallace’s nonfiction.
MB: Sullivan, whom I admire a lot, seems to be more on the Popper side of things, you might say.
EB: Are we winding down here? Any thoughts on Bret Easton Ellis’s recent Twitter rant about Wallace?
MG: Yeah, and at risk of summoning his wrath by coming off as yet another overly credulous, DFW-loving member of “Generation Wuss,” I think Ellis’s ad hominem Twitter attacks strike at where he likely assumes Wallace was most vulnerable: his persistent sense of inauthenticity. By calling Wallace “insufferable” and a “fraud,” Ellis, it would seem, thinks he’s dealing an ideological coup de grace.
But, much as this might’ve stung Wallace, I doubt his own fraudulence would be any revelation to him. In fact, he was acutely aware of it; at the end of his short story “Good Old Neon,” a writer named “David Wallace” enters to give advice to the advertising executive:
You think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t? It’s called free will, Sherlock.
Wallace knew that the question of authenticity is an intellectual cul de sac and the striving for it an addiction. (As such, his immersion in AA makes sense not only for dealing with his substance abuse but as a means to supplant the constant feedback loops endemic of postmodern thinking with the tried and true dictums of sobriety.) Tortured savant or insufferable fraud, his greatness was in his articulation of the poverty of such distinctions, and the need to move past them.