David Foster Wallace on Life, Literature, and Writing

I’ve been reading Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, a book that amounts to a running transcript of David Lipsky’s five days with Wallace back in the mid-1990s during a book tour for Wallace’s then recently released Infinite Jest.  I’ve not read anything by Wallace leading up to this, but I had been drawn to his personality by the numerous mentions of Wallace I’d come across over the last year or so.  I’ve not been disappointed.  It has been an odd thing to feel a deep sadness for the loss of a person you’ve never met, or, in a certain sense, only just met, overheard really.  Reading this record of Lipsky’s time with Wallace, you feel as though you were eavesdropping, and the conversation is so engaging that you can’t quite walk away.  Wallace thus far comes across as a remarkably sensitive, intelligent, and kind individual with genuine insight into what it feels like to be alive.

I wanted to excerpt a passage or two that I thought spoke to some of the issues that I’ve written about here, particularly the sense of being overwhelmed by stimulation and distraction or the fractured, alienated feel of contemporary life.  Remember as you read the selections that this is a transcript of a conversation and so it will not have the polish of prose.  But it makes up for the lack of polish with a certain immediacy and affect that I thought was compelling.

We pick up Wallace discussing traditional narrative with Lipsky.  Lipsky has suggested that literature in the mold of Leo Tolstoy does the best job of capturing the reality of life.  Wallace disagrees:

And I don’t know about you.  I just — stuff that’s like that, I enjoy reading, but it doesn’t feel true at all.  I read it as a relief from what’s true.  I read it as a relief from the fact that, I received five hundred thousand discrete bits of information today, of which maybe twenty-five are important.  And how am I going to sort those out, you know?

Lipsky is not sold, he remarks that he is more taken by the continuity of life, rather than the discontinuity.  Wallace continues:

Huh.  Well you and I just disagree.  Maybe the world just feels differently to us.  This is all going back to something that isn’t really clear:  that avant-garde stuff is hard to read.  I’m not defending it, I’m saying that stuff — this is gonna get very abstract — but there’s a certain set of magical stuff that fiction can do for us.  There’s maybe thirteen things, of which who even knows which ones we can talk about.  But one of them has to do with the sense of, the sense of capturing, capturing what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell “Another sensibility like mine exists.”  Something else feels this way to someone else.  So that the reader feels less lonely.

There’s really really shitty avant-garde, that’s coy and hard for its own sake.  That I don’t think it’s a big accident that a lot of what, if you look at the history of fiction — sort of, like, if you look at the history of painting after the development of the photography — that the history of fiction represents this continuing struggle to allow fiction to continue to do that magical stuff.  As the texture, as the cognitive texture, of our lives changes.  And as, um, as the different media by which our lives are represented change.  And it’s the avant-garde or experimental stuff that has the chance to move the stuff along.  And that’s what’s precious about it.

And the reason why I’m angry at how shitty most of it is, and how much it ignores the reader, is that I think it’s very very very very precious.  Because it’s the stuff that’s about what it feels like to live.  Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.

That struck me as a rather astute analysis of the power of literature and the potential (and pitfalls) of the avant-garde.  I was especially struck by his contrast between traditional narrative in Tolstoy’s mold which Wallace experiences as a relief from what it feels like to live, and disjointed, discontinuous contemporary literature that reflects what it feels like to live.

Wallace goes on to describe once again the feel of life that contemporary fiction should attempt to capture.  Keep in mind that although this dialog feels fresh and contemporary it is over 15 years old and was spoken at the dawn of the Internet age.

… I think a lot of people feel — not overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do.  But overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete, different things that come at them.  And the number of small … that since they’re part of numerous systems, the number of small insistent tugs on them, from a number of different systems and directions.  Whether that’s qualitatively different than the way life was for let’s say our parents or our grandparents, I’m not sure.  But I sorta think so.  At least in some way — in terms of the way it feels on your nerve endings.

Finally, here is a brief comment on the privilege and responsibility of the writer which gives us a sense of Wallace’s striking confidence in and respect for the reader:

What writers have is a license and also the freedom to sit — to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves be excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level.  And that if the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is.  Is to wake the reader up to stuff that the reader’s been aware of all the time.

3 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace on Life, Literature, and Writing

  1. I don’t have any sort of substantive response to, but this post has made me want to read some of Wallace’s fiction. In a theory course I took last semester, one of my colleagues was writing an essay about one of Wallace’s books, arguing that his writing style was on the cutting edge in the transition between postmodernism and the as-yet unsatisfactorily-named post-postmodernism. Because his books are ironic, playful, and definitely bleak, but through all that irony and bleakness, my colleague was arguing that a sort of tenacious hope and belief in people shone through.

    1. You know that pretty much sums up all that I’ve read about him thus far. It even resonates with some of what Wallace says about his writing to Lipsky. I’m thinking of tackling Infinite Jest or Pale King in the summer, we’ll see. But that last sentence of yours nicely encapsulates the impression I’ve gotten so far.

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