Conversations with David Foster Wallace

This was, for me, a great collection of interviews conducted with David Foster Wallace over the course of his life/career.  I’m sure everyone is sick of hearing me talk about him.  But I don’t really care.  Because what’s not to love in someone who would say:

My family communicates almost entirely in terms of jokes.  Basically all we do is tell jokes , which gets kind of weird.  I think it’s a lot of fun when you’re growing up, but when you’re a grownup and you try to talk about something serious, you realize it’s kind of a slimy way to approach things…it’s hard to try to capture anything that’s real, it’s hard to try to figure out which family experiences are universal and which are idiosyncratic.

This describes my family dynamic pretty well too.  And while it felt very close and intimate and fun when I was younger, it is strained and awkward seeming now that we have all entered adulthood.  The jokes are still there, and we go through the motions, but something is different and uncomfortable.  Probably forever.

Wallace also talks about the self-consciousness/self-centerdness of writing.  And the constant worry about effect on an audience.  Always wondering if you are being too subtle or not subtle enough?  Even just as an amateur writer, or blogger, I go through this.  I think we all do.

Of reading, writing, and loneliness he said:

But there are a few books I have read that I’ve never been the same after, and I think all good writing somehow addresses the concern of and acts as an anodyne for loneliness.  We’re all terribly, terribly lonely.  And there’s a way, at least in prose fiction, that can allow you to be intimate with the world and with a mind and with characters that you just can’t be in the real world.  I don’t know what you’re thinking.  I don’t know that much about you as I don’t know that much about my parents or my lover or my sister, but a piece of fiction that’s really true allows you to be intimate with…I don’t want to say people, but it allows you to be intimate with a world that resembles our own in enough emotional particulars so that the way different things must feel is carried out with us into the real world.

And later:

There is this existential loneliness in the real world.  I don’t know what you’re thinking or what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me.  In fiction I think we can leap over that wall itself in a certain way.  But that’s just the first level, because the idea of mental or emotional intimacy with a character is a delusion or a contrivance that’s set up through art by the writer.  There’s another level that a piece of fiction is a conversation.  There’s a relationship set up between the reader and the writer that’s very strange and very complicated and hard to talk about.  A really great piece of fiction for me may or may not take me away and make me forget that I’m sitting in a chair…but it doesn’t make me feel less lonely.

Life I find terribly lonely.  And I rarely feel more alone than when I am writing.  It is a very vulnerable experience.  You bare your soul, not knowing if anyone will “get” or like anything you are saying, or if anyone will even read it at all.

Reading I also find terribly lonely.  Especially reading DFW.  I don’t know if I feel his loneliness, realize very few think and feel the way he does, and by extension I do, or if it is something else entirely.

He also uses terms like “bildungsroman” (from German and Roman, meaning “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character”) in a completely casual, almost passing way.  Not many people can pull that off.

Of “irony” in contemporary literature he writes:

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.


Today’s irony simply masks terror of appearing sentimental or melodramatic or manipulative in all those old-fashioned ways…while pretending that in itself the irony is not manipulative.

Also speaking of more contemporary writing, but too just about writing in general:

Writing’s kind of like exhibitionism in private.  And there’s also a strange loneliness, and a desire to have some kind of conversation with people, but not a real great ability to do it in person.

Sometimes I get very jealous of the fact that I don’t get to be a college professor.  Or at least I think I do.  Until I read about what people like Wallace say of college student writing, describing it as “expressive,” and how he needs to constantly remind them that, while they think any thought they have is considered good and valid, you have to convince them that just because it’s their opinion doesn’t necessarily mean it’s interesting or that anyone wants to read it.  Communicative writing is better.

About Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: “Some friends who’ve read the thing have come back and said ‘Man, there has got to be a part of you that’s a pretty serious misogynist because you do misogyny pretty well.’  I don’t know what to tell them.  If you do a convincing thing about a serial killer, does that mean you have murder in your heart?  Well, maybe, I guess…More than the average person? I don’t know.”  I loved this.  So true.  If everything I wrote indicated some propensity in me, that would be a disturbing prospect indeed.

Of money he stated: “[I]t’s very difficult to think that the point of life is to double your salary so that you can go to the mall more often.  Even when you’re making fun and sneering at it, there’s a real dark emptiness about it.”  Yo!

And just for the fun of it: “Not suffering fools gladly is a euphemism for being hostile and snapping at people, and I can’t remember ever having done that.”

One of my favorite Wallace lines of all time: “I think people write the way their brain voices sound to them.”  I think so too.

Sadly, one place where I identify with Wallace most is in his thoughts/writing on boredom:

I think that in a country where we have it as easy as we do, one of our big dread vectors is boredom.  I think little edges of despair and soul-level boredom appear in things like homework or particularly dry classroom stuff.

He discusses this more in depth in his fiction piece The Pale King.  One of my favorite books of all time, though possibly the bleakest big picture look at career I have ever seen.  Boredom is a hugely important problem.

In one of the interviews he was joined by a man named Goldfarb, who frighteningly exclaimed: “[E]arlier this week we did an hour on the marketing fact that only 44 percent of men read fiction.  That to me was kind of astonishing because I figured everybody was reading at least detective novels, but apparently men aren’t reading fiction at all.”  Scary stuff.

To the philosopher in you: “[T]here really is no meaningful reality outside language…The stuff is incredibly abstract and abstruse, partly because it’s dealing with the paradox that we’re attempting to talk metaphysically about language using nothing but language, which sets up certain paradoxes that your readers may not find all that interesting but are really, really kind of tough.”

And I could relate to: “For myself, as I get older and see myself more clearly (at least I think I do), I have come to accept that there are certain things I do quite well and others I don’t do well…and still other things that it would be absurd for me to try.”  For example, using antiquated, ornate English like Cormac McCarthy does.  Don’t even attempt it.  You will come off looking like a pretentious idiot.  Trust me.

Describing the worst period he had ever gone through, “It may have been what in the old days was called a spiritual crisis…It was just feeling as though every axiom of your life turned out to be false.  And there was nothing, and you were nothing–it was all delusion.  But you were better than everyone else because you saw that it was a delusion, and yet you were worse because you couldn’t function.”

His friend and fellow writer Jonathan Franzen claimed Wallace felt he had no authentic self.  Rather, he was just quick enough to construct a pleasing self for whomever he was talking to.  Franzen says he wasn’t just being funny with this claim either–there was something genuinely compromised about him.  Franzen deemed Wallace more self-conscious than he [Franzen] was.  And you get the impression this was really saying something.

Finally, of the fine lines between shyness, self-consciousness, and arrogance: “I think being shy basically means being self-absorbed to the point that it makes it difficult to be around other people.  For instance, if I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell whether I like you or not because I’m too worried about whether you like me.”  I am like this too.  I am at once pleased and disturbed by how much I feel I have in common with David Foster Wallace.


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