Candid Camera

It’s hard to ask anybody to spend nearly more than five minutes at a stretch consuming something online, I know, but the 84-minute interview with David Foster Wallace from 2003 (h/t Steve Rhodes) is worth the while. Speaking with an interviewer for a German television program, Wallace provides something of a pocket history of some of the major themes of his writing—mass media, addiction, politics, tennis, and the role of the author. If you bypassed Infinite Summer, this isn’t a bad cheat sheet.

Wallace discusses his frustration with reading his own words aloud (“it’s not supposed to live on the breath”), depression (“there’s a lot of narcissism in self-hatred”); and the paradox of having to make an indictment of mass culture that’s appealing to an audience (“making the attack on entertainment entertaining”). He also delivers a sugar-coated swipe at the PA who said that he was moving around too much while he was “pon-tif-i-cat-ing.” Part of what makes the interview so compelling is that the camera is locked onto Wallace’s face the whole time—there are no cutaways, so you get to watching him work on getting his sentences out. Wallace is by no means inarticulate, but he’s often sputtery and frustrated, working harder than most writers to organize a complex line of thought into clear paragraphs. He talks like he writes. More to the point, he talks like somebody who revises over and over as he writes.

And as he struggles to do that, he ends up embracing the very aspect of television he spends so much time criticizing. Numerous times he tells the faceless interviewer something like, “You’ll fix this, right?” or “Figure out some way to edit this so it’ll make sense.” I don’t know what the final product for broadcast was, or if there was one. But though an edited version of the interview may have been an excellent vision of something, only the raw footage could be an excellent vision of how Wallace thought.

Editing changes everything, a notion that crops up as an important point in Richard Powers‘ upcoming novel, Generosity: An Enhancement (a book I’ll likely be coming back to a lot in the coming months). At the center of the story is a woman named Thassadit Amzwar, an Algerian woman living in Chicago who seems to possess the “happiness gene”; among the others threaded through the tale is Tonia Schiff, the host of a prominent TV science program, which inevitably targets Amzwar. The entire book is a consideration of what makes a story, and though the scene below, set in the show’s editing bay, doesn’t give away the plot, it does underscore what Powers (America’s most Wallace-ian living writer) felt about Wallace’s concerns on camera:

By the time the scene with Thassadit Amzwar unfolded, Tonia felt ill. All the clips of the manhandled, displaced Berber had been edited to eliminate any cloud or edge. The woman’s increasingly tumbled landscape had been cropped to just the smooth vistas. “This isn’t right,” Schiff said, without turning around. “We’re not doing justice to her. We have to use some of the rockier stuff, too.”

“We’re trying to tell a story here,” Garrett said.

“A story? You mean a fib?”

One response to “Candid Camera

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this interview; it was an interesting and worthwhile watch (even at more than an hour!).

    It is, at times, frustrating to watch an interview with Wallace. He at once seems to acutely aware of the format and yet simultaneously misses the point entirely.

    When the interview asks a political question, Wallace insists that he is not a “political thinker.” But, as a reader of Wallace, I am not interested in what an informed political thinker would say about American politics–I want to know what David Foster Wallace thinks about politics (and he is very complimentary to his readers here; perhaps too complimentary; I am doubtful that most of DFW’s readers are as smart as he was).

    By turns fascinating and frustrating, DFW both insists that only through a conversation (not an interview, not a Q&A) can real answers be arrived at, real knowledge achieved; and yet at every turn that very conversation seems thwarted.

    Thanks for sharing this great link.

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