Category Archives: David Foster Wallace

Links: Move it to the Exits

Now it can be told: The inspiration for the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” chapter in Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad (i.e., the PowerPoint chapter) was Semisonic’s “Closing Time.”

Speaking of: Trying to write a novel and raise a kid simultaneously? Jennifer Egan and Darin Strauss are here to help. (Well, in Manhattan to help. For one evening, on September 14.)

Alyson Hagy considers the appealing strangeness of Sherwood Anderson‘s “Paper Pills.” (Winesburg, Ohio was a series of “grotesques,” after all.)

Alice Walker keeps (or at least once kept) a pile of leaves by her writing desk: “She rustles them when she does her writing, because it makes her feel closer to nature as she works.”

When Hawthorne met Melville.

Oscar Hijuelos on inserting himself as a character in his most recent novel, Beautiful Maria of My Soul.

Ron Currie Jr. on reading Infinite Jest: “By the time I’d finished, my copy was a mess of grass clippings, sweat drips, and smears of axle grease and 50:1 gas/oil mix.”

The quintessential Jamesian sentence.

“I think that Shteyngart is part of a whole sweeping movement of young Jewish writers who are bringing a new multicultural picture to American Jewish fiction.”

Ben Fountain remembers the Dallas poet Robert Trammell.

Detailed writing advice from Maxwell Perkins (to be portrayed by Sean Penn on film at some future date) to Ernest Hemingway: “I’m glad you’re going to write some stories. All you have to do is to follow your own judgement, or instinct + disregard what is said, + convey the absolute bottom quality of each person, situation + thing. Isn’t that simple!!

Reading About a Writer Like a Writer

In a funny, thoughtful piece for the Smart Set, Nick Mamatas considers his obsession with literary biographies, and how he uses them as a benchmark for his own successes and failures as a writer. “Did Nathanael West only make $780 in royalties?” he writes. “Gee, me too. And if Lovecraft got a penny and a half per word out of Weird Tales, I managed five cents a word from that same magazine only 77 years later.” The piece isn’t just an exercise in self-deprecation, though: He uncovers a handful of common themes among the biographies he’s read, including alcoholism (of course), involvement in the Communist Party, and financial struggle.*

Mamatas is slightly less enchanted with writers’ memoirs, though that’s mainly because he seems to have lousy luck in choosing them: If Gay Talese and Larry McMurtry have trouble staying on point, there are plenty of other writers who are less prone to ramble. In the past few months I’ve enjoyed biographies of Raymond Carver, Evelyn Waugh, Pearl S. Buck, Richard Wright, and Nathanael West and Eileen Kenney (that last one would be Marion Meade‘s Lonelyhearts, which has taken a bit of a beating from critics, somewhat unfairly I think). But I don’t share Mamatas’ obsession with them, partly for the reasons he lays out: Those common themes can be so easily categorized because the books often feel like they’re more about those outside forces than the writer under discussion. Lonelyhearts is about the Great Depression, and how one might live well during it; Carver’s biography is about alcoholism and the vicissitudes of the publishing industry in the 70s and 80s; Buck’s is about Americans’ willful ignorance about China; Waugh’s is about the last gasp of Victorianism among its wealthy, freewheeling, homophobic classes. All worthy subjects, but they often obscure the more essential question of how the writer felt about being a writer.

That’s part of the appeal of David Lipsky‘s transcription of his 1996 road trip with David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: It’s as close as we’ll ever come to a memoir from Wallace. But because he’s so careful about how his words might be manipulated into a glowing or critical profile, he talks himself into a sincerity he might not have come by if he was free to manipulate the words on a computer. As Wallace tells Lipsky, “I got a serious investment in having a certain amount of detachment from this.” He’s stage-managing his persona, but to the end of avoiding hagiography or tragic narrative.

Of course, biographers can quote heavily from writers talking about their own writing. But they can’t capture the author’s feelings of fear, excitement, and desperation in a way that echoes the writer’s own work. Whoever winds up writing Paul Auster‘s biography will quote heavily from his memoir, Hand to Mouth, but nothing will conjure up Auster’s absurd anxiety about selling his first book quite like the book itself. Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking isn’t strictly a memoir of her life as a writer, but it has plenty of moments that show the precision with which she approached it. Going over the first article she wrote after her husband’s death, “I was startled and unsettled by how many mistakes I had made: simple errors of transcription, names and dates wrong…. Would I ever be right again? Could I ever again trust myself not to be wrong?”

The book doesn’t have to be a memoir, strictly speaking, to show something of the author. The charm of Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer has as much to do with her personal remembrances as her close readings of stories and novels. On the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded, Prose suffered a long wait at a bus station, followed by a tedious bus ride. But then she sank into the copy of Anton Chekhov‘s stories she brought along:

I never had to read more than a page or two before I began to think that maybe things weren’t so bad. The stories were not only profound and beautiful, but also involving, so that I would finish one and find myself, miraculously, a half hour or so closer to home. And yet there was more than the distraction, the time so painlessly and pleasantly spent. A sense of comfort came over me, as if in those thirty minutes I myself had been taken up in a spaceship and shown the whole world, a world full of sorrows, both different and very much like my own and aslo a world full of promise. It was if I had been permitted to share an intelligence large enough to embrace bus drivers and bus station junkies, a vision so piercing it would have kept seeing those astronauts long after that fiery plume disappeared from the screen.

Passages like that make me think that not only is a biography of Prose unnecessary, but that Prose herself needn’t write a formal memoir. Sometimes the only thing we’re really hunting for when we read about writers is what it’s like to be consumed in the business of reading and writing—the moment when all those allegedly important outside forces are pushed out. Those are the only moments when Prose thinks a writer is interesting, and she can convince you that she’s right.

* Mamatas’ piece also mentions Harry Mark Petrakis, who represents one of the more embarrassing gaps in my reading. Like me, he was raised in the Chicago area and is a Greek-American; moreover, as a kid, my parents’ bookshelves were stuffed with copies of Petrakis’ books. I never cracked the spines of a single one of them. Growing up, you never care about the things your parents care about.

Q&A: David Lipsky

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace follows Wallace in conversation for five days with novelist and journalist David Lipsky, who was assigned to profile the Infinite Jest author at the height of the mania over the book. The piece never ran and the interview was shelved, though parts of it would emerge in a feature Lipsky wrote on Wallace for Rolling Stone in October 2008, shortly after his suicide.

There are plenty of reminders online of Wallace’s quick wit, his willingness to interrogate just about anything for its intellectual value, and his habit of turning questions back on an interviewer to calibrate his own responses. Although of Course is especially intimate, though, a function of the fact that Wallace and Lipsky are captive to each other in ways few interviewers and subjects are, sharing cars, restaurant booths, and planes. (Nobody has more fun flipping through a SkyMall catalog than Wallace.) It’s a fascinating, busy book that says a lot about where a famous novelist was at in 1996, and a lot too about where he thought art and culture were going—predictions that could be surprisingly spot-on. (Disclaimer: I think I come by my admiration for the book honestly, but Lipsky and I have had enough friendly exchanges that my recommendation isn’t entirely unbiased; I’d decline an assignment to review the book.)

Lipsky answered questions via email about his experience with Wallace, what got left out of the book, and how he felt looking back at a 14-year-old conversation.

The book’s title comes from a statement Wallace makes about parenting—the notion that children develop their own personalities regardless of how much direction they get from their parents. What appealed to you about that line so much that you used it as a title?

First, as parenting advice, it’s sharp and an energy-saver: kids will become who they’re going to become. Second, it felt like advice from David to the reader: you’ll have to deal, at a certain point, with who you do become. Last, I hope the book is a way for readers to spend time with David, hear him tell the story of how he became David Foster Wallace. In a sense literally. Growing up, he was David Wallace. Then, at 24, he was standing in an agent’s office. “And that’s when Fred decided my name would be ‘David Foster Wallace,’” he says. “Because ‘David Raines Wallace’ wrote for The New Yorker.”

So when I read it, that line seemed beautiful and very apt and like the title. This is his life in David’s words—from being a kid (“I have all these weird early memories. I remember my parents reading Ulysses out loud to each other in bed, in this really cool way, holding hands and both loving something really fiercely”) to how he turned into the person who wrote the books: the essays, stories, Infinite Jest. What I love most is it’s also the sound—David calls this the “brain voice”—of his books: warm, incredibly alive, modest and funny about himself. “I didn’t know whether I really loved to write or whether I’d just gotten excited about having some early success,” David says. “It’s the only thing I’ve gotten, you know, food pellets from the universe for, to the extent that I wanted.” Infinite Jest was different. Other books, he’d engaged in some preemptive expectation-rigging: “Doing this, ‘All right, I’ll work at like three-quarter speed, and then I can always figure that if I just hadn’t been a fuckup, the book coulda been really good.’ You know that defense system? You write the night before, and if it doesn’t get a great grade, you know it could’ve been better.” The novel he went full-out. “I decided this is a little experiment. I was going to do it for the sake of the book. Fuck it. If I couldn’t even sell it, fuck it. . . And I feel like I’ve built some muscles inside me that I can now use for the rest of my life. And I feel like, ‘All right, I’m a writer now.’ Whether I’m a successful writer or not, I don’t know. But like this is who I am, this is what I do.”

The conversation in the book occasionally dissolves into ellipses and bracketed summaries. Why didn’t the material you trimmed/paraphrased quite rise to the level of full inclusion?

I scissored some of my dialog—stuff I squinted at as a reader, thinking what I’d want, which is: more from David.

In the book, we take a five-day trip as he finishes promoting his novel. (He’s been “sleepwalking through” the tour; he’s edgy about the impressions cycling back via delayed reaction. “There’s a difference between short-term, people-based anxiety. And sort of deep, existential, you know, fear, that you feel kind of all the way down to your butthole. And that’s…that’s what I’ll have when I’m alone.”)

We head to Chicago, Minneapolis, back to his house and his dogs. And spend the whole time talking—an incredible thing to be part of. David is such a natural writer he talks in prose: spitting chewing tobacco, finding the defrost, smoking with the car windows down (he calls it our hypothermia smoking tour of the Midwest), and what keeps coming out is prose. I wanted the book to give readers that experience, without me (David #2) getting too much in the way. So when a question of mine ran long, or I have a complicated point to make, I thought I’d spare readers the length and complication.

I’m there, mostly, to be the anti-nutritionist who orders a burger deluxe at the airport restaurant very early, so David can lift his eyebrows and say, “I’m not even going to start on the idea of eating a hamburger at 7:00 in the morning. The idea is you eat eggs, which are kind of a latent form, as your body is itself awakening. It makes a lot of sense. Because you are the food, and you’re supposed to eat stuff that’s nice to you.” To be the surprised and woozy guest in the kitchen—he talked very late the night before—as David speaks to his dogs about vitamins. “We’re going to give him some right now, because it looks like he’s starting to feel a little poorly.” “You give vitamins to your dogs?” “No, you. You can’t burn the candle at both ends, man. You’re not getting enough sleep, you’re not eating right, working too hard. On the go.”

(David, in addition to being a gracious, vitamin-providing host, is comically and charmingly self-conscious: “I’m just worried I’m going to look like one of those insane old women who talk to their dogs.”)

You decided to interject a fair amount of personal commentary, noting your observations about Wallace’s conversational tics, his tone, and especially your sense of how he’s trying to persuade your feelings toward him. Did you struggle with how much of that to include? I’m sure there are plenty of Wallace fans who would’ve just preferred the unadulterated text, and a more complete transcription.

I did struggle—I basically wanted just enough so there’d be scene-setting (we’re in his living room, we’re at the mall) and sound-setting (there’s ice under the wipers, here’s how David’s voice sounds), but not so much the action gets obstructed. I wanted it to feel immediate. This is pretty much everything David talked about for five days.

There are two or three spots where he asked me not to tape. The writing class he teaches (where he gives students two pieces of advice; one deadpan, “To have the narrator be funny and smart, have him say funny, smart things some of the time,” one absolutely solid: “What’s interesting to me may not be to you”); his friend’s house, where we watch TV. One great demonstration David’s work makes is the power of directness: asking yourself why you feel what you do, then saying it. With his friends, we watch a movie that stars a person David knew and disliked in college. One friend asks why. “He was just very cool and popular,” David says, “and I wasn’t, was the basic offense. To be honest.” (It’s like the thing Fitzgerald says—Fitzgerald is writing about himself in the third person—about his surprise at finding a wide readership “simply for telling people that he felt as they did.”) And then I took notes when David does an NPR appearance. He’s walking past the soundboard, the NPR guy says, “Were going to record digitally. I hope that’s OK.” David says, “So only yes and no answers?” It kind of stopped my breath; he was so amazingly fast.

During your (I believe) second morning with Wallace we read about you getting a bit of guidance from Rolling Stone HQ to bring up talk about his past use of drugs and alcohol, but overall the conversation seems pretty free-flowing. Did you have much in the way of marching orders from the magazine, specific questions that you needed to address? (I ask in part because the conversation you two have about contemporary music is a rare moment where the discussion feels a little stiff and dutiful.)

You’re right, that’s the second morning, and it became a rough conversation. I’ll just dispute one thing, because the music talk has one of my favorite moments. David’s talking about radio—and suddenly it becomes this brilliant spoken mini-essay about pop. Living in downstate Illinois, he says, you’re stuck listening to a lot of country music. “Because that’s like pretty much all there is, when you’re tired of listening to Green Day on the one college station. And these country musics that are just so—you know, ‘Baby since you’ve left I can’t live, I’m drinking all the time.’ And I remember just being real impatient with it. Until I’d been living here about a year. And all of a sudden I realized, what if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing to is themselves, or to God, you know? ‘Since you’ve left I’m so empty I can’t live, my life has no meaning.’ That in a weird way, they’re incredibly existentialist songs. That have the patina of the absent, of the romantic shit on it, just to make it salable. . . But that if you cock your ear and listen real close—that it’s deep, you know?. . . That we find, that art finds a way to take care of you, and take part. Kind of despite itself.”

So you’re right, there wasn’t much from-New York direction. I wanted to talk about what he wanted to talk about. I also knew I wanted to ask about music and movies—because he was a writer I really loved, and it’s hard to imagine writers you love ducking the same bad songs or being thrilled by the same crap TV as you. He told me he’d loved some songs so much he taped them off the radio—a sly little economy from the pre-digital age I’d forgotten. And he was very funny about music (“I have the musical tastes of a thirteen year-old girl… I am a bonehead who listens to the radio”) and sharp about movies (“Tarantino is such a schmuck 90 percent of the time, but ten percent of the time, I’ve seen genius shining off the guy”), even about a pop star like Alanis Morissette: “She’s pretty, but she’s pretty in a sloppy, very human way. A lot of women in magazines are pretty in a way that isn’t erotic because they don’t look like anybody you know. You can’t imagine them putting a quarter in a parking meter or eating a bologna sandwich.”

And then the music talk led to this ministerial surprise. “The Alanis Morissette obsession followed the Melanie Griffith obsession. It was preceded by something that I will tell you that I got teased a lot for, which was a terrible Margaret Thatcher obsession. All through college: posters of Margaret Thatcher, and ruminations on Margaret Thatcher.” I asked if it was sexual. “Sensuous, perhaps. It more involved—having tea with Margaret Thatcher. Having her really enjoy something I said, lean forward, and cover my hand with hers.” It was such an extraordinary conversation I was happy to follow anyplace he wanted to go.

Wallace seems very anxious about the interview early on, stepping out of himself regularly to analyze how his statements will appear in the magazine. (Disturbingly, he seems to have a nervous tic where he casually makes statements along the line of, “If I had to do this, I’d blow my brains out.”) He seems more relaxed with you by the end, but he’s still referring to how his statements will play in the magazine. What was your sense of his changing comfort levels as the days went on?

That was my sense of it too. It was nice, once the book was over, to read it and see us get more used to each other. It’s a tricky thing, touring for five days with a stranger. The book more or less follows a Henry Ford road trip equation: any two people will become comfortable with each other if they have to travel a distance in excess of forty miles.

In the beginning, I think he was sizing me up. We’re having gigantic slabs of pizza, he looks under the table where I’m jiggling my leg: “You’re a nervous fellow, aren’t you?” And he was shy. “I think being shy,” he says, “basically means being self-absorbed to the extent 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. And I have elements of that shyness in me.”

But the first day, there’s a lot of arguing. He looks at me right before we finish up and says, “I don’t know whether you’re a very nice man or not.” Not the easiest thing to hear from someone you admire.

We didn’t get the “virtual reality pornography” that Wallace predicted we’d now have, but he makes some very observant statements about what role of the Internet would play, particularly in how it would become more adept at guiding us toward curated content, advertising, etc. In 1996, how sensible did his patter on that subject seem? Did he come off to you as insightful? Cynical?

You’re right, we didn’t get the first-person raunch stuff (David worries that when it arrives, “I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna to have to leave the planet”). But things like YouPorn are close—free porn piped into every internet home 24 hours a day, so now you have support groups for people who have the clammy misfortune of becoming addicted to that.

Reading the book, I’m shocked at how much he guesses right. He got our current politics right. He guessed how broadcast would fold itself into digital cable and then slip into on-demand and the web. And emailing or texting where everybody used to pick up the phone, because a text is so much more limited and easier to control. There’s a food delivery service where I live in New York called Seamless. If it feels slightly too rocky to place a call for take-out, this lets you handle the entire transaction by keyboard: you don’t have to interact with another human until the warm bag arrives at your door. David saw that coming too: “What has happened that I’m now willing—and I do this too—that I’m willing to derive enormous amounts of my sense of community and awareness of other people, from television? But I’m not willing to undergo the stress and awkwardness and potential shit of dealing with real people. And that as the internet grows, and as our ability to be linked up. . . Like, at a certain point, we’re gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology is just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money.”

(At the time, he didn’t have email in his house. “If I can get out,” he says, “they can get in.”)

And he was very optimistic about the reading future; he knew books would need to change. “You’re talking about nobody will be trained to read the way we read. Which means that if people are reading in more short bursts or whatever, that art will find a way to form conversations with readers in the brain voice or vernacular that they’ve got. But I mean—Jesus, if the thing made the jump from oral, you know, jongleur ballad, to printed text, then I think it can…There’s stuff that really good fiction can do that other forms of art can’t do as well. And the big things seems to be, sort of leaping over that wall of self. And the trick is gonna be finding a way to do it at a time, and for a generation, whose relation to long sustained linear verbal communication is fundamentally different.”

And as you said, he guessed exactly right about the web—about aggregators like Huffington Post, about the really best web things getting collected and bumped to the top of the queue. “Because this idea that the Internet’s gonna become incredibly democratic? I mean, if you’ve spent any time on the web, you know that it’s not gonna be, because that’s completely overwhelming. There are four trillion bits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide. So it’s very clearly, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers. You know? Or, what do you call them, Wells, or various nexes. Not just of interest but of quality. And then things get real interesting. And we will beg for those things to be there. . .I tell you, there’s no single more interesting time to be alive on the planet Earth than in the next twenty years.”

As the days go on, Wallace gets much more comfortable shutting off your tape recorder and going off the record. Without disclosing what exactly was discussed, were there differences in the tenor of those conversations? Is off-the-record Wallace substantially different than witty, hyperobservant on-the-record Wallace?

Mostly when he’s turning the recorder off, it’s because he wants to stop and draft out an answer. It’s also the way he says he worked. “I do six to eight drafts of everything that I do. I am probably not the smartest writer going. But I work really really hard.” He’d pause and say, “I gotta be clear on this.” So we’d talk, the thought and phrasing would come to him, he’d switch the machine back on. It was fascinating and exciting – like getting to watch him at the desk.

So no. It’d maybe be a relief (we’ve all got our internal anxieties, and nobody completely minds when the best quarterback slips) to say differently. I don’t think there was very much he could do about being witty and hyperobservant.

The climax of the book, for me, seems to come about two-thirds of the way through, when Wallace shuts off the tape recorder and asks you to stop talking—at a moment when you’re calling him on affecting a persona for the sake of the interview. (Even though he’d just confessed he was doing some of that.) It’s the only point when there appears to be a pointed silence between the two of you, and that he was actually mad at you. Can you characterize some of the discomfort there? Did it change the tenor of the rest of the interview?

It was a terrible moment; it’s the place in the book where I like myself least. David handled it very graciously.

That moment finishes something you mentioned earlier—the discussion about David trying to manage his listeners’ impressions. “Part of the shyness for me,” he says, “is it’s very easy for me to play this game of, What do you want? What will the effect of this be on you? You know? It’s this kind of mental chess. Which in personal intercourse? Makes things very difficult. But in writing…” We’re on the highway, and he’s decided to explain why he does that—and, to show I’m keeping up, I point out that he’s still doing it. I think him just switching off the machine was right, the most eloquent thing. So for the last half-hour of the trip, we just sat in the dark, mumble-singing to the radio. It felt hot and bad. On top of everything else, he’d been so kind. (“My spare blanket is your spare blanket,” he says, “my Pop-tart es su Pop-tart.”) Years later, I can remember the exact feeling—that smarting, why fullness in the chest—plus a surprise at my ungenerosity. When I read it, I wanted to lodge a protest against myself.

Then we parked at his house, walked his dogs, and I think David put it out of his mind. The next, last day is when he tells me how he worked, about the tiny, snowed-in house in Syracuse (“when I would want to write, I would have to put all the stuff from the desk on the bed. And when I would want to sleep…”), the great story about the Auburndale health club, the lovely thing on the back of the book about how people ought to treat each other and themselves. Which is part of what I mean about his level of kindness.

How did you react to some of the other interviews with Wallace that made the rounds after you had to abandon your piece? I’m specifically curious what you thought of the New York Times Magazine profile, which seemed to take a lot of what you and Wallace discussed but shaped Wallace into a caricature.

I don’t know—David says he feels he’s hard to interview. So I’m sure the writer of that piece did the best job he could with the material he had. I also think that profile gives a good idea of the shock of David: when his novel came out, all over the city, everyone was talking about him. And New York, in a way, prefers being an exporter to an importer of culture—and David had crashed in from outside, from the Midwest, which compounded the impact. I think what the piece shows is the city getting used to him.

What I’ve responded to more is stuff since David died. It’s in the opening of the book. Suicide has an event gravity; eventually everybody’s impressions get tugged in its direction. It’s such a hard end it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. The way I understand his last year and a half is as a medical error. (At the last meeting of his fiction class, he choked up. Students assumed he was joking. “Go ahead and laugh—here I am crying—but I really am going to miss all of you.”) I talked with David’s friends and family, and he was about the liveliest person they’d ever known. He was the voice you hear in the books—as brilliant, teasing, charming and kind a person as you could imagine. When the writer Mary Karr talks about him, he has the sound of a man on an information safari. “Data went into his mind, and it would just shoot off sparks. Wildly funny, unbelievable wattage, such a massive interest in and curiosity about his place in the world…He was just constantly devouring the universe.” I wanted the book to have that—to be about what he was like when he was alive.

Links: Plain Dealing

“Let’s keep it simple and clear prose-wise shall we?”: How David Foster Wallace marked up one student’s paper.

A similar point by David Mamet, though in a different context: “IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.” (The aggressive use of all-caps suggests to me that Mamet might actually be on the side of the always-be-closing jerk in Glengarry Glen Ross.)

Jonathan Dee describes how reading the interviews published by his one-time employer, The Paris Review, helped him as a writer: “I really read them all, even though at that point many of them were with writers I had never heard of. That was hugely formative for me–I would really recommend that for anybody, not only because you find things in there that inspire you but because it gets across that there’s no one right way to do it. You see how varied are the forms of craziness that people bring to making a successful career out of fiction writing.”

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Levi Asher at David Shieldsreading in D.C. Tuesday night. (He is, in fact, the person who tipped me off to it.) He delivers his own assessment of the reading, along with a defense of Reality Hunger.

Not unrelated to Shields’ comments about the Internet and book length, Charlie Stross offers some insights into the reasons why books are as long as they are, and what the future might mean for the bulky novel. (via The Rumpus)

Brooks Peters revisits Hubert Creekmore‘s 1948 novel, The Welcome, a curious novel about homosexuality that dares not speak the name of its central theme.

Ta-Nehisi Coates offers his list of ten favorite books, which includes Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Junot Diaz‘s Drown. Funny kicker: “I really need to read some books about white people. My canon is culturally biased and reflects the perspective of sheltered African-American who is embarrassingly ignorant of the White Experience.”

The Clifton Fadiman Medal, which goes to an older work of fiction that merits more attention, has been awarded to Jamaica Kincaid‘s 1985 novel, Annie John.

Jim Shepard on writing outlines for stories, even if you don’t trust them: “That design is an illusion that I create for myself that allows me to keep going. Without it I’d be too terrified to continue. But I need to understand that the design is an illusion. I need to understand that in some rough way, there is going to be a pattern, but if that pattern remains unchanged, that’s evidence that the thing is dead.”

Earlier this month I spoke on a panel hosted by the National Book Critics Circle about the next ten years in book culture, though it quickly became a session on what the next ten years means for book reviewers. Video of that panel is now up; I can’t bear to watch, though HTMLGiant’s summary suggests my points got over well enough. What the video probably doesn’t capture is the sight of the audience collectively fishing for pens when I mentioned the Millions and the Rumpus. There’s work to do.

“Sad smelling”

After announcing yesterday that it had acquired the papers of David Foster Wallace, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin posted a few articles and images to give people a sense of what it has on its hands. It may be that only serious Wallace scholars give a damn about what words he circled in the dictionary, but his scribblings inside his books are fascinating, in part because they put your squinting ability to the test—he seemingly found a sweet spot between handwriting that was legible to himself but that few others could parse.

The jottings don’t appear to be anything serious—anybody who’s drawing vampire fangs on Cormac McCarthy‘s author photo is just goofing around before getting down to business, and it’s reassuring that Wallace puttered just like the rest of us schlubs. But it’s clear that he used the first couple of pages of his paperback copy of Rabbit, Run to work out his frustrations with John Updike. “Sad smelling,” he writes. On the next page, in capital letters: “RABBIT MOURNS HIMSELF.” It’s easy to think of these scribblings as early notes toward his 1997 essay on the “Great Male Narcissists”, in which he explored his love-hate relationship with Updike, writing, “[E]ven since Rabbit Is Rich—as his characters seemed to become more and more repellent, and without any corresponding indication that the author understood that they were repellent—I’ve continued to read Mr. Updike’s novels and to admire the sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose.”

Earlier this year Katie Roiphe used that essay to make an example of the post-Updike generation of novelists, who in her estimation have failed to appropriately write about penises or something—that Wallace’s attack on Updike’s narcissism was a kind of narcissism itself. But Wallace’s issue with Updike wasn’t so much with sex as with Updike’s seeming inability to recognize that his characters’ sexual obsessions could be flaws and not amusing traits; when Wallace saw a genuinely good writer behave this way, his synapses fried. He explained this a little more casually in an extended 1996 interview with David Lipsky, to be published next month as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace:

Updike, I think, has never had an unpublished thought. And that he’s got an ability to put it in very lapidary prose. But that Updike presents one with a compressed Internet problem, is there’s 80 percent absolute dreck, and 20 percent priceless stuff. And you just have to wade through so much purple gorgeous empty writing to get to anything that’s got any kind of heartbeat in it. Plus, I think he’s mentally ill.

You really do, don’t you?

Yeah, I think he’s a nasty person.

Links: Crisis Mode

Following this week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, the main spokesperson for the nation from the world of American literary fiction has been Edwidge Danticat, who’s spoken to the Wall Street Journal about the catastrophe and provided the paper with a brief primer on Haitian culture. A little surprisingly, I’d heard nothing from fiction writer Ben Fountain, who famously visited the country more than 30 times while researching his excellent short-story collection, Brief Conversations With Che Guevara. But Texas Lawyer caught up with him:

I expect that recovery will be long, difficult, expensive and complex. It may well be that the country never recovers in this generation. On the other hand, I think there’s a possibility, however hard it may be to focus on at this point, that the earthquake provides the impetus for a sustained, concerted and well-planned effort by the international community to help Haiti overcome its problems. In any event, Haiti certainly won’t be the same country that it was on Jan. 10.

My new favorite litblog: Years of BASS, in which a Virginia researcher makes his way through the Best American Short Story series.

Films inspired by the films described in David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest will screen soon at Columbia University.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s very clear to me now—as I’d always supposed—that we can’t really choose what we write about in any passionate way: the material chooses us.”

Just because Twitter forces you to be concise doesn’t mean it’s going to make you an Ernest Hemingway.

Jill McCorkle goes off-Broadway.

Christopher Hitchens on Gore Vidal going off the rails.

Jaws meets Deliverance, with bears“—the elevator pitch an author needs to catch a publisher’s attention grows ever shorter.

On a related note, here’s Charles Bock on pursuing fiction writing as a career: “A teacher of mine once told me that as a writer you’ll be humiliated, then you’ll be humiliated again, and when you think you can’t be humiliated any more, they’ll find new ways to humiliate you.”

Wuss 1.0

“The Naked and the Conflicted,” Katie Roiphe‘s essay in last week’s New York Times Book Review, is a little like that old cartoon of a blackboard showing the beginning of an equation and its solution, with the words “then a miracle occurs” written in between. In the 60s, Roiphe argues, writers like Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow were proudly open about sex, their sexuality, and the kind of power they enjoyed wielding over women; today’s male authors, by contrast, write about sex as if they’re disinterested or downright scared of it. In between, feminism occurred.

I don’t reflexively disagree with the notion that consensus male fiction writers of the 60s wrote more candidly about sex; if there’s nothing shocking about the sex scenes themselves in Couples, Updike was definitely much more casual with c-bombs than most male writers would be today. I’m just not sure what feminism has to do with it, at least any more than it has to do with changing marriage patterns (you can’t be a randy adulterer in your 20s if everybody’s waiting till they’re 30 to get hitched), more explicit sex in other media, or anything else. I’m also not convinced that the division in generational attitudes is as clean as she asserts.

“Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life” in more contemporary writers’ work, Roiphe writes, calling out Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon for special attention. Roiphe doesn’t mention any particular moment when this shift occurred, saying only that younger writers who are “steeped in a certain kind of liberal education” produce works “denuded of a certain carnality” as a result of a “certain cultural shutting down,” so now sex has “a certain vanished grandeur.” (When a critic repeatedly opines about “a certain” anything, you can be pretty sure that something isn’t being studied closely enough.) So I wonder what she might make of novels that appeared in the middle of this timeline, like, say, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter.

That book came out in 1986, presumably in the heart of the moment when feminism was doing its literary damage. Ford’s a Boomer though, and at least demographically enough a part of the patriarchal past to be immune to “a certain kind of liberal education.” Yet Frank Bascombe is, by most stereotypical standards of masculinity, a bit of a wuss. He participates in a support group for divorced men like himself, likes sports but isn’t particularly interested in the manly-man aspects of it, is comfortable following instead of leading, and tends to succumb to a “dreaminess” that leaves him occasionally out of touch with the wider world. (Not without reason; he’s been mourning the death of his son for years.) Women? He’s an enthusiast, but not in any explicit way. Frank doesn’t fuck or screw or deploy any of the coarser terms for sex. He “boinks.” He “woggles.” He and a woman go “woogling around in each other’s businesses.” He refers to his ex-wife as “X,” which in most novels might have a tinge of I’ll-never-speak-her-name-again to it, but Frank’s too well-meaning for that; his use of “X” seems more an act of protection, a willingness to keep her name out of the document he’s writing. If we’re arbitrarily laying blame for Wallace’s disinterest in writing about fucking, there’s no reason not to blame Ford as much as anybody else.

But the thing is, Bellow’s and Updike’s heroes were less immune to that kind of Bascombe-y “dreaminess” than Roiphe suggests, and to deny that is to say that they were only as good as the sex scenes they wrote. The hero of, say, Updike’s Roger’s Version is so lost within himself that he plays out his wife’s ongoing affair wholly in his imagination. Regarding Bellow, Roiphe calls out his novel Herzog as a special example of the brashness with which he approached women. Yet Bellow rarely intended that to exclusively signify masculinity, virility, or even some kind of general verve; what Moses Herzog most lives with is concern about how he relates as to the world as well as women, a case that’s as true for him as it is for Rabbit Angstrom or Bascombe or any of the many well-intentioned but fearful fellas who’ve populated fiction since 2000. Why does Roiphe think Moses Herzog was writing all those letters, if not because he’s scared of something?

Finger Flexion Redux

A friend of mine once had a college professor who had a special term for scare quotes—”prophylactic quotes,” he called them. That’s a little clunky, but it does get to the heart of what scare quotes do; we use them when we want to insulate ourselves from the meaning or emotion that might be attached to a particular word. David Foster Wallace‘s story “All That,” published in last week’s New Yorker, is something of a study on prophylactic quoting: The narrator, who was once (and may still be) a seminarian, looks back at a handful of incidents in his life to figure out where his interest in religion started. In the process, various critical terms get placed into scare quotes, to better emphasize just how lost he is: “magic,” “reverence,” “religious,” “reality.”

As a grammar obsessive and good postmodernist, Wallace was exceedingly concerned with vocabulary; Infinite Jest is filled with italicized words, both as emphasis in conversation and to call specific terms out for special attention. “Is the territory the real world, quote unquote, though,” one character asks in the middle of one of the novel’s wargames. It’s a risky style: Do it too often, and readers will start thinking you’re a show-off, and the New York Times will publish snide features about you questioning your sincerity. But though I count myself among the many people who sometimes felt he had his time wasted by Wallace’s fiction, I never wondered whether he meant it—if anything, he seemed to be working overly hard to get at the truth of something. Studying scare quotes is a good way to get at questions of meaning and sincerity, and “All That” isn’t the first time he tinkered with it. A post by Ken Vanko reminded me that Wallace’s 1999 story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men includes a satirical transcript of a conversation (presumably from some kind of intake center), in which the transcriptionist marks points where the interviewee used “flexion of upraised fingers to signify tone quotes.” There are so many of these points that the exasperated transcriptionist shortens the term to “finger flexion” and later just “f.f.” The device clarifies just how unhinged the speaker is:

My manner has now changed, somewhat, to a more commanding, authoritative demeanor. But not creepy and not threatening. Some subjects have professed to see it as {f.f.} menacing, but I can assure you no menace is intended. What is being communicated now is a certain authoritative command based solely on contractual experience as I inform the subject that I am going to {no f.f.} instruct her.

“All That” is finger flexion without the satire or the creepiness, scare quotes without the joking. If anything, they expose the narrator’s genuine feelings of terror; what’s provoked his worry isn’t clear, but it’s obvious he’s working through a serious crisis of faith. In the second half of the story, as it becomes more obvious how unstable the narrator feels, the scare quotes pile up:

Probably one reason that I fall automatically into the urge to “argue for” the voices’ “reality” is that my “real” parents, though they were wholly tolerant of my believing in the voices, obviously viewed them as the same sort of “invisible friend” fantasies I mentioned above.

And that passage is set in parentheses—in this context, scare quotes over passage full of scare quotes. “All That” is a section from The Pale King, Wallace’s final novel. It’s always unfair to attach the emotional concerns of a fictional character to the emotional concerns of the author; the best writers can separate the two. But the context of the story’s publication is unavoidable, and though the story would be just as strong were Wallace still alive, reading it now there’s an added pathos now to the way he turned a postmodern device into a deeply earnest statement, a cry for help.

Links: The Big Tent

The National Book Festival is this Saturday on the National Mall. Enough people have confused me for an expert to ask if I have tips regarding what to do there and how to do it, but my suggestions are all pretty obvious and simple. Bring an umbrella, regardless of what the forecast says; make a point to at least walk through the Pavilion of the States, in which every state has a table plugging its literature (it’s as close at the event will get to promoting small-press books); and get a seat early for the bigger names. (There are probably people already parked for James Patterson.) Lastly, don’t stand in line for those C-SPAN tote bags; C-SPAN brought plenty, and one must preserve one’s dignity. The lineups are largely big names and self-explanatory, but seek out David A. Taylor, who’ll be discussing his history of the WPA Writers’ Project, Soul of a People; I interviewed Taylor for the blog earlier this year.

Marianne Wiggins‘ list of the best works of American fiction.

John Krasinski discussed his film version of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men shortly before David Foster Wallace died.

The Wall Street Journal has an excerpt from Look at the Birdie, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s unpublished short fiction.

The most powerful influence on David Updike‘s fiction wasn’t his dad—it was Ann Beattie.

The Guardian uses Granta‘s Chicago issue as an opportunity to wonder if the big-city novel is dead.

Mark Twain, animal rights activist.

It’s the 25th anniversary of the New York State Writers Institute at the University of Albany, where Mary Gordon may or may not have tried to slug Norman Mailer in the middle of a panel discussion.

Catherine Corman‘s photography book Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City, which has a preface by Jonathan Lethem, sounds fascinating, and it has a stellar Web site to match.

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?”