Thursday, November 22, 2018

New Interview with David Foster Wallace

Actually, it's not "new." It's an interview by Eduardo Lago from 2000, previously unpublished.

Wallace is most famous for his novel, Infinite Jest.

At Electronic Literature, "A Brand New Interview with David Foster Wallace":

Eduardo Lago: I know you’re not teaching right now, but can you talk a little bit about the reading lists of your courses?

David Foster Wallace: Most of what I teach is writing classes where we’re concentrating more on the student’s own writing. When I teach literature classes, I’ve taught everything from freshman literature, where the department will buy an anthology and I will teach them John Updike’s “A & P,” and John Cheever’s “The Five-Forty-Eight,” and Ursula le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas,” “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, a lot of very what I consider to be very standard stories that are in all the anthologies. I’ve tried teaching more ambitious or strange or difficult fiction, but with freshmen and sophomores their preparation isn’t very good and it doesn’t work well. Graduate literature courses are usually themed courses, so what the reading lists are depends a certain amount on how I design the course, as I’m sure you know. I’ve taught a fair amount of Cormac McCarthy, who’s a writer I admire a great deal, and Don DeLillo and William Gaddis. I’ve taught quite a bit of William Gass, but usually his earlier books, and I teach poetry … I’m not a professional poet but I’m an avid reader of poetry, so I teach most of the contemporary poetry that’s available in book form.

EL: Do you consider yourself an accessible writer, and do you know what kind of people read your books?

DFW: That’s a very good question. I think the sort of work I do falls into an area of American fiction that, yes, that is accessible, but that is designed for people who really like to read and understand reading to be a discipline and to require a certain amount of work. As I’m sure you know, most of the money in American publishing gets made in books — some of which I think are very good — that don’t require much work. They’re almost more like motion pictures, and people read them on airplanes and at beaches. I don’t do stuff like that. But of the American writers I know who do some of the more demanding fiction, I think I’m one of the more accessible ones, simply because when I’m working, I’m trying to make it as simple as possible rather than trying to make it as complicated as possible. There’s some fiction that’s very good that I think is trying to be difficult by putting the reader through certain sorts of exercises. I’m not one of those, so within the camp people usually talk about me being one of the more accessible ones, but that camp itself is not regarded as very accessible and I think it tends to be read by people who have had quite a bit of education or a native love of books and for whom reading is important as an activity and not just something to do to pass the time or entertain themselves.

I think I’m one of the more accessible ones simply because when I’m working, I’m trying to make it as simple as possible rather than trying to make it as complicated as possible.

EL: I’ve read in a number of places that you intended Infinite Jest to be a sad book. Can you talk specifically about that aspect of the novel and what else were you intending to do when you started writing it?

DFW: I think what I meant by that was that there are some facts about American culture, particularly for younger people, that seem to me to be far clearer to people who live in Europe than to Americans themselves, which is that in many ways America is a wonderful place to live from a material standpoint, and its economy is very strong and there’s a great deal of material plenty, and yet — let’s see, when I started that book I was about 30, sort of upper middle class, white, had never suffered discrimination or any poverty that I myself had not caused, and most of my friends were the same way, and yet there was a sadness and a disconnection or alienation among I would say people under 40 or 45 in this country, that — and this is probably a cliche — you could say dates from Watergate, or from Vietnam or any number of causes. The book itself is attempting to talk about the phenomenon of addiction, whether it’s addiction to narcotics or whether it’s addiction in its original meaning in English which has to do with devotion, almost a religious devotion, and trying to understand a kind of innate capitalist sadness in terms of the phenomenon of addiction and what addiction means. Usually I would tell people I meant to do it a sad book because when I did a lot of interviews about Infinite Jest all people would seem to want to talk about was that the book was very funny and they wanted to know why the book was so funny and how it was supposed to be so funny, and I was honestly puzzled and disappointed because I had seen it as a very sad book, and that was my attempt to explain to you the sadness that I’m talking about.

EL: How would you define your literary generation?

DFW: Boy.

EL: If you believe in that.

DFW: Can you explain the question a little bit, say who are the writers of the generation?

EL: Perhaps I mean that you belong in a certain age group that has inherited a literary tradition that you are trying to transform somehow. In other words, what are young American writers today like yourself — in a certain type of fiction because there are many different approaches to literature — doing. Do you think you belong in a group where your original work plays a role, or something like that?

DFW: Well, I don’t know. See, when people would ask me that question before it was because I was very young and I was in the youngest generation, and I think there’s probably a whole new generation now. A generation in American fiction is probably every five or seven years. Usually when people talk to me about my work, the other younger writers they lump it in with are William T. Vollman and Richard Powers, Joanna Scott, A. M. Homes, Jonathan Franzen, Mark Leyner. Those are all — I think Powers and Scott are in their early 40s, I’m 38, I think it’s all sort of writers now in their later 30s and early 40s and I think we all started publishing books at about the same time. And that group of younger writers, as I’m sure you know, we’re only a small percentage of the younger writers who are out there. There are plenty of active, productive young writers who do what I think is called Realism with a capital R: the sort of traditional, third person limited omniscient, central character, central conflict, classically structured kind of fiction. I know a couple of the other writers I get lumped in with, whom I just mentioned to you, and if there seems to be something in common, it seems to be that we all, particularly in college, were exposed to a great deal of first of all literary theory and continental theory, and second of all, classic American postmodern fiction, which means Nabokov and DeLillo and Pynchon and Barth and Gaddis and Gass and all these guys. And both of those exposures, it seems, make it constitutionally more difficult to do traditional stuff, because some of the best classic postmodern fiction really, at least for me, exploded or destroyed the credibility of a lot of the sort of conventions and devices that classic realism uses. Nevertheless, I think that what gets called classic American postmodernism — which would be, you know, metafiction or really high surrealistic fiction — has a very limited utility. Its essential task appears to me to be to be destructive — to clear away, to explode a lot of hypocrisies and conventions — but it gets rather tiresome rather quickly. Now that’s being kind of general. I myself personally find John Barth’s first few books interesting and then it seems to me that all he’s done since is work out certain techniques and certain obsessions over and over and over and over and over and over again. I don’t think any of the writers that I’ve mentioned, myself included, are comfortable with the idea of simply doing more of that kind of fiction. On the other hand we’ve all been influenced by it a great deal and I think for a whole lot of different reasons don’t see and understand the world in the way that classic realist fiction tries to capture or mirror.

So I think what I’m trying to say, in a long-winded way, is [that] probably the group I get lumped in with has been heavily influenced by American postmodernism, and of course by European postmodernism too — I mean Calvino — or Latin American writers like Borges and Marquez and Puig. But nevertheless we are also uncomfortable with some of the self-consciousness, and for me in particular some of the intellectualism, of standard postmodernism, and are interested in trying to do fiction that doesn’t seem to be formulaic or “traditional” but nevertheless has an emotional quality to it; is not meant simply to be about language or certain cognitive paradoxes, but is supposed to be about the human experience, what it is to be particularly an American and yet not be a John Updike or John Cheever traditional story.

Hat Tip: The Young Hegelian, at the comments at Althouse, "At the Thanksgiving Café..."