Wow, you kind of told a whole story there. All I can do, you know, is go ‘Zoinks!’ I don’t consider myself doing meta-fiction. It’s another thing that I think keeps me from being an avant-gardist.Are you serious?
I was born in ’62. The postmodern heyday in America was kind of my childhood. My parents were reading that stuff. I began to write in the age of minimalism and the short-story renaissance, the early to mid-’80s. It sure didn’t seem like a postmodern, meta-fictional heyday to me. I’m also somebody who does fairly strange, difficult stuff, and found that not only was a major publisher willing to publish it, they were willing to put their publicity machine to work on it as well. My personal experience is that people are a lot friendlier to the kind of stuff that I do than your question would seem to suggest.Hey, you’re a sleek, brilliant monster, and readers love you. I’m just saying it’s tricky material. Cool fiction has to make it over a lot of hurdles. As a fan of demented fiction, I wish there was more.
Probably the astute answer and the one that’s the safest: Fiction and poetry have always gone against the current, and right now the current is easy pleasure. And the pleasures available with greater intensity and less effort — television, movies, record stuff — are getting more and more sophisticated. Fiction and poetry that are difficult and challenging are apt to find a smaller and smaller audience as the culture gets less and less eager to do work. It’s not commercial versus literary so much as how much work does this stuff require. I’m rather shocked that the kind of stuff we do has as large an audience as it does.You’re famous. You’ve bashed through. You’ve been embraced by a huge American audience. They’re willing to be adventurous with you.
From where I’m sitting I have no idea whether that’s true or not. How do you define fame? It seems to me, given how much we like to bitch and moan about how unadventurous readers are, there’s an awful lot of borderline weird, difficult younger writers whofound support at major publishing houses. I don’t know how to account for that, because I do agree that, culturally, times are hostile to difficult stuff. I’ve read essays where it’s suggested that people like Leyner and me and Vollmann started out as real avant-gardists and then kind of sold out.Yeah, I know a lot of writers who pat themselves on the back for publishing exclusively in tiny periodicals. They piss on anyone from the neighborhood who’s branched out. It’s so stupid and shortsighted.
There are things about it that are stupid, trust me, and there are things about it that are true. I was on the edges of the fictional brat pack in the ’80s, and I watched a few writers become stars. They dated movie stars, were written about in gossip columns. They really became celebrities, and as far as I can see, it ruined them. Not just rhetorically but artistically.Have you received any unusual fan mail?
I have what William Hurt in The Big Chill referred to as a "small, deeply disturbed following."There’s a fly in the room; it’s moral fiction.
Excuse me?Never mind.
Is this a reference to John Gardner?Yes, that big, fat bullyish morality trip he pulled on American writers in his bookOn Moral Fiction. It’s never seemed to go away.
Should it?Yes, fly swatter please.
One reason why I’m not really popular with the avant-garde crowd anymore is that I think I buy more of Gardner’s premise than a lot of other people do, particularly when there are venues of entertainment that are more powerful, and less work-intensive than fiction, which means that fiction needs to carve out its niche. There’s got to be some stuff that art-fiction and poetry and essays offer that The Matrix doesn’t offer.
I still buy something that I learned as a freshman in college, which is that one of the really neato-keano things about fiction is that it’s an artificial enabler of empathy. If you’re a character in a story, chances are I get to know you better. Vollmann has a neat phrase for it — "It allows us to leap over the wall of self." That’s aesthetically significant, and it also seems to be morally significant, assuming we agree on a vague, general meaning of the word moral. How to be a real human being instead of just a very sophisticated animal.Benjamin Weissman is the author of the story collectionDear Dead Person (Serpent’s Tail). David Foster Wallace will read from his work at Skylight Books Monday, June 7, at 7 p.m.; and at the Skirball Cultural Center on Tuesday, June 8, at 7:30 p.m.