Art by Michael Kupperman
David Foster Wallace is one badass fiction writer. His tractor-trailer-size novel Infinite Jest is one of the most important books of the last 10 years. And his book of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again took the art of the personal essay to a new level. His new book of stories, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (Little Brown, late May), is another supersonic delight, a full-scale harassment of the short-story form. It is a dense, slippery type of fiction where complexities of a psychosexual nature run wild. In late April, at 9 a.m., I phoned this most significant writer:
L.A. Weekly: Your essays are exceptionally daring, like there’s no place you mentally won’t go — your consciousness bubbles up these peculiar things, and then you set about . . .
David Foster Wallace: It would help if you put inflection in your voice. [Laughs.] What are you reading this from?
I don’t quite understand what’s so daring about it, but I will of course nod and smile.
You pursue elaborate arguments in micro detail, whether it’s a cruise ship, on a David Lynch set, or at the porn awards. Please talk about frankness, honesty, the balls to venture into the embarrassing.
Wow. Questions like that are incredibly intimidating because there’s no way the answer is going to be as well constructed and loquacious as the question, so it would actually be in your interest to make the questions clumsier and less literary.
But they are clumsy, and I don’t even know what loquacious means.
My experience of doing nonfiction is that every once in a while I’ll get an assignment that interests me, but it’s extremely vague. They’re like, “Just go and kind of notice everything you can, and then try and come up with an essay about it.” The micro detail that readers enjoy from me often feels like a function of simple, pure anxiety — I’m going to miss the crucial thing that will make this readable for somebody else.
The honesty thing — I don’t think this nonfiction is really as honest as people think it is. A certain amount of it is spent developing a kind of persona or narrative voice that will have qualities that the reader will like and find engaging, and one of them is this kind of blushing, kicking the ground, gosh-golly I really don’t want to say this but I really will. I don’t know that it’s dishonest. It’s kind of manipulative the same way constructing a narrator in first-person fiction is. The only really substantive differences in genres have to do with the expectations of the readers. Almost all the techniques are the same.
Cool. This leads to the next question pretty well. There’s a stylistic difference in your fiction and nonfiction. In nonfiction, you seem very straight ahead, a rational machine devouring a subject. In your novels and stories it’s a leap into the void, a trippy embrace of abstraction.
My experience with nonfiction is that’s not really what I do. I consider myself mostly a fiction writer. Nonfiction isn’t super scary to me, except in the oh-God-I’m-not-going-to-have-enough-material-to-make-an-essay [moments]. There may be a sort of machinelike quality to it only because I don’t really have any ideology about how it ought to be done. I don’t even feel like I have a style in fiction. I feel like I do all kinds of different stuff.
I come out of the nonprofit-press, pseudo-intellectual side of fiction. The stuff I do may look kind of avant-garde or experimental from the point of view of major-press publishing, the same way [Mark] Leyner’s does or [William T.] Vollmann’s does. In a weird way, we’re kind of like indie bands that have been picked up by major studios. You know what I mean?
Yes sir. I am with you and I agree.
For anybody who thinks that what I do is weird, abstract and intellectual, they should go read some John Barth or some Stephen Dixon, oh Christ, some Curtis White at Fiction Collective, or Ron Sukenick, or some of the Oulipo Group, the French guys. It’s funny, Illinois State University (where I teach) is the headquarters of Dalkey Archive Press and Fiction Collective, and I’m almost the house realist there. They almost think of me as a quaint New Yorkerish, sort of Cheeverish figure.
That’s a nice misunderstanding.
It’s very strange. I feel kind of biracial. Mainstream publishers think I’m Mr. Weirdo, and the true weirdoes know for a fact I’m very white bread.
The state of American fiction feels tricky. Readers seem less adventurous, less willing to pick up a book for its stylistic charms. They seem hungry for subject and content. Meta-fiction is having a hard time right now, unlike in the ’70s when it thrived. Plus in the last year we saw Burroughs, Kathy Acker, John Hawkes, William Gaddis die. Sort of like the end of an era.
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.
Is this a reference to John Gardner?
Yes, that big, fat bullyish morality trip he pulled on American writers in his book On Moral Fiction. It’s never seemed to go away.
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 collection Dear 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.