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Talking With David Foster Wallace.

Talking With David Foster Wallace.

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Published by Bob Wobbly-Headed
Talking With David Foster Wallace.

Interview by Chris O'Connor and Rob Elder.

The Oregon Voice. April 1998

Abstract: Talking With... by Chris O'Connor and Rob Elder Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man- David Foster Wallace courtesy photo At age 35, author David Foster Wallace has been hailed as "probably the most ambitious and prodigious literary talent of his generation." A reluctant literary figure, Wallace seldom grants interviews and is self-conscious about his public persona.
Talking With David Foster Wallace.

Interview by Chris O'Connor and Rob Elder.

The Oregon Voice. April 1998

Abstract: Talking With... by Chris O'Connor and Rob Elder Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man- David Foster Wallace courtesy photo At age 35, author David Foster Wallace has been hailed as "probably the most ambitious and prodigious literary talent of his generation." A reluctant literary figure, Wallace seldom grants interviews and is self-conscious about his public persona.

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Published by: Bob Wobbly-Headed on Apr 21, 2013
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 Talking With...by Chris O'Connor and Rob Elder
 At age 35, author David Foster Wallace has been hailed as"probably the most ambitious and prodigious literary talent of hisgeneration." A reluctant literary figure, Wallace seldom grants interviews andis self-conscious about his public persona. While frequently compared to postmodern icons ThomasPynchon and John Barth, Wallace prefers to see himself outsideof that tradition. As part of a younger generation raised on irony and self-reference, Wallace examines the American psyche in a culture where everyone is both a critic and a character, a product and a consumer.His infectious writing style is marked by a meticulous eye for detail, hyperkinetic language, and an addiction tofootnotes.
1
  Wallace's first major effort,
Broom of the System 
, met with positive reviews, but it was 1996's
Infinite Jes 
2
 that would establish him as a literary wunderkind. The 1,079-page magnum opus was described by author Mark Childress as "hilarious, appalling, moving, subtle, wise and... nothing short of brilliant."His latest work, a collection of essays titled,
 A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again 
, continues hisexamination of millennial America, its anxieties, addictions, and fears.In a rare interview from his home in Bloomington, Illinois, a caffeinated Wallace shares his thoughts onaddiction, the American character, and the state of literature today.
OV: A lot of your work deals with addiction to television, drugs, sex . . . do we have a culture that enablesaddiction?
 DFW: Boy, you're using the 12-step jargon. I don't claim to be a sociologist or a cultural critic, but my positionis that we as a culture have a relationship with pleasure that's unprecedented, except maybe for royalty inmedieval times or in ancient Rome or something. We as a culture have an opportunity where we can kill ourselves with pleasure in a way that other cultureshaven't (mainly because they're just trying to get enough to eat, etc.) And in a way, that's great, and in another way, it's testing parts of the human psyche that haven't been tested yet.If you're put in a room with a substance that gives a great deal of pleasure but you know will make you narrow,selfish and crazy and shorten your life-- well, do you do that substance or don't you? People have always had todeal with that question, but whole cultures . . . have never had to deal with that question before.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man-David Foster Wallace
courtesy photo 
 
 
 And so I'm less interested in drug addiction per se, than I am in [free] will and pleasure and whether really thepoint of life is to experience as much pleasure as possible- and whether, in fact, America is under that assumption.
OV: Your work also deals with America and American culture- is there something unique about the Americancharacter?
 DFW: [laughs]
OV: We're going to hit you with the Big Questions now.
 DFW: If somebody asked you that what would you say?
OV: Well, I don't write novels that deal with that theme-
 DFW: We're not talking about your qualifications: I'm genuinely curious . . . wouldn't you just kind of go slack- jawed and your mind go blank when faced with that question?
OV: Okay then, let's try it from a different direction: You've written a few travel pieces for Harper's from theperspective of an outsider, almost as an anthropologist. Do you feel a connection to society, or are youpermanently on the outside?
 DFW: Are you kidding? While we're having this interview, part of my brain is occupied with, "Be careful what you say, because youdon't want to look like a pretentious asshole." That is the American character. There's this kind of oddcombination of exhibitionism and weird self-conscious fear of other people's judgment.
OV: You've said in other interviews that living in America today is a sad thing. Could you articulate that for us?
 DFW: Your questions are too good man, 'cause they're unanswerable. Theremark, the way I remember it, was during all the fuss about 
Infinite Jest - 
-people laughing about 
Infinite Jest 
and describing it as sad and true.The genesis of that book was people about age 30 who have been incredibly lucky career-wise and education-wise and health-wise and all that stuff. All of us having similar friends and all of us seeming to be unhappy when none of us had ever been hungry for a day, or cold. We have 500 channels of television. Americans enjoy a standard of living  with a degree of excess that's really unprecedented in history. Just how strange is it that a generation like that is unhappy and impotent andanxious?It's possible that we're just a bunch of ungrateful, self-absorbed whiners.That might be part of it but it's probably not the whole story . . . I don't know. I'm sorry if that sounds like a bunch of rubbish.
OV: In an era when critics are declaring the death of the novel, how do youaccount for your success when you write long, reader-intensive novels?
 
 
DFW: Which critics have declared the death of the novel? I know Roland Barthes declared the "Death of the Author..."
OV: Well, in today's television era, are we post-novel, post-literature?
 DFW: Well, you see, if you ask meaty questions then the answers can go on for hours... Well, I'll put it this way: The question itself, the death of the novel, shows how much the questioner has beenco-opted by a very modern idea which is a lie. If somebody is saying in this age of electronic media that thenovel is dead, what they're really showing is how much they themselves have been hypnotized. Literature ismassively popular and making millions and millions of dollars. As far as I know, hard stuff, what you'd callliterary fiction, has always had a small audience. I myself don't see that core audience shrinking. I know there'sa lot of concern, you know, publishers and pundits of the publishing industry are owned by entertainment conglomerates but most of that stuff does not mean anything.
OV: So in this culture of mass media . . . what's the role of the novelist? Has the image of the writer becomemore important than the work itself?
 DFW: Publishers tend to be more and more like conglomerates. You know, conglomerates are not charitableinstitutions; they're very interested in profit.The economics are such that publishers make most of their money two months after the book comes out - which means they have to do their best to create some kind of hubbub about the book. Given the way PR  works, the best free publicity is to get the magazines or a newspaper to do a profile. You know, like actors anddirectors go on the Johnny Carson Show. It's this enormous mechanism to get that big push of initial sales, Iguess, from Barnes & Noble. I don't see where there's anything really wrong with it. Where it gets tricky is that most of the writers I know are kind of weird and shy and don't really like a lot of that kind of attention. And yet we're aware that the publishers don't make much money on us and we're lucky that a mainstream publisher picks up our stuff and there's a weird . . . I don't really want to do this [interview]and yet do I really want to totally fuck over this company that blows a couple hundred thousand dollars if it's a bomb. What do I do?Most of the writers I know kinda make their own compromises, kinda make their own psychic deals with that.Some writers- you can't even find out where they live, while others practically appear on game shows. There's  whole spectrum.
OV: So now that you've earned some fame, you've got everyone from college rags
3
 to Charlie Rose calling youup for an interview. You've become a literary icon of sorts. Has this changed your perspective on pop cultureand-
 DFW: Whoa- let's keep in mind here the kind of world we're talking about. A book that gets a lot of attentiongets about as much attention as a popular local TV weatherman.The problem is that when we talk about fame we all immediately think of the cover of TV Guide- where you'renot going to be able to walk down the street without people asking you for your autograph.Having a lot of fuss made over a couple of book s
and getting notoriety in a very small world is vastly different from being elevated to pop culture status and having magazines writing about your personal life. I don't seehow those folks stay sane, how Brad Pitt could stand to walk out the door. It seems they all must be underheavy psychotropic medication.

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