“Consider David Foster Wallace” Conference – part III


“Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

The panelists – DT Max, Jonathan Letham, and Laura Miller – went on to describe how unique and different Wallace was from his contemporaries.  His novels and short stories were not the self-indulgent metafiction that dominated the literary fiction of the 1980’s.  And while other writers and much of academia focused on the international literary scene, Wallace’s fiction had a distinctly American feel to it.  He wrestled with what it meant to be an American in the late Twentieth Century, in all its glory and all its vices.  In his consummate nonfiction piece, “E Unibus Pluram,” he explains and describes many of the problems that exist in Twentieth Century American life, and these themes are then illustrated throughout his fiction as well.

Not only was Wallace unique in his style and subject matter, the panelists went on to say, but also in his purpose and approach to literature.  I believe it was Laura who first brought it up, and the others echoed the point, that Wallace was a very moral and even didactic writer.[1]  He wrote about very real – and very difficult – aspects of our humanity.  In the midst of this discussion, Daniel quoted what is perhaps Wallace’s most famous line,[2] that “fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”  It is through the reading and writing of fiction that we wrestle with our own humanity, that we try to make sense of the absurd and nonsensical.  Daniel went on to say that, in his estimation, there has not been such a moral writer since Dostoyevsky.

Part of this moral didacticism was Wallace’s tackling of two of the biggest – and most intertwined – problems in American society: entertainment and addiction, the two primary themes in his magnum opus Infinite Jest.  Daniel explained that the original title for the book was A Failed Entertainment[3] and that the book itself functions similarly to other addictive substances.  By beginning the book at or near the end of the story, the reader is left feeling unsatisfied and must go back and begin reading it again to satisfy those unfulfilled feelings.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace explores the role of faith and 12-Step programs in the recovery process of addiction.  As the panelists explained, these AA-type programs depend on clichés and platitudes to be successful.  Despite their banality, these clichés are real and effective and meaningful, and recovering addicts must put their faith in the truth of these statements in order to break free from their addictions.[4]  It is a humbling experience to put one’s faith in something that seems so simple, to realize that one is not too smart for words that are so trite and banal, to know that one cannot simply outsmart his addiction.

In addition to being a very morally didactic writer, Wallace was also a very personal one.  One of the panelists[5] pointed out that most of his characters are trying to break free from their own solipsism and believe that other characters in their world exist; they are trying to see inside the other.  They want to know they are not alone.  In the same way, Wallace used his writing to bridge the gap between selfs and connect on a very personal level with his readers.[6]  It is this personalness that draws such a loyal following of readers, and it is this sense of connection between writer and reader that drew a packed house to the Pomona College campus that Saturday evening in February.

 


[1] I don’t use these descriptors – nor did the panelists use them – in the “Aesop’s Fables” sense of the words.  But rather, he dealt with very moral issues and asked very moral questions, but unlike the fables of old he never answered the questions or concluded with a “slow and steady wins the race” sort of thing.  He just threw the idea out there to let us – the readers – wallow in it for awhile and try to figure it out on our own.[back]

[2] It was inevitable.  Someone had to repeat the quote.*  If none of the panelists did, I would have felt obliged to take the microphone during the Q & A just so that the line would be spoken.

*I began my paper for the Antwerp conference with the line, and I believe at least three other presenters quoted it in their papers as well.[back]

[3] I believe this is also brought up in Lipsky’s book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.[back]

[4] Although it wasn’t specifically mentioned during the discussion, this is the central message of Wallace’s Kenyon College speech: the life and death importance of the totally ordinary and banal.[back]

[5] At this point, nearly a month after the event as I look at my notes, I don’t recall which one.  This is what I get for waiting so long* to write about the conference.

*It hasn’t been out of laziness or procrastination that I have waited this long.  Moving into second semester and now just a few months before AP exams, my grading load has increased exponentially over the last few weeks.  Plus I have other writing projects I am working on.

I have plenty of excuses, but very few of them are good ones.[back]

[6] My friend Maria Bustillos wrote a wonderful piece last year about her trip to the Wallace archives, during which she was particularly drawn to his own collection of self-help books.  In that piece, she describes in much better detail than I do here Wallace’s desire to connect with others through his writing.[back]

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4 thoughts on ““Consider David Foster Wallace” Conference – part III

  1. Hello, I’m very much enjoying your blog about DFW which helps me to think about my own responses to his work. Your recent posts which mention DFW as a moral and personal writer particularly resonate with me. This is the reason I love his work and why he is my favourite writer. I’m interested in DFW as a writer who addresses awareness, consciousness and gives attention to the banality of everyday life.
    I write an intermittent zine, This Is Water, inspired by these ideas
    http://jeanmcewan.com/zines-and-artist-books/zine-shop/this-is-water/
    Thanks again for the blog, best, Jean

    • I’m glad you are enjoying the blog, and thank you for commenting. I will be sure to check out your zine.
      The themes you mention are exactly what I wrote about in my “What the Hell is Water?” paper for the conference in Antwerp, and are ones that I am constantly drawn back to as well.
      I look forward to reading your articles soon.

  2. Ryan, I still have yet to get my hands on any of DFW’s writing and actually sit down in an attempt to digest it, but reading through your posts, I feel like his writing style (at least) bears some similarity to that of Flannery O’Connor. Are you familiar with her at all?

    • Sarah,
      I’ve only read a few O’Connor short stories, so I’m not super familiar. But i do see some similarities. But in a lot of ways, Wallace is so drastically different from many of his contemporaries. There is definitely evidence of influence by Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon and other postmodern writers, but for the most part he sort of stands alone.

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