Interpolation: Why Writers Need to be Good Readers

This post is sponsored by Grammarly. I tried Grammarly’s grammar check free of charge because every time someone splits an infinitive, an angel in heaven sheds a tear.

As a professional educator, there is nothing I enjoy more than sitting around a table with my colleagues analyzing assessment data.  What often happens after about an hour of pouring over numbers and charts and graphs is that I begin to question everything I do as a teacher.  I feel this sense of guilt and failure that, even though I set the school record a few years back for the number of students to pass a single AP exam, a large number of my students still don’t know how to attach a subordinate clause properly to an independent clause.

The Many Hats of an English Teacher

A while back, I once again found myself in the annual ritual of sitting at a table with my fellow English teachers, staring at the latest testing data, which – on the one hand – was very encouraging: we are doing a lot of things really well to prepare our students for college.  But looking at the areas for growth brought up a lot of questions about what we teach and how we teach it.

See, part of the problem is that the job of a high school English teacher is really about eight jobs in one.  We are commissioned to teach critical reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar, literary analysis, public speaking, critical thinking, and rhetoric; so it is a constant juggling act.  How do you focus more time and energy on grammar without cutting out poetry?  Or how do you build students’ vocabulary without sacrificing a classic novel?

It boils down to the never-ending tug-of-war between teaching the art and science of the English language.  Most of us English teachers became English teachers because we love literature and want to inspire that same passion in our students.  But the reality is that we have to equip them with the reading and writing skills they will need to be successful in college and beyond.  Pragmatism would say have them read Huck Finn and Hamlet and a few Emily Dickinson poems, and spend the rest of the time on syllogisms and comma splices.

More than just Pragmatism

But we need to read good literature and we need to teach the next generation to do the same.  Yes, I know that the vast majority of my non-English-teaching colleagues and most of my students won’t ever need to know the symbolism of the great Mississippi River in Huck Finn.  Nor are they likely to engage in an intelligent debate about whether Hamlet actually goes crazy or whether it’s all an act.  And they will probably never be tested on why Miss Dickinson capitalizes seemingly random words throughout her poems.  Outside of an appearance on Jeopardy!, most of this knowledge will have little consequence in their “real world” lives.

Why We Need Good Fiction

But we need to read good literature, for a reason far more important than its “real world” application.  David Foster Wallace, author of the postmodern epic novel Infinite Jest and recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award, once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”  See, it is through storytelling that we make sense of the human experience.  Ideas like love or heroism or betrayal are too vague and abstract by themselves; they seem just out of reach of our comprehension.  But illustrated through a story, these intangible concepts suddenly become much easier to grab ahold of.

This is nothing new; all throughout history, people of every tribe and nation have told stories to try to understand who we are and why we are here, to give meaning to our otherwise hollow existence.  Ancient civilizations told stories to explain the natural phenomena they witnessed on a daily, seasonally, or yearly basis.  Most all of the world’s major religions use narratives to describe the creation of our world, man’s relationship to his god, and – for many faiths – how it all will one day end.  Even today, we continue to rely on the writing and telling and reading of stories to help us make sense of this thing we call life.

Good Writers Must Be Good Readers

So while reading and discussing the great works of literature may have little bearing on test scores and may not help a young person succeed in college and may have little to do with their careers as adults, these great works of literature are essential to understanding ourselves and the world around us.  They help to provide us with meaning and purpose; they give us a unique lens through which to see ourselves.  They are an indispensable piece of the human experience, one we cannot live without.

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Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing Fiction

Blogger Here. I recently began teaching an online creative writing class. In the first unit I share my philosophy of fiction with my students. Below is that “lecture” I posted to the class website:

Why do we tell stories?

Storytelling has been a part of the human experience for as long as men and women have walked this planet. From the earliest of civilizations to today, we have related to each other by telling each other stories. But why?

American author David Foster Wallace once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

Writer and Professor Thomas C Foster said, “I suppose what the one story, the ur-story, is about is ourselves, about what it means to be human.  I mean, what else is there?”

Tom Clancy said this: “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”

Author and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

And Francis Bacon once said, “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”

Fiction helps us make sense of the human experience.

As these writers have articulated so well, storytelling helps us better understand the world around us. It always has. Ancient societies used stories to explain natural phenomena that they witnessed on a daily or even yearly basis. They saw a large, bright light come up in the east every morning and go down in the west each evening. To explain this, they attributed what they observed to some god or divine being. If their crops failed one year, they concocted a story about how they had upset one of their gods. All these stories they told themselves, over time, were codified as myths and legends that are now only told in ancient history or classical literature courses.

Additionally, storytelling is an essential component to our religious experiences. Every major religion’s holy texts are based around stories of how men on earth relate to their gods in heaven. These narratives explain how we got here, how we are to live our lives, and how the world will one day end.

Stories make the abstract concrete.

Just as stories help us make sense of that which we can’t comprehend – like unexplainable natural phenomena or religious principles – they also help us better grasp the abstract and theoretical aspects of life. Love. Betrayal. Jealousy. Grief. How do you explain these feelings to those who have never experienced them? Through a story. A well-told story gives flesh and blood – so to speak – to these otherwise intangible concepts.

Fiction gives us a safe, vicarious experience of feelings that are foreign to us. We can fall in love, be a hero, or grieve a loss without actually risking anything, without running the risk of actually getting hurt. Fiction provides us a safe, sterile laboratory for probing the depths of the human experience.

Stories help us relate to others.

British scholar and author CS Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

David Foster Wallace once said, “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a ‘generalization’ of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might also then more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”

There is no way we can truly understand or experience the feelings of another person. And the opposite is true: no one else will ever truly understand what we feel. We can imagine another’s feelings, or assume their feelings are similar to our own, but as Wallace says, “true empathy’s impossible.”

But in the words of a story, we can see a character’s emotions, his suffering and pain or joy and elation. We experience what he experiences. And if we can understand the experiences of this character – even though he is the figment of a writer’s imagination – we can imagine that someone somewhere understands our emotions and experiences as well.

What will your verse be?

The great American poet, Walt Whitman, in a poem that asks the daunting question of what is the purpose and meaning of our existence, wrote, “The powerful play [this life] goes on and you will contribute a verse.”

As readers, we attempt to better understand ourselves and those around us by reading and experiencing the fictional lives of those who inhabit the pages of our favorite books. We read the verses they contribute to the powerful human drama.

As writers, we contribute to the great human story, in the words of Thomas C Foster, the “ur-story.” Through the writing process, we gain insight into the human condition and then share that with our readers, allowing them another glimpse into “what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

So what will you contribute? What will your verse be?

Infinite Jest – Ken Erdedy

Dear Dave,

I’m sure you remember them, those “Partnership for a Drug-Free America” commercials. You know, that one with the guy and the frying pan: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” Or the one where the dad is grilling his son about the drugs he found in the boy’s bedroom, asking him where he got the drugs and who taught him how to use them, to which the boy dramatically responds, “I learned it by watching you!” And then the one where some little girl says, “I want to be a dancer when I grow up.” A graceful dancer on the screen twirls around, then crumbles to the floor as the voice over says, “No one ever says, ‘I want to be a junky when I grow up.’”

These public service announcements were a regular fixture in my after-school television viewing. And they seem to have worked. The closest I ever got as a kid to any sort of drug was in middle school when the kid who lived a few houses down the street showed me an unsmoked joint someone had given him.[1] None of my friends did drugs (at least not to my knowledge). Hell, I don’t know that I would have been able to find any drugs even if I wanted to try them.

Then, to seal the deal, a few years ago I read for the first time the Ken Erdedy section at the beginning of Infinite Jest (chapter 2; pages 17-26).[2] Ten anxiety-filled pages of waiting for the woman to show up with enough marijuana to have one last binge weekend. At one point, the narrator tells us that Erdedy’s plan is to make himself so sick from the pot that he will never want to touch the stuff again (22). I don’t know how well worked for Erdedy – he is in rehab later in the book, so maybe it worked – but it certainly worked for me. If I ever had even an ounce of desire to try some illicit substance, those ten pages cured me for good. If that is what the “junky” life is like, then no thank you.

October 16, 2009. As the double period of my AP English Language class began after lunch, I felt as though I had been swept under by a wave of dizziness. I tried to take roll, but struggled to get each name out as my heart pounded out of my chest and my blood pressure shot up. There was no way I would make it through my scheduled lesson plans in this condition,[3] so I told my students to take out homework to work on while I sat at my desk counting the minutes until the bell would ring.

Long story short, a few hours later I was in urgent care in the midst of what I now realize was a massive unprovoked panic attack. While I was lying on the gurney, the doctor asked me a whole host of questions as the nurse hooked up the EKG. One question he asked me repeatedly – confidentially, of course – was whether I had used drugs recently. Through his questioning he had determined that either I was a closet drug user or there was “something seriously wrong” with me.[4]

I had a bunch of blood tests[5] done that evening, all of which came back normal. Determined to get to the bottom of things, I had a long series of doctors’ appointments with a variety of specialists. The neurologist diagnosed me with “vertiginous migraines”; and seeing that anxiety was a leading contributor to the migraine attacks, he prescribed an anti-anxiety medication for me. The drug was marginally successful in preventing the migraines, but I saw very little improvement over the next several years.

Fast-forward about three years. My employer switched insurance carriers, forcing me to switch doctors. As my new doctor reviewed my medications, he questioned me about the anti-anxiety medication my previous doctor had prescribed for me. He said this medication was for symptomatic treatment, not for prevention.[6] And it was likely interfering with my sleep and actually worsening my sleep apnea. And it was a highly addictive narcotic.[7] In other words, I’d been taking the wrong medication for three years.

That weekend I began the “detox” process, which would last about two weeks. Two weeks of nausea, dizziness, insomnia, tremors… it was pure hell.[8] I lost over ten pounds from not eating. I was stuck in a fog, disconnected from reality around me.

After the fog began to lift, I began to reflect on this experience. I was – I am – a recovering drug addict. Me, Mr. Vanilla.[9] I was one of those kids who never said, “I want to be a junky when I grow up.” And here I was on the tail end of my withdrawals and recovery. I never thought this would be a chapter in my story.

And I’m sure that in his younger years Ken Erdedy never thought he would be paralyzed by the sounds of the phone and doorbell ringing at the same time, unable to decide which to answer fearing the one he doesn’t answer is going to be the woman bringing him his drugs. I’m sure Don Gately never thought he’d be reduced to burglary to support his drug habit. And Tiny Ewell and Kate Gompert and Randy Lenz and Poor Tony Krause. I imagine none of them planned to end up where they did. No one plans this sort of thing. No one thinks it will happen to them.

And yet, here they… here we are. Recovering addicts.


[1] Well, there were also a few instances when I walked into a suspicious-smelling cloud while chaperoning Grad Nite at Disneyland. There was one time when the men’s room right around the corner from the chaperone station had a very funky smell to it. It would seem that either some of the chaperones were engaging in their own “recreational activities,” or some really ballsy students decided to get high right under the chaperones’ noses.

[2] I have made several failed attempts to read IJ, and in most of those attempts I never got much further than these pages. I was that scarred by Erdedy’s story.

[3] In addition to these physical symptoms, I was scared out of my skull. I had had a similar panic-attack-like episode a few weeks earlier, but this time was much worse and lasted much longer.

[4] Looking back, I’ve come to think that that is the worst thing a doctor could say to someone in the midst of a panic attack.

[5] The doctor didn’t tell me all of what he was testing for, which in hindsight was probably best. They were testing for some pretty scary stuff.

[6] At almost every appointment with my previous doctors, I questioned them about this particular medication, but they assured me that everything would be fine.

[7] My wife pointed out the irony that at the start of this, the doctor thought I was a drug addict based on my symptoms. But then because of my symptoms, the doctors turned me into a drug addict.

[8] After about two days, I found an online discussion forum for those going through the same withdrawals I was experiencing. And there were those coming off of much higher doses and experiencing much worse symptoms that I was, but those two weeks were some of the worst of my life.

[9] I don’t smoke or drink or chew, and I don’t go with girls that do.

I lived Chapter 25, or I served as an AP exam reader

I have a new deeply felt appreciation for the term “mind-numbing boredom.”

About six months ago, I received word that my application to be an AP exam reader had been accepted, and I shortly thereafter booked my flight and hotel for the weeklong reading in Louisville, Kentucky. Then a few weeks ago, as my school year came to an end and before the ink on the diplomas was even dry, I was on a plane to Louisville.

We began at precisely 0800h in an enormous conference room subdivided into three separate reading rooms. Each reading room went through an extensive calibration process: reviewing the essay rubrics, reading and discussing sample essays, reading and discussing more sample essays until all 3000 readers were on the same page, so to speak, capable of giving an accurate score to each essay they would read. Ready for the task of scoring some 440,000 exams.

Approximately forty tables filled each reading room. Five rows of eight tables each. Eight readers and a Table Leader at each table. Several number two pencils and a College Board-approved eraser at each reader’s spot. Three or four candy dishes in the middle of each table filled with M&M’s or Starbursts or Red Vine Licorice. The Question Leader sat alone at a table on an elevated platform at the front of the room.  No clocks anywhere in the entire room.

E– turned a page. A– raised her folder in the air to get the attention of a aide to bring her a new folder. V– stood to stretch her legs while opening a new test booklet. I bubbled in a score. A– reader at another table coughed loudly.  A yawn proceeds across one row by unconscious influence.  T– flagged a booklet with a sticky note for the Table Leader to double check. F– turned a page. E– turned a page. A– grabbed a handful of M&M’s from the bowl in the middle of the table. F– sniffed loudly, attempting to clear her plugged sinuses. T– turned a page. V– bubbled in a score. I turned a page. The Table Leader brought a booklet back to T– to discuss the essay in question.  Ambient room temperature 62° F. F– put on her sweater and zipped it all the way up.  A– turned a page. V– sat back down.  Most sit up straight but lean forward at the waist, which reduces neck fatigue.  A scooting chair echoed through the room.

The Question Leader sounded his duck call to get our attention. “Good work. Enjoy your break. Be back in 15 minutes.”

Long lines formed at the coffee stations and at the restrooms.

The duck call summoned everybody back to the table to work. T– turned a page. F– turned a page. E– reached down for her water bottle on the floor.  The slow squeak of the cart boy’s cart at the back of the room. V– turned a page. I raised my folder in the air to trade with an aide for a new one. V– cleared her throat.  Some with their chin in their hand.  A– turned a page. T– bubbled in a score. E– turned a page. A sneeze could be heard from some far corner of the room. F– raised her folder.  Exterior temperature/humidity 96°/74%.  The Table Leader took an essay booklet to the Question Leader for a second opinion. F– turned a page. I bubbled in a score.

Every love story is a ghost story.

Seven days, eight hours each day. A fifteen minute break in the morning. An hour for lunch. Another fifteen minute break in the afternoon. Fifty-six hours of reading and scoring essays. Some 900+ essays were placed in front of me.

Nearly eight hours in the air and over two hours of layovers to get home. Screaming children on the plane with over-indulging parents. Congested freeways made the drive home longer than it should have been.

And I eagerly await for my invitation to return next year.

Interpolation: Some thoughts on Wallace in the classroom

Just a few moments in my classroom and it’s pretty obvious that I’m somewhat of a David Foster Wallace fan.  There is the poster from the “Work in Process” Conference on one bulletin board, a reminder of the many fond memories from my week in Antwerp.  There is the quote – one of my favorite of Wallace’s – above my whiteboard that reads, “Good art is a kind of magic. It does magical things for both artist and audience. We can have long polysyllabic arguments about how to describe the way this magic works, but the plain fact is that good art is magical and precious and cool.”  And then there is the big bulletin board in the back of my room that is covered with prints I made in my college printmaking classes and a variety of Wallace quotes.  Some of my students might say I’m obsessed, but I think that might be putting it a bit strongly.

Teaching AP English – and students that can handle some pretty difficult literature – I have over the last few years worked several of Wallace’s pieces into my curricula.  In AP Language, in which I teach mostly nonfiction, I read with my students “A View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” “Consider the Lobster,” and the opening section of the “Cruise Ship Essay,” “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”  I think the students – most of them at least – enjoy the essays, but I’m not sure they are experienced enough readers to truly appreciate them.

In AP Literature, I try to challenge my students with some of his more difficult short stories.  So far this year we have read “Good People,” “Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR,” which I know aren’t all that difficult, and “Brief Interview #46.”  We spent the better part of a week discussing the “Brief Interviews” story.  I wrote about it here some time ago.  The discussions of these stories were some of the best I’ve had in class – not just this year, but in my twelve years of teaching high school English.  I’m trying to decide what other of his stories to add to my syllabus.  “Little Expressionless Animals,” perhaps.  Maybe “Forever Overhead.”  We’ll see how the Spirit moves.

But as much as I enjoy challenging my students with such beautifully difficult literature I am beginning to have growing hesitations about bringing anymore of his works into my classroom for discussion and analysis.

See, one of the many things that draws me to Wallace’s writing – both fiction and non – is the complexity, the subtlety, the need to dig through the layers of narrative and character and theme to find the precious gems that lie within.  The process.  The journey to discovery.

Teaching these stories is about taking my students with me along that journey.  Together we dig deep into the text; we peel back the layers in search of a better understanding of the text and the human nature it describes.

The problem is we arrive at the destination.  We discover the meaning(s).  We figure it out.  We have to.  It’s part of the learning process, and more importantly, it’s what they have to be able to do to pass that damn AP test.

And the problem is that once you’ve journeyed down that road and come to the end of it, you can’t walk it again.  You can’t retrace those steps.  Sure, there are often new paths to venture down and new beauties to find, but you can never discover the same things twice.

In the essay about Kafka in Consider the Lobster, Wallace talks about how if you have to explain the joke, then it’s no longer funny.  The explanation itself ruins the joke.

And that is what I am afraid of.  I don’t want to “spoil the joke,” so to speak.  I don’t want to know all the answers; I want to venture down that road but never quite make it to the end.  I want to understand the stories, but I want them to remain just enough of a mystery that I am forced to reread them and dig into them again and find something new.

In a way, I guess my relative naiveté works in my favor.  There is still so much of Wallace’s canon that is undiscovered country for me.  There are still many roads to travel. There are still many beautiful gems to find.

Interpolation: Teaching “Brief Interview #46”

Almost a year and a half ago, I wrote this post as I struggled to find meaning in “Brief Interview #46” while at the same time I struggled to find meaning in my own suffering as I battled chronic and sometimes debilitating migraine headaches.  I have more or less come to terms with the migraines, but this story has still troubled me all this time.  I downloaded the audio version some time ago and listen to it maybe once a month.[1]  But even after reading it and listening to it probably two dozen times, I was still unable to wrap my brain all the way around it.  Every time I thought I’d answered one question, it seemed that two more popped up.

Then about three months ago, I had a crazy idea:  why not bring this story into my AP Literature classes for discussion.  The group of seniors I have this year is very mature, and I have been able to push them with really challenging readings.  They know of my obsession with Wallace, and we’ve read two of his “tamer” stories already, so I played with the idea of asking my principal’s permission to use the story.[2]  I finally got up the “testicular solidity”[3] to approach my principal about reading the story with my students.[4]

I was very pleasantly surprised by his response after reading the story – twice.  He loved it and thought it would provide an excellent opportunity to let my students wrestle with the very important and very difficult questions that this story raises.  Over the course of several weeks, we hammered out the logistics of sending home parental consent forms and providing students an opt-out if they or their parents weren’t comfortable with the story and getting final approval from the Head of Schools.  But in those meetings we also engaged in some great conversations about our depraved human nature, about our faith, and about finding meaning in even the most horrible of circumstances.

The time came to hand out copies of the story along with the consent forms.  The students were given about a week to read the story, which I recommended doing at least twice.

Then came time for our discussions.  We spent the better part of four days wrestling with the text and the many issues and questions it raises.  We often found ourselves in tangential conversations about loosely related topics; but my gosh, I can’t recall ever having a more engaging discussion with students.  Students grew emotional as they grappled with the difficult and uncomfortable subject matter.  We got to the bottom of some issues raised by the story, but also had to settle for leaving many questions unanswered.

Our discussions taking place in the context of a Christian school, we had to address the elephant in the room that Wallace never brings into the story: where is God in all of this?  In the midst of human suffering and unthinkable violence and degradation, where is God?  Unfortunately, this line of thinking and questioning only aroused more questioning and brought very few answers.

But in the midst of these hours of discussions with these wonderfully mature students, a moment of clarity came to me.  At some point during one of the class periods, one of my students offered a rather insightful comment.  The whole Interview – with its references to Victor Frankl and the Holocaust, and with its three versions of the same story about a brutal gang rape, and with its bold statements about identity and self-knowledge – can be summed up in the very last sentence:

“You don’t know sh*t.”

When talking about suffering and degradation and violence and self-knowledge and identity – especially in terms of others – we just simply don’t know what they go through.  We can’t know.  It is impossible to ever fully understand another’s pain and suffering.

And yet this understanding of our inability to understand became very freeing for me.  By knowing that I will probably never fully understand these things, I gained freedom from having to try to figure it all out.  Paradoxical and contradictory and difficult to explain, but freeing all the same.

I don’t know sh*t, and I’m ok with that.


[1] The nearly thirty-minute reading is almost the same length as my commute to work, so it is perfect for those days when I need distraction from the troubles of that day but still want something challenging to think about.

[2] Teaching at a parochial school, I need to be sensitive to parents and students when it comes to language and sex and violence.  Since this story had the worst of all three – a number of F-bombs and descriptions of a gang rape – I needed to be very careful in how I approached this if I wanted to use the story in class and keep my job afterward.

[3] A quote from a comment on the “Infinite Summer” blog written by someone very intimidated by the enormity of Infinite Jest.

[4] Being the department chair and the only teacher on campus who is College-Board approved to teach both AP English classes, and riding a 79% pass rate on last year’s AP exam, I figured I have about the closest thing to tenure that a private school can offer.  So I thought it a risk I could afford to take.

“Consider David Foster Wallace” Conference – Part II

Blogger here.  Below is a reflection on the discussion that took place between the moderator and three guest panelists based on my copious notes and now two-week-old memories of the evening.  In order to create a blog post that is cohesive and coherent that attempts to recapture the experience of being there, I will write about the topics in a more thematic format rather than a sequential or chronological order.  And my apologies to the panelists and anyone else who might be offended if I attribute a statement to the wrong speaker or if I misquote any of them; I’ve done my best to try to remember who said what and my hand could only write so fast as I took notes, so hopefully I get those important details mostly correct.

 

“We’re not here because of his public legacy as a writer, but because of the personal connection to Wallace that so many of his readers felt in reading his works.”

The discussion’s moderator – Julius was his name – led the guests to the stage and all four sat down.  Julius opened the proceedings with a few remarks about the purpose of the evening’s conference: to discuss not just Wallace’s writing, but to discuss Wallace the writer.  Who he was and what he attempted to do through his writing.  As DT Max later put it, to consider what it was that draws readers to Wallace the man, not just to his handiwork; for there hasn’t been a writer in recent memory who has attracted so much attention to his personal life like Wallace has.  His fans don’t simply enjoy his writing, but through his writing feel a real connection to him as a person.

Julius introduced the evening’s guests:

DT Max, writer for The New Yorker magazine and author of Wallace’s soon-to-be released biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.[1]

Laura Miller, author and writer for Salon magazine and The New York Times Book Review.[2]

Jonathan Letham, novelist, essayist, and Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and English at Pomona College.[3]

The first question posed to the panel was how each of them had been introduced to Wallace and how writing.

DT Max – or Daniel – spoke of reading Broom of the System for the first time.  Into the minimalism that dominated 1980’s literature came this novel from nowhere written by a little-known Amherst grad.  Broom was so different from anything being written at the time, which instantly grabbed Daniel’s attention.  Although the two never met, watching Broom burst onto the literary scene the way it did left an indelible mark on Daniel, leading him to continue to follow Wallace throughout his career.

Laura’s first glimpse of Wallace came through her first reading of the “Cruise Ship Essay” in Harper’s magazine.[4]  Like Daniel, she commented on how “different” his writing was at the time of its publication.  She went on to review a number of his books for The New York Times Book Review and interviewed Wallace several times for Salon magazine.

Jonathan, just a few years younger than Wallace, remembered having several friends in common while in college, although they never actually met.  They were “almost colleagues,” as he put it.  Like Daniel, he was impressed and even a bit intimidated by the “different-ness” and “maximalism” of BOTS.  Jonathan also commented on Wallace’s reputation as a “brilliant teacher.”  Being both a writer and teacher himself, he noted that a person is often very good at one of these skills, but very rarely good at both.

After discussing some of the common themes in both Wallace’s life and writing – which I will come back to later – the panelists continued discussing the literary and cultural context in which Wallace emerged as a writer.  Politically and economically, Reagan’s policies ruled the land,[5] but there was also a countercultural undercurrent that was very present.[6]

As Daniel spoke of earlier, there was the dominance of minimalist fiction in the 1980’s that pushed aside the maximalist work of the 60’s and 70’s.  Daniel later commented that this difference in literary tastes was reflective in the drug use in each era: the maximalism of the 60’s and 70’s being similar to the laid-back pot smokers of those decades, and the minimalism of the 80’s being like the anxious cocaine addicts of the 80’s.  The verbose, grandiloquent prose of Wallace’s fiction certainly broke away from the minimalism of his contemporaries and hearkened back to the maximalism that preceded them.

In addition to this anxiety-ridden minimalism, literature was branching out into a number of interesting directions.  Part of the countercultural movement mentioned above was a new interest in multiculturalism.  Readers and scholars wanted to hear more than just the voices of the “Dead White Guys.”  The flavors and styles of international writers were influencing many of the writers here in the States.

Another direction in which fiction writers were taking their craft was into the – as one panelist put it – “vanity of metafiction.”  Fiction became very self-referential and experimental as authors toyed with narrative voice and plot structure.  Literature had lost much of its artistic purpose, other than to simply be artistic.

Then along came David Foster Wallace.


[1] The title is taken from §25 of The Pale King, a short, but intriguing description of the mind-numbingly boring activities of the wigglers in the IRS processing center.  This enigmatic line is nestled in the midst of a whole lot of page turning.  I plan to write about it soon in a future post… once I fully understand what it means.[back]

[2] She interviewed Wallace several times and reviewed a number of his books.  She was the only one of the three guests who actually met Wallace.[back]

[3] This is the professorship that Wallace held before he passed away.[back]

[4] “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” was also my first exposure to Wallace’s writing, and from my many conversations with other readers of Wallace, this seems to be the one piece that “hooks” many new readers.  It is so beautifully written, and at the same time so funny.  Such a joy to read and such a great way to introduce a new reader to Wallace.[back]

[5] These policies and their potential long-term repercussions are the topic of discussion in the “civics lesson” chapter in The Pale King (§ 19) and and underlying theme throughout most of the unfinished novel.  I plan to write about that section very soon in an upcoming Letter.[back]

[6] The panelists did not go into a lot of detail about the politics and social climate of the 1980’s, but did mention their importance in a rather vague way.  And since I was busy watching The Smurfs and playing with Legos, I can’t really offer any additional commentary.[back]