However, I recently read an interview of an author I really like in which he gives specific criticisms of what is fundamentally different about TV and the more literary forms of entertainment -- the most important of those reasons being that TV production aims almost always and completely to give the TV viewer what they think they want, whereas books often aim to challenge the reader. He quoted, and I'm paraphrasing, something one of his friends said, which rang true for me: "Good literature comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable." If we take "disturbed" to mean those who find modern culture disturbing, and "comfortable" to be those who are comfortable with modern culture, then it becomes apparent that the opposite is true of TV: that it comforts the comfortable and disturbs the disturbed (obviously if modern TV is largely a reflection of modern culture, it will disturb those disturbed by modern culture. that's not much of a stretch).
David Foster Wallace believes that irony and cynicism have become so cliched that they are no longer enlightening. Fiction should focus on what it means to be a human being in a time when it is hard to be anything but a cynic. The post-structuralist/postmodern tendency to disassociate writing with understanding any 'other' has led to a collapse of meaningful fiction. Fiction today is not allowed to make the strange seem familiar, so it should focus on making the familiar seem strange.
I got the interview off of a research database that requires a log-in, so linking is not available. for those interested (few, if any), I will post the whole article in pieces.
Part I of the interview
- Code: Select all
Larry McCanery: Your essay following this interview is going to be seen by some people as being basically an apology for television. What's your response to the familiar criticism that television fosters relationships with illusions or simulations of real people (Reagan being a kind of quintessential example)?
David Foster Wallace: It's a try at a comprehensive diagnosis, not an apology. U.S. viewers' relationship with TV is essentially puerile and dependent, as are all relationships based on seduction. This is hardly news. But what's seldom acknowledged is how complex and ingenious TV's seductions are. It's seldom acknowledged that viewers' relationship with TV is, albeit debased, intricate and profound. It's easy for older writers just to bitch about TV's hegemony over the U.S. art market, to say the world's gone to hell in a basket and shrug and have done with it. But I think younger writers owe themselves a richer account of just why TV's become such a dominating force on people's consciousness, if only because we under like forty have spent our whole conscious lives being part of TV's audience.
LM: Television may be more complex than what most people realize, but it seems rarely to attempt to challenge or disturb its audience, as you've written me you wish to. Is it that sense of challenge and pain that makes your work more "serious" than most television shows?
DFW: I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction's job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. 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 sort of 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 characters' pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might be just that simple. But now realize that TV and popular film and most kinds of "low" art - which just means art whose primary aim is to make money - is, lucrative precisely because it recognizes that audiences prefer 100 percent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 percent pleasure and 51 percent pain. Whereas "serious" art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort. So it's hard for an art audience, especially a young one that's been raised to expect art to be 100 percent pleasurable and to make that pleasure effortless, to read and appreciate serious fiction. That's not good. The problem isn't that today's readership is dumb, I don't think. Just that TV and the commercial-art culture's trained it to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations. But it makes trying to engage today's readers both imaginatively and intellectually unprecedentedly hard.
LM: Who do you imagine your readership to be?
DFW: I suppose it's people more or less like me, in their twenties and thirties, maybe, with enough experience or good education to have realized that the hard work serious fiction requires of a reader sometimes has a payoff. People who've been raised with U.S. commercial culture and are engaged with it and informed by it and fascinated with it but still hungry for something commercial art can't provide. Yuppies, I guess, and younger intellectuals, whatever. These are the people pretty much all the younger writers I admire - Leyner and Vollmann and Daitch, Amy Homes, Jon Franzen, Lorrie Moore, Rick Powers, even McInerney and Leavitt and those guys - are writing for, I think. But, again, the last twenty years have seen big changes in how writers engage their readers, what readers need to expect from any kind of art.
LM: The media seems to me to be one thing that has drastically changed this relationship. It's provided people with this television-processed culture for so long that audiences have forgotten what a relationship to serious art is all about.
DFW: Well, it's too simple to just wring your hands and claim TV's ruined readers. Because the U.S.'s television culture didn't come out of a vacuum. What TV is extremely good at - and realize that this is all it does - is discerning what large numbers of people think they want, and supplying it. And since there's always been a strong and distinctive American distaste for frustration and suffering, TV's going to avoid these like the plague in favor of something anesthetic and easy.
LM: You really think this distaste is distinctly American?
DFW: It seems distinctly Western-industrial, anyway. In most other cultures, if you hurt, if you have a symptom that's causing you to suffer, they view this as basically healthy and natural, a sign that your nervous system knows something's wrong. For these cultures, getting rid of the pain without addressing the deeper cause would be like shutting off a fire alarm while the fire's still going. But if you just look at the number of ways that we try like hell to alleviate mere symptoms in this country - from fast-fast-fast-relief antacids to the popularity of lighthearted musicals during the Depression - you can. see an almost compulsive tendency to regard pain itself as the problem. And so pleasure becomes a value, a teleological end in itself. It's probably more Western than U.S. per se. Look at utilitarianism - that most English of contributions to ethics - and you see a whole teleology predicated on the idea that the best human life is one that maximizes the pleasure-to-pain ratio. God, I know this sounds priggish of me. All I'm saying is that it's shortsighted to blame TV. It's simply another symptom. TV didn't invent our aesthetic childishness here any more than the Manhattan Project invented aggression. Nuclear weapons and TV have simply intensified the consequences of our tendencies, upped the stakes.
LM: Near the end of "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," there's a line about Mark that "It would take an architect who could hate enough to feel enough to love enough to perpetrate the kind of special cruelty only real lovers can inflict." Is that the kind of cruelty you feel is missing in the work of somebody like Mark Leyner?
DFW: I guess I'd need to ask you what kind of cruelty you thought the narrator meant there.
LM: It seems to involve the idea that if writers care enough about their audience - if they love them enough and love their art enough - they've got to be cruel in their writing practices. "Cruel" the way an army drill sergeant is when he decides to put a bunch of raw recruits through hell, knowing that the trauma you're inflicting on these guys, emotionally, physically, physically, is just part of a process that's going to strengthen them in the end, prepare them for things they can't even imagine yet.
DFW: Well, besides the question of where the fuck do "artists" get off deciding for readers what stuff the readers need to be prepared for, your idea sounds pretty Aristotelian, doesn't it? I mean, what's the purpose of creating fiction, for you? Is it essentially mimetic, to capture and order a protean reality? Or is it really supposed to be therapeutic in an Aristotelian sense?
LM: I agree with what you said in "Westward" about serious art having to engage a range of experiences; it can't be merely "metafictional," for example, it has to deal with the world outside the page and variously so. How would you contrast your efforts in this regard versus those involved in most television or most popular fiction?
DFW: This might be one way to start talking about differences between the early postmodern writers of the fifties and sixties and their contemporary descendants. When you read that quotation from "Westward" just now, it sounded to me like a covert digest of my biggest weaknesses as a writer. One is that I have a grossly sentimental affection for gags, for stuff that's nothing but funny, and which I sometimes stick in for no other reason than funniness. Another's that I have a problem sometimes with concision, communicating only what needs to be said in a brisk efficient way that doesn't call attention to itself. It'd be pathetic for me to blame the exterior for my own deficiencies, but it still seems to me that both of these problems are tracable to this schizogenic experience I had growing up, being bookish and reading a lot, on the one hand, watching grotesque amounts of TV, on the other. Because I liked to read, I probably didn't watch quite as much TV as my friends, but I still got my daily megadose, believe me. And I think it's impossible to spend that many slack-jawed, spittle-chinned, formative hours in front of commercial art without internalizing the idea that one of the main goals of art is simply to entertain, give people sheer pleasure. Except to what end, this pleasure-giving? Because, of course, TV's real agenda is to be liked, because if you like what you're seeing, you'll stay tuned. TV is completely unabashed about this; it's its sole raison. And sometimes when I look at my own stuff I feel like I absorbed too much of this raison. I'll catch myself thinking up gags or trying formal stunt-pilotry and see that none of this stuff is really in the service of the story itself; it's serving the rather darker purpose of communicating to the reader "Hey! Look at me! Have a look at what a good writer I am! Like me!"
Now, to an extent there's no way to escape this altogether, because an author needs to demonstrate some sort of skill or merit so that the reader will trust her. There's some weird, delicate, I-trust-you-not-to-fuck-upon-me relationship between the reader and writer, and both have to sustain it. But there's an unignorable line between demonstrating skill and charm to gain trust for the story vs. simple showing off. It can become an exercise in trying to get the reader to like and admire you instead of an exercise in creative art. I think TV promulgates the idea that good art is just that art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art. This seems like a poisonous lesson for a would-be artist to grow up with. And one consequence is that if the artist is excessively dependent on simply being liked, so that her true end isn't in the work but in a certain audience's good opinion, she is going to develop a terrific hostility to that audience, simply because she has given all her power away to them. It's the familiar love-hate syndrome of seduction: "I don't really care what it is I say, I care only that you like it. But since your good opinion is the sole arbiter of my success and worth, you have tremendous power over me, and I fear you and hate you for it." This dynamic isn't exclusive to art. But I often think I can see it in myself and in other young writers, this desperate desire to please coupled with a kind of hostility to the reader.
LM: In your own case, how does this hostility manifest itself.?
DFW: Oh, not always, but sometimes in the form of sentences that are syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis's American Psycho: it panders shamelessly to the audience's sadism for a while, but by the end it's clear that the sadism's real object is the reader herself.
LM: But at least in the case of American Psycho I felt there was something more than just this desire to inflict pain - or that Ellis was being cruel the way you said serious artists need to be willing to be.
DFW: You're just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it's a kind of black cynicism about today's world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what's always distinguished bad writing - flat characters, a narrative world that's cliched and not recognizably human, etc. - is also a description of today's world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we'd probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this dark world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it's no more than that.
LM: Are you saying that writers of your generation have an obligation not only to depict our condition but also to provide the solutions to these things?
DFW: I don't think I'm talking about conventionally political or social-action-type solutions. That's not what fiction's about. Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction's job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still are human beings, now. Or can be. This isn't that it's fiction's duty to edify or teach, or to make us good little Christians or Republicans; I'm not trying to line up behind Tolstoy or Gardner. I just think that fiction that isn't exploring what it means to be human today isn't good art. We've got all this "literary" fiction that simply monotones that we're all becoming less and less human, that presents characters without souls or love, characters who really are exhaustively describable in terms of what brands of stuff they wear, and we all buy the books and go like "Golly, what a mordantly effective commentary on contemporary materialism!" But we already all know U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn't engage anybody. What's engaging and artistically, real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn't have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive? And if so, how, and if not why not?
LM: Not everyone in your generation is taking the Ellis route. Both the other writers in this issue of RCF seem to be doing exactly what you're talking about. So, for example, even though Vollmann's Rainbow Stories is a book that is in its own way as sensationalized as American Psycho, the effort there is to depict those people not as flattened, dehumanized stereotypes but as human beings. I'd agree, though, that a lot of contemporary writers today adopt this sort of flat, neutral transformation of people and events into fiction without bothering to make the effort of refocusing their imaginations on the people who still exist underneath these transformations. But Vollmann seems to be someone fighting that tendency in interesting ways.
This brings us back to the issue of whether this isn't a dilemma serious writers have always faced. Other than lowered (or changed) audience expectations, what's changed to make the task of the serious writer today more difficult than it was thirty or sixty or a hundred or a thousand years ago? You might argue that the task of the serious writer is easier today because what took place in the sixties had the effect of finally demolishing the authority that mimesis had assumed. Since you guys don't have to fight that battle anymore, you're liberated to move on to other areas.
DFW: This is a double-edged sword, our bequest from the early post-modernists and the post-structuralist critics. On the one hand, there's sort of an embarrassment of riches for young writers now. Most of the old cinctures and constraints that used to exist-censorship of content is a blatant example - have been driven off the field. Writers today can do more or less whatever we want. But on the other hand, since everybody can do pretty much whatever they want, without boundaries to define them or constraints to struggle against, you get this continual avant-garde rush forward without anyone bothering to speculate on the destination, the goal of the forward rush. The modernists and early postmodernists - all the way from Mallarme to Coover, I guess - broke most of the rules for us, but we tend to forget what they were forced to remember: the rule-breaking has got to be for the sake of something. When rule-breaking, the mere form of renegade avant-gardism, becomes an end in itself, you end up with bad language poetry and American Psycho's nipple-shocks and Alice Cooper eating shit on stage. Shock stops being a by-product of progress and becomes an end in itself. And it's bullshit. Here's an analogy. The invention of calculus was shocking because for a long time it had simply been presumed that you couldn't divide by zero. The integrity of math itself seemed to depend on the presumption. Then some genuine titans came along and said, "Yeah, maybe you can't divide by zero, but what would happen if you could? We're going to come as close to doing it as we can, to see what happens."
LM: So you get the infinitesimal calculus - the "philosophy of as if."
DFW: And this purely theoretical construct wound up yielding incredible practical results. Suddenly you could plot the area under curves and do rate-change calculations. Just about every material convenience we now enjoy is a consequence of this "as if." But what if Leibniz and Newton had wanted to divide by zero only to show jaded audiences how cool and rebellious they were? It'd never have happened, because that kind of motivation doesn't yield results. It's hollow. Dividing-as-if-by-zero was titanic and ingenious because it was in the service of something. The math world's shock was a price they had to pay, not a payoff in itself.
LM: Of course, you also have examples like Lobochevsky and Riemann, who are breaking rules with no practical application at the time - but then later on somebody like Einstein comes along and decides that this worthless mathematical mind game that Riemann developed actually described the universe more effectively than the Euclidean game. Not that those guys were breaking the rules just to break the rules, but part of that was just that: what happens if everybody has to move counter-clockwise in Monopoly. And at first it just seemed like this game, without applications.
DFW: Well, the analogy breaks down because math and hard science are pyramidical. They're like building a cathedral: each generation works off the last one, both its advances and its effors. Ideally, each piece of art's its own unique object, and its evaluation's always present-tense. You could justify the worst piece of experimental horseshit by saying. "The fools may hate my stuff, but generations later I will be appreciated for my ground-breaking rebellion." All the beret-wearing artistes I went to school with who believed that line are now writing ad copy someplace.
LM: The European avant-garde believed in the transforming ability of innovative art to directly affect people's consciousness and break them out of their cocoon of habituation, etc. You'd put a urinal in a Paris museum, call it a "fountain," and wait for the riots next day. That's an area I'd say has changed things for writers (or any artist) - you can have very aesthetically radical works today using the same features of formal innovation that you'd find in the Russian Futurists or Duchamp and so forth, only now these things are on MTV or TV ads. Formal innovation as trendy image. So it loses its ability to shock or transform.
DFW: These are exploitations. They're not trying to break us free of anything. They're trying to lock us tighter into certain conventions, in this case habits of consumption. So the form of artistic rebellion now becomes comes ...
LM: ... yeah, another commodity. I agree with Fredric Jameson and others who argue that modernism and postmorodenism can be seen as expressing the cultural logic of late capitalism. Lots of features of contemporary art are directly influenced by this massive acceleration of capitalist expansion into all these new realms that were previoisly just not accessible. You sell people a memory, reify their nostalgia and use this as a hook to sell deodorant. Hasn't this recent huge expansion of the technologies of reproduction, the integration of commodity reproduction and aesthetic reproduction, and the rise of media culture lessened the impact that aesthetic innovation can have on people's sensibilities? What's your response to this as an artist?
DFW: You've got a gift for the lit-speak, LM. Who wouldn't love this jargon we dress common sense in: "formal innovation is no longer transformative, having been co-opted by the forces of stabilization and post-industrial inertia," blah blah. But this co-optation might actually be a good thing if it helps keep younger writers from being able to treat mere formal ingenuity as an end in itself. MTV-type co-optation could end up a great prophylactic against cleveritis - you know, the dreaded grad-school syndrome of like "Watch me use seventeen different points of view in this scene of a guy eating a Saltine." The only real point of that shit is "Like me because I'm clever" - which of course is itself derived from commercial art's axiom about audience -affection determining art's value.
What's precious about somebody like Bill Vollmann is that, even though there's a great deal of formal innovation in his fictions, it rarely seems to exist for just its own sake. It's almost always deployed to make some point (Vollmann's the most editorial young novelist going right now, and he's great at using formal ingenuity to make the editorializing a component of his narrative instead of an interruption) or to create an effect that's internal to the text. His narrator's always weirdly effaced, the writing unself-conscious, despite all the "By-the-way-Dear-Reader" intrusions. In a way it's sad that Vollmann's integrity is so remarkable. Its remarkability means it's rare. I guess I don't know what to think about these explosions in the sixties you're so crazy about. It's almost like postmodernism is fiction's fall from biblical grace. Fiction became conscious of itself in a way it never had been. Here's a really pretentious bit of pop analysis for you: I think you can see Cameron's Terminator movies as a metaphor for all literary art after Roland Barthes, viz., the movies' premise that the Cyberdyne NORAD computer becomes conscious of itself as conscious, as having interests and an agenda; the Cyberdyne becomes literally self-referential, and it's no accident that the result of this is nuclear war, Armageddon.
LM: Isn't Armageddon the course you set sail for in "Westward"?
DFW: Metafiction's real end has always been Armageddon. Art's reflection on itself is terminal, is one big reason why the art world saw Duchamp as an Antichrist. But I still believe the move to involution had value: it helped writers break free of some long-standing flat-earth-type taboos. It was standing in line to happen. And for a little while, stuff like Pale Fire and The, Universal Baseball Association was valuable as a metaesthetic breakthrough the same way Duchamp's urinal had been valuable.
LM: I've always felt that the best of the metafictionists - Cover, for example, Nabokov, Borges, even Barth - were criticized too much for being only interested in narcissistic, self-reflexive games, whereas these devices had very real political and historical applications.
DFW: But when you talk about Nabokov and Cover, you're talking about real geniuses, the writers who weathered real shock and invented this stuff in contemporary fiction. But after the pioneers always come the crank-turners, the little gray people who take the machines others have built and just tum the crank, and little pellets of metafiction come out the other end. The crank-turners capitalize for a while on sheer fashion, and they get their plaudits and grants and buy their IRAs and retire to the Hamptons well out of range of the eventual blast radius. There are some interesting parallels between postmordern crank-turners and what's happened since post-structural theory took off here in the U.S., why there's such a big backlash against post-structuralism going on now. It's the cranktuners' fault. I think the crank-tuner's replaced the critic as the real angel of death as far as literary movements are concerned, now. You get some bona fide artists who come along and really divide by zero and weather some serious shit-storms of shock and ridicule in order to promulgate some really important ideas. Once they triumph, though, and their ideas become legitimate and accepted, the crank-turners and wannabes come running to the machine, and out pour the gray pellets, and now the whole thing,'s become a hollow form, just another institution of fashion. Take a look at some of the critical-theory Ph.D. dissertations being written now. They're like de Man and Foucault in the mouth of a dull child. Academia and commercial culture have somehow become these gigantic mechanisms of commodification that drain the weight and color out of even the most radical new advances. It's a surreal inversion of the death-by-neglect that used to kill off prescient art. Now prescient art suffers death-by-acceptance. We love things to death, now. Then we retire to the Hamptons.