Transcript of the David Foster Wallace Interview


by David Wiley
The Minnesota Daily
Feb. 27, 1997




WILEY: In your essay "E Unibus Pluram," you talk about irony in
television and sometimes in fiction as something toxic.

DFW: See, here's the hard part about talking about something like that
-- it takes a 60-page essay to develop the question, and so I'm
going to be very uncomfortable about anything I'll just say
discursively off the cuff. Now -- the point of the essay is that
the ironic function like in postmodern fiction started out with a
rehabilitative agenda. Largely it was supposed to explode
hypocrisy -- certain hypocritically smug ways the country saw
itself that just weren't holding true anymore. The problem is that
when irony becomes in and of itself just a mode of social
discourse, that is it's not really about causing any sort of
change any more, it's just sort of a hip, cool way to do it -- to
speak and to act, to sort of make fun of everything and yourself
and being really afraid of being made fun of. A certain amount of
this comes out of the work of this essayist named Lewis Hyde, who
I believe for a while lived in Minneapolis. This was an essay
about John Berryman -- I think I cite it in (A Supposedly Fun
Thing I'll Never Do Again). Anyway, Hyde talks about irony after a
while becoming the sound of prisoners who enjoy their confinement.
The song of a bird who enjoys being in the cage. For instance, if
I'm uncomfortable with how commercial the culture is and how
everybody seems to be out for a buck, I decide so I'll do it too,
but I'll kind of make fun of myself and say, 'I'm a whore, just
like you're a whore,' and now we all get an uneasy laugh out of
it. But we've somehow taken a situation that originally I was
unhappy about, and it may perhaps put some pressure on me to opt
out of, and instead I take the easy decision, but I adopt this
patent of irony about it that shields me from criticism for it.
That may be the clearest quick way of talking about it. I think
the people like my age and younger relate to irony, which is
largely unconscious and largely is used as a mechanism for
avoiding some really thorny issues -- I think that's toxic. Irony
itself is fantastic. It's one of the primary rhetorical modes.
It's been around forever. It's intensely powerful. There's nothing
wrong with it.

Do you think it's the same with satire?

I think anybody who does satire, and I've probably done a certain
amount -- there's this implicit, unspoken idea that by satirizing
something you're going to create motive force for change. Which in
fact doesn't really happen. But at least you're using satire as a
recommendation -- you know -- I ridicule this to show that it's
totally grotesque and unacceptable, therefore motivating people to
change stuff. But when satire and irony get divorced from that
project, they just become a kind of mode of discourse in and of
themselves. Then I think that things get kind of dark.

You wrote this essay in the 80s but revised it a bit for the book,
right?

Right. That's one thing I'm a little uncomfortable about -- I
don't watch that much TV any more. That essay seems to me a bit
dated. I think the situation is roughly the same. But the fact
that there's this tone of urgency in the essay, and then it was
seven years ago strikes me as a bit off. It was originally
commissioned by Harper's, and I believe it was printed in '90. I
think I wrote it in Summer and Fall of 1990. And then it didn't
work. They thought that it was too academic. But that's when I did
it.

Your revision mentions Beavis and Butthead, but you wrote this
before that show. And it seems that the meta-watching on that show
is just what you're talking about -- the idea that people watching
Beavis and Butthead are making fun of the show that does exactly
what they do -- make fun of TV.

Where irony comes in is anyone with an average brain notes that
I'm making fun of it but I'm also part of it. Now there's two ways
I can go -- I can change the situation, because it's clearly
ridiculous, or I can ironically genuflect the situation -- 'Isn't
this great? I'm a dickhead, sitting here watching these dickheads
watch dickheads on TV.' And it becomes, it seems to me, a very
easy excuse to perpetuate the deal. It's a way to keep doing
what's easy and convenient and yet look hip and cool while you're
doing it. Here's the other thing that's pernicious about it -- I
know that as I'm saying this stuff to you I'm afraid that I'm
coming off as some 60s refugee idealist, like 'Oh, instead of
making jokes, we ought to change things, man,' and so what I want
to do is jazz it up so that you don't make fun of me that way,
right? And the way that I would do that of course is to be ironic.
When Irony and ridicule become cultural currency, then the great
terror is not that you're gonna hit me or that you're gonna
disagree with me, it's that you're gonna make fun of me. And being
earnest or saying stuff that you really believe in that -- and
there are always problems with it -- opens you up to ridicule in a
way that if I were to say, 'Well man, I don't know what you want
to talk about. I'm a fuck-off, and I fucked off writing this book,
and I don't know,' then there's no way you can attack. There's no
way anybody disagrees. That's the way in which it seems to me this
stuff can become toxic. It's not the thing in and of itself. It's
the cultural use to which it's put and how pervasive it is. I'm
not a sociologist, I'm not a politician, I'm not an advocate for
cultural change. I'm talking like a private citizen. My stuff is
not programmatic, and I don't want to revolutionize American
culture. What I'm mostly trying to talk about is what it feels
like emotionally to be 34 in this country.

This reminds me of DeLillo's White Noise -- the section about 'The
Most Photographed Barn in America' -- the levels of distancing as
you watch something.

DeLillo and Pynchon and Gaddis and a lot of those guys I think
called the situation a long time ago. What's ironic (laughs
ironically) is that the stuff they're talking about is still going
on but their ironic, sarcastic voice we have adopted as a way to
protect ourselves from responsibility to the situations. So it's
like we've taken the technique or the surface of what it is
they're talking about, but we haven't listened to what the message
is.

So you don't watch much TV any more?

I did at one time, but now -- I've got a VCR, but I don't get any
TV on it, so I'm a little out of it. There are a couple of shows
that I go over to friends' houses and watch. And as far as I can
tell, the average quality of TV is better than it was seven years
ago. I mean the writing's better. It's smarter. It's funnier.

Why do you think that is?

I really don't know. I think probably it has something to do with
the maturation of Baby Boomers and probably the demographics --
there are more young, hip, educated people in the television
audience then there were, say, 10 years ago. I mean TV's not a
moral entity. It feels the pulse, and it delivers what it thinks
the pulse wants. Smartly written shows like Seinfeld and Frasier,
oh, Lord, a whole bunch -- Party of Five is fairly smart. X-Files
and Millennium are kind of depressing, but the TV has discovered
there's an audience for what's perceived as quality -- NYPD Blue
-- I really don't know. I'm sort of out of the loop now.

Do you think the writing's better because writers can't get other
work?

Writers have been writing for popular -- you know, Faulkner wrote
movies. A lot of writers break in on it. I think part of this has
something to do with the fact that there have emerged these TV
auteurs. Steven Bochco I think probably in the 80s was one of the
first -- Hill Street Blues, and then L.A. Law, St. Elsewhere and
now NYPD Blue -- he came up with the show. He directs most of it.
He develops his own kind of stylistic signature. Linda
Bloodworth-Thomason, who started out with Designing Women. These
guys who came up with Seinfeld, and I'm afraid I can't remember
their names, but there are some of these signature production
companies and writers and directors who are very, very smart. But
what's happened is their stuff has hit, where I think probably in
the past there have been plenty of really smart, quick, clever,
skillful screenwriters and directors -- it's just a lot of them
never really got a chance to show us, because there apparently
wasn't much audience demand for it. I think it's possibly also due
to the fact that cable now, first the addition of Fox and now
cable channels, puts a great deal more pressure on network
television to be better. Because there are so many niches now
available, and one can at the flick of a button turn to not just
public broadcasting but the Learning Channel or Arts and
Entertainment, that it's jacked the stakes up a little bit.

Do you think this improvement is a good thing, or is it just
popular entertainment usurping more of the novelist's job?

I can remember a cover feature in the New York Times Magazine that
had some characters from Bochco and some characters I think from
Seinfeld, and it was like, 'Want good literature? Watch TV.' And
this whole article was about TV supplanting the functions of
literature. I think TV and movies as narrative systems or as
deliverers of narrative and pleasure supplanted novelists and
short-story writers and poets a long time ago. I think we exist on
the margins of culture in a way that novelists didn't a hundred
years ago. I have friends who think this is a terrible thing. For
me myself it's sort of like it's just the way things are. I know
that I'm uncomfortable enough about a lot of attention, that I
rather like it. I think if novelists were treated the way TV stars
or musicians were, it would so warp us and so distort our capacity
for standing on the sides and watching. You've got like Dickens
and James and Dostoyevsky, who were just absolutely revered by
their cultures and just besieged like rock stars -- how they were
able to have the amount of balance and continue to have the amount
of insight -- I mean it would be very hard not to imagine that
you're different and better than other people if everybody's
treating you like you're different and better than them. So, just
in my own case, I'm rather comfortable with it. It means you don't
make all that money, and that might be bad. I don't know. I don't
particularly care. For the state of the culture, I think there's
stuff reading can do. Reading demands a level of activity on the
part of the respondent that TV and movies don't in most cases, and
I think it's probably, on a nutritional level, I think probably
reading is better than TV and movies. But, you know -- wheat germ
is better for us than Snickers bars, and I eat Snickers bars all
the time, because they're yummy.

Do you think novelists have to watch television now?

No. I think writers, say, under forty-five or forty or something
who aren't in some way having to deal with the impact of popular
culture on America -- unless you're writing a historical novel, I
just don't get it. I don't watch television as research or
anything like that, but it just seems as if television,
advertising, popular culture, media intrusion, now the Internet
and circuits of information, are part of our environment the way
clouds and trees were part of the environment a hundred years ago.
I don't know that there's any way to escape it.

What about someone like Kafka? Would Kafka be writing about
television? Or Bruno Schulz -- would they be doing this, or would
they still just be writing about their families?

Well, possibly. But Kafka and Schulz would be writing about the
family in an atmosphere in which from Oprah and Montel we now have
this thing called the dysfunctional family. We have a series of
cliches we can banter around ironically, and they would have to
take account of that, because they don't want to simply
thoughtlessly recycle it and look like pap. You know what I mean?
Kafka would not have to sit down and channel-surf in order to
write about what it's like to live in a televisual culture,
because it's oxygen. It's the atmosphere. My guess is that, given
Kafka's struggles with the idea of the human being as loathsome
and the human being as repulsive and worthless, that a culture
very much defined by these superstars who are way prettier than
any of the rest of us are -- and smoother and suaver and whatever
-- would have an enormous effect on him. If you're a writer,
unless you're like doing sci-fi or horror, you're engaged with the
culture. And this stuff is the culture. You can be glad about it.
You can be sad about it. But it's what there is, and there's
fascinating stuff about it.

You kind of refer to Don DeLillo as a prophet of contemporary
fiction for the way he foresaw a lot of this stuff. What other
writers do you see as leading the way now?

Vollmann's one. I think Gaddis' Frolic of His Own, which is almost
entirely about how litigious our society is, and most of the novel
takes place in a living room where a man's watching television. It
seems to me that the writers who aren't really engaged with the
stuff are the writers who came to maturity in the kind of
realistic era of the 50s and 60s. Updike doesn't seem to me to
write all that effectively about this stuff. When his characters
go out to eat fast food they go to Burger Bliss instead of Burger
King, as if in fiction you can't use the regular product name. It
just seems to be a mentality that is more old-fashioned, and a lot
of -- it's ironic -- the hard-core realists, the ones who
specialize in, you know, domestic psychodrama and the terrain of
the interior heart, seem to lean really far away from references
to pop culture -- I think because they're afraid that stuff is
freighted with social agenda and theory and they want to stay away
from that. The idea of writing realistic fiction where people
aren't spending 6 hours a day watching TV seems absurd to me,
because that's what people do.

I read Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen, and a lot of that novel took
place in front of the TV.

But here's the problem. The new novels -- they're sort of like
Linklater films, where really articulate people dissect the
Jetsons. And the problem is that it can very quickly become more
of the ironic pose of, 'Yeah, well I'm uncomfortable with this,
but, well, let's just kick back and fire up another doob and it's
all right.' And it can become then a series of hip gestures and
schticks, in which case you're not engaged with the culture --
you're just recycling it. We're just all singing the same tune
over and over again. The thing that the essay's supposed to be
about is, we've got kind of a problem here, because if we want to
engage with this and talk to it and in a certain way make fun of
it, how do you do that without using techniques that TV has
already taken from earlier insurgent fiction and is now using in
order to sell mini-vans and hamburgers. It's a real interesting
problem.

So now we see Pynchon scrambling to keep up with the techniques
that television stole from him.

Pynchon's another one whom I regard as really kind of
old-fashioned. I like early Pynchon. I like The Crying of Lot 49.
I like Gravity's Rainbow. But the Pynchon of Slow Learner
and Vineland, which I didn't like very much, seems to be making
the same tired jokes -- 'look how shallow and superficial the
culture is.' All right -- I've been told -- TV itself now tells
that to me. It just seems like more of the same. I'm not as big a
Pynchon fan as some other people are.

The word Pynchon is on every one of you're book covers as a
comparison. Does this drive you crazy?

Pynchon was important to me when I was in college. The first book
that I wrote, Broom of the System, some reviewer for the New York
Times said it was a rip-off of The Crying of Lot 49, like that I
hadn't read yet. So I got all pissed, and then I went and read The
Crying of Lot 49, and it was absolutely, incredibly good. I think
a certain amount of this is marketing, and, you know, the fastest
way to tell what something is like is to compare it to something
else. And having read Gaddis and having read Pynchon and DeLillo
and Coover and McElroy and Sorrentino, I can see that the kind of
stuff that I do or like that Bill Vollmann does or that Richard
Powers does is certainly more like that than it's like, you know,
Irwin Shaw or John Updike. Writers are bad to ask about this
though, because we're all egomaniacs, and we all want to be
utterly unique and, you know, not like anybody else, and so
there's a certain amount of bristling about it, but after a while
there's just no way to help it. Gravity's Rainbow is a great book,
but for the most part Pynchon kind of annoys me, and I think his
approach to a certain amount of stuff is kind of shallow, to be
honest with you. So I get uncomfortable about that, and when
people ask it over and over again I get the sense that they're
saying they think I'm ripping him off or just rehashing stuff he's
done, in which case I get pissed, but if that's how they're seeing
it, it means I've failed. I mean if my stuff's coming off
derivative of somebody else, it means there's something that I'm
doing that isn't right. But I find myself doing it all the time.
I'll see a movie, and I'll really like it, and I'll recommend it
to friends, and I'll say, well, it's sort of like this combined
with this. I mean it's such a convenient shorthand. And nobody
likes to have it done to them. You don't want to have a friend say
to you, 'You're just exactly like this other guy we know.' You
say, 'No, I'm not. I'm me.' But we do it to each other all the
time.

Are the names Mondragon and Bodine (from Infinite Jest) allusions
to Pynchon's Kurt Mondaugen and Pig Bodine?

Well, Jethro Bodine is from The Beverly Hillbillies. That's not a
Pig Bodine thing. But there were a few -- That thing in Infinite
Jest where two representatives (Steeply and Marathe) of two
countries are on a cliff-side and are making enormous shadows and
playing with it -- and there's even the use of the word
Brockengespenst, which comes out of Slothrop and Geli Tripping
(from Gravity's Rainbow) fucking on the Brockengespenst -- that's
an outright allusion. And I think there are a couple -- that's not
supposed to be any kind of inter-textual allusion. I just thought
it was really cool. And I've been to Tucson, and you actually can
do that with the shadows, and I thought it was neat. But I'm not
trying to lace the book with allusions to other texts. There's
nothing wrong with it. I'm not just particularly interested in it.

Could you talk about this idea you have about the Fiction of
Image?

There's a certain amount of stuff that's treating pop culture not
just as a system of reference, but as a subject. And for me, the
first thing I ever read of this was Max Apple's The Oranging of
America, which is a story about Howard Johnson. There are very
shallow archetypes in the images on the screen, and the idea that
you can remind the reader that these are artifice and that there
are real worlds behind them by using them as characters in stories
-- that's the kind of thing I'm talking about. References -- these
sort of hallucinatory references to pop culture. I think Leyner's
My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist is a big example that I talk
about in the book. This is somewhat embarrassing. I don't read an
enormous amount of contemporary fiction. There are writers I
really like, but for the most part, most of the stuff that I do
requires so much research and outside reading -- plus my teaching
duties -- that I read very little stuff now that isn't connected
with work. About the only stuff that I read just purely for my own
pleasure is poetry. And whatever trends are going on in poetry
don't seem to me to have anything to do with the trends that are
going on in fiction.

Do you think fiction needs to be or should be as self-referencing
as TV?

You would have to define self-referencing.

Well, like meta-fiction.

Another thing that the essay tries to do, and I don't know how
good a job it does of it, is sort of to trace out some of that
impulse in a kind of increase in self-consciousness that I think
TV has a big part in informing. Let me put it to you this way.
Since the 60s, and you probably know this better than I, the real
battle in fiction has been between writers and theorists who see
fiction as essentially a recursive mechanism -- William Gass and
John Barth and the 60s guys -- and most of them now publish with
academic presses and small presses like Dalkey, and the
book-buying public probably doesn't see much of them. The other
side of it says that fiction is not recursive, it's referential --
the old realistic 'language is a system of pictures, of words, and
I'm gonna write a story that's makes you imagine that this stuff
is really going on.' My personal take is that since the 60s, and
really since the rise of television, there's a degree of
self-consciousness culturally now that makes classic realistic
stuff seem to me to be either very naive or very manipulative. And
at least what I'm trying to do in my own stuff -- and I'm not
saying it succeeds, I am not saying it succeeds -- but what the
writers who interest me, what I see them doing, what I'm trying to
do involves trying to write fiction that works both ways. Because
one of the things that we've learned is that what we imagined to
be reality is more and more a linguistic enterprise. The same way
we found out that the observer in an experiment affects the
experiment, such that that classic distinction where 'I'm only
going to write stories about stories being written by writers who
are writing about stories' -- that whole game seems to me very
tired. I read Barth's last book of short stories, and I was just
sad for him, because he does it so well, but he's been doing the
same thing over and over again for 30 years. But then on the other
hand, you know, 'Imagine, dear reader, that you're not reading
words -- you're magically transported to the Summer of where this
dysfunctional family is going through it's throes' -- and I don't
believe that shit either. I think the stakes are higher now, and
it's much more exciting, and the balance is much finer. But
writers I admire, you know, like Gaddis, Cormac McCarthy, DeLillo,
Cynthia Ozick, are writers who seem to me to be able to create
compelling narratives that make you feel something for these
characters and know them in a way that like you and I could never
know each other -- and at the same time not being in any way
manipulative or old-fashioned or falsely naive about the way
language can stretch that world in which they live. Put it this
way -- me and Vollmann and Powers and Franzen and Leyner, we got a
pretty good idea who our readers are. Our readers are mostly
college-educated people under 50, which means you've had some
theory. You know about the linguistic turn in philosophy and
theory in the 50s and 60s in Europe. This is the terrain in which
we're having to work. I think the average reader, you know, the
guy who picks up the paperback book in an airport, doesn't give a
flying fuck about this. Because what he wants is what a certain
other type of fiction can provide -- it's just a momentary escape
from a stressful flight in an airplane.

You've mentioned Ozick before in other interviews. She's amazing
isn't she.

Here's what's cool is that this is this hyper-educated, very
seriously Jewish person writing about a culture and ethnicity that
I know very slightly, and mostly only from books, and whom I --
number one, the prose is just completely luminous, but number two,
I find myself feeling stuff for these folks that I sure don't feel
for most of the people who look just like me in regular life.
There's this magic that stories can do, and the thing that is
transcendent about Ozick is that she's extremely canny and
familiar with language and fiction as artifice and all that stuff,
and manages not to offend your sensibilities about that stuff,
while at the same time creating these really kind of luminous,
luminous, luminous stories. There are maybe two or three living
American writers who I think are just absolutely capital-G-great,
and she's one of them. Let's just have the whole thing be about
her. You'd be better off telling your readers about her than about
me.

Her story "Levitation" has a really cool tension between the
characters' lives and the characters' writing.

Writing about writing is fascinating and pregnant, and writing
about writing versus writing about life -- the more you look at
it, the more the distinctions collapse. On the other hand, writing
about writing can very easily collapse into a pose and a game.
You're just turning a crank on a certain kind of mechanism. And if
I'm talking about some of the ways that it seems to me irony kind
of afflicts us, I'm talking about strategic uses that we've put to
it to make hard things easier for us.

Let's talk about Infinite Jest -- the title first of all. It's
Shakespeare, but there's this feeling that "Infinite Jest" also
just means "Big Joke."

Well, it's supposed to be a long encomium to the dead father. But
part of the book is about a culture deciding that the meaning of
life consists in experiencing as much pleasure as much of the time
as possible and what are the implications of that. So it's
multivalent, but it's not particularly profound. I'm not very good
at titles.

The question about art and entertainment -- are these things that
make us human, or are these things that degrade us, like they do
to the people who watch the movie Infinite Jest?

Let's put it this way. Say you've got really serious art, and it
takes really hard work, whether it's painting or music or
literature. That stuff's not fun in the way commercial
entertainment is fun. I mean fun -- like eating a Twinkie. It's
like slipping into a warm bath after a hard day. It's an escape.
It's a relaxation. And that's fine, and that's entirely
appropriate. The danger comes when the escape becomes the
overriding purpose. And one of the ways it seems that television
has affected me is that my expectation for the amount of fun and
pleasure to work -- that ratio is very different than they are for
my parents. I think my pain threshold is lower. My expectations
are higher. My level of resentment at having to do anything I
don't particularly want to do that isn't pleasurable is higher. I
think a certain amount of that comes from the fact that for six
hours a day I receive certain messages -- you know, 'relax, we're
going to give to you, you don't have to give anything back, all
you need to do is every so often go and buy this product.' But
animals have fun. My dogs play. And watching them play -- there's
a purity of intent and a lack of self-consciousness that I wish I
could achieve when I was experiencing pleasure. But Plato and John
Stuart Mill both take books to talk about different types of
pleasure. In my own personal life, I like really arty stuff a lot
of the time. But there's also times I watch an enormous amount of
TV, and I've read probably 70 percent of Stephen King's books. And
I've read them basically because for a little while I want to
forget that my name is David Wallace, you know, and that I have
limitations, and that I'm sad that my girlfriend yelled at me. I
think serious art is supposed to make us confront things that are
difficult in ourselves and in the world. And one of the dangers is
if we get conditioned to confront less and less and experience
more and more pleasure, the commercial stuff's gonna win out.

So the movie Infinite Jest has no redeeming value?

Whether or not it has any value ends up being irrelevant. This is
a movie that is so pleasurable that once you've watched it once,
all you want to do is watch it again. I mean you want to watch it
again rather than eat.

So why not watch the movie?

That's a very interesting question. Would you? Have you ever read
any Larry Niven? Very cool, hard sci-fi guy. He talks about
wire-heads. The technology, maybe not in my lifetime but in yours,
will exist that they can jack into the p-terminals of your brain.
There's a lot of this stuff in (Infinite Jest), but a lot of it
got cut out. They jack into your brain, and you will be able to
have a system whereby you can plug it into a wall and have your
pleasure center stimulated. And in Niven -- and I hadn't read
Niven until the book was done, and I worry that everybody's going
to think I ripped him off -- wire-heads die. Because they don't
eat or drink or anything. I mean it's like sustained orgasm. So if
that technology were available and you had the money to do it, and
you would basically be kissing the rest of your life good-bye --
would you do it? I don't know. And what's interesting is that 60,
70 years ago -- the average person on the street would say,
'Absolutely not. Only deviants and weak-willed people would do
it.' I think these days the average moral person would say, 'I
really don't know.' I'd like to say no, but the first time I was
like really depressed or life seemed really fucked -- there's the
plug.

So you don't know is the point.

What would your guess be?

About you?

No, about yourself.

I'd probably say no.

It sounds to me like you like to read too much, and if you did
this.... There's things like joys of learning and joys of getting
to know other people, and then there's religious stuff and all
that. But all that stuff is now pulling against what I think in my
generation and yours is very different from, say, our
grandparents' -- an immense, gnawing, craving hunger for pleasure,
and a real feeling of deprivation when we're not experiencing it.
I don't think that I would do it, but I think what I would do is I
would arrange to have a lot of friends around me who would keep me
from doing it.