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A Brand New Interview with David Foster Wallace (electricliterature.com)
143 points by jger15 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

Thank you for sharing this. For those who haven't read and/or watched DFW in any capacity, you really should. His thoughts on modern western society are just so fascinating and multi-faceted. His perspective is one of great depression, yet his points are eye-opening and remarkable.

One of my favorite interviews of his is this one [1]. You can tell just how deeply he thinks about each question.

[1] https://youtu.be/FkxUY0kxH80

Thanks, but I'm waiting for the right person to tell me to get into David Foster Wallace http://reductress.com/post/why-im-waiting-for-the-right-man-...

When you finally find that person, this article from the New Yorker may be helpful when preparing to read Infinite Jest


My wife actually did introduce me to DFW, back when we were dating. I was a bit obsessed with him for a while... even visited his collected works at UT Austin.

this is hilarious. thanks for sharing.

The Beth Newell & Sarah Pappalardo episode of Hollywood Handbook was a big let down, which was so disappointing given the quality on Reductress.

I am so puzzled that the intersection of People Who Nail David Foster Wallace Satire and People Who Don’t Get It As Hollywood Handbook Guests is non-empty.

hahahaha that is fantastic, +111

> “Most of the journalism I read in America right now is interested in how the internet is going to affect the business of publishing. I personally think that the internet represents simply an enormous flood of available information and entertainment and sensations with very little assistance to the consumer in terms of choosing, finding, discerning between those choices and this sort of rabid, capitalist fervor with which the internet is being not just developed but invested in. I don’t have to tell you about the .com stock market explosion and all that. It seems to me, as just a layman and an amateur, that the internet is almost the perfect distillation of the American capitalist ethos, a flood of seductive choices. It’s completely laissez-faire, with no really effective engines for choosing or searching and everybody being much more interested in the economic and material aspects of it than some of the aesthetic and ethical and moral and political questions attached to it.“

From the interview.

A similar sentiment is expressed by Neil Postman in "Amusing ourselves to death". He closely examines the impact of a visual medium on communication, as opposed to written work, and how it affects the messages that we can communicate. Ultimately the messages and ideas that we communicate shape our culture. The internet wasn't big at the time of the writing, but he is very insightful as to what it means for out communication.

Side note: the types of conversation that take place on HN are not surprising when you take into account the lack of photos and emoji as opposed to say FB that has "like" features.

That quote struck me as well. The 'effective engines' for search are there I suppose but perhaps not so much for choosing.

> You know, a very simple answer would have to do with the idea of constant movement but within a rigidly defined set of constraints and also with the idea of two and twoness and things moving back and forth between two sides in such a way that a pattern is created.

Huh. Never thought about that before.

Wonder what connections to this idea that I am missing in the deeper themes of Infinite Jest. Does anyone know if there are any good websites for this kind of literary analysis? I'd be interested if there's a hub where people go to share the task in putting in the kind of "work" required to understand deep fiction that Wallace talks about. It would be nice to be able to read about the many other deeper symbolic connections that I missed...

Literary academia does that, but I've not yet developed a habit for it myself.

I got into the behemoth (Infinite Jest) fairly recently. Have not finished it yet though. Every time I open the book, I end up starting again and gain perspective all over. A behemoth, but a tasty one nevertheless. Highly recommended.

Nobody has mentioned "This is water" from a commencement speech [1] at a college yet, so let me do that.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PhhC_N6Bm_s

If you have seen Paterson by Jim Jarmusch, you might also like this analysis of the film with supporting arguments from Wallace’s “This Is Water”: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=RnGvWTRQ9j4

I've yet to read any DFW books. I've heard much about him, and saw couple of his videos on youtube. Any recommendations on which books of his I should start off with?

In my opinion DFW is a much better essayist than novelist, so I'd recommend you start with his essays to see if you like him and then move on to his fiction if you feel like it. Many intelligent, well read people (including literature professors) dislike his fiction, so know that it's not just you if you don't enjoy it.

Consider the Lobster is a good collection of essays to start with. The essay on Joseph Frank's biography of Dostoevsky is probably my favorite DFW essay.

Agree, start with his essays. "Consider the Lobster" is great.

The collection that hooked me is "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again". That essay in particular he wrote for Harpers where they sent him on a 7-day cruise in the Caribbean. The title says it all. It's hilarious.

Or there's this, which is free and also great. Wallace writing about talk radio. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/04/host/30...

If you like short fiction, I really recommend "Little Expressionless Animals". It's not as much of a complete head-scrambler as some of his other short fiction.

If you like journalism, some of his pieces on tennis are astounding, eg "Federer as religious experience" or the one where he follows some guy who's worked his ass off his whole life and is one click below the top tier and will probably never make it (forgotten that one).

If you like criticism, "E unibus pluram" (on TV) and "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young" (about postmodernism, irony and the whole clique of people around Brett Easton Ellis) are both outstanding.

For novels, he only wrote 3 (as far as I know) and they're really great. I personally read "Broom of the System" first because I like reading things in order (I've done this with a number of other authors I like). It's a really cool book, very funny and not quite as huge a commitment as "Infinite Jest". So don't feel you have to start with Infinite Jest, you really don't. It's great though, as is "Pale King". Had he lived to complete "Pale King" I think it would easily have been his greatest novel, but in the state it was published in, it's still outstanding.

Maybe the tennis journeyman's essay you referred to is the one about Michael Joyce

Oh yeah I forgot. "Supposedly fun thing" is hillarious, as is it's predecessor, "Getting away from already being pretty much away from it all".

I agree, and as a gateway to his fiction I'd maybe recommend the short story 'The Depressed Person' (https://harpers.org/wp-content/uploads/HarpersMagazine-1998-...) which is characteristically both very depressing and very funny.

A New Yorker "Shouts and Murmurs" piece mentions Infinite Jest:


FWIW, I've only read the first 1/3 of IJ, and much of it is now burnt into my memory like the scars of a branding iron. Resolved to never pick up the book again.

Personally, that is exactly what made me decide that I actually loved Infinite Jest. I was deeply unsure what I thought about it. But it was indelible, I found it popping back into my thoughts constantly over the next few months, even (or especially) while reading other, less memorable, novels. Still, many years later, there are a bunch of specific scenes and themes that I find myself thinking about. I particularly think its vision of addiction in a broad sense is spot on and was ahead of its time.

DFW in my opinion can craft a sentence like no other author I have ever read- and that's not an overstatement, they are real works of art that may change how you view writing.

Where I feel he falls down is telling a story. The longer he tries to string those sentences together into a coherent whole, the more things fall apart. None of his stories really end, they all have this sopranos-esque ending where it all just kind of ends suddenly and then you have to conclude for yourself what the actual ending was, and what the point of all this was.

With that said, I feel his essays are great and enjoyable reads, his shorter stories are ok too, but then his longer fiction stuff... enjoy it for the sentences.

You can find "Consider the Lobster" online very easily with a google search. If you enjoy that, you can google his name and find some other small works of his, but if you want to dive in and get a compilation/distillation of his major works, the David Foster Wallace Reader is something you should buy: https://www.amazon.com/David-Foster-Wallace-Reader/dp/031618... Personally, I would read the non-fiction first, and then go back to the fiction stuff.

Honestly, at $13 for the paperback, I'd say its a no-brainer to pick up if you have even a passing interest.

I just read/skimmed consider the lobster, is it supposed to be exemplary? Maybe there's some irony that I'm not appreciating but I'm not impressed.

I don't think you can skim DFW. Ne says as much in the linked interview:

"I think the sort of work I do falls into an area of American fiction that, yes, that is accessible, but that is designed for people who really like to read and understand reading to be a discipline and to require a certain amount of work."

I can't even skim that sentence.

I just meant I didn't read the entire essay, but I did read each part that I did read carefully. /shrugs

It’s not him, it’s you.


If you have any interest in tennis (or not, honestly), I'd say start here before buying another book. Read it as a kid and then had a magical revelation years later when I connected this piece to the man itself.

If you like it, then hop onto the rest of his work from nonfiction to short-stories to IJ if you have a spare couple months.

I'm excited to be the first comment to recommend The Broom of the System. I picked it off the library shelf because I knew of David Foster Wallace, but didn't think I had the stamina to go for Infinite Jest at the time. It's much, much shorter than Infinite Jest, and is a single story rather than a collection of essays (don't get me wrong, Consider the Lobster is also great). The humor is absurd, different than anything I'd read before, and it completely clicked with me, paving the way to the rest of his work. You should start here.

The Broom of the System was the first DFW I read. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The ending was a little lackluster, actually the overall story was a little lackluster; But the humor and characters make up for that. I smile every time I think about The Great Ohio Desert.

I agree with the comments about his essays, like the tennis essay and the Consider the Lobster recommendation, and I'll add another piece of short fiction, Incarnations of Burned Children: https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a500/incarnation...

Incarnations of Burned Children is horrifying. Which, I suppose, is the intent. But not for the faint of heart.

A recommendation for IoBC should come with a strong warning. It is a extremely short piece but, word for word, one of the most hard-hitting and distressing things I’ve read.

It’s a testament to DFW’s talents as a writer to get so much impact out of so few words but it’s an incredibly tough piece of writing to recommend. Especially if you have young children.

He can basically be broken down into his non-fiction collections, his short fiction collections and his novels. Personally, I would start with his non-fiction (Consider the lobster, supposedly fun thing). Then maybe some of his short fiction, like Brief Interviews, which can be a little more experimental, before tackling the novels.

This is perhaps my favorite non-fiction of his (which appears in Consider the Lobster): https://harpers.org/wp-content/uploads/HarpersMagazine-2001-...

It's a discussion of descriptivist vs prescriptivist grammar and led me to A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, which is a way more fascinating book than its title would imply.

This has been my path through his work, and it's been pretty enjoyable to follow. The non-fiction is definitely the most accessible, and built my taste for his writing.

I'd start with "supposedly fun thing". Easy and short read, but enough to get a taste for him.

Easy and short, and fun. Yet points the attentive reader straight at central moral failures of our era.

One of my favorites by him is a short story titled "Good Old Neon": http://sdavidmiller.com/octo/files/no_google2/GoodOldNeon.pd...

Start with "Consider The Lobster".

The essays are a much better place to start. Pick up A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and read those, especially the last essay, which is what the book is named after.

If you like that kind of thing, then the books might be for you. I love DFW's essays. I really cannot get into the books. I know a lot of people like this.

Arguably his best essay, however, is the one on Michael Joyce, The String Theory. Some people have judged it as one of the best essays / short stories of all-time.


It is then remarkable that an author dared to write a follow-up to this iconic essay... and mostly succeeded.


Infinite Jest, although it might take you a few tries to get through it. Part of the fun though.

Re-posting a dead comment that I don't think should be dead. I totally disagree - I loved Infinite Jest when I read it a bunch of years ago, and think I still would now - but it's not an invalid perspective. It's true that the problems and angst of privileged largely vapid mostly young people are not as bad as those experienced by many (most?) people in the world. But Infinite Jest also captures a certain experience of life that rings true. That's what makes a novel great for me, regardless of how much I relate to the experiences of the characters.

"Infinite Jest was infinitely boring, a lot of the "edginess" feels dated and the problems the characters deal with feel juvenile. Its also devoid of emotions that feels like the isolation of the American suburbs. I liked many hard to read books, Joyce for example, as well as postmodernism, but I can't recommend this collection of superficial rants and emotional sterility. Curiously, the people that liked this book had the same kind of emotional sterility I despise. Mostly, whiny, stuck up English majors from the suburbs. Often with few life experiences."

I loathed "Infinite Jest" having got through it in one try. The advice I have since received is that I should have started with DFW's shorter pieces. I'm not going to now, but I do feel it's good advice given the love I've seen people who followed that route generally gain for his writing.

As one who shares your reaction to IJ, I would mention that his journalism is very different read. The dozen or so I've got to ranged from good to brilliant.

Infinite Jest helped me discover my upper limit for bleakness. Turns out is 500-600 pages. I need someone to admire in a book. It’s a dangerous criteria — usually turns out to be some Pollyanna.

His history of infinity, Everything and More.

I highly recommend listening to the interviews Wallace did with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW's Bookworm.


Silverblatt is an amazing interviewer of authors, and a deep but totally unpretentious reader. He's been interviewing writers for almost 30 years and still does every week. I'd recommend the podcast version (or radio, if you live in the US) to anyone who wants to improve their experience of reading fiction.

I wonder what DFW would've thought of Tao Lin.

As someone who really admired Lin when I was younger, I now think that he embodies exactly the kind of ironist DFW criticised, too afraid of being seen as uncool to ever publicly care about anything.

It's interesting, I've always taken Lin at face-value -- I don't think he's being ironic at all. Especially in Trip, I see someone who is trying to full-on embrace and figure out life w/o a hint of detachment or irony in a way DFW would've appreciated.

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