By Josh Roiland
Longreads | December 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)
At a hip Manhattan book launch for John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2011 essay collection Pulphead, David Rees, the event’s emcee, asked the two-time National Magazine Award winner, “So John…are you the next David Foster Wallace?” The exchange is startling for its absurdity, and Sullivan shakes his head in disbelief before finally answering, “No, that’s—I’m embarrassed by that.” But the comparison has attached itself to Sullivan and a host of other young literary journalists whom critics have noted bear resemblance to Wallace in style, subject matter, and voice.
When Leslie Jamison published The Empathy Exams, her 2014 collection of essays and journalism, a Slate review said “her writing often recalls the work of David Foster Wallace.” Similarly, when Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life appeared a year earlier, a review in the L.A. Review of Books proclaimed: “If Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace had a love child, I thought, Michelle Orange would be it.”
Wallace was, himself, a three-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, winning once, in 2001; yet he compulsively identified himself as “not a journalist” both in his interactions with sources and reflexively as a character in his own stories. Nonetheless, he casts a long shadow in the world of literary journalism—a genre of nonfiction writing that adheres to all the reportorial and truth-telling covenants of traditional journalism, while employing rhetorical and storytelling techniques more commonly associated with fiction. To give better shape to that penumbra of influence, I spoke with Sullivan, Jamison, and Orange, along with Maria Bustillos, Jeff Sharlet, Joel Lovell, and Colin Harrison about Wallace’s impact on today’s narrative nonfiction writers. They spoke about comparisons to Wallace, what they love (and hate) about his work, what it was like to edit him, their favorite stories, posthumous controversies, and his influence and legacy.
Joel Lovell only worked with Wallace on one brief essay. Despite that singular experience, Lovell’s editorial time at Harper’s and elsewhere in the 1990s and 2000s put him in great position to witness Wallace’s rising status in the world of magazine journalism. He was unequivocal when I asked him which nonfiction writer today most reminds him of Wallace.
Joel Lovell: The clear descendant is John Jeremiah Sullivan, of course. For all sorts of reasons (the ability to move authoritatively between high and low culture and diction; the freakishly perceptive humor on the page) but mostly just because there’s no one else writing narrative nonfiction or essays right now whose brain is so flexible and powerful, and whose brainpower is so evident, sentence by sentence, in the way that Wallace’s was. No one who’s read so widely and deeply and can therefore “read” American culture (literature, television, music) so incisively. No one who can make language come alive in quite the same way. He’s an undeniable linguistic genius, like Dave, who happens to enjoy exercising that genius through magazine journalism. Read more…