Tag Archives: David Foster Wallace

Writing Our America

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Scott Korb | Longreads | February 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)

 

The following essay is adapted from a talk presented at Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program. It includes advice from writers of “YA fiction, writers for television and stage, of novels and essays, investigative journalism, and criticism” on how we might produce meaningful work in the next four years.

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I often teach a piece of writing by David Foster Wallace, included originally as the introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Essays. He called the piece “Deciderization—2007,” a title that jabbed at the then-current president, George W. Bush, who, in the midst of his second term—in the midst of the Iraq war, which as fought had been lost—reminded the country during a press conference insisting he would not fire Donald Rumsfeld, whom he would later fire, that he, George W. Bush, was “The Decider.”

The moment seems far away now, but Bush’s choice of words here, it was said at the time, “struck the national funny bone.” Writing in the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg said,

On the Internet, it was memorialized to the tune of “I am the Walrus,” by the Beatles. (“I am me and Rummy’s he. Iraq is free and we are all together.”) On late-night television, the Decider emerged as a comic-book hero, courtesy of Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show.”

In other words, in making fun of Bush, Wallace was not alone and, as he was well aware, was far from the most high-profile or widely observed jabber. Opening the book’s introduction, he wrote, “I think it’s unlikely that anyone is reading this as an introduction.”

Most of the people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman Samplers. They skip around, pick and choose. There isn’t the same kind of linear commitment as in a regular book. … There’s a kind of triage. The guest editor’s intro is last, if at all.

This sense of being last or least likely confers its own freedoms.

When I’ve taught his introduction before I’ve tended to highlight how Wallace considers and reconsiders the essay form itself—“one constituent of the truth about the front cover,” he writes, “is that your guest editor isn’t sure what an essay even is.” This confusion is fun in a way that Wallace is often fun. It does what this particular writer tends to do—puts his own subjectivity front and center in an effort to pull a rug out from under us. What do you mean you don’t know what an essay even is?

Continuing on, Wallace then addresses his lack of both confidence and concern with the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—more fun for us—only to change course a moment later, explaining that he does care about such differences, but conceding that they’re “hard to talk about in a way that someone who doesn’t try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand.” At which point he dives into the part of the essay I’ve always been most interested in talking about with writing students, who tend—as I am—to be interested in how to do what writers are trying to do. What is writing supposed to feel like?

Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.

The intergenre debates that go on in our culture have been a great pleasure to me over the years. I like what journalist Jeff Sharlet says on the point: “Fiction’s first move is imagination; nonfiction’s is perception.” And to be sure, I’m always delighted to hear from someone about the abyss under poetry’s tightrope. Read more…

Michael Joyce’s Second Act

All photos by Sam Riches.

Sam Riches | Longreads and Racquet | January 2017 | 19 minutes (4,882 words)

RacquetOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Sam Riches, co-funded by Longreads Members and co-published in conjunction with Racquet magazine’s second issue.

Michael Joyce climbs into his father’s station wagon on a Sunday afternoon, the light of southern California glowing soft and gold. Joyce is tiny and cherubic, his face freckled and full, his hair a shock of strawberry blonde. He is 12 years old and has already spent six of those years playing competitive tennis, and he’s become very good at it.

In another six years, Joyce will become the junior national champion. After that victory, he will hoist a heavy trophy overhead and cameras will pop and flash and reporters will shout questions in his direction, and his ascension, as a professional tennis player, will begin. In an especially vibrant era for American tennis, Joyce’s cohort will include Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Jim Courier. He will play each of them, with varying levels of success, and at his peak he will be ranked as the 64th best male singles player in the world.

During his playing days, David Foster Wallace will write about him in his seminal tennis essay, “The String Theory,” later republished in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, and through that work, Joyce’s career will persist, a blip of his existence anthologized in pop culture. In the years that follow, at every tournament Joyce attends, someone will ask him about that story, about Wallace, and about that period in his life.

A wrist injury will end his career early but not his successes. He will coach Maria Sharapova for six years and two Grand Slam titles and become a known commodity as a coach and mostly forgotten as a player, a fact that will annoy him greatly, but also be inarguable.

On this day, though, none of that yet matters. Defeat had been meted out by another prodigious talent, another boy born with a natural inclination towards the sport. Joyce, at 12 years old, was not yet thinking about his professional future, he was not yet aware that his youth and working adulthood would blend together without interruption; he just knew that when he won, everyone around him seemed happier and he liked that. He liked the way his view of the world, from the back seat of the station wagon, seemed to grow larger and brighter on those days, the family joyful and contented, his father sometimes pulling off the road for a post-match ice cream.

This would not be one of those days, though. Joyce had lost. His opponent, a lefty, put heavy topspin on the ball. It was a style that Joyce had yet to encounter, and when his opponent walloped it back, deep into the corners, a distance, both literal and metaphoric, grew between the boys.

The resulting defeat was felt so strongly and shared between Joyce and his father, also named Michael, that they diverted from their regular route home, drove out to the edge of town, and pulled to a stop at a factory that manufactured ball machines. Joyce didn’t know this factory existed, he didn’t know how his father knew it existed, but soon enough a new ball machine was rattling in the trunk, and they were on their way home.

Years earlier, in the family backyard, Joyce’s father had torn down the tree house, filled in the swimming pool, and put up a tennis court. Joyce received instruction from famed tennis technician and legendary hard ass Robert Lansdorp and his father, who taught tennis in the army, would replicate the lessons at home.

Now, in the backyard, the machine stood in his father’s place, rapid firing balls that sliced and hooked and spun through the air, mirroring the shots that Joyce had missed earlier in the day. Joyce’s task was to remain there, outside, until he understood how to play every shot. For three hours, Joyce batted at the air, fought through fatigue, and ignored his body that was wilting with exhaustion.

Later, when his mother and sister returned home from a day of running errands, his mother stormed into the backyard. “What are you doing?” she shouted at his father. “The poor kid is exhausted.” It was then that Joyce took his first break, his hands now raw and red and blistered over, his frustration giving way to tears.

This is an unseemly side of athletics: the labor that is overlooked in the delirium of mass mediation, the absurdity that we ignore because it is ugly and alarming and unhealthy, but also necessary. It is very hard to go pro in any sport, and few sports are as isolating as tennis. On the court, there is nowhere to hide, no teammates to mask individual deficiencies. As a result, the life of an athlete, even a young one, has to be dwindled down to a singular focus, and then refined over and over again. Joyce did not yet fully understand why this level of sacrifice was required—but it wouldn’t be much longer until he did.

“When I was younger I almost felt like the happiness in the family depended on how I was doing in tennis and it probably did a little bit and that was the sad reality of it,” Joyce says. “If I won we went out for lunch and everyone’s happy. If I lose, my dad’s kinda pissed and my mom’s pissed at my dad. It’s a lot of pressure on a kid. It’s not a normal childhood.”

That day, in the backyard, with his mother’s help, Joyce learned that he had to stand up for himself. He had to be able to say no, his mother told him. He couldn’t please everyone, not all the time, and his self-worth couldn’t be dictated by wins and losses. This was a hard lesson to learn, of course, and Joyce describes that day, and his father’s course of action, as “a bit nutty,” but it worked. A few months later, Joyce played that same boy and won in straight sets.

Through the cursory nature of their careers, athletes learn of life’s brevity earlier than most and at another angle and a different depth. Joyce is now a father and husband, and the things that used to matter to him, matter less now. The priorities of his life have shifted, but tennis remains near the top and so does what he loves most about the sport: the game’s simple binaries, that there is one winner and one loser. On a tennis court, you are exposed and vulnerable, and you have to face whatever comes your way and face it alone. Joyce has come to enjoy that. He has viewed his life through the lens of tennis, his ambitions and desires distilled through its filter. His experiences have shaped who he is, sometimes in small, indiscernible ways, and other times in larger, sweeping turns. He grew up in the sport, and in public, and now, at 43 years old, Michael Joyce begins his second act. Read more…

The Cult Could Become a Church: On David Foster Wallace

I once dated a David Foster Wallace fanboy. You know who I mean: He’s white. He’s straight. He went to a small liberal arts college. He interrogates you on which DFW books you’ve read—the novels, or just the essays? He’s read Infinite Jest probably more than once. He thinks he has a unique take on the author’s work and the man’s life (and death).

My ex isn’t alone; DFW fanaticism swept the literary States in the early to mid-aughts. Prepare for the fans to be flamed (or the flames to be fanned): The End of the Tour (based on an account of Wallace’s Infinite Jest book tour) stars Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel and hits theaters on July 31. If you’ve never heard of this acclaimed author, treasure your last moments of innocence; then, read this primer at Vulture on DFW’s contested legacy.

David Foster Wallace has always been an unstable commodity. For two decades, the writer and his writings have been at the center of a cult with several branches. The first branch is other fiction writers, who also tend to be the most serious readers. This makes a certain obvious sense. ‘Infinite Jest’ is, on its face, the most daunting of novels; 1,079 pages, 96 of them endnotes; text in small type pointing you constantly to text in smaller type, necessitating multiple bookmarks; an immersion in two subcultures, junior tennis and addiction recovery; a time commitment to be measured in weeks, not days — two months for serious readers, Wallace thought…

The second branch are the magazine writers for whom his essays renewed the possibilities of a fast-aging New Journalism by clearing away Tom Wolfe’s cynicism and replacing it with a dazzling faux-amateur act.

The third are the academics; English professors hadn’t received the gift of fictional worlds so rich and susceptible to their hermeneutics since Nabokov, Beckett, or Joyce.

But before his suicide he compared his own fame only to that of a high-profile classical musician. 

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David Foster Wallace on the Costs of Becoming a Professional Tennis Player

It’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way ‘up close and personal’ profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life – outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.

-From David Foster Wallace’s “The String Theory,” published in Esquire in July 1996.

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Photo: jpellgen, Flickr

David Foster Wallace and the Nature of Fact

Josh Roiland | Literary Journalism Studies | Fall 2013 | 23 minutes (5,690 words)

Josh Roiland is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication & Journalism and a CLAS-Honors Preceptor in the Honors College at the University of Maine. Roiland is a cultural historian of the American news media, who researches and teaches classes on the cultural, political, and literary significance of American journalism. This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Literary Journalism Studies. Our thanks to Roiland for allowing us to reprint it here, and for adding this introduction:

David Foster Wallace saw clear lines between journalists and novelists who write nonfiction, and he wrestled throughout his career with whether a different set of rules applied to the latter category. In the years after his death, he has faced charges of embellishment and exaggeration by his close friend Jonathan Franzen and repeated by his biographer D.T. Max. Their criticisms, however, do not adequately address the intricate philosophy Wallace formulated about genre classification and the fact/fiction divide. This article explores those nuances and argues that Wallace’s thinking about genre was complex, multifaceted, and that it evolved during his writing life.

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Before he sat down with the best tennis player on the planet for a noonday interview in the middle of the 2006 Wimbledon fortnight, David Foster Wallace prepared a script. Atop a notebook page he wrote, “R.Federer Interview Qs.” and below he jotted in very fine print 13 questions. After three innocuous ice breakers, Wallace turned his attention to perhaps the most prominent theme in all his writing: consciousness. Acknowledging the abnormal interview approach, Wallace prefaced these next nine inquires with a printed subhead: “Non-Journalist Questions.” Each interrogation is a paragraph long, filled with digressions, asides, and qualifications; several contain superscripted addendums.  In short, they read like they’re written by David Foster Wallace. He asks Roger Federer if he’s aware of his own greatness, aware of the unceasing media microscope he operates under, aware of his uncommon elevation of athletics to the level of aesthetics, aware of how great his great shots really are. Wallace even wrote, “How aware are you of the ballboys?” before crossing the question out.

Read more…

"She's been wearing a bra since fourth grade and I bet she gets her period." Great Dialogue from Great Writers

Nancy spoke to me as if she were my mother. “Margaret dear—you can’t possibly miss Laura Danker. The big blonde with the big you know whats!”

“Oh, I noticed her right off,” I said. “She’s very pretty.”

“Pretty!” Nancy snorted. “You be smart and stay away from her. She’s got a bad reputation.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“My brother said she goes behind the A&P with him and Moose.”

“And,” Janie added, “she’s been wearing a bra since fourth grade and I bet she gets her period.”

—Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, as quoted in Ten Authors Who Write Great Dialogue ( Meredith Borders, Lit Reactor). Borders’ column also features passages from Jeffrey Eugenides, Barbara Kingsolver and Elmore Leonard, among others.

Photo: New York Public Library, Flickr

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When Jeffrey Eugenides moved to New York, he was 28 years old and things were not looking good. After graduating from Brown in 1983, he and Rick Moody, a college friend, had driven out to San Francisco with no real plan other than making a go of it as writers, and lived together awhile on Haight Street, listening to the sound of the electric typewriter coming from the other room. 

… That same summer, Jonathan Franzen, also 28, was living in Jackson Heights, Queens, and feeling “totally, totally isolated.” The neighborhood was an immigrant jumble, and Franzen was a solemn, intellectual guy from St. Louis without much occasion to leave the house. He had gotten some attention and money for his debut novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, but the axis of the planet had not obediently shifted. He was frustrated with living in “shared monastic seclusion” with his then-wife, he says, when he got a fan letter from a writer he knew of but had never read. David Foster Wallace, then 26, was having dire troubles of his own and wrote to praise what Franzen had done in a “freaking first novel.” 

“Just Kids.” — Evan Hughes, New York Magazine

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