An Apology to David Foster Wallace

Id_tyree_wallace_ap_0011 Morgan on David Foster Wallace, in The Smart Set:

Nobody ever really knows why someone else commits suicide — that’s what makes it an ultimate act, an unsettling challenge to those of us who keep on. Anyway, it doesn’t matter why. The death of David Foster Wallace is simply a fact now and we’re the ones who have to deal with it.

I fear that we didn’t do very well by David. We didn’t listen to him closely enough and we kept making him into something that he wasn’t. We called him an ironist. We suggested, often enough, that he was part of The Problem. Or we simply dismissed him as a cute and funny writer with a number of tricks up his sleeve. It was true, of course, that he never came up with a solution — no one has. But he dedicated himself to the problem of America, how to write about it, how to care about it, how to negotiate between loving it and hating it.

Because he was reasonably honest, he ended up taking crap from all sides. To the cultural conservatives he was everything bad about postmodernism. To the postmodernists, he was the wunderkind and court jester who served literary pleasure. But he was neither. He was never willing to fall into either of those camps.

David Foster Wallace has left us with quite a few great essays. Perhaps none is as great as the piece “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I think of it as an anti-manifesto. It is the painstaking elucidation of a genuine conundrum. I call it a genuine conundrum because there is a difference between simply being confused and having earned your confusion. In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace lets himself think about literature as a task, literature as something each generation has to try and get right. Bravely, he begins the essay talking about television. He likes television. Goddamit we all like television. He will not join the ranks of those who simply dismiss the boob tube as nothing more than that. Or as Wallace puts it, laconically, “American literary fiction tends to be about U.S. culture and the people who inhabit it.” For Wallace, the central problem is not whether television is good or bad. Television, he wants to say, is constitutive of who we are, and that which is constitutive of who we are is beyond simple value judgments — it has become the necessary ground from which we proceed. You can’t be a writer, you can’t write about how the people around you experience the world, without taking into account that simple but massively important fact. You have to deal with television and other aspects of American popular culture, truly deal with it. And yet, Wallace doesn’t want to be reduced to television. He is confused about just how much he should accept it and how much he should reject it. He is trying to find the right balance in the midst of his confusion.