A Supposedly Fun Thing Essay Summary Of The Declaration

I knew the late David Foster Wallace a very little bit—not much to speak of, really, but I wrote about his work often. An interview that I did with him during the book tour for “Infinite Jest,” in 1996, achieved a surprising longevity. I reviewed his essay collection “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” for the New York TimesBookReview, and his last short-story collection, “Oblivion,” for Salon. Until he committed suicide, in 2008, when anyone asked, I’d say that he was my favorite living writer, a statement that was typically greeted with astonishment and skepticism. So while I was barely acquainted with David Wallace the man, his reputation was another matter.

These two things aren’t the same, not in the case of any writer: a notion that many people would agree with in principle but that everyone has a hard time bearing in mind on a daily basis. Even the reputation of a reputation is subject to distortion. That Wallace was not widely regarded as a “great” writer during his lifetime is quickly being forgotten. Of course, a writer’s reputation changes over the years—that’s to be expected. Literary works grow or shrink in significance as the moment in which they were created recedes and as new readers bring new sensibilities to bear on them. But our memory of a reputation’s evolution itself changes, or at least that’s what seems to be happening in the case of Wallace. As more than one critic has observed, Wallace’s death, and the private suffering that it revealed, has led to the formation of an iconic posthumous public image that some of his friends have taken to calling “Saint Dave.” The critic Christian Lorentzen wrote in New York that Saint Dave is David Foster Wallace “reduced to a wisdom-dispensing sage on the one hand and shorthand for the Writer As Tortured Soul on the other.”

Yet even Lorentzen himself isn’t entirely immune to this sort of drift. In his review of “Purity,” the new novel by Wallace’s friend, Jonathan Franzen, he contrasts Franzen’s reputation for “being kind of a prick” with Wallace’s. Although Franzen had remarked upon the lack of “ordinary love” in Wallace’s fiction, Lorentzen writes, “The paradox was that Wallace’s readers felt loved when they read his books, and in turn came to fiercely love their author.”

Perhaps this was true for Lorentzen; as much as I loved Wallace’s work myself, I’m not sure that I’d describe my relationship to it (let alone to the author himself) that way. As for the idea that feeling loved by Wallace and in turn loving him back describes how most of his readers connected to his work during his lifetime—that contradicts everything I remember of the period. I edited a books section and fielded many queries from Wallace's admirers seeking a chance to write about his work. These supplicants—typically high-spirited young men intoxicated by Wallace’s fusion of complex ideas and forms with an apparently loose-limbed conversational prose style—were certainly enthusiastic. They wanted to rhapsodize about how smart Wallace was, to supply interpretations that explained what Wallace had to say about art and alienation and the need for serious writers to question the artificiality of consumer and entertainment culture. They wanted to celebrate how funny he was. They adored that he could be so brainy and yet also indulge in dopey scatological jokes like “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.” But they never spoke of love. In fact, references to any profound human emotion (apart from alienation) were notably absent from these pitches, which, of course, often featured footnotes.

This vexed me. Wallace’s most ardent readers, I felt, utterly failed to make a case that effectively disputed the common, dismissive attitude toward his work that was expressed by many people in the literary circles I knew. Here is where this account becomes a bit tricky, because concrete evidence is scarce. In the long run, a writer’s reputation consists not only of how much he’s read but also of the number of in-depth critical studies about his work, as well as the institutional and scholarly interest in his papers. All of that can be tracked and measured. But in the short term, a writer’s standing is more elusive. It can be judged in part by the length and placement of reviews, and the number and tone of interviews and profiles in major publications. Still, much of a writer’s rep emerges informally, in the conversations that writers, readers, and critics have amongst themselves. Whether another writer is spoken of respectfully, whether you get the impression that “everyone” is reading his or her new book enthusiastically, or how well people think he or she comes across in interviews—these and a dozen other imponderable factors constitute a reputation during a writer’s lifetime, particularly in the early part of a career.

This stuff—let’s call it litchat—may be ephemeral, but it absolutely shapes the formal reception of a writer’s work. If everyone in your M.F.A. workshop or the last book party you went to mentions an established author’s name with reverence, you’ll be that much more likely to lay it on thick should you ever be asked to review her new book. Or, conversely, if you decide to prove your independence of mind and go contrarian on her, you’ll be aware of the inertia of all that acclaim and feel the imperative to push back with corresponding force. Reviewers don’t like to admit that they’re influenced by such factors, but unless they live cut off from other readers, writers, and critics entirely, they can’t really help it.

In fact, litchat has assumed an ever-greater role in criticism because so much of what once happened privately and fleetingly is now public and preserved. Social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are the main sites where this litchat happens today, and conversations on both spill over into digital and print journalism, which takes remarks made in interviews that generate Twitter responses and then amplifies them, spawning even more Twitter responses. All this, the positive and the negative, in turn, becomes part of a writer’s media persona, and something it feels obligatory to address when reviewing her work. When authors tweet—and most publishers urge them to do so—the line between work and persona can become almost impossible to draw. The poet Patricia Lockwood, for example, may be justly celebrated for her poems, one of which brought her to widespread attention after it was published online and blew up on social media, but it was her Twitter account (and 53,000 followers) that made her the stuff of a TimesMagazine profile.

The same goes for authors whose personas are vilified on social media. Well over half of Lorentzen’s piece on Franzen, for example, consists of litchat: things Franzen has said about his writing and the writing of other authors, things other authors have said about him, autobiographical material gleaned from his personal essays and a new biography, statements he’s made about social and environmental issues, various scandals and feuds he’s been involved with, gaffes he’s been accused of, the failure of a TV project he was involved with, reviews and profiles he’s gotten for past novels as well as the new one, and so on. By comparison, “Purity,” the ostensible news peg for all this attention, is treated almost as an afterthought.

As journalism, this makes sense. Most people haven’t had the chance to read “Purity” yet, and plenty of those interested enough to read a magazine story about Franzen have no intention of taking in the five-hundred-plus pages of his new novel. Franzen’s persona—a concoction of litchat—has its own audience, one that seems to derive great pleasure from hating it. Although his fiction is the occasion of his fame, it is now no longer necessary to have read any of it to have an opinion about Franzen and whether he deserves that fame. Certainly, it’s far less time-consuming simply to read tweets about other tweets about headlines of profiles or pull quotes from reviews that the original tweeter may or may not have read, and which may or may not accurately represent what the writer or the novel actually said. Furthermore, nothing strikes such readers as smarter than a well-written confirmation of what they already believe. The novel itself hardly matters. Litchat has become an end in itself.

If the litchat of David Foster Wallace’s era had left a written record as extensive as today’s, would we remember it more accurately? Perhaps, but I doubt it. After my interview with Wallace was published, I was buttonholed by one late-twenties writer after another and grilled about the novelist’s authenticity. Persona-wise, Wallace was the Franzen of his day, reflexively mistrusted because he was the subject of a breathless Times piece that touted him as a young genius and, by implication, the voice of a new generation. There is no surer way to stir up animosity among young literary people than to present another young literary figure as a generational spokesperson. The recurring theme of these interrogations was the late-twenties writers’ conviction that they were being cynically marketed to, that Wallace was the product of publishing “hype” of a demographic nature, and that only a passionate and lengthy refutation of these suspicions from me could persuade them to give “Infinite Jest” a try. I fear I rarely succeeded.

Once the novel had chance to sink in, there were many people who considered “Infinite Jest” a work of genius. That wasn’t, however, the prevailing conventional opinion, especially given the fact that not all that many members of the literary community had much direct experience of it. (“Infinite Jest” didn’t make it onto the list of finalists for the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Awards because none of the critics on the twenty-four-member board had read it.) The litchat take on Wallace was that he was very intelligent, but probably too intelligent for his own good; that he had written a book that was very long, but probably too long; that this book contained a lot of postmodern flourishes (most notably a ton of footnotes), and there was definitely too much of that for any sensible reader to countenance. Above all, Wallace’s writing was too difficult and probably not worth that difficulty. It was all very clever, litchat acknowledged, but it lacked real human emotion.

Traces of this litchat can be found throughout the reviews of Wallace’s work that were written while he was alive. “Oblivion”—as bleak a cry of anguish as any short-story collection ever published—was described in the Times by Walter Kirn as the work of a writer of “Spock-like temperament,” who was likely a “genius, at least in the chess-grandmaster, Bronx High School of Science sense. He has the vocabulary. He has the energy. He has the big ideas. He has the attitude. Yet too often he sounds like a hyperarticulate Tin Man ... maybe the Wizard should give the guy a heart.” Kirn was not an outlier. Too often, I found myself in conversations in which I argued against this reductive view of Wallace with people who expressed irritated exasperation at the very mention of his books, none of which they would turn out to have read. “What’s the big deal about the footnotes?” one novelist friend groused to me. “Robert Coover and Nicholson Baker used footnotes first!”

Even sympathetic critics like Wyatt Mason and A. O. Scott treated Wallace’s fiction as being primarily concerned with innovations in form rather than with the heartfelt moral messages now viewed as the forte of Saint Dave. It took Wallace’s suicide to turn that battleship. Watching it happen was flabbergasting to anyone who’d been following his work all along. In the new film, “The End of the Tour,” based on David Lipsky’s transcripts of several interviews he conducted with Wallace in 1996, the novelist is shown giving the journalist a lesson in personal authenticity—always a fraught, elusive quality in Wallace’s own work. Even the title of Lipsky’s book, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” which was published after Wallace's death, illustrates the way that Wallace’s persona, now conclusively out of his own hands, drifted from brilliant-but-chilly mandarin to dispenser of self-help homilies for the literary seeker.

It’s not that either of these views of Wallace is false; even back in 1996 he often spoke of the valuable truths embedded in the shopworn homilies of Alcoholics Anonymous and of how hard it was for those who fancy themselves “smart” to acknowledge them. No one forced him to deliver his famously inspirational 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College, which would become perhaps the most accessible and widely read thing that he ever wrote. He was both a formidably taxing reconstructor of literary form and an artist intent on presenting his readers with characters and situations that would move them, make them reconsider their own narrow understandings of each other and themselves and, as he often put it, feel less lonely. Like all great literature, his books do many things at once.

Litchat, however, is singleminded. Seemingly, it can only conceive of a writer’s persona as one thing at a time: a prick, a detached brainiac, a suffering saint. Litchat is adamant, yes, and impervious to factual challenges, but that tends to be true of all strong opinions formed on a basis of incomplete and selective evidence. The weaker our footing, the more fiercely we defend it. We believe it not because it fits what we know—we know next to nothing, after all—but because we need to believe this particular thing at this particular time, regardless of what the truth may be. It suits our purposes to do so, and one of those purposes may be as flimsy as the desire to be excused from reading the books in question before telling the world what we think of them.


In this exuberantly praised book - a collection of seven pieces on subjects ranging from television to tennis, from the Illinois State Fair to the films of David Lynch, from postmodern literary theory to the supposed fun of traveling aboard a Caribbean luxury cruiseliner - David Foster Wallace brings to nonfiction the same curiosity, hilarity, and exhilarating verbal facility that has delighted readers of his fiction, including the bestselling Infinite Jest .

Author Notes

Writer David Foster Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York on February 21, 1962. He received a B.A. from Amherst College in Massachusetts. He was working on his master's degree in creative writing at the University of Arizona when he published his debut novel The Broom of the System (1987).

Wallace published his second novel Infinite Jest (1996) which introduced a cast of characters that included recovering alcoholics, foreign statesmen, residents of a halfway house, and high-school tennis stars. He spent four years researching and writing this novel. His first collection of short stories was Girl with Curious Hair (1989). He also published a nonfiction work titled Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present. He committed suicide on September 12, 2008 at the age of 46 after suffering with bouts of depression for 20 years.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Booklist Review

Celebrated Illinoisan writer Wallace's meganovel, Infinite Jest (1996), was megasuccessful, and these intelligent, funny essays are outstanding. In "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley," Wallace presents himself as a young Midwest tennis star with an unathletic, intuitive, yet winning style of play. But Wallace writes about far more than the sum of his self, widening his field of vision to embrace wind, earth, and mathematics, creating a virtual cyclone with his highly idiosyncratic perceptions, perfectly correct cadence, and casually hip lexicon. He applies this arsenal of literary power tools to even greater effect in one of the most original, comprehensive analyses yet of television and the pervasive "culture of watching," discussing such fine points as the tyranny of television's institutionalized, self-referential irony and its tremendous influence on American fiction. Wallace has also written in his edgy way about David Lynch, a state fair, and, in the masterful title piece, his addling experiences on a seven-night Caribbean cruise during which he endured hours of despair interrupted by moments of stunned amazement. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Like the tennis champs who fascinate him, novelist Wallace (Infinite Jest; The Broom of the System) makes what he does look effortless and yet inspired. His instinct for the colloquial puts his masters Pynchon and DeLillo to shame, and the humane sobriety that he brings to his subjects-fictional or factual-should serve as a model to anyone writing cultural comment, whether it takes the form of stories or of essays like these. Readers of Wallace's fiction will take special interest in this collection: critics have already mined "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" (Wallace's memoir of his tennis-playing days) for the biographical sources of Infinite Jest. The witty, insightful essays on David Lynch and TV are a reminder of how thoroughly Wallace has internalized the writing-and thinking-habits of Stanley Cavell, the plain-language philosopher at Harvard, Wallace's alma mater. The reportage (on the Illinois State Fair, the Canadian Open and a Caribbean Cruise) is perhaps best described as post-gonzo: funny, slight and self-conscious without Norman Mailer's or Hunter Thompson's braggadocio. Only in the more academic essays, on Dostoyevski and the scholar H.L. Hix, does Wallace's gee-whiz modesty get in the way of his arguments. Still, even these have their moments: at the end of the Dostoyevski essay, Wallace blurts out that he wants "passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction [that is] also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction." From most writers, that would be hot air; from one as honest, subtle and ambitious as Wallace, it has the sound of a promise. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The painfully hip Wallace toured state fairs, relaxed on a cruise ship, and now tells us what it's like. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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