An Interview with David Foster Wallace

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In "An Interview with David Foster Wallace", Larry McCaffery interviews David Foster Wallace about his latest essay, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, and views on various other topics. The interview and essay were published together in The Review of Contemporary Fiction in the Summer of 1993.

This interview has many interesting insights into how Wallace thinks about topics ranging from his readership, to something he calls "the click," to postmodernism. He also discusses his works such as The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way", "Little Expressionless Animals", and Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race In the Urban Present.

The Purpose of Art Today

Some of Wallace's most impassioned statements in the McCaffery interview concern what exactly art should try and accomplish in what seems more and more like a post-postmodern epoch. His criticisms of self-conscious irony and recursive metafiction tend to center on a certain outdatedness he sees in these methods, arguing that they've exhausted their revolutionary purpose and also haven't produced anything to replace the structures that they revolutionized. At this early stage in his career, Wallace calls for a (almost dialectical) synthesis of old school purposeful writing, writing that sincerely tackles the moral and philosophical predicaments of real life, and new school technical innovation, which serves to acknowledge modern appreciation of authorial and reader subjectivity. Wallace's own explanation for what art should do on page 5 of the interview, however, is better than any of this obligatory paraphrasing.

"LM: are you saying that writers of your generation have an obligation not only to depict our condition but also to provide solutions to these things?

DFW: I don't think I'm talking about conventionally political or social action-type solutions. That's not what fiction's about. Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction's job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still are human beings, now. Or can be."

The interview was recorded in 1993, while Wallace was editing Infinite Jest, and its optimism is certainly present in that work. But, it seems less clear that he saw this goal as more than loftily idealistic in his explorations of it in his later writings. The Soul Is Not a Smithy is just one later story that can be read as the Wallace of 2004 seeing naiveté in the ambitious literary dreams that pervade this 1993 portrait of himself as a young man.