I’ve been geeking out on David Foster Wallace. Until a few days ago, I hadn’t read a word of his writing, but we’re doing a show on him this Monday so in the last couple of days I’ve been reading everything about and by him that I can get my hands on. Unfortunately, I find myself plagued by a case of the howling fantods. When someone asked me today what DFW was about I found I still couldn’t really explain him. Anyway, here are some quick thoughts as I still work out in my head who DFW was and what he may have stood for.
- DFW’s genius was how he viewed the world. On our best days, we all think like DFW did. It’s just that we can’t articulate our vision of the world as eloquently as he was able to do time and time again. DFW observed things about cruise ships, tennis and lobsters that all of us have thought, but could never say so completely and so well. And that’s DFW’s universal appeal – his ability to paint a clear vision of the world that is simultaneously articulate and remarkably accessible.
- DFW’s experience with 12 step programs informed his populist streak. Maria Bustillos (who is incredible, by the way) explained this to me today. DFW struggled with addiction and depression his entire life. The idea of someone as brilliant as DFW turning to someone like John Bradshaw for life’s eternal truths seems really surprising. But as Bustillos explained, Bradshaw was all the rage in AA circles at the time. Bradshaw’s The Family along with books like Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child really “nailed and revealed” DFW to himself. They helped form his very raw way of writing, but more importantly they influenced DFW’s ability to write about issues at the forefront of the average person’s mind. DFW was a heady academic, but he had an uncanny ability to write about very grounded and real themes.
- DFW draws in so many young readers because he is so not a canon writer. I guess this is obvious, but high school and college students are forced to swim in the canon of the “classics” for their entire lives. Teachers make them read scholars and intellectuals who proudly bear those labels. DFW was both a scholar and an intellectual, but I think they were labels he largely shrugged and categories his writing refused to adhere to. Both DFW’s fiction and his nonfiction constantly worked to make itself as “uncanon” as possible. And that rebellious streak is very appealing to young readers. Heck, it’s appealing to journalists too.
- DFW didn’t influence how we speak online. Again, I side with Bustillos here. While it is true people write and speak online today in a lot of the ways that DFW wrote and spoke, that’s not because DFW’s writing was so influential that it established some kind of hard-to-define “voice of the Internet.” It’s because, today, a lot of “every mans” are writing on the Internet and it just so happens that DFW wrote and spoke like an “every man.” A hyper-intelligent and remarkably articulate “every man,” but an “every man” just the same. The voice of the Internet is diverse – shaped as much by the medium in which people are writing (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.) as it is in the writers who have influenced the styles of its authors. To pin that much influence on the shoulders of one man is a bit of an overreach.