Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

A Supposedly True Thing Jonathan Franzen Said About David Foster Wallace

There’s really no delicate way to put this: at this year’s New Yorker Festival, Jonathan Franzen said that David Foster Wallace fabricated at least part of—and potentially a large part of—his nonfiction pieces. I wasn’t there, but after reading Eric Alterman’s summary Friday, and finding no mention of the incident in any other coverage of the festival, I watched the conversation online.

Here's a rough transcript of the relevant exchange (with some “umms” and “uhhs” edited for reasons of intelligibility).

Remnick: Well, I was, I was fascinated to hear… that there are some people in this world who feel that it's o— that to have a kind of hyper-postmodern view of nonfiction/fiction questions, that it's all writing, and that questions of fact, facticity and, well, that's kind of square and old-fashioned, and it's okay that Kapuscinski does what Kapuscinski does and kind of makes this up because it's really just a metaphor fo Poland itself. And other writers that one could name who have a different view of fact and fiction… You're pretty strict about the dividing line. You see, you think that somebody who's—
Franzen (interjecting): [unintelligible]
Remnick: — allegedly writing nonfiction and cheats it—
Franzen: Yeah.
Remnick: —is cheating the reader, is somehow in a way that should be kind of like admitting a false —
Franzen: David and I disagreed on that.
Remnick: David?
Franzen: Dave Wallace, yeah.
Remnick: So Wallace felt well—
Franzen: Yeah, cause he—
Remnick: He said it was okay to make up dialogue on a cruise ship?
Franzen: For instance, yeah. Uhhmmm…
Remnick: I'm heartbroken to hear it.
Franzen: I know, I know. No, those things didn't actually happen. You notice he never published any nonfiction in your magazine.
Remnick: Not for want of trying but that's another matter, but but…
Franzen: He would have had to, maybe he…
Remnick: He would have fell before the fact-checkers.
Franzen: I think the fact-checkers… and, to me, the fact-checkers, we, uh, I'm so afraid of fact checkers.
Remnick: Good. [laughs]
Franzen: But that's, you know, that's kind of like the boundary lines in tennis. That was a great shot, only problem was it was two feet behind the baseline. I will have crushed…
Remnick: But David called it in.
Franzen: Well, yeah, I mean… I love that cruise ship piece of Dave's, so I'm not, I'm not… it was, yeah, two somewhat different approaches.

From this vantage, it's very hard to say whether Franzen’s charge is (a) true (oh, what a fraught word in this context) or (b) new information. So much plainly depends on how you parse “Those things didn’t actually happen.” Franzen can’t possibly mean that all of the events recounted in "Shipping Out," Wallace’s famous piece on cruise ships (later retitled "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," in the book of essays of the same name) never occurred? Or can he? He’s responding to a question about dialogue; is his answer limited to that? Is this only true of the cruise ships piece, or of his other essays as well? (“For instance” seems to indicate the latter.) In the video, Remnick appears taken aback by the admission, and perhaps that explains why he didn’t press the matter. Until Franzen decides to elaborate we are left to guess at what precisely he meant.

It’s possible Franzen thought that this wouldn’t surprise anyone. In interviews, Wallace admitted to massaging certain elements of his nonfiction. In a 1998 interview that Tom Scocca put up at Slate last year (a shorter version had previously run in The Boston Phoenix), Wallace said that he cleaned up quotes in the essay, for example, taking out “likes” and adjusting punctuation, without apology. Moreover, “The thing is, really—between you and me and The Boston Phoenix's understanding readers—you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there's going to be the occasional bit of embellishment.” Wallace also told David Lipsky, in one of the 1997 conversations that make up Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, that he had, in “Ticket to the Fair” (later "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All"), put “somebody else’s voice” into the person of the Native Companion, a figure who accompanies Wallace to the Iowa State Fair and plays the knowing commentator to Wallace’s bewildered straight-man persona.

On the other hand, Wallace was quick to reassure his interlocutors that he was committed to telling the truth. In the interview with Scocca, Wallace wrung his hands about the Janet-Malcolm-style betrayal he felt he’d commited toward two of the subjects of the cruise piece, a couple he'd met, the female half of which he infelicitously described as “Jackie Gleason in drag”:

That, that was a very bad scene, because they were really nice to me on the cruise. And actually sent me a couple cards, and were looking forward to the thing coming out. And then it came out, and, you know, I never heard from them again. I feel—I'm worried that it hurt their feelings…. I couldn't just so worry about Trudy's feelings that I couldn't say the truth. Which is, you know, a terrific, really nice, and not unattractive lady who did happen to look just like Jackie Gleason in drag.

And in his conversation with Lipsky, Wallace continues: “Nothin’, nothin’ in there is made up. That’s so weird, I’ve never done something—well, maybe the baton twirling wasn’t quite the carnage that… Although it seemed awfully dangerous at the time.”

And, of course, both of the pieces in question—the cruise piece and the Fair piece—were published in Harper’s Magazine. They were edited by Colin Harrison, now at Scribner, who so far hasn't commented on the matter (including to us; we contacted him by email but no reply so far). However, one former Harper’s editor, Donovan Hohn, who worked there after these essays were published, did offer this on Twitter:

@maudnewton, @alexheard Harper's FC process in my experience ('98-'11) was as rigorous as other mags I've experienced if not more
Oct 08 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

@maudnewton, @alexheard Which doesn't mean it was foolproof.
Oct 08 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

So either all of Wallace’s affirmations are dissembling, and Harper’s was duped, or something else was going on.

My authority to comment, I must admit, comes only as a literary-gossip addict who probably needs to find better things to do with her time than obsessively track mentions of the Wallace-Franzen friendship. (I hear there’s a class war going on somewhere around here.) But in that fanatical mode, I find the most likely explanation for the gulf between “those things” not happening and “occasional bit of embellishment” resides somewhere in the rapidly expanding (if you’ll permit me) footnote of Franzen’s own relationship to Wallace.

Take, for instance, a few things about the exchange not captured in the transcript. Although it does follow a line of questioning about Wallace and Franzen’s friendship, and the influence they had on each other, the information above is volunteered as a quasi-non-sequitur: Remnick had already moved on to asking about Franzen’s own nonfiction. And as Remnick goes into that preamble, Franzen hunches over, fiddles with his glasses and his nose, and nods absently. When he starts in by saying “Dave and I disagreed on that,” he’s looking at his lap, and only meets Remnick’s gaze mid-sentence. And then he breaks into a grin.

You no doubt have your own reading of those non-verbalisms. Here is mine: they add up to a person who has made a conscious decision to disclose this. He was not caught in a trap of questioning; he had a moment to himself, to reconsider his first reaction. But—and here I report only my own impression—there didn’t seem to be any malice in it. In fact, I’d say there is a lot of mischief in the smile Franzen wears throughout.

That is a shining example of the Franzen paradox: even as he's making what many others—and, by his own account, he himself—would consider a very serious charge against his friend’s work, he seems to believe himself to be doing so in a spirit of affection. The gap between his self-perception and ours is his trademark, one reason why so many find it tempting to, well, you know, dislike him.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the piece he wrote about Wallace for The New Yorker in April. It begins with Franzen’s trip to Masafuera Island and ends in an uncomfortable limbo between a screed and an elegy. The lead is buried in long disquisitions about lonely islands and Robinson Crusoe, which manage to make the essay come across as, at once, both ponderous and searingly, emotionally transparent. The anger Franzen professes to feel is quite plainly acknowledged—early on he admits “to [taking] refuge in anger and work” after the suicide—but then resurfaces in unacknowledged ways as well. This keeps him careening headlong into oversimplified diagnoses of depression-as-boredom and “infantile rage” and “suicide as a career move.” (He seems to resent, too, the reductive readings others have given Wallace. "People who had never read [Wallace's] fiction, or had never even heard of him, read his Kenyon College commencement address in the Wall Street Journal and mourned the loss of a great and gentle soul," he writes in that New Yorker piece. And to Lipsky, in Rolling Stone (not online), he notes, "But he wasn't Saint Dave." The instinct to puncture that legacy might, I think, be something Wallace would have understood. "You get to decide what you worship," he said, in that commencement address. But, other than an actual deity, "pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.")

In Evan Hughes’ piece in this week's New York, Elizabeth Wurtzel says of Franzen's early days that even “[o]n a sunny day it would be raining on Jon Franzen.” Anger, sadness are surely nothing new to him. But it shouldn't be difficult for anyone to understand why that strain was amplified after Wallace's death. Franzen gives it to us himself in the piece:

The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.


To prove once and for all that he truly didn’t deserve to be loved, it was necessary to betray as hideously as possible those who loved him best, by killing himself at home and making them firsthand witnesses to his act.

In a faint echo of the (frequently too academic) debate about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, the question of whether or not either of these statements are empirically true, as descriptions of Wallace, strikes me as beside the point. The relevant question is to ask whether, as descriptions of Franzen’s agony over his friend, they are honest.

The more you read and watch and hear about the Wallace-Franzen friendship, after all, the more the festival incident begins to look like just another salvo Franzen tossed out into the ether, wishing it would boomerang back to him. In the Remnick talk Franzen actually characterizes the dynamic of the friendship as “competitive wounding,” and though he’s speaking of trying to move each other by the emotional power of their manuscripts, the facts do seem to point to that as the larger theme. In my obsession with this subject, one of the more entertaining artifacts I’ve come across is this video of the two—plus an unfortunately clad Mark Leyner—squaring off on "Charlie Rose." Watch it. My favorite moment comes around the 11-minute mark, when the two of them argue in a way at once aggressive and affectionate, about some high theory of contemporary fiction. You can take that minute, I think, as conclusive evidence that the whole tale Franzen is spinning to us just might be true.

But then, of course, be it about a cruise ship, or about lost friends, it might “only” be a story.

Michelle Dean's writing has appeared, among other places, at Bitch, The American Prospect and The Rumpus. She sometimes blogs here.

Photo by david_shankbone, via Flickr.

61 Comments / Post A Comment

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Tulletilsynet had the best comment on this so far. "The true vs the verbatim."

HiredGoons (#603)

@barnhouse: I heard Hunter Thompson made some stuff up once…

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Ahem. My actual words were, "Franzen (interjecting): [unintelligible]"

Halloween Jack (#16,824)

@barnhouse : damn, there goes my line about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas not being a documentary.

skywalker (#240,350)

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deepomega (#1,720)

Great piece, but it all feels like trying to survey Newfoundland from the rising and falling deck of the Titanic. There are too many shifting distances and unmeasured spaces and faulty equipment for us to do anything other than assume and guess.

melis (#1,854)

@deepomega And try to disguise ourselves as women to sneak onto a lifeboat.

deepomega (#1,720)

@melis There's a reason I keep my hair in gloriously long raven curls.

Alternate joke: Picture a glass-fronted case, mounted in a stairwell, containing a petticoat and a small plaque inscribed "IN CASE OF ICEBERG BREAK GLASS."

Mr. B (#10,093)

I can only be obsessed with so many literary friendships (Bishop-Lowell!), but this one really is interesting. I enjoyed the piece, and really appreciate that there's no overt side-taking in it.

@Mr. B Well, only half a literary friendship really, cause the other half is Franzen.

Mr. B (#10,093)

@Ryan Biracree@twitter Oh, isn't that cute.

I too am perhaps unhealthily obsessed with DFW's posthumous legacy, but I'm not sure that Franzen's revelation here is anything like a shocker.

DFW makes his stance pretty clear and has fun with this throughout "The Pale King," especially in the sections that deal with the 'Dave Wallace' character. q.v. the notes in §24, especially this on p. 257:

"3 N.B. I'm not going to be one of those memoirists who pretends to remember every last fact and thing in photorealist detail. The human mind doesn't work that way, and everyone knows it; it's an insulting bit of artifice in a genre that purports to be 100 percent 'realistic.' To be honest, I think you deserve better, and that you're intelligent enough to understand and maybe even applaud it when a memoirist has the integrity to admit that he's not some kind of eidetic freak."

Phil Koesterer (#2,708)

@ontologicalpuppy That's "fiction," though.

@Phil K. Well, yes. It is 'fiction' in that a character called 'David Wallace' identifying himself as the 'real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona' expresses thoughts in the first person about the artifice of non-fictional memoir. Perhaps I'm going out on a limb here, but I don't think it's unreasonable to attribute these sentiments to IRL David Foster Wallace. Sure, in other places, fictional things happen to this character. But that's not my point here.

Phil Koesterer (#2,708)

@ontologicalpuppy I think he's fictional enough that his words aren't probative in determining whether something "happened."

lululemming (#409)

"The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend."

From Infinite Jest, a work found in the fiction section:
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

I'd argue that the more mercenary deceit here is Franzen misrepresenting his spiritual proximity to "Dave Wallace" when he was alive, as anyone who has undertaken a close reading of DFWs work couldn't possibly think that his suicide was a gesture of self-aggrandizement, or worse yet, something that was about *them*.

Wallace did not court depression or pursue it as wind, nor was he content to let suicidal ideation serve as a stand-in for nobility or genius or legend status. My reading of his writing about "the depressed person" is that is was a battle cry against succumbing to the romance of one's own mental illness.

And maybe I'm a fool, but I never read the cruise ship or state fair pieces thinking that the quotes of experiences were verbatim, I fully expected that some of it was invented to magnify the truth of a thing in order to expose the essentiality of the experience more accurately. Or just to underscore the fucking absurdity of it all.

In any event, if Franzen wants to deride the work of his dead 'friend' out of anger, or jealousy, or attention-seeking petulance, let him have it. He's winning his argument on a technicality. And that shit is for the birds.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

It's for the cerulean warblers.

Nabonwe (#12,500)

@lululemming That is a beautifully reasoned, incredibly intelligent, eloquently argued defense of suicide. Reading it, you might almost be convinced that there was nothing selfish about suicide at all; that, indeed, the loved ones of the depressed person are the ones who are being selfish, by continuing to desire that the depressed person would stay alive in the face of such debilitating, to-them-unimaginable pain.

And in thinking that, we might come to understand a little bit the kinds of massive, soul-destroying mindfucks someone who was both deeply intelligent and deeply mentally ill might have wrought on the people who loved him.

Rex Manning Day (#6,873)

@lululemming "as anyone who has undertaken a close reading of DFWs work couldn't possibly think that his suicide was a gesture of self-aggrandizement, or worse yet, something that was about *them*."

Are you fucking serious? Are you actually arguing that you, a reader who has never met David Foster Wallace, are in a better situation to understand and respond to his suicide than one of his best friends? That you are actually in a position to criticize how his friends reacted to his death because you read Infinite fucking Jest?

You are out of your goddamn mind.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Rex Manning Day @lulu has a point. Wallace wrote a ton about these matters, and arguably (that is to say, if we take him at his word) with a view to making himself understood.

@Stacy has a point, too, viz., we don't know. Can't know. Beyond that, though, even the people who knew him best, they clearly didn't know, either. That much is clear from the circumstances, from the fact, even, of Wallace's death.

@Rex Manning Day I wouldn't infer from anyone's fiction what they thought about suicide in general, let alone their attitude towards their own future suicide, nor would I reason back from their suicide to any particular interpretation of their work. That said, I have also have serious doubts about whether Jonathan Franzen's theory about why DFW took his own life is any more reliable than what you can infer from reading his thoughts about the experience of severe, chronic depression.

You don't have to assume that DFW had the same motives as the narrators or the characters in his books in order to conclude that he knew a lot about what it's like to be driven to suicide by chronic depression. Unrelieved depression is not the only reason people commit suicide, and maybe it's not even the most common reason, but it's undisputedly the condition Wallace was in when he killed himself. He was hospitalized for the same illness as a young man.

Franzen's surmise about why DFW committed suicide conflicts with what the people who were with the author during his final illness said about his motives. Obviously, they have their own biases. But I'd trust DFW's mother's theory over Jonathan Franzen's any day. At least she hasn't publicly declared herself to be consumed with anger over what happened.

All journalists take out the "uhms" and "likes" when they write direct quotes. That's acceptable per the AP Style Guide. The fact that a nonfiction writer is willing to add punctuation to quotes tells you nothing about their approach to nonfiction, except that they can write.

Unless Franzen elaborates on how he knows that DFW made up dialogue, his statements are meaningless. The two had a voluminous correspondence spanning many years, so maybe Franzen has the smoking gun where DFW says, "Fuck, man, I made up that whole exchange with the little old lady on the cruise ship. And nobody gave a shit about my stupid tuxedo t-shirt." Or maybe this is just something Franzen inferred from other things DFW said or wrote. Or maybe it's just Franzen's wild-ass self-aggrandizing guess about how DFW worked.

lululemming (#409)

@lululemming Sorry, TL;DR. What Tulletilsynet said.

Mr. B (#10,093)

@lululemming And there I was about to talk about the logical fallacy of thinking that close reading of a writer's fiction makes one know him as a person, and the deliberate misrepresentation in saying that Franzen is "trashing" Wallace.

What a jackass. He knew he'd never be a better writer so he's trashing DFW now that he's dead. I certainly don't want to overrate Wallace, but this is a classic Salieri moment for Franzen.

Cheruth (#13,134)

@Marta Zieba@facebook I think he is angry on a personal level not a professional one.

@Marta Zieba@facebook Right on, Marla! Right on! Franzen is a self-centered, untalented hack and he's jealous as hell!

Kevin Cole (#149,447)

Thanks, @lululemming. That shit **is** for the birds.

vespavirgin (#1,422)

I think it was made very clear in the NYer article that Franzen does not understand being suicidal. I get that, as a survivor, he's super-angry, but there's no reason to continue to smear his friend's name in such a public forum (by smear I'm referring to Franzen saying Wallace's suicide was selfish).

Regarding the other stuff: duh, of course some of it was hyperbolized. That's the nature of creative non-fiction. Here's Glenn Kenny, the unnamed companion in "Big Red Son" talking about the AVN Awards adventure: http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/2009/04/looking-for-one-new-value-but-nothing-comes-my-way-an-interview-with-film-critic-glenn-kenny-about-david-foster-wallace/ Sorry for the super long link.

This is kinda common knowledge, but it seems like bitter grapes for Franzen to talk about it in a public forum in such a way. Wallace can't defend himself any longer.

Also, you bury the lede, not the lead, normally.

Stacy (#5,384)

Franzen is good friends with DFW's wife, and much of the anger he has expressed about the suicide, specifically the part about "killing himself at home and making them firsthand witnesses to his act," is on her behalf. She was profoundly traumatized by the experience of finding his corpse and must live the rest of her life with the inevitable self-reproach that she might have been able to prevent his death. So: shut up you half-witted, hero-worshiping jackals.

Dave Wallace, for all his many fine qualities was indeed not a saint. The people who knew him knew a human being who could be as angry, bitter, insecure and caustic as any other writer, but backed with a supercharged intellect — which made it worse. That wasn't all he was by a long stretch, but it was part of who he was, and it's gradually being erased by the posthumous Cult of Dave.

Think for a moment (if you are capable of the real thing, and not just the simulation of it): The real Dave Wallace was Franzen's friend, someone to whom he was close. He was a real person, complete with some real and large flaws. The person who is replacing that friend in the public imagination, Saint Dave, is erasing the memory of that real person. Consider the possibility that Franzen talks about his friend's flaws in public out of the desire to defend the memory of real Dave Wallace from the encroachments of Saint Dave and that you — as people who do not know either party or anything much about their private lives — simply do know what you are talking about.

Mr. B (#10,093)


"Half-witted, hero-worshipping jackals" — ha, I'm writing that down.

I really, really sign on to this. (And I also find it impossible not to carry anger against suicides.)

lululemming (#409)

@Stacy @Stacy @Choire Sorry, this "half-witted, hero-worshipping jackal" wasn't putting forth the arguement that DFW was a saint. as much as his writing had capacity for deep compassion, it also had the capacity for cruelty ( he admitted as much himself). And because I *didn't* know him, it wouldn't surprise me if he could have been every bit as pretentious as Franzen appears to be here.

What I object to is the systematic delegitimization of mental illness as a real, sometimes, untreatable thing that is so profoundly awful to live alone with (and you live it alone, despite anyone's "investment of love"), so isolating, so crazy-making, that sometimes your brain can convince you that the only relief is death. From what I gather, DFW underwent Electroconvulsive Therapy, Talk Therapy, and courses and courses of anti-d's to try and get out of the place he was in. Those don't strike me as the actions of someone who thinks suicide would be a super awesome way to be remembered as a genius or to "get back" at people for not loving him enough. Those strike me as the actions of a desperate man who would do anything to get better.

Okay, so you're mad your friend killed himself? Yeah, I get that. But he did not do it to hurt *you*, or his wife, or to spite the world, or to create a legacy. He did it because he was ill. And that illness is real, even if *you* haven't had it. I don't "know" Wallace, but his body of work went a long way in extending some compassion to the mentally ill that I had not previously seen. It painted depression for what it is—something that attacks, rather than something people just need to "shake off". Something ugly, rather than romantic. I happen to think he drew the line between compassion and permission far better than anyone who would jingoistically tell a clinically depressed person "it gets better" . Because he was brave enough to not try to explain away or make smaller what is a fucking unimaginably painful condition.

That Franzen takes from that that his friend was "dishonest" tells me he missed a large piece of his humanity entirely, and that he continues to perpetuate the idea that mental illness does not kill makes him far less honest a writer than DFW was even if every word of "A Supposedly Fun Thing…" was a complete and total fabrication.

@lululemming Oh, I hear you. (And this is very eloquent.) And yes, I totally get that DFW actively struggled, and I credit that, as far as that matters, which is probably not much. We've been through this topic before here, and I won't argue about suicide with people anymore; it's not worth it, and it's private anyway, and we're all allowed to have our own feelings about it, based on our own experiences. Everyone's mileage varies here.

Still, it's never safe to do much assuming about who hasn't suffered from what. ;)

hypnosifl (#9,470)

@lululemming That Franzen takes from that that his friend was "dishonest" tells me he missed a large piece of his humanity entirely

Did Franzen say he was "dishonest" in some larger sense than the minor issue discussed in this article? The full New Yorker article can be found on scribd here, with the stuff about Wallace mostly starting on p. 10…he does seem to feel like a lot of people have come away with an over-saintly image of Wallace and talks about his demons, but I didn't get the impression that he was accusing Wallace of intentionally trying to prevent a fake saintly image to the world, in fact he talks on p. 12 about how part of the appeal of Wallace's fiction was his putting these demons on paper:

To the extent that each of us is stranded on his or her own existential island–and I think it's approximately correct to say that his most susceptible readers are ones familiar with the socially and spiritually isolating effects of addiction or compulsion or depression–we gratefully seized on each new dispatch from that farthest-away island which was David. At the level of content, he gave us the worst of himself: he laid out, with an intensity of self-scrutiny worthy of comparison to Kafka and Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, the extremes of his own narcissism, misogyny, compulsiveness, self-deception, dehumanizing moralism and theologizing, doubt in the possibility of love, and entrapment in footnotes-within-footnotes self-consciousness.

Franzen's essay is interesting, I feel like he does have a lot of genuine insight into his friend's mental processes but at the same time there's something over-simplistic about the way he talks as though Wallace's behavior can be fully understood in terms of the sort of personal narratives that were going on in his head, and Franzen also seems think that to some significant extent he can judge Wallace for indulging his more "demonic" internal narratives. Franzen says himself that he has a great inclination to see all aspects of life in narrative terms, which makes me think of this article by a philosopher on how narrative explanations for human behaviors have been continually undermined by scientific studies of the connection between brain and behavior…even though Wallace surely had a lot of screwed up internal narratives which contributed to his suicide, it may be better to think of them more as his left brain's stamp of approval or rationalization for feelings emerging from a more subconscious level that doesn't lend itself to narrative explanations, feelings which couldn't have been fixed by a simple conscious act of adopting a more "healthy" outlook. And maybe that kind of understanding would make people a little less likely to be angry at depressed people who commit suicide or otherwise act self-destructively, since moral blame and narrative ways of explaining behavior seem to be pretty closely connected.

@lululemming your assessment is correct. Franzen acts as if he understands the events and he has no clue.

@hypnosifl I agree. It's a chicken and egg problem. Let's say you have an incredibly gifted and incisive writer who is suffering from crippling depression. He describes himself as a horrible person and his description rings true, even to people who've never met him. How do we know what came first: the self-loathing or the self-analysis? Maybe he hates himself because he correctly understands his own flaws. Or, maybe he has a neurological condition that directly causes baseless but overwhelming feelings of self-loathing that he then rationalizes, using his prodigious ability to imagine plausible characters.

Has Remnick ever asked people questions before? It certainly doesn't appear so from that excerpt. That was painful to read, much less witness.

Stacy (#5,384)

I don't see that being angry toward a suicide precludes a person from understanding that mental illness kills. I also don't see how being clinically depressed precludes a person from also being angry at those who are foolish enough to love and care about him and to act in a way that is deliberately hostile to that love. The truth is that all of these actions and situations are roiling with complex, contradictory emotions.

Given all that, I just don't see how people who are not and have never been intimates of the principles feel entitled to pronounce with so much authority on their "true" feelings and motivations. Franzen was Wallace's friend, not you. Maybe that's the real problem.

lululemming (#409)

@Stacy Reading it again, I take your point in defence of Franzen actions as a means of keeping the actual memory of his friend alive, as opposed to the memory of the public figure. I remember hearing the eulogy of friend where the speaker said "he was kind to all, blah blah blah" and thinking at least that half the people in the room had been royally fucked over by the deceased. So yeah, you've made an excellent arguement here, and I can sort of wrap my brain around Franzen's motivations when I view them through that lens. I still think he misses an opportunity for compassion and undermines some of his friends insights into the condition of depression, but I imagine it's because he's fucking furious, which is a totally natural response to mental illness stealing someone you love. I don't know why Franzen has to make it so public and snide, and so much about him, but he's only human, I suppose, and he doesn't have to be any more selfless because he's well known. Thanks for your thoughtful response.

attila (#151,492)

i mean really if you have to talk about how you've never embellished in your non fiction…. why are you writing? Everyone creates their own reality. It's even more true for creative people. The cruise sucked. He's not going to write that he just stayed in his cabin and jerked off to a JC Penny's catalogue for 3 days with the occasional Mai Tai and salad bar. I'm the only person who wants to read that. Franzen sounds like he's afraid of life. He may now think he's some artiste but I remember a quote from him about how if you're not writing to make money then it's pointless. Which means he's a flowery, painted whore for money, with is legs cocked wide open and America's head going in and out. Some of the greatest stuff ever was written with no financial incentive. This is a guy who's been on Oprah's book club twice. He should probably go adapt a Dr. Phil book for the stage and quit pretending he was rubbing elbows with Wallace.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

@attila I remember a quote from him about how if you're not writing to make money then it's pointless. . Which means he's a flowery, painted whore for money, with is legs cocked wide open and America's head going in and out.

I think you totally misunderstood one of his "rules for writing" where he said "Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money." In other words, he was contrasting the style of writing he most respects (and presumably sees himself as practicing), which is about "an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown", with other types of writing which he sees as much less valuable and having no real point other than making money. Personally I think this is kind of a snobbish attitude–I don't think even the best works of science fiction or humor are really about "personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown" for example, but they can have a value other than money–but it is saying pretty much the opposite of how you interpreted it.

Debussy Fields (#9,962)

Franzen takes shots at Wallace to prove to the world how much he loves him.
That said, am I to understand that Scandinavian cruise ships do not attain their magnificent level of cleanliness through a boiling process?!

reefaround (#151,656)

Here is a link to the Charlie Rose interview: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/6191. The one above wasn't working.

Carrie Frye (#9,863)

@reefaround Ah, thanks for pointing out — link is fixed now. (Like Michelle, I love that interview.)

PropSword (#2,870)

The NY Times appended a correction to Wallace's Federer essay. So all of this obviously has to be true.

liz (#3,108)

I love the introduction to the Charlie Rose interview. Rose says IJ is the most talked about book of the season, at which point DFW crinkles his brow and Franzen just SIGHS EPICALLY.

belltolls (#184)

I am starting to think that Franzen guy is both a weasel and a dick. You can quote me.

mookie (#153,427)

1. Franzen : Wallace :: ___________

A. The New Yorker : Harper's
B. Salieri : Mozart
C. Donovan : Dylan
D. Ronaldo : Messi
E. All of the above

You summed it up in the title – Franzen says Foster Wallace blah blah – Of Course Franzen doesn't mention that he's made a career out of copy-catting everything Wallace has ever said or done. Franzen is a bourgeois courting, Time Magazine-cover hack, Mookie above, that's a genius SAT question – the answer is all of the above of course

moriah (#179,232)

@Erich Kuersten@twitter

moriah (#179,232)

@Erich Kuersten@twitter

Halloween Jack (#16,824)

In a faint echo of the (frequently too academic) debate about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, the question of whether or not either of these statements are empirically true, as descriptions of Wallace, strikes me as beside the point.

I think that they're very much the point. Franzen seems very much to still be trying to argue with DFW about this, and trying to convince others that DFW's non-response in the matter constitutes a forfeit.

Lemonnier (#14,611)

I finally get the DFW joke in Bossypants!

To build on your "take" on this, I hope: It seems to me the most interesting facet of the brouhaha is the betrayal here on Franzen's part. As to the fact or fiction question, I refer you to another controversial figure, David Shields and his marvelously insightful book Reality Hunger. I spoke with him last night via Skype: he generously spoke with my creative writing students. Shields raised this current controversy, I went looking, found your insightful piece and am now following you on Twitter. As Shields notes, "Anything processed by memory is fiction." We are not talking here about James Frey who out-and-out lied. We are talking about art, memory and narrative in terms of David Foster Wallace making up dialogue, no? How could Wallace accurately recall dialogue if he weren't recording it in some way? And who cares, anyway. The "truth" is in the fine essay. Thus, I say, more serious here is Franzen's betrayal of Wallace.

moriah (#179,232)

In the Charlie Rose video with Mark Leyner, David F. Wallace, and Jon Franzen, Frazen looks at David F. Wallace more often than he looks anywhere else and he does so furtively while speaking, his eyes darting back to Wallace time and time again within each sentence Franzen speaks as if he is searching constantly for approval or disapproval from Wallace.

Worshop something other than an idol and it will kill you…so will an idol but it will not as likely disappoint because it is not real and in order to become a popular/useful idol has already the long artfully developed persona infused elegantly with contractions not directly tolerable in reality, for the purpose of sideways addressing those very contradictions. Perhaps Franzen will find some peace now that he can worship Wallace as an idol not as a real man and writer.

Leyner seems the most comfortable with himself, Wallace appears to cut him self off from the others, needing to ensure he is distinguished, making eye contact only with the air in which he is obsessing on his abstractions. Meanwhile, Franzen is focused on Wallace.

moriah (#179,232)

Perhaps David F. Wallace can now be counted as someone who was worshiped to the point of an impossible existence.

Perhaps had he been procedural in his description of being killed by what we worship he might have added that if you worship a real thing or person you are amputating its true character and that is not a sustainable relationship and if we depend on excessively (ie worship) that relationship we are not then sustainable.

moriah (#179,232)


andreac (#228,587)

DFW's state fair piece was about the Illinois State Fair, not Iowa. We started going to the fair because of that article.

Mikes (#247,815)

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