A Supposedly True Thing Jonathan Franzen Said About David Foster Wallace

by Michelle Dean

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:

Donovan Hohn @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

Donovan Hohn @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.