A probably unnecessary post about David Foster Wallace

by Steve

Sign at a David Foster Wallace event

On the anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s death I expect there will be a glut of people sharing that This is Water video. It is a lovely piece of writing, but an odd one as it seems to have become this whole new creature, half self-help guide, half unintentional self-eulogy.

I was rather late to the DFW party, reading him for the first time a week after his death, and coincidentally reading the This is Water speech. As such I feel like I’m not that qualified to talk at length about DFW and the impact of his death; I feel a bit like one of those Doors/Joy Division/Nirvana fans who became fans after the bands were no more, or an ambulance chaser or something.

In fact it appears that I am probably a small part of the strange post-death industry around him, where he is quoted, converted into videos and sometimes even read, often by people who weren’t even aware of the guy while he was alive. I’m more of a fan of his non-fiction than his fiction, and would love the impossible scenario of DFW writing about how his place in popular and literary culture has changed over the past five years. It is a trite idea, and this is probably a trite post.

Yet this feels like a good opportunity to not only plug the This is Water speech as a gateway to DFW for anyone unfamiliar with his work (albeit not a great indicator of what to expect from his other work), to link to these 30 free essays available on the web, and to in particular link to one of his finest essays E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction. The essay is now 20 years old but still resonates and still feels important. I would love to read an update on the piece tackling how the internet has shaped our habits further. These days there are a lot of writers who ape DFW’s style, but not so many that offer his insight on the world, not so many who can balance clear-headed analysis with genuine humanity and empathy.

“I want to convince you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fictionists they pose terrifically vexing problems.”

I think this is still probably the case.

Image from Steve Rhodes, via Flickr