‘A Frightening Time in America’: An Interview with David Foster Wallace
The following conversation is drawn from an interview I did with David Foster Wallace in September 2006 as part of a series of articles and radio pieces about important foreign writers, artists, and movie directors who were not well known in Russia at the time. (Unfortunately, Wallace’s readership in Russia is still very small.) The occasion for our talk was the tenth anniversary of the publication of Infinite Jest. I planned to talk to Mr. Wallace for fifteen minutes, but we ended up talking for nearly two hours, and the subjects we covered ranged from the cynical tone of US politics, to the horrors of factory farming, to the state of American literature, to the progress in his own work. Though part of the interview was broadcast on Russia’s Radio Liberty, it has never been published in English.
Ostap Karmodi: Do you feel we’re living in an age of consumerism or is that just a media concept that doesn’t have any real meaning?
David Foster Wallace: This question, as you know, is very complicated. I can give answers that are somewhat simple and I can really talk only about America, because it’s really the only society that I know. America, as everybody knows, is a country of many contradictions, and a big contradiction for a long time has been between a very aggressive form of capitalism and consumerism against what might be called a kind of moral or civic impulse. For many years everybody knew that business was business and people needed to make money, but people were also a little embarrassed or ashamed of that. It was regarded as somewhat crass. Some of this contradiction comes out of England and old conflicts between the bourgeoisie and nobility. Sometime—I’m not sure whether it was the 1990s or 1980s in America—half of that conflict really sort of disappeared, and there’s now a celebration of commercialism and consumerism and marketing that is not really balanced by any kind of shame or embarrassment or reticence or sense that in fact consumerism and commercialism were really only a very small part of human life. I think that many peoples’ daily lives probably aren’t completely consumer-driven here in America, but they’re certainly much more so than they were twenty or thirty years ago.
OK: Do you think it’s a natural trend that will stop by itself at some point?
DFW: Where’s it’s going, I’m not entirely sure. In America, and I imagine in large parts of Western Europe, there’s a certain problem which is that corporations have gotten more and more power, both culturally and politically. Here in America it now takes large amounts of money to run for various kinds of democratic office. Corporations have a great deal more money than private citizens, corporations make these donations that then result in laws that favor corporations even more, and you get a sort of cycle. And corporations are very strange, they’re composed of people, they have the legal status of a person, but they don’t have a conscience or soul the way people do. You end up with this increasing distortion of American values where everything becomes about money and selling and buying and display. We’ve reached a point with the current president and the current administration where corporations have so much influence and so much control and are doing so much damage that’s obvious to everybody that there may be a backlash, a kind of spasmodic reaction against it. The next ten years here in America are going to be very interesting probably for the whole world to watch.
OK: Interesting optimistically speaking, or interesting as in watching a volcano erupt?
DFW: Well, those are the two possibilities. Either American voters will figure out that there need to be some counterbalances to corporate and capitalist forces, and that balance can be achieved through political process. Or we may very well end up here with a form of fascism. Many people in America throw the term “fascism” around, particularly for Middle-Eastern terrorists, but in fact what fascism really is is a close alliance between a unitary executive and a state and large corporations and a state. We could be entering a period much like the period Russia went through [for] much of the twentieth century, with a great deal of repression and hollowness and artificiality of the culture.
OK: A popular modern Russian writer, Viktor Pelevin, has said that the main character of much of modern cinema and pop-literature—all of pop-culture—is a black briefcase full of money. We mostly follow its fate, and the fates of the other characters depend on it.
DFW: I’ve heard about Viktor Pelevin, and everything I’ve heard about him is that he’s very smart and very astute. I think one reason his image is so funny is that it’s somewhat accurate. At least here in America, we’re in a time that’s very, very cynical. So that when you have a piece of pop-culture that has a very virtuous person or a hero, people see those qualities much more as presentations by someone who’s trying to get something, whether money or approval, than true human virtue or true qualities. One consequence of what American scholars call a post-modern era is that everyone has seen so many performances, that American viewers and American readers, we simply assume now that everything is a performance and it’s strategic and it’s tactical. It’s a very sad situation and I think the chances are that nations go through periods of great idealism and great cynicism, and that America and Europe, at least Western Europe right now, are in periods of great cynicism.
OK: Is there any way out of it? Can you see any developments, albeit minor, that could lead to some good results in the future?
DFW: Speaking totally as an amateur and not any kind of government expert, I would say America’s now starting to face certain economic realities that we’ve been shielded from for many years. The price of gasoline is slowly becoming closer to what it is in the rest of the world. The awareness that the entire Earth’s climate is affected by all nations, and that the United States as far and away the biggest carbon dioxide producer bears some special responsibility for possible environmental collapse later. Americans are slowly waking up out of a kind of dream of special exemption and special privilege in the world. To use your term, this could result in some kind of volcano and America becoming some kind of nightmarish imperial force trying to take resources from other countries forcibly, or it could result, as I think it does in many countries in cycles, in a kind of slow awakening to the fact that having and consuming and exhausting resources is actually not a very good set of values for living.
So which way it will go? I don’t know. And it’s one reason it’s a very frightening time in America, particularly with the people who’re in power right now—many of us are in the position of being more afraid of our own country and our own government than we are of any supposed enemy somewhere else. For someone like me who grew up in the sixties at the height of the Cold War and whose consciousness was formed by, “we are the good guy and there’s one great looming dark enemy and that’s the Soviet Union,” the idea of waking up to the fact that in today’s world very possibly we are the villain, we are the dark force, to begin to see ourselves a little bit through the eyes of people in other countries—you can imagine how difficult that is for Americans to do. Nevertheless, with a lot of the people that I know that’s slowly starting to happen.
OK: Can pure art free of any commercial or propaganda value exist in your opinion?
DFW: I’m suspicious of the word “pure.” It’s a very, very high standard to attach to a word like “art,” given that the basic situation is a continuum. Let me give you an example: my wife is a fantastic artist and painter but she doesn’t attempt to sell her work for a great deal of money. She hasn’t made any attempts to get a lot of galleries or museums to buy her work. She’s had shows and she can sell stuff when she wants, but mainly she makes them as gifts for people. It’s very interesting for me to watch her work. There’s a whole art world in America, where you develop a name and a reputation and your art becomes more and more valuable, and you can end up very wealthy. She’s afraid of that whole process because she believes it will take something out of the art that will make it less fun for her to do. And for her it’s the most important thing of her life.
So she is for me—I’ve only been married two years—watching her work and then going into the garage where I work, and trying to do my work and trying not to think about, “Oh, what does this reviewer from The New York Times say,” to find myself preoccupied and distracted by all kinds of what are really petty and immature and vain distractions is very educational. It may be that the only way in America to produce pure art would be to remove oneself from the public sphere and produce that art only as gifts, where there’s no money involved and no attempt at publicity or publication involved. The problem is that if everyone does that, then there is no public arts here. So it all becomes really a paradox that I’ve spent a lot of the last years thinking about, and I don’t have an answer.
OK: Let’s talk about good times and bad times. It’s a common belief that we have some moral progress, some social progress, some political progress. But looking at the twentieth century it seems that it was the cruelest century of them all. It’s unbelievable what people did to other people and what we still do to animals. We’ve actually built concentration camps for cows and chickens who live only to be killed and it structures their entire lives. Do you believe in social or moral progress? Or maybe you disagree with what I’ve just said and you don’t think that the picture is so dark?
DFW: It is certainly true that as technology has progressed and economic mechanisms have progressed, it is increasingly possible to perpetrate terrible, terrible cruelties on other human beings and on animals. You and I, I think, agree that one of the great unspoken horrors of modern capitalism is the phenomenon of what’s known as “factory farming.” Here in America, because it’s cheapest, animals are raised in such large numbers, in such close captivity, in such miserable conditions that if you assume that they have nervous system and are capable of suffering, it is the great horror of America right now. It’s not a view that most Americans are very interested in—most Americans believe that there’s a moral hierarchy and the needs of people come first.
OK: I personally believe that the needs of humans come first, but it’s a matter of degree: the needs of animals should be at least considered.
DFW: I absolutely agree. I’ve had many arguments with friends about this. It’s seems to me that there’s no better example of why corporate interests and economic logic need to be balanced with laws and restrictions on corporate behavior than the fact not only that so many animals are killed, but that they are made to live lives where none of their instincts get to be acted out, where every waking moment of their lives is suffering and torture, all so that meat can be produced for fifty cents less per pound. To me it’s a monstrosity.
On the other hand, at least in America, one of the things that drives us crazy is our professed ideal to try to be fair to everyone. To try not to exclude or discriminate. And in some ways America has made progress in realizing as a culture for instance how terribly black Americans have been treated, how unfairly women have been treated, how handicapped people have been discriminated against by things as simple as staircases that wheelchairs can’t get up. What you see in America right now, though, is yet another backlash. It’s so expensive and so difficult to try to be fair to everybody, and it ends up with so much litigation and so many people howling for their rights, that many on the right wing and many in business simply want to throw up their hands and say “Fuck the whole thing and let’s just go back to the state of Nature and war of all against all.” This all gets really tricky.
My personal belief is that because technology and economic logic has gotten so sophisticated, cruelties can be perpetrated now that would have been unimaginable two or three hundred years ago. Therefore we are under more of a moral obligation to try very very very hard to develop compassion and mercy and empathy. Which means these are very bad times in America because the American electorate is simply not interested for the most part in much of this right now.
OK: You wrote Infinite Jest ten years ago, and after that you didn’t write any other novels, just essays and stories. Do you feel it’s over for you with big novels? Is it more interesting for you to write stories now?
DFW: There are writers in America who consider themselves only novelists. I do all kinds of different things. I will probably at some point finish a novel. Whether it will be good enough to publish, I don’t know. I tend to start three or four things for every one thing that gets finished. I was trained mainly as a short story writer and that’s how I started writing, but I’ve also become very interested in non-fiction, just because I got a couple of magazine jobs when I was really poor and needed the money and it turned out that non-fiction was much more interesting than I thought it was. So I am, as American writers go, very eclectic. I haven’t made any decisions about one kind of genre or another. I love to read poetry but I will probably never write it because I just have no talent for it. But other than that I probably want to try everything.
OK: But now you just don’t feel like writing another novel?
DFW: Well, you make it sound like writing a novel is a matter of sitting down for an afternoon. I have for the past five or six years at times made starts on things. I don’t really understand the term “novel,” but I guess anything over about 150 pages is a novel. I’ve done a couple of longer things, I just don’t like them very much right now and I don’t know whether I will rewrite them. I don’t really need the money. My wife and I live very simply. I’m sure I will write more novels; I don’t know whether I will publish them or not. A lot of stuff that I write just goes in a big box in my office and no one else ever sees them.
OK: Your stories are very philosophical and quite political too. Is there for you any big difference between a story and an essay?
DFW: I don’t know that I agree that my fiction is really all that political.
OK: Philosophical at least.
DFW: People are often surprised, I think I’m fundamentally a fairly traditional, conservative kind of writer. I tend to think of fiction as being mainly about characters and human beings and inner experience, whereas essays can be much more expository and didactic and more about subjects or ideas. If some people read my fiction and see it as fundamentally about philosophical ideas, what it probably means is that these are pieces where the characters are not as alive and interesting as I meant them to be.
OK: What do you think of the modern state of American literature?
DFW: Ugggggghhhhh. Somebody asked me this a couple of weeks ago. I think the truth is that it’s a very exciting period but it’s one that probably people in other countries won’t have as much access to. Because 30 or 40 years ago American literature mainly existed in ten or a dozen giant literary figures, and there are now probably more like 100 or 200 literary figures, all of whom are quite good and quite interesting, but none really of the stature and international reputation of, say, a Saul Bellow or a William Faulkner or an Ernest Hemingway.
OK: Maybe it’s just a matter of time?
DFW: Possibly. But I also think that for reasons that are extremely complicated in terms of culture and media… I mean I’m now forty-four, so I’m half way between a young writer and an older writer. Starting with my generation, generations are much more diffuse and much more difficult to characterize or capture. To have two or three voices of a generation becomes more and more difficult and probably will be done more by certain classic television shows or movies than writers. Writers in America are much more on the cultural margins than they used to be, and that’s very exciting in terms of freedom and ability to experiment, but it also means that there’s much less cohesion and unity. It would be very difficult for somebody in another country, unless they made a full-time business of it, to even keep up with where American literature is right now.
Ostap Karmodi is a Russian journalist living in Europe and working for Russian and European media. He’s covered various subjects, including English and American literature (in Russian) and Russian literature (in English). He’s also the author of a bestselling Russian-language guide to Prague. The full text of this interview is available on his blog.
June 13, 2011, noon