I’m reading quite a lot of David Foster Wallace’s essays lately. Why his essays and not his fiction, you might ask yourself while enjoying a nice cup of tea, my dear reader? Well, his wife, the painter Karen L. Green, said in an interview with the Guardian, that in the months and years before he took his life, he actually felt that writing novels was becoming more and more of a strain, that he wasn’t enjoying it anymore. According to her, he prefered writing features for newspapers and magazines. Because it was fun and it made him happy. Green mentions his (brilliant) article about the tennis player Roger Federer as religious experience he wrote for the New York Times and you can see that she’s right.
I agree that writing should not always be just hard work. As a copywriter, I do know that professional writing (or rather copywriting in my case) can be very tedious and frustrating at times. Of course I haven’t ever written anything like the great David Foster Wallace and I certainly never will, the guy was a genius. But I believe that writers are at their best when they enjoy doing it.
Wallace tackles in his essays and articles the most complex issues but he’s always fun to read. His writing is very clear, deep and full of humour. He doesn’t confuse and bore you with long and complicated sentences and expressions you have to look up in the dictionary every five minutes. He does make extensive use of footnotes (he called them „endnotes“) in his essays after his break-through novel „Infinite Jest“ though, which often cover small side aspects of a story and are – as in the case of the above mentioned article on Federer – sometimes very important for the specific key point he is after in a story. I appreciate his style and enjoy his passion for trying to give you the full picture.
David Foster Wallace was a tacitly emotional critic, a caring writer and a very sharp analyst. He had his own way of telling a story and took a different and idiosyncratic approach to the matters he was writing about. Example: When critically discussing certain pop cultural phenomena, he doesn’t attack capitalism and consumerism with this awkward tendency of whining and complaining about everything. He goes to the bottom of things and looks at them properly. Of course television, he argues, is bad when people in the U.S. spend an average of 6 hours a day staring at it. But, he figures, it’s not just an evil thing we will eventually get rid off – it is something we have to deal with because it is – in whatever form – here to stay.
In his essays, Wallace takes his time establishing his points and slowly leads you towards his central arguments. But he never becomes boring in doing so. And he is not all about theory either – although he sure read his stuff. He actually worked as a proper field journalist who was out there in the trenches when he covered John McCain’s 2000 presidential pre-election campaign for the Rolling Stone, following McCain’s trail for a couple of weeks. Once he even visited a massive porn fair in LA and wrote about the people there, brillantly describing the get-together of the American porn industry and its top players – and losers – without making use of any highbrow cynical detachement.
I find it quite hard lately to find books I enjoy reading. I’m very easily bored – which is not good. I tried reading Dostoyewski a few days ago and fell asleep after a couple of pages. Shame one me. When I read some essay of David Foster Wallace then I enjoy it so much because he actually explains to me why I get bored by things so easily.
What you really must read if any of the above has sparked your interest:
Guardian Interview with his wife Karen L. Green
David Foster Wallace, New York Times, 2006: „Federer as Religious Experince“
Two great collections of his essays:
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (1997)
Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005)