In light of the suicide of writer David Foster Wallace, we spoke to GW English professor Margaret Soltan about the state of writing today, the voices of our time and the literary works that inform us as a generation.
Soltan’s blog, “University Diaries,” is a staple read on higher education, and she has been interviewed by media outlets including PBS and The Washington Post. Along with fellow professor Jennifer Green-Lewis, she released “Teaching Beauty” in 2007, which deals largely with the work of contemporary American author Don DeLillo.
First of all, I wanted to talk to you about American writer David Foster Wallace, what he meant and what his suicide means for the literary world.
My sense of it is that, and I think this is shared by most serious readers, that the literary world has suffered a very big loss – not only because he died but because of the way in which he died. His father was interviewed by The New York Times, and Wallace suffered from depression for 20 years and had been medicated but it was difficult to handle and eventually he was just not able to keep himself going. And especially when an artist kills him or herself – it’s like, what is wrong with the artistic sensibility that so many artists – what is it about the artistic mind that makes it sometimes undo itself?
I saw your blog post about the prevalence of this among writers – that these people essentially use themselves up and become their own subject matter.
Well, that’s a contested argument. Some people argue that, other people would argue that that is going overboard. The argument is that there’s something about modern literature – contemporary literature – that it all becomes very autobiographical, and it becomes about your own suffering. And the argument is that there’s something sort of dangerous about doing what Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton or, for that matter, what David Foster Wallace did.
There’s something about the process of transforming your own pain into literature and maybe not quite transforming it enough, in the case of someone like Plath or David Foster Wallace, where it’s still on the surface and very painful. So the argument would be that the peculiar danger of a certain kind of late-20th-century fiction writing is that the immediate sufferings of a particular self are too explicit, and you make yourself too vulnerable.
Besides this sense of autobiographical writing, what themes do you see in current writing?
Well, these are all themes that I see in David Foster Wallace very strongly. The crucial theme that he was onto – that a lot of other writers like Don DeLillo are onto – is the peculiar paradox whereby as Americans many of us are big winners. I mean, look at David Foster Wallace’s life. Why would anyone who has made it big – really in his twenties – as a writer do this to himself? But his whole point, and I think it’s DeLillo’s point too, is that the peculiar business of being a kind of American, an affluent American, a success in our time, is that the happier you get, and the more success you get, the more unhappy you get. In other words we’re living in a world of pleasure and delights and successes and wonderful things, but this world is not really making us happy.
What current books do you see as important for students today to be reading?
First of all, in terms of David Foster Wallace, I would say that his main novel “Infinite Jest” is enormous, and has a sort of cult following for students. Everyone should graze in “Infinite Jest;” everybody should look at it. But I think only the cult follower is going to sit there and read every single page, not to mention every single footnote … And all young intellectuals have to read Don DeLillo’s “White Noise.” But I think also if you want to get more of a sense of what was most influencing a writer like David Foster Wallace, read DeLillo’s novel “The Names,” because it goes to the heart of what tormented David Foster Wallace – this lack of an ability to communicate … the sense that language isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do by way of communicating meaning. But the effort is to get past this sense of fracturing to direct communication and direct feeling and to break through the levels of irony and of sarcasm – the kind of stuff we learned growing up with “The Simpsons” and David Letterman.
Who should we be looking to as the next big names in writing?
Well, among the other names is Jonathan Franzen, who wrote “The Corrections,” Jeffrey Eugenides, Nicholson Baker, Rick Moody. These are all people who are experimental novelists; they are taking on serious cultural themes. Also Jonathan Safran Foer who wrote “Everything is Illuminated.” He shares with David Foster Wallace this wonderful linguistic play. It’s hilarious. A lot of these people are just really funny and they twist language in ways that are energetic and ludicrous and fun.
Interview conducted and condensed by Ani Mamourian.