Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Zadie Smith and I have one very important thing in common: We both count David Foster Wallace as our favorite writer. She explains her DFW fandom in her terrific essay, "The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace," which starts out as a review of DFW's short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and morphs into a very heartfelt tribute to him and his genius. (She started the essay before he died and finished it afterwards.)
Ever since reading that essay almost a decade ago, I've wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall as those two discussed books and the writing life. So at the prompting of the good folks at Eventbrite, an event planning software company, who are working on a project to collect posts by book bloggers on their dream author panels, I decided I'd up the ante and imagine what it'd be like to actually be the one interviewing them. Like my goofy post about Thomas Pynchon, what follows is an imagined present-day conversation between DFW, Zadie Smith, and me as the moderator. (I mean, if I'm going to write about a dream author panel, why not put myself right in the middle?!)
Me: Zadie, in your essay, you wrote about Dave's famous quote, "Fiction is about what it is to be a f$@#king human being," can you explain why you admire that quote specifically, but also what it says about Dave's own approach to writing fiction?
Zadie Smith: Sure, and thanks — it's great to be here with you and Dave. As I say in the essay, that quote sort of encompasses why I love Dave's fiction: Because it's about empathy. Fiction allows writers and readers alike to walk around in the shoes of someone who is not like the reader at all. It allows readers and writers to understand different situations than their own. That is why nothing is more real than fiction. And Dave does empathy in his fiction better than any writer.
DFW (nervous laugh): Am I a ghost? Kidding. I never had much use for the laws of physics anyway. It is not for me to question how I'm here. I just am. And but so, thanks for the kind words. Yes, also when I delivered that keynote address at Kenyon College in 2005, and sweated my balls off too, empathy was the idea there, too. I talked about being patient with the person in front of you at the grocery store, because you never know what they're going through, and chances are it's worse than you. That understanding of others' situations different from your own is what writing and reading fiction does. It situates you in the world.
Me: Dave, what do you admire about Zadie's fiction?
DFW: She is often described as an exuberant writer, and I agree. I love the experimentation in NW, and I love the take on celebrity and authenticity in Swing Time. But White Teeth is still my favorite. Though, while we're here, what were you thinking with The Autograph Man? A bit of misstep, no?
Zadie: Well, that's brutally honest! Yeah, I'm proud of everything I write, but that was a sophomore slump, sure. But hey man, what were YOU thinking with "Westward The Course of Empire Takes Its Way." That thing was unreadable!
Me (can't help interjecting): For those unfamiliar, Zadie is referring to a novella included in DFW's 1989 story collection Girl With Curious Hair. And she's right, it IS unreadable.
DFW: Yeah, well, I think I've since admitted when I was young writer, my calibration between reader enjoyment and reader aggravation might've been a tad off at times. That's an example of that. I finally got it right with Infinite Jest...or so people tell me.
Me (still can't help myself): I'LL SAY!
Zadie: What's interesting is how well that novel has aged; how relevant it is today in the age of addiction to social media. I mean, I'm not a tweeter or a facebooker, but do you think you would be if you were still here, Dave?
DFW (lighting a cigarette): I think you know about my love for TV and movies, but the entertainment on the web is a different beast. I wouldn't totally decry and ignore it like my buddy Franzen, but I'd probably dip a toe into Twitter just to entertain myself.
Me: Dude, I don't think you can smoke in here. And since we're well over the appropriate length of a normal blog post (wait, what?), let's stop here and go get a drink!
Posted by Greg Zimmerman at 9:16 AM