COLLECTION OF THE SAVANNAH COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN, SAVANNAH, GEORGIA; COURTESY THE ARTIST AND SARAH BAIN GALLERY, ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA
No Place Like Home, by Alyssa Monks, whose work was on view this summer at DFN Gallery, in New York City.
IT ALL GETS QUITE TRICKYBy David Foster Wallace. In the past two years, Wallace wrote the following letters to students in Anne Fadimans advanced nonction writing classes at Yale University, after the students read an excerpt from Wallaces essay Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from It All on attending the Illinois State Fair, which is included in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing Ill Never Do Again and appeared in the July 1994 issue of Harpers Magazine as Ticket to the Fair. Until his death in September, Wallace was a contributing editor of the magazine. uestion (by Alexander Borinsky): Have you ever not written something for fear the subject might read it? Dear Ms. Fadiman, Mr. Borinsky, et alia: I think I detect a subtext to the question. Heres a mortifying fact: When I did the State Fair piece, I thought it was a fairly neutral, even sympathetic portrait of the Fair and venue and locale and at-
tendees. Then, when the Harpers version came out, I got hate mail, third-party hate mail sent to area newspapers, etc. The gist of which mail being, Heres this native whos gone all East Coast and uptown now coming back and making fun of his roots. (Folks were especially upset about the references to lots of people being fat. It was and is all truego gure.) So after that I got more, shall we say, sensitive to the reactions of subjects. Theres a delicate balance here, as Im sure you guys have observed and discussed. On the one hand, a writer has to understand that his primary allegiance is to the reader, not to the articles subject. Excessive concern about subjects feelings can lead to all sorts of dishonesty that the reader will be able to detect (whether this detection is conscious or not). On the other hand, life is short, and hard, and it seems like good policy to inict the absolute minimum pain/humiliation on other people as we schlep through the day. Plus, if the reader gets the idea that gratuitous ridicule or contempt is being heaped on a subject, then theres a whole different, nastier vibe of dishonesty or hidden agenda that can surround the piece. So it all gets quite tricky. I dont do that many nonction pieces, so the problem of subjects feelings doesnt come up that
much. I think its got to be much, much more a problem for full-time working journalists. I once did a piece about an athlete, and the athlete was indiscreet and told me personal stuff that I knew he would not (on sober reection) want to see publicized . . . but hed said it, and if I didnt include it out of nothing but concern for the subjects feelings then wasnt I being a hack and screwing over the reader . . . and so on and so forth. After much dithering and hand-wringing, I sort of restructured the piece so that the indiscreet stuff he told me wouldnt be germane enough to warrant inclusion. The piece ended up pretty good, and I felt good that Id found a way to avoid embarrassing a decent guy without screwing the reader over. But it doesnt always work that well, and sometimes I havent been very strong or smart about nessing this issue. Ive had to back out of certain book reviews, for example, because it turned out that I hated the book, the book was simply bad, and I simply refused to spend a week and 750 words skewering a book or explaining point by point why it was bad . . . mainly because I have myself been skewered, and know how it feels, and after a certain age I just didnt have the stomach to do it to someone else. Theres a sort of narcissistic empathy involved in cases like that; its not at all clear to me that I did the right thing by refusing to do those reviews. Its more like I just couldnt . . . and the organ had little problem nding someone else to do the panning/skewering. So its all ethically gray as hell. Whatever. Hope this makes some kind of sense. Tally Ho. /dfw/ ear Mr. Wallace, In writing about the Illinois State Fair, you critique the animal-like fairgoers, and yet you also subtly mock your own voice as narrator. As a writer, how does one find a balance between mocking ones target and mocking oneself? Many thanks, Daniel Fromson Dear Mr. Fromson et al.: Well, hmm. Youre about to get a more or less freewritten reply, which will be my attempt at simulating a live, sweaty, physically-present-type answer. Said answer being mainly: I dont know. At least Im not sure whether (a) there is such a balance, and (b) if there is, whether nding it can be prescribed in any kind of formula. This isnt to say that I dont see your questions pointat least I think I do, although I did that piece a long time ago, and I dont have any copies of it here to look at. Part of me wants to object to you critique the animal-like fairgoers, although I seem to recall stuff about clinically fat people engaged in peripatetic eating that made them look bovine. But I also re-
call a certain tenderness for the Midwesterners there (of whom I was, by origin and upbringing, one), and an attempt to explain, for the mainly cosmopolitan readers of Harpers, some of the effects rurality, physical distance, lack of stimulation, etc. have on people. Still, I must also admit that I got some pissed-off letters indeed from Midwesterners, along with some aggrieved press mentions in the MidwestLocal boy goes off east and writes smart-ass article for hip New York mag, etc. Some people sure felt mocked, it would appear. Youre going to hate this, but the truth is that the best source for the kind of How do you balance . . . instruction you ask for is probably your own prof., Ms. Fadiman. For me, at any rate, most of what I feel I know about the issue comes from teachingits much easier to see problems and be coherent about abstract rules in students work than it is in ones own. So: Were talking here about a certain very specic kind of essay, one thats (a) critical, (b) comic, (c) descriptive (as opposed to mainly argumentative or something). Conditions (a) and (b) create the sense of mockery your question refers to. And Id say that this is a dangerous kind of piece to do, because it sets up Narrator Persona challenges, more specically the Asshole problem. Im sure you guys have seen itits death if the biggest sense the reader gets from a critical essay is that the narrators a very critical person, or from a comic essay that the narrators cruel or snooty. Hence the importance of being just as critical about oneself as one is about the stuff/people ones being critical of. Seeing this in print, though, I realize that it looks extremely obvious and dull. So hmm. Maybe the root challenge here is to form and honor a fairly rigorous contract with the reader, one that involves honesty and unblinkingness (if the latters a word). So that the reader gets the overall impression that heres a narrator whos primarily engaged in trying to Tell the Truth . . . and if that truth involves the putziness of other people or events, so be it, but if it involves the narrators own schmuckiness, limitations, prejudices, foibles, screw-ups at the event, etc., then these get told about toobecause the truth-as-seen is the whole project here (as opposed to just mockery, or just self-ridicule, or just selfsuperiority, etc.). I have no idea how to reduce that to any kind of pragmatic recipebut I think that whatever serious, infrangible contract you make with yourself and the reader, the reader will pick up on, even if its not conscious. The problem is that it usually takes two or three rambling, incoherent drafts even to start to have any idea what the root project and contract of a given piece ought to be . . . its not the sort of thing where you can just impose a rhetoric or contract from the outset. None of which probably makes much sense . . . Tally Ho, David Wallace
HARPERS MAGAZINE / NOVEMBER 2008