Could the Internet Age See Another David Foster Wallace?

The world of Facebook, Twitter, and selfie sticks forces even literature's most reluctant luminaries to act like extroverts—something the late author famously resented.

Here is an extremely incomplete list of things I would like to know David Foster Wallace’s thoughts on:
selfie sticks
man buns
farmers’ markets
the Starbucks S’mores Frappuccino®
The League
professional football
college football
trigger warnings
Breaking Bad
Mars One
Donald Trump
the “personal brand”
Ashley Madison
the film The End of the Tour
I would especially love to know his thoughts on that last one, since the movie, being pretty much a filmic love letter to the late author, could well fall into the category of Praise That Made David Foster Wallace Itchy and Squirmy. The conventional wisdom about Wallace—an idea put forth during the nascent days of his fame, and reiterated in a good portion of the approximately 512,246 essays and novels and Tumblr posts that came as that fame crystallized into something closer to canonization—is that Wallace, the person, was extremely ambivalent about Wallace, the persona. He wanted, on the one hand, to join the ranks of DeLillo and Pynchon and Updike (though the latter he famously denigrated as “just a penis with a thesaurus”). But the fame that accompanied literary achievement during the time he was doing all his achieving made him, he insisted, want to become a recluse.” There’s being celebrated, and then there’s celebrity. Celebrity, in all its tentacular forms, was one of the things Wallace’s work most consistently mocked.
And so, after Infinite Jest came out to effusive acclaim (the book so surpassed its peers, Walter Kirn wrote, effusively, it was as though “Paul Bunyan had joined the NFL, or Wittgenstein had gone on Jeopardy!”), Wallace began changing his phone number every few months, to prevent unsolicited calls from fawning fans. He began making restaurant reservations under fanciful pseudonyms. He made a performance of his ambivalence. When a friend wrote to congratulate Wallace on Infinite Jest's success, the writer replied, “WAY MORE FUSS ABOUT THIS BOOK THAN I’D ANTICIPATED. ABOUT 26% OF FUSS IS WELCOME.”
The irony in all this—and there is always a full parfait of irony where David Foster Wallace is concerned—is that Wallace’s protestations against the fuss ended up serving to justify the fuss. Wallace the World-Weary Celebrity became a trope in the literary subgenre of writing-about-Wallace not just because it was partially true, but because it lent a kind of ethical tolerability to fame’s economic transactions: He deserved his celebrity, the logic went, specifically because he had not sought it. There’s a scene in a New York Times profile of Wallace, published during the Infinite Jest tour, in which Wallace, eating a bologna sandwich, is orally accosted by his two rambunctious dogs. “They pretend they’re kissing you,” Wallace tells the journalist Frank Bruni, “but they're really mining your mouth for food.” This is disgusting and elegant and, as such, a perfect metaphor for the slobberingly ravenous demands the public can place on the people it patronizes. It suggests that Wallace, who was above all a media critic, understood that you can’t have the “celebrity” without the “sell.” But it also suggests the divide between Wallace and the people who hunger for and around him: Wallace, even as he was a part of his own fame, was somehow detached from it. And somehow above it.
The End of the Tour manages both to reiterate the old trope and to ignore it. The movie portrays Wallace as genuinely conflicted about his fame, resisting what actual-Wallace calledthe big Attention eyeball” and what movie-Wallace calls “being a whore,” but it also finds him book-touring and radio-interviewing and, of course, agreeing to the epic Rolling Stone interview that the movie is based on. It also, however, engages in the kind of postmodern hagiography that treats its subject’s averageness—in this case, Wallace’s love of Alanis Morissette, his penchant for candy bars, his reliance on Clearasil, his obsession with TV and movies and malls and McDonald’s value meals—as a primary source of his heroism.
So Wallace—itch, squirm—has been casually canonized, turned into what he once dubbed, disapprovingly, “a Mask, a Public Self, False Self or Object-Cathect.” He has been transformed from David Foster Wallace, the author and human (the “Foster” Wallace added at the suggestion of an editor, to distinguish him from the many already-famous people who shared his name), into “DFW,” the literary symbol and Lifestyle Brand. Wallace, Jason Segel, who plays him in The End of the Tour, told me, was not just “a dude”; he is also one of those celebrities who we want—and in some sense need—to idolize. “You want to deify them,” Segel says. “You want them to be something other than you.”
So when movie-Wallace chides movie-journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) to “just be a good guy,” there’s a moral valence to the goodness. There’s a sense that Wallace knew, as a function of his sweeping intellect and his gentle genius, better than the rest of us what “goodness” entails.
But Wallace himself, it’s worth noting, was not always a good guy. He told a men’s group he was involved in that he looked at getting women into bed as “a physics problem,” and once wondered to a friend whether his purpose was simply “to put my penis in as many vaginas as possible.” He once threatened, his biographer D.T. Max writes, to murder the husband of a love interest, The Liar's Club author Mary Karr; he also, Max alleges, once pushed Karr from a vehicle and, during another fight, threw a coffee table at her. He could be self-absorbed (“I’m massively selfish about my work,” Wallace told Bruni in the Times profile, “and I don't seem to be able to be very polite or considerate about other people's feelings”). He could be deceptive (he blamed a year he took away from college on the suicide of a friend when, in reality, it was his depression—which he variously described as “the black hole with teeth” and “the festering pus-ridden chancre at the center of my brain” and “the Bad Thing”—that had kept him away). As Wallace himself summed it up in a 1999 interview: “I could be a prick.”
These are human shortcomings, some of them—some of them—the kind pretty much any person, being marred and messy, will somehow relate to; the thing is, though, that the Wallace Industrial Complex doesn’t tend to allow these things to color the man who is at once its principal and its principal product. #Brands don’t tend to appreciate the nuance of banality. Something I’ve noticed since Wallace’s suicide in 2008,” Glenn Kenny wrote in The Guardian, on the occasion of the End of the Tour release, “is that a lot of self-professed David Foster Wallace fans don’t have much use for people who actually knew the guy. For instance, whenever Jonathan Franzen utters or publishes some pained but unsparing observations about his late friend, Wallace’s fan base recoils, posting comments on the Internet about how self-serving he is, or how he really didn’t ‘get’ Wallace.”
* * *
Wallace died before Facebook went mass-market, before Twitter exploded onto the scene, before the web came, fully, to saturate our habits of life and social interactions. Could the kind of transcendent celebrity he both enjoyed and resented have survived life on the Internet? Could Wallace, had he lived on into the brave new world of Facebook and Twitter and small pieces loosely joined, kept his carefully calibrated mask intact? Would his cult have been able to continue as it has in a world of sound bites and personal brands and #hottakes, a world in which the demands on an author are so much more constant and insistent than book tours and occasional TV interviews?
It’s hard—strictly, it’s impossible—to tell. Wallace was deeply suspicious of the media infrastructure that was, when he died, still largely known as “the Net”—“I allow myself to Webulize only once a week now,” he once told a grad student—and he remarked to his wife, as they were moving computer equipment into their house, “thank God I wasn't raised in this era.” Having written his first big stories on a Smith Corona typewriter, Wallace disliked digital drafts and e-publishing in general. (“Digital=abstract=sterile, somehow,” he wrote to Don DeLillo in 2000.) He liked to write long-hand, usually with cheap Bics he nicknamed his “orgasm pens.” He took particular pleasure in the fact that his house in Indiana, the one recreated in The End of the Tour, had the elegantly atavistic address of “Rural Route 2.” He preferred to file his students’ work not on computers, but in a pink Care Bears folder.
And he insisted that Infinite Jest, for all its obsession with commercialized communication and connection, was not about the web. When Valerie Stivers asked Wallace why the novel didn't specifically mention “online services,” he replied that “to do a comprehensive picture of what the technology of that era would be like, would take 3,500 pages, number one.” And when the Chicago Tribune asked whether Infinite Jest was meant to reflect life in the Internet age, the author rejected the reading. “This is sort of what it's like to be alive,” Wallace insisted. And “you don't have to be on the Internet for life to feel this way.” (Another reading, however: “The book is not about electronic culture,” Sven Birkerts, writing in the magazine then known as The Atlantic Monthly, noted, “but it has internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst.”)
And yet who better than Wallace to comment on the crazy world that is springing up both on and around the web? Who better than Wallace to help us make sense of Google and Snapchat and the far-reaching sociological experiment that is being conduced under the auspices of the “selfie stick”? Not only, as Maud Newton noted in a 2011 essay, has his writing style—its flippancy and its formality and its word-invention and its run-on sentences and its aggression and its passivity and its indolence and its urgency and its Ironical Creation of Capitalized Categories and its philosophy and its whimsy—been dissolved into a generation of Internet writers; his philosophical preoccupations also lend themselves to the Internet as a medium. Wallace seemed to have had a kind of preternatural (savant-garde, he might have called it) appreciation of what the web would bring as it made its way from “invention” to “infrastructure.” As he told Lipsky in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, referencing the web-service-esque InterLace Grid from Infinite Jest,

… This idea that the Internet’s gonna become incredibly democratic? I mean, if you’ve spent any time on the Web, you know that it’s not gonna be, because that’s completely overwhelming. There are four trillion bits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide.

So it’s very clearly, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers. You know? Or, what do you call them, Wells, or various nexes. Not just of interest but of quality. And then things get real interesting. And we will beg for those things to be there. Because otherwise we’re gonna spend 95 percent of our time body-surfing through shit that every joker in his basement—who’s not a pro, like you were talking about last night. I tell you, there’s no single more interesting time to be alive on the planet Earth than in the next twenty years. It’s gonna be—you’re gonna get to watch all of human history played out again real quickly.

What Wallace didn’t say, but what may well prove true, is that the overload he’s describing may come to apply to people as well as information. The Internet is composed, Soylent Green-style, of people—formerly atomized humans who, through their updates and posts and curiosities and contributions and selfies, are transforming themselves into media. We are just now figuring out what that might mean when it comes to the interplay of commercialism and human connection—the relationship that preoccupied Wallace in his writing. And authors, from Jonathan Franzen to Margaret Atwood to Joyce Carol Oates, are doing that figuring, too. As Meghan Tifft put it recently, discussing the demands on the writer to be introverted and extroverted at the same time, the writer is expected to engage in a “variety show of readings, interviews, conferences, and Q&As”—not just as a way of finding commercial viability, but as “a way of talking back, creating and sustaining a community around writing that matters.”

What this means is that we, the public, have access to our authors—as people, rather than personas—in ways we never did before. What it also means is that we are, more often than we were before, confronted with their humanity. Or, put less sweepingly, with their banality. (“Literary Legends: They’re Just Like Us.”) We see them engaging in hashtagged political causes; we see them fighting with other writers. We see them battling writers’ block. We see them being … them.

That could be a very minor thing, or it could be a very major one. We have gone, after all, through much of human history celebrating people not for who they were, but for what they accomplished and contributed: Darwin’s theory. Newton’s law. And that has meant that we have tended to prioritize the things people contributed over the kinds of people they were. Was Shakespeare kind of a douche? Was Jane Austen sort of awkward? Was Wittgenstein a total delight at dinner parties?

We don’t know, really. But that is, perhaps, simply an accident of history. Being an author in the age of Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr might mean something very different from what being an author meant in, and to, previous eras—something more conversational, more collaborative, more communal. The death of the author, if you buy into that stuff, may be giving way to something at once more hopeful and more sad: the diffusion of the author. The treatment of the author as someone to be, in every sense, “gotten.” The kind of detached sanctification alternately enjoyed and resented by David Foster Wallace—DFW to those in the know—may no longer be possible in an age that insists that its authors be that most brilliant and boring of things: human.