One of the last interviews David Foster Wallace gave was with Bryan Garner, a lawyer and lexicographer who became friendly with Wallace due to their mutual love of language. That hour-long interview is reproduced in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing.
David Foster Wallace was at the center of late-20th-century American literature, Bryan A. Garner at that of legal scholarship and lexicography. It was language that drew them together. The wide-ranging interview reproduced here memorializes 67 minutes of their second and final evening together, in February 2006. It was DFW’s last long interview, and the only one devoted exclusively to language and writing.
It was Wallace’s piece featuring Garner in Harper’s, Tense Present, that cemented him as a favorite writer of mine, even before I tackled Infinite Jest. Wallace later expanded the essay to 62 pages in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.
Speaking of lobster, you could do much worse today than reading David Foster Wallace’s classic piece for Gourmet about attending the Maine Lobster Festival. As you might imagine, Wallace quickly veers from the event at hand into something more interesting and unsettling for Gourmet’s gourmet readers: do lobsters feel pain and do they suffer for your dinner?
Given this article’s venue and my own lack of culinary sophistication, I’m curious about whether the reader can identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts. I am also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused. Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?
In a letter to the editor from Janice Blake of Milton, Massachusetts printed in the December 2008 issue of Gourmet magazine, a belated appreciation of David Foster Wallace’s 2004 piece, Consider the Lobster.
I began subscribing to Gourmet in 1973, but I have to admit that over the years, I haven’t been able to read each issue from cover to cover. I’m just now getting around to reading August 2004’s issue. “Consider the Lobster,” by David Foster Wallace, was a delight — it went well beyond informative and entertaining; it was challenging and thought-provoking. I vividly remember the spate of letters that followed its publication. In fact, I was so impressed with his article that I recently decided to write to say thank you both to the author and to you. What a shock it was to find out that he had tragically passed away. Thank you, Gourmet, for being so willing to change and grow over the years, and for challenging all of us faitful readers to do the same.
As David Foster Wallace argued in Consider the Lobster, a recent study indicates that lobsters feel pain, an unpleasant finding for an animal that’s often boiled alive. But as Wallace says:
Is it possible that future generations will regard our present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way as we now view Nero’s entertainments or Mengele’s experiments? My own initial reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme — and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I haven’t succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.
The NY Times Book Review’s 100 notable books of 2006. Making the list are several kottke.org notable books: The Ghost Map, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Consider the Lobster, and The Blind Side.
How do audiobook producers deal with things like footnotes, photos, interesting punctuation, and the like? “The voice manipulation, for which audiobook producer John Runnette used a ‘phone filter’ — a voice-through-the-receiver effect used in radio dramas — was an attempt to aurally convey Mr. Wallace’s discursive, densely footnoted prose.” Includes sample audio with examples. (thx, bill)
If I remember correctly, Tense Present (published in the April 2001 issue of Harper’s) was the first bit of writing I ever read by David Foster Wallace. I didn’t fall for him immediately. I liked the article fine, but as I thought more about it in the following weeks — particularly in light of other nonfiction I was reading in magazines and newspapers — the more I liked it. A quick search on the Web revealed that not only had this Wallace written more nonfiction for magazines, he’d written entire books and was considered by some to be the best young author writing in America. A few months later I read Infinite Jest and it was love.
Tense Present is one of the essays included in Consider the Lobster, a collection of nonfiction by Wallace due out on December 13th. It’s included under a new name (Authority and American Usage) and is, like many of the other pieces in the book, the “director’s cut” of the original, but re-reading it brought back good memories about, well, how good it was to discover Wallace’s writing.
Several of essays in CtL I’d read before, including the title essay from the Aug 2004 issue of Gourmet (which according to Gourmet EIC Ruth Reichl almost didn’t make it into the magazine at all). I read The View From Mrs. Thompson’s in Rolling Stone shortly after 9/11 and remember thinking that it was the best reaction to 9/11 that I’d seen, but reading it again 4 years later, the impact wasn’t quite the same…until the last 2-3 paragraphs when you remember that he spends the whole essay setting the table so he can hit you with the whole meal in one mouthful and you then spend several hours attempting to digest what you’ve just read.
The View… and Up, Simba, a piece on John McCain’s 2000 bid for President that also ran in Rolling Stone (at half the length under the title The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub), were my favorites, but they’re all so good (if you enjoy reading nonfiction in Wallace’s signature style, which I very much do). A common complaint of Wallace’s writing is that it’s not very straightforward, even though clarity seems to be his purpose. I don’t mind the challenge the writing provides; I read Wallace for a similar reason Paul is reading surrealist poetry, to make my brain work a little bit for its reward. In The End of Print, David Carson outlined his design philosophy in relation to its ultimate goal, communication. Carson used design to make people work to decipher the message with the idea that by doing that work, they would be more likely to remember the message. I’d like to think that Wallace approaches his writing similarly.