Brief Conversations with Lee Konstantinou

In 2012, four years after David Foster Wallace’s suicide, books by and about the late author are being published at a remarkable pace. In addition to the paperback edition of The Pale King and the nonfiction collection Both Flesh and Not (due out in November), this has been the year of D.T. Max’s biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story and a collection of interviews titled Conversations with David Foster Wallace. A powerful contribution to the discussion of Wallace’s work is The Legacy of David Foster Wallace (University of Iowa Press), edited by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou. The pieces collected in the book range from academic essays to popular appraisals by Wallace’s peers, including Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers. I recently corresponded with Konstantinou to talk about the new books, about Wallace’s ability to build a rapport with readers both inside and outside of the academy, and, of course, about footnotes.

Bookforum: I don’t want to say that there’s a conspiracy here, but it does seem like there's a strong push to canonize Wallace. Can you tell me a little about how this book came together and why you felt it was the right time for an appraisal of Wallace's work?

Lee Konstantinou: It was a kind of conspiracy in the sense that theres is a desire to consolidate Wallace’s reputation—this certainly motivated us. The timing also reflects the pace of publishing, both trade and academic. If it were possible to instantly publish them after Wallace’s September 2008 suicide, all of these books would certainly have already been released.

When Wallace killed himself, I was a graduate student at Stanford working on a dissertation inspired by—and in conversation with—his writing about irony. I was investigating what I described as a new, “postironic” generation of writers, those raised on postmodernism who craved something new. Wallace’s suicide came just as I was beginning to write about him and Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s.

I met my co-editor, Sam Cohen, at the annual MLA conference that December. We decided to propose a roundtable discussion on Wallace for the next MLA. The academic journal Modernism/Modernity had published a special issue commemorating Wallace in January 2009, so we contacted some of the contributors to that issue, and academic friends working on Wallace. Sam convinced Wallace's editor Michael Pietsch to discuss The Pale King, and it all fell into place quite quickly.

The roundtable aroused so much interest—and we were so pleased with how the conversation went—that we wanted to do something more with our contributors. I’m not sure what sort of animal sacrifices he had to perform to make it happen, but Sam got a bunch of absurdly famous writers to allow us to reprint memorials they’d already written on Wallace. Pretty soon after we submitted our proposal to the University of Iowa Press, our reviewer came back with a positive report and Iowa gave us a contract. We delivered our completed manuscript in July 2011, and the final book came out in April of this year.

Bookforum: You’ve touched on one of the noteworthy features of Legacy: the inclusion of writing about Wallace by literary writers, such as Don DeLillo, Rick Moody, and Jonathan Franzen. In the introduction you and Cohen argue for the importance of literary writers as members of this conversation, saying that "creative writers and critics participate in the process of canonization, whether or not either party is fond of that fact. . . . Critics are always picking winners, sometimes against their own stated desires, and artists are, at least in the case of the highly savvy literary circles Wallace ran in, very much engaged with critics and their theories." Do you think that postmodernism in particular favors this kind of co-mingling between critics and writers?

Lee Konstantinou: I do think experimentalists probably care more about theory than those we might as well call mainline realists. The techniques of realism are very firmly established, so much so that they’re almost invisible to readers and writers. How you get your character to walk across a room, the way you describe an object or person or setting, strategies for filling in backstory or giving the reader necessary information, what the fiction-page looks like typographically, the architecture of plot: It’s all highly conventional, almost ritually codified, with almost no interesting deviations. If you want to depart from that mainline, if you’re even slightly self-conscious about your own writing practices, you probably will want to know what other experimentalists have done before you. Postmodernists, at times, have looked to theory (not to mention philosophy, sociology, history) for a vocabulary that allows them to tamper with realism.

Bookforum: Apropos of the points you raised, we should definitely talk about Wallace as a "post-ironic" author. Fiction that transcended irony was one of the white whales that Wallace famously hunted—some have even argued that this was what stymied him after Infinite Jest and during the writing of The Pale King. In your essay for Legacy, you contend that "Octet" from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and "Good Old Neon" from Oblivion are successful attempts at this kind of post-ironic writing. These stories push the reader into an actual engagement with Wallace himself. I would wholeheartedly agree that belief is central to a post-ironic form of writing; do you see indications that this will be part of Wallace's legacy?

Lee Konstantinou: Some background: I’m currently working on a book organized around different countercultural figures or character types—the hipster, the punk, the coolhunter—and what’s lost in reading my Legacy of David Foster Wallace essay in isolation is that Wallace is just one part of a broader argument I’m making about U.S. literary culture in the 1990s and 2000s. In naming the figure I associate with Wallace “the believer,” I am very self-consciously alluding to The Believer magazine; I had not just Wallace but the whole McSweeney’s network in mind. The sorts of questions these writers seem to be asking are: What does it mean to be a believer, especially of a secular variety? What exactly do we believe in today? What are the barriers and challenges to formulating belief?

Of course we believe all sorts of things, whether it’s in the existence of God or in the existence of Australia (for those of us who haven’t visited), or, at a minimum, in our own existence. Wallace’s terror that we are trapped in an infinitely dense hot dot of solipsism may seem like a philosophically uninteresting problem when taken literally. And yet for a certain elite set of largely U.S.-centered artists, even if these artists pragmatically acted as believers in order to get through the day—one presumes they paid their taxes, whether or not they believed in the reality of the U.S. government—there was a sense that the postmodern tradition was bankrupt. The need to believe in something, to overcome incredulity, was stronger than ever. And yet, it just wouldn’t do to simply write what I described above as "mainline realism," since conventional renditions of reality were necessarily falsifications often manufactured by powerful interests. Under these conditions, what do you do?

So if the conventions of realism are not to be believed, and yet if anti-conventional postmodernism has become lifeless though wildly popular in centers of symbolic power and control, what do I do as a writer aspiring to be awake to my own practices? Even more troubling, how do I communicate with a reader?

This is the problem “Octet” and “Good Old Neon” address. What interesting writers are pursuing similar questions today? Obviously, the folk orbiting Dave Eggers’s various enterprises share some of these concerns, and Eggers himself; I’m a fan of Chris Bachelder and Alex Shakar, both of who come up with answers different than Wallace's. It’s not a perfect book, but I like Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper, which performs a similar inversion of metafiction. I think Zadie Smith is increasingly working in a postironic vein, with mixed results, though On Beauty has grown on me over the years.

Bookforum: To go back to canonization for a moment, Ed Finn's essay takes a very interesting approach: he uses computers to analyze data sets taken from Amazon recommendation algorithms and professional and consumer reviews, then makes some interesting points about what consumers consider to be Wallace's peers versus what critics see as his peers. How influential do you think the Internet is making everyday readers?

Lee Konstantinou: What Amazon’s recommendation engine associates with David Foster Wallace (usually more David Foster Wallace) is not the same as what Amazon’s community of reviewers associates him with (usually the broad canon of “classics”). Likewise, professional reviewers bring a whole other set of associations to Wallace’s oeuvre (postmodernists like Pynchon and DeLillo and Barth, peers like Saunders and Franzen and Vollmann). This suggests a broader point: that the Internet as such isn’t influencing literature in any single way but is changing the way existing institutions operate and is helping new types of institutions be born.

Bookforum: A good place to conclude would be with Wallace’s footnotes. Ira Nadel makes some nice observations in his essay on them—they "fracture" and "disrupt" the reading experience, which ultimately brings it closer to reality. "They may slow the reader down," Nadel writes, "perhaps drawing him in, perhaps repelling him, but in any case forcing the reader to refocus again and again, to reconsider what might be important and to think more deeply." It’s impressive how Wallace could take a gimmicky flourish, like footnotes, and make them very idiosyncratic and integral, something that expands what a novel can do while also feeling very "Wallace." Do you see footnotes as another point of rapport between Wallace and readers?

Lee Konstantinou: The place of the footnote in Wallace’s writing is complicated. It’s considered Wallace’s signature technique and was obviously very important, but his relationship to footnotes changed across his career. He “discovered” footnotes and endnotes sometime in the mid-1990s, after he’d already published three books and used them to great effect in Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and Consider the Lobster.

Soon after, he self-consciously moved away from footnotes and endnotes—particularly as he struggled to find his footing in his final novel. Oblivion has almost no footnotes; The Pale King ascribes the urge to use footnotes to the fictional memoir-writing David Foster Wallace, whose writing is a kind of parody of the earlier Wallace’s style. So footnotes go from a non-presence to ubiquitous to something Wallace seemed to think was played out.