The Franzen Strikes Again

I don’t have any idea of the context for this, so I’m not going to comment on whether or not Franzen should have spilled the beans, but it does detract a tiny bit from my appraisal of David Foster Wallace’s essays. The reason is that part of the point (and fun) of essays like “A Supposedly Fun Thing . . .” is the sheer shock and joy that actual human beings are doing the stuff that Wallace is describing. (This is different from the humor in Wallace’s fiction, where the pleasure comes from imagining that we’re not actually that far from some of the stuff he’s describing (but you nonetheless have to imagine that some of the scenarios were drawn from crazy things Wallace saw firsthand, or was told.))

Moreover, no small part of Wallace’s rhetorical gambits in presenting such behavior is to help drive home (and occasionally metaphorize) his larger points about millennial U.S. culture. I, for one, took many of these essays to be in part sociological portraits of just who we were in those days, and while I certainly won’t say the essays are no loner relevant in that regard, if Franzen’s comments are largely true, then I do think the essays have been dinged up a bit.

I went to a few events at The New Yorker festival last weekend. By far the most interesting was David Remnick’s interview of Jonathan Franzen. (I am a big Franzen booster.) Anyway, it was all pretty interesting, but the moment of actual drama came when Franzen was discussing David Foster Wallace and told Remnick that Wallace felt free to make stuff up for his non-fiction, including, particularly his famous cruise piece for Harper’s. . . . But anyway, I’m not sure Franzen should have said it, and Remnick appeared awfully surprised, but he also mentioned that Wallace never published any non-fiction in The New Yorker.



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This quote’s been circulating for a few days, but I still haven’t seen any corroboration or context. Maybe there will be a video podcast available soon. Until then, the problem here may be that Franzen is freely editorializing. Glenn Kenny, Wallace’s editor at Premiere, who oversaw “Big Red Son,” has written about the many ways time, space, and participation (what scenes Wallace was or was not present for) were changed in that essay, while maintaining that events Wallace described did happen, even if they happened out of sequence or were witnessed by somebody not Wallace. Franzen wasn’t Wallace’s editor, so he can hardly be relied upon to inform us what’s decided between an editor and writer and what’s being made up and sold to the magazine as truth.

To say nothing of the thrill a New Yorker panelist is going to get from pulling the rug out from under Harper’s Magazine.

If you ask me, we’re all a little too hung up on the truth v. fiction thing. This news does nothing to alter my reading and enjoyment of DFW’s essays.

Franzen has been saying this for a long time. It somehow came up at a question and answer in D.C. during the Freedom tour; he specifically made a reference to the cruise ship piece, saying “You don’t think anyone actually asked when the midnight buffet was, do you?”. I guess Franzen didn’t really find it news because he said it right off. Interesting that it’s coming up now.

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