Jonathan Franzen said at the New Yorker Festival that David Foster Wallace made stuff up in “Shipping Out”, which is better known as the titular essay in the non-fiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Now, an initial read on the situation is that, because he’s a quantifiably worse writer than Wallace (by -97.333%), Franzen seems intent on subtly trashing the man’s legacy whenever it’s convenient. That was my first (incorrect, uncharitable) thought. I don’t think that’s exactly what he’s doing, though it’s hard to imagine the scene going any differently than:
—The Corrections is going to be a TV show. Ohbytheway, David Wallace made up a lot of stuff in his non-fiction. I’m going to fuck so many couches with my TV money.
I have no idea if Wallace made up a lot (or any) stuff in “Shipping Out”, but I have a theory. It seems very likely he made stuff up in “Shipping Out” if he also lied really specifically in a formerly-lost 1998 interview he gave to Tom Scocca. The pertinent part of a long, interesting piece:
[Some background: David Wallace wrote an essay on then-up-and-coming tennis player Michael Joyce, which was great (probably more interesting, tennis-wise, than the later Federer essay), and published in Esquire. In “Shipping Out”, Wallace describes one of his cruise-mates as looking like Jackie Gleason in drag.]
Scocca: Also when you’re writing about real events, there are other people who are at the same events. Have you heard back from the people that you’re writing about? Trudy especially comes to mind—
Scocca: —who you described as looking like—
Wallace: That, that was a very bad scene, because they were really nice to me on the cruise. And actually sent me a couple cards, and were looking forward to the thing coming out. And then it came out, and, you know, I never heard from them again. I feel — I’m worried that it hurt their feelings.
The. Thing. Is. Is, you know, saying that somebody looks like Jackie Gleason in drag, it might not be very nice, but if you just, if you could have seen her, it was true. It was just absolutely true. And so it’s one reason why I don’t do a lot of these, is there’s a real delicate balance between fucking somebody over and telling the truth to the reader.
The Michael Joyce—what is that called? Oh, that’s the one with the really long title in the book—was really, really upsetting. Can I tell you this? Yeah, I won’t say the name of the magazine. That was originally commissioned by a different magazine. And I screwed up, because I really got to like this kid. There was some stuff about this kid that would have been very interesting in the article, that he, in kind of naked candor, told me, and then asked me not to print it. And, you know, and I didn’t. And I wouldn’t put it in.
But I, dickhead that I am, made the mistake of telling this magazine this. And they ended up killing the piece. So I never expected that piece even to see print, and then Esquire, I guess, an Esquire editor had a beer with the editor of this other magazine, and Esquire picked it up, even without, you know, the icky stuff about this guy.
Not icky like he did anything. There was just stuff that would have been embarrassing to him. The thing is, is I think if I was really a pro, I would have printed it. I mean, I’m not going to see the guy anymore. He’s not—there wouldn’t—I had it there in the notes, there wouldn’t have been anything legal he could do. And then, I’m sure you’ve run into this, I sort of got, I got captured by this guy, and I really liked him.
One reason why I might have put in some not particularly kind stuff on the cruise is that I felt like I’d kind of learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to hurt anybody or, you know, talk about anybody having sex with a White House intern or something. But I was going to tell the truth. And I couldn’t just so worry about Trudy’s feelings that I couldn’t say the truth. Which is, you know, a terrific, really nice, and not unattractive lady who did happen to look just like Jackie Gleason in drag.
I don’t think Wallace was lying there, and the larger tissue of his thought seems to be that he was committed to telling the truth exactly, even if it made him personally very uncomfortable. People usually don’t lie to make themselves uncomfortable.
What was Franzen’s point, then, at the New Yorker Fest? I think it probably has something to do with the basis of reality and the supposed goals of non-fiction itself. Non-fiction is supposed to be — a-doyyyy — the opposite of fiction, and thus true. But what ever happened to the beautiful being true and the true being beautiful? The fact is, there’s not much of anything like forensic truth in art. Franzen’s (maybe) implied non-fictional account of taking a cruise would consist of going on the cruise and then telling your readers exactly what happened, which, while not exactly not what Wallace wrote, also sounds kind of inapt for art.
Now, I’m not saying that a dogged commitment to verisimilitude in non-fiction writing cannot coexist within Wallace’s mind with “fudging” dialogue or descriptive embellishment. What I will say is, based merely on the fact that I’ve read virtually every interview David Wallace gave, and everything he’s ever written, it seems most accurate to say that “fudging” for Wallace would be a difference in kind, rather than a difference in degree, w/r/t his relationship to the truth versus, say, Franzen’s (or my) relationship to the truth. What I mean is that Wallace seems to have been such a stickler for detail (filling up with notes notebooks plural on the brief jaunt) that when he felt like he hadn’t perfectly captured the nuance of truth, he would have, you know, been thiiiiiiiis close to objectively, thing-in-itself-edly capturing the truth. And it seems pretty clear that Franzen’s relationship to the truth consists in sort of murmuring a salacious accusation about his years-dead supposed-friend at a book festival.
On the other hand, Wallace says explicitly, “I’m not a journalist, and I don’t pretend to be one”. But back on that first hand, he finishes that sentence saying his instructions were to “just go to a certain spot and kind of, you know, turn 350 degrees [sic] a few times and tell us what you see”. The idea of Wallace-as-winged-eye seems (besides viscerally terrifying: would his bandana function as a sweat-catching eyelid?) 100%, totally accurate. The man was an observational CTV, whose output was the literal fulfillment of the Joycean promise of the artist as transmuter of daily life into ART. And that’s just the thing.
The thing is, there’s no such thing as a 1:1 map of reality because reality isn’t just what’s on the outside of people; it’s what’s on the inside of them, too.
Emphatically I say, Wallace seems like he was genuinely concerned with nailing experience, inside and out. In his essay on the Illinois State Fair, “Ticket to the Fair”, Wallace says that the baton-twirling competition “has to be the most spectator-hazardous event at the fair”. Later, in although of course you end up becoming yourself he says, “maybe the baton twirling wasn’t quite the carnage that… Although it seemed awfully dangerous at the time”. Does that mean he “fudged” the baton-twirling’s threat level? Have his non-fiction bona fides turned bad? It seems like Franzen would try to suggest that’s the case, though I’m absolutely sure he’d say the material of personal experience is malleable and stays true as it’s worked into art.
Going back to “Shipping Out”, what would really count as a fatal amount of fudge? Not perfectly transcribing (and then submitting) conversations with passengers? Or not even going on the cruise at all, and making up the essay, full-stop? What about Wallace’s high-voltage prose, which is surely more artful and illuminating than my normal patter of observation?
The truth about non-fiction is that yardstick for truth in it has very nondescript markings. To imply that Wallace’s essay (really probably his most-read piece of work, even given the notoriety of Infinite Jest) is somehow not all it’s cracked up to be, which is what Franzen seems to have done, is really disgusting.
To me, the only person who comes out poorly from this Franzen-Wallace-New Yorker thing is Franzen himself. Maybe he has a pathological sad longing for the company of his deceased friend, and so he can’t stop talking about him in public. But come on man. If it were my profession to write dense, lengthy prose, I would stop kind of subtly comparing myself to a person who makes my work look in comparison like that of precocious fifth grader. It’s so hard to tell the etiology of everyone’s (or our/my own) mental ticks and verbal infelicities, but it seems to me like Franzen has a very competitive love/hate relationship to Wallace. A shadow he can’t write himself out from underneath, making his auxiliary public remarks reek like sour grapes. I’m willing to entertain differing ideas about their relationship, not that it matters to anyone but me and perhaps future readers of things I will inevitably write on the subject. Franzen is an extremely talented writer. His prose (which I should note, re: above, also lacks love) plumbs depths efficiently. Franzen is a plumber! Franzen, like Joyce, is obsessed with scat. In this way, then, it makes maybe for his recent remarks and writing on Wallace. The more interesting thing to shake out of this New Yorker Fest, though, is an uptick in awareness on what we mean by “non-fiction”, and the (loosely-called) genre’s lack of self-descriptive force. After all, if I were given the cruise passages from The Corrections, and “Shipping Out”, I’d say they were both improbable and well-written, rendering for someone who’s never been on a cruise a surprisingly perceptive, yet probably over-real account of the experience. After reading both, I have no desire to go on a cruise, and art’s affect on reality — and conversely — is surely one of its most magical aspects.