It's been just over a year since David Foster Wallace died. In memoriam, I'm posting a few quotes from him: excerpts from his letters to Princeton undergrads on the subject of writing and a bit from a Charlie Rose interview, respectively. These particular quotes hang in my ether like clothes on a laundry line. Please don't sue me, Harper's or Charlie Rose. (Thank you.)
On (or not) pulling punches:
On the one hand, a writer has to understand that his primary allegiance is to the reader, not to the article’s subject. Excessive concern about subjects’ feelings can lead to all sorts of dishonesty that the reader will be able to detect (whether this detection is conscious or not). On the other hand, life is short, and hard, and it seems like good policy to inflict the absolute minimum pain/humiliation on other people as we schlep through the day. Plus, if the reader gets the idea that gratuitous ridicule or contempt is being heaped on a subject, then there’s a whole different, nastier vibe of dishonesty or hidden agenda that can surround the piece. So it all gets quite tricky.
...[I]t’s death if the biggest sense the reader gets from a critical essay is that the narrator’s a very critical person, or from a comic essay that the narrator’s cruel or snooty. Hence the importance of being just as critical about oneself as one is about the stuff/people one’s being critical of. Maybe the root challenge here is to form and honor a fairly rigorous contract with the reader, one that involves honesty and unblinkingness (if the latter’s a word). So that the reader gets the overall impression that here’s a narrator who’s primarily engaged in trying to Tell the Truth . . . and if that truth involves the putziness of other people or events, so be it, but if it involves the narrator’s own schmuckiness, limitations, prejudices, foibles, screw-ups at the event, etc., then these get told about too—because the truth-as-seen is the whole project here (as opposed to just mockery, or just self-ridicule, or just selfsuperiority, etc.).
On the purpose of avant-garde art:
What the really great artists do, is they're entirely themselves... They've got their own vision, their own way of fracturing reality. And that if it's authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings.