He Made It Up: Franzen on Wallace

October 12, 2011 § 7 Comments


Let us state up front that people are already questioning Franzen’s reliability here, and David Foster Wallace is not around, sadly, to defend his record. So we do not offer this up as necessarily true, but rather as an interesting moment in the ongoing discussion of “truth as best effort to be factual” versus “truth as metaphor.”   Plus, the full exchange in The Awl would make a delightful one-act play, entitled perhaps, “For Instance, Yeah. Facticity…”

An Excerpt:

Remnick: Well, I was, I was fascinated to hear… that there are some people in this world who feel that it’s o— that to have a kind of hyper-postmodern view of nonfiction/fiction questions, that it’s all writing, and that questions of fact, facticity and, well, that’s kind of square and old-fashioned, and it’s okay that Kapuscinski does what Kapuscinski does and kind of makes this up because it’s really just a metaphor fo Poland itself. And other writers that one could name who have a different view of fact and fiction… You’re pretty strict about the dividing line. You see, you think that somebody who’s—
Franzen (interjecting): [unintelligible]
Remnick: — allegedly writing nonfiction and cheats it—
Franzen: Yeah.
Remnick: —is cheating the reader, is somehow in a way that should be kind of like admitting a false —
Franzen: David and I disagreed on that.
Remnick: David?
Franzen: Dave Wallace, yeah.
Remnick: So Wallace felt well—
Franzen: Yeah, cause he—
Remnick: He said it was okay to make up dialogue on a cruise ship?
Franzen: For instance, yeah. Uhhmmm…
Remnick: I’m heartbroken to hear it.
Franzen: I know, I know.

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§ 7 Responses to He Made It Up: Franzen on Wallace

  • boombasticat says:

    I’m teaching this very essay tonight. Well, then.

  • Oh for cryin out loud–Remnick is “heartbroken” that Wallace wrote some dialogue that he didn’t tape-record first? Give me a break. That interview isn’t even really worth the dignity of comment. Franzen? Well, too bad Freedom didn’t do as well as The Corrections, but that’s how it goes. Sure–he was Dave’s friend. Dave had lots of friends. Don DeLillo, for instance. I think Franzen has sort of embarrassed himself here. Oops.

    • Rosemary — There is a thick, ugly line between “remembered it though didn’t tape record it” and “made it up.” Remnick is reacting to the possibility that DFW just made it up. Heartbroken is a strong word, but I would certainly be highly disappointed if I found out Franzen’s version is true.

      • “Heartbroken” actually made me laugh. I didn’t believe Remnick, either. His rhetoric had a forced, petty tone. Furthermore, I was baffled that anyone would look for a way to disparage Wallace’s nonfiction work, for all the pleasure it gives. This reminds me of that great barbershop quartet version of “Goodnight Ladies” sung in contrast to “Pick a little, Talk a little” scene in The Music Man.

  • DFW was interviewed by Becky Bradway for Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology by Bradway and Doug Hesse, and he said:

    “The reader’s pre-suspension of disbelief gives nonfiction a particular kind of power, but it also seems to encumber the nonfiction with a kind of moral obligation fiction doesn’t have. If a piece of fiction is markedly implausible or ‘untrue’ in some way, the reader feels a certain bored distaste, or maybe disappointment. If a piece of nonfiction, though, turns out to be ‘untrue,’ the reader feels pissed, betrayed, lied to in some personal way.”

    “[W]e all know . . . any embellishment is dangerous, that a writer’s justifying embellishment via claiming that it actually enhances the overall ‘truth’ is exceedingly dangerous, since the claim is structurally identical to all Ends Justify the Means rationalizations. Some part of nonfiction’s special contract with the reader specifically concerns means, not just ends, and also concerns the writer’s motives . . . and maybe the ultimate honesty that good nonfiction entails, and promises, is the writer’s honesty with herself.”

    I am not sure what to think about Franzen’s revelation, but am still sore at him for his obtuse and almost puerile recent essay about Wallace in The New Yorker. DFW was his friend, but after that essay I don’t consider Franzen a reliable source on Wallace, as much as I still admire him as a writer about other topics.

  • Elena Passarello says:

    I saw Franzen speak in Austin last night, and there was as much “uming” and “yeah-ing” as in the transcript above. He also seemed to be a speaker very easily led by his interview partner (TIME editor Lev Grossman, last night) and not particularly interested in refining his “ums” and “yeahs,” even when Grossman’s questions incriminated both Franzen and his colleagues. I’m wont to think that this lax delivery is the trouble with his statements to Remnick.

    While there is no real harm in being taciturn and inarticulate in an interview, I am disturbed that, as focused a magazine journalist as Franzen says he is (he implied this 2-4 times last night), he would think it OK to casually call out a fellow magazine writer’s process in this way.

    His nodding through this line of questions condemns Wallace without explanation or back-up, and, for the most part, without real vocabulary, even. And let us not forget that he also is condemning a magazine in these ham-fisted “umms” and “yeahs.” This is what crosses an “ugly line” for me. Because Franzen does not choose to specify or revise his comments on Wallace’s process, he refuses to engage the question in an accountable way. For this reason,I do not consider his inarticulate accusation of DFW a viable one.

    I thought the AWL article (and a few of the comments) did a good job presenting quotes and discussion from Wallace on research, experience, and the real. From these quotes, we learn that DFW did have a “different approach” to fact than Franzen did, but that it was a much more complicated and articulate matter than “make up dialogue on a cruise ship.”

    Let’s look to the man’s work, and not his friends, to discuss his approach, which I think only deepened our malleable, artful genre, shall we?

  • Elena, your response to this thread really makes my day. Thank you for speaking–not only for a wonderful artist who cannot now speak for himself–but to the complexity of the subject matter. Your eloquence returns the conversation to a level of intellectual expectation that honors the challenging work of innovative artists such as Wallace.

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