- Laura Miller
- "The emergence of 'St. Dave.'"
- 05/11/10 at 17:25
I'm going to begin this with a brief exhortation, for writers and everyone else, too. I used to have a full transcript of an interview I did with Dave Wallace shortly before the Lipsky interview took place. People seem to like that Q&A, so when I heard Dan Max (whose work I admire) was writing a biography of DFW, I wanted to dig up the much longer transcript, thinking it could be of use to him. However, the file was corrupted in a hard-drive meltdown five years ago, along with God knows what else (I'm still not finding stuff). So, people: Back up and archive your files!
To me, one of the chief fascinations of David Lipsky's book was professional, getting to see how another journalist processes an interview transcript and which points he decides to press or drop. It was also weirdly frustrating, because what mattered to Lipsky (who I've worked with and like a lot) was often not what mattered to me then or now. Wallace has just gotten the thing that Lipsky really, really wanted—a particular type of professional attention and success—but he won't let Lipsky enjoy it vicariously through him. And Lipsky can't let that go. Lipsky keeps trying to maneuver Wallace into a particular relationship—for want of a better shorthand, let's call it an alpha-beta male dynamic—and Wallace keeps backing out of it. That's partly because he thinks it's toxic, but equally, I think, because he doesn't want the responsibility.
It's been strange to watch the emergence after his death of the persona that some of DFW's friends call "St. Dave." I remember thinking back in 1996 that his modesty was "careful" because he knew he was prone to (intellectual) arrogance and even cruelty. I only had a few interactions with him, but there was always this slightly penitential air to him, as if he were being nice in a deliberate rather than a reflexive way, because he wanted to be kind and respectful, and was afraid that he wasn't naturally either one. (It comes as no surprise to me that The Screwtape Letters topped his list of favorite books.) So to me the moment of truth in the Lipsky book comes when Lipsky accuses Wallace of being insincere and Wallace gets angry. After that, Wallace becomes more open (for him). We can't tell exactly why. He was a cagey devil.
The book also provokes a certain nostalgia in me. As I wrote in my review of the book for Salon, the media apparatus to establish a "difficult" writer like Wallace as a significant cultural figure just doesn't exist anymore. The publications with the power to award that status back then either don't exist now or no longer have that kind of authority. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's a big change.
Like Jason, I was charmed to learn from the Harry Ransom Center in Austin (where DFW's papers are archived) that he had a heavily annotated copy of a Mary Higgins Clark novel. He clearly wanted to learn as much about his craft as he could from whomever he thought could teach him.