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Everything and More

Jason Kottke
"Protecting his creative self from his celebrity self."
05/11/10 at 14:47

One of the knocks I've heard against ...Becoming Yourself is the book's questionable value to those who aren't writers or Wallace fans, that it's only good for things like settling bets about Wallace trivia (see below). But the interview's main thread—well, the main thread as I see it, anyway—is relevant to anyone who does creative work for public consumption. At that particular moment in his life when his career is blowing up, Wallace is understandably preoccupied with how to protect his creative self (free-flowing, where the magic happens) from his celebrity self (manufactured, seductive) so that the latter doesn't taint or ruin the work produced by the former, whose work is the most important thing in Wallace's life.

Fourteen years on, what was only an issue for rock stars, movie stars, and genius authors writing brilliant novels is shared by an increasingly large number of people. With Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, and blogs, it's easy for anybody with regular Internet access to become a little bit famous and find an audience for their words, photos, etc.; even the smallest amount of attention can be problematic.

So for a fourteen-year-old interview to surface and go over all this in Wallace's level of detail, well, that's pretty sweet.

But if nothing else, I hope Lipsky's book finally puts to rest the question of Wallace's seriousness about this list of his favorite books:

1. The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis

2. The Stand, Stephen King

3. Red Dragon, Thomas Harris

4. The Thin Red Line, James Jones

5. Fear of Flying, Erica Jong

6. The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris

7. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

8. Fuzz, Ed McBain

9. Alligator, Shelley Katz

10. The Sum of All Fears, Tom Clancy

Now, I don't know if these were Wallace's favorite books, but a glance at the book's Cultural Products Mentioned index confirms that Wallace enjoyed lowbrow and highbrow cultural products with equal vigor. And the many discussions with Lipsky about what others might look down on (Alanis, explosion movies, etc.) reveal that not only did Wallace enjoy those Entertainments, but found value in them beyond pure emotional response. Take Tom Clancy. His books are not often taught in serious literature classes, but his stories are genuinely entertaining, and there's this compelling pacing to them that you don't find even in great literature. There's a part in ...Becoming Yourself where Wallace talks about the failings of experimental/avant-garde literature—that it's written to show how clever its authors are, and not for readers (pages 32–36). I think he appreciated that whatever the faults of the books on that list, they were written to be enjoyed by readers and succeeded highly in that regard. Wallace was certainly very clever, but I don't think we'd be talking about IJ a dozen years later if it hadn't been written with the reader very much in mind.

Question for the group: Lipsky's bracketed asides from the present—did they bug you, and were they necessary? Question for D.T. Max: Is there anything in the book that you'd wish you'd had for your book (which I'm assuming is in the can at this point)?