I’m still racking my brain over this report from Eric Alterman about editor David Remnick’s interview with Jonathan Franzen on October 1 at The New Yorker Festival:
…the moment of actual drama came when Franzen was discussing David Foster Wallace and told Remnick that Wallace felt free to make stuff up for his non-fiction…particularly [in] his famous cruise piece for Harper’s…. Remnick appeared awfully surprised, but he also mentioned that Wallace never published any non-fiction in The New Yorker.
As Michelle Dean convincingly argues, this quip suggests more about Franzen than Wallace, yet it still occasions careful reconsideration of Wallace’s position on sticking to facts.
When “you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction,” he informed Tom Scocca in a 1998 interview reposted last year on Slate, “there’s going to be the occasional bit of embellishment.” Yet in the same interview, while recounting how an unflattering description hurt a fellow cruise passenger’s feelings, Wallace insists:
…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.
Michael MacCambridge’s recent appraisal of Wallace’s 2006 essay “Federer as Religious Experience” ends with an affirmation of the story’s factuality. Published in Play, a sports subset of The New York Times Magazine, the piece’s fact checker, Chuck Wilson (ironically, a former fact checker at The New Yorker), won Wallace’s affection despite hours of telephone conversations rigorously reviewing the article. “Chuck Wilson is unusually cool, for a factchecker,” Wallace wrote to a Play editor, “and appears ready to believe that I’m not Jayson Blair.”
I’m ready to believe it, too. As Dean notes, the cruise ship piece Franzen calls into question ran in Harper’s, whose former editors have recently defended its painstaking fact checking process. Considering the other publications to which Wallace contributed nonfiction – The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone – he doubtfully could have slinked away with massive misrepresentations in his wake without anybody detecting it, especially given the amount of attention his work received. If anything deserves a thorough fact check, it’s Franzen assertion.
But what if, in the worst-case scenario, Franzen is right? What if Wallace’s nonfiction dishonestly earns its prefix? For me, nothing really changes. The real delight in these pieces stems from their experiential quality – as a reader, I’m fascinated not about the facts of a cruise, but how David Foster Wallace experienced a cruise. Part of me might feel duped by a fudged fact here or inaccurate description there, but the moral quandary Wallace poses for carnivores in “Consider the Lobster,” the footnote ingenuity of “Host,” the sensation of watching, in the Harper’s essays, a writer masters his signature style while simultaneously capturing feelings that had yet gone unspoken (at least in me), outweighs the line-by-line factuality that no fact checker could ever definitely determine.