The Eye of Sauron

David Foster Wallace and the Interview

by Mike Miley


307 pages into David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest, students at Enfield Tennis Academy encounter the following exam question:

“(1a) You are an individual who, is pathologically kleptomaniacal. As a kleptomaniac, you are pathologically driven to steal, steal, steal. You must steal.
(1b) But, you are also an individual who, is pathologically agoraphobic. … As an agoraphobic, you are driven to pathologically stay home and not leave. You cannot leave home.
(1c) … It is a Double-Bind.
(1d) Thus, respond to the question of, what do you do?”

Indeed, what do you do? One student comes up with the ultimate answer: “mail fraud.” In hindsight, it’s a no-brainer. But what if the question went more like this:

(1a) You are an individual who writes fiction. As a fiction writer, you are pathologically driven to shun attention and sit in a room alone for months on end and write, write, write. You must write.
(1b) But, you are also an individual whose survival requires you to sell your work. As such an individual in modern America, you must pathologically court attention by promoting your work in every conceivable media outlet. You can never fall out of the public eye.
(1c) … It is a Double-Bind.
(1d) Thus, respond to the question of, what do you do?

This time, there is no answer as easy and simple as “mail fraud,” and that is a big problem because unlike agoraphobic kleptomaniacs this problem actually exists. In fact, for a fiction writer today, this double-bind seems practically inevitable. That said, a minor little detail like inevitability was never enough to stop David Foster Wallace from trying to find a way around it.

Wallace spends about 73% of his road trip with David Lipsky (chronicled in the book Although of Course You Always End Up Becoming Yourself, hereafter AOCYAEUBY) sounding uncomfortable as Lipsky asks him every imaginable version of the question “how does it feel to be more famous than you ever dreamed?” At first, Wallace’s discomfort comes off as an exaggerated put-on to someone who’s new to Wallace, but a glimpse at any of his other interviews will show that Wallace remains this ill-at-ease with the interview process throughout his career. For example, Anne Marie Donahue noted in a 1996 interview with Wallace for the Boston Phoenix that he remains “entirely calm … except when he thinks he might be coming off as pretentious or self-promoting, when he’s forced to face a photographer, and when he’s asked to talk about himself,” which sounds like a roundabout way of saying that Wallace came off as a nervous wreck during interviews.

Can a person really be authentic while also trying to attract attention?
Is authenticity even possible in a promotional context? Does the act of promoting oneself turn everything a person does into a slick commercial gimmick?

Nowhere is Wallace’s unease more apparent than in his 1997 interview with Charlie Rose. The interview is Wallace’s only significant appearance on American television, and in it Wallace frequently winces and grimaces at his own responses.

This is the Wallace we see throughout all of his interviews: someone who is acutely aware of the demands of the media landscape and simultaneously awed and terrified by its potential to both benefit and destroy him. Lipsky’s treatment of Wallace and Wallace’s discomfort as an interview subject in AOCYAEUBY reveals something difficult and sad about being a creative, media-savvy person in modern America: it is impossible to disregard all the different agendas one’s words could be twisted to serve, so one can never be fully at ease or present because he or she must constantly evaluate how he or she will be perceived in the finished piece.

For Wallace, having to promote his work is a double-bind that spells doom for him as a writer. At best, it will make for a terrible interview in which he’s embarrassingly self-conscious and awkward. At worst, it will poison him, filling the gas tank of his ego with the empty-but-addictive fuel of flattering attention. His biggest fear, as he explains to Lipsky, is that he will come to like the attention and start to crave more of it. If that happens, his integrity as a writer will be compromised. After all, can a person really be authentic while also trying to attract attention? Is authenticity even possible in a promotional context? Does the act of promoting oneself turn everything a person does into a slick commercial gimmick? And assuming the writer survives the ordeal, how does he or she transition from this kind of addictive attention back to being alone in an empty writing room?

These are the kind of questions that Wallace did not want to consider, let alone answer, because once the question is out there, it prevents a writer from acting and writing freely. Every action must now pass through the how-does-this-make-me-look filter, and there are no simple answers like “mail fraud” here. Instead, he or she becomes both personally and creatively paralyzed, a deer frozen in the media headlights. No wonder Wallace referred to media attention in a postcard to novelist Don DeLillo as “the eye of Sauron.”

At one point near the end of AOCYAEUBY, Wallace describes his ideal interview to Lipsky, wherein he would get to read Lipsky’s piece and edit his own quotes. Far-fetched as this may sound, Wallace got to do this once in his excessively quoted 1993 interview with Larry McCaffrey for the literary journal The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Not surprisingly, the McCaffrey interview is the only interview of Wallace’s where he does not come across as painfully self-conscious. Wallace makes similar attempts to direct his interviews with Lipsky and Rose by offering editorial advice on his statements during the interview itself, prefacing answers by saying things like, “This will all get cut out,” but Wallace did not have as compliant an interviewer in Lipsky and Rose as he did in McCaffrey. In fact, Wallace’s aggressive self-consciousness frustrates Rose so much that he chides Wallace about it. Their exchange is both tense and illuminating:

There is something startlingly honest about this conversation. Rose tries to call bullshit on Wallace, telling Wallace to “quit worrying about how [he is] going to look and just be,” but Wallace calls bullshit right back: “I have got news for you. Coming on a television show stimulates your ‘What-am-I-going-to-look-like’ gland like no other experience. … You confront your own vanity when you think about going on TV.” As frank and uncomfortable as it is, this interview helps us see how “just being” on TV is impossible, especially when the person is aware of how television shows are produced. One cannot forget about how he or she is going to look because TV is all about the look. That’s why they call it a television appearance.

“There’s this requirement always to be witty and on,” Wallace says of appearing in public, “people expect a kind of witty, covering answer, that will allow everyone to walk away feeling good and chuckling.” In other words, the smart and funny writer needs to impress people by saying smart and funny things off-the-cuff. He or she needs to act, to perform. This was not a deal Wallace was willing to make, at least not on Rose and Lipsky’s terms. “I should get to choose, when I’m on and when I’m not,” Wallace says to Lipsky. Ironically, it’s this attempt to avoid the “eye of Sauron” that makes Wallace stand out as a writer, a situation Wallace himself predicted in his heavily edited 1993 interview with McCaffrey: “I’m an exhibitionist who wants to hide, but is unsuccessful at hiding; therefore, somehow I succeed.” It may not be as catchy as “mail fraud,” but somehow he passes the test.


Mike Miley teaches literature and film studies at Metairie Park Country Day School in Metairie, LA. His essay “Reading Wallace Reading” about David Foster Wallace’s personal library, was published by The Smart Set in 2014. He has also written about Wallace for Critique and The Huffington Post.


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