Thursday October 13th, 2011

“It was just absolutely true.”

Jonathan Franzen recently suggested that David Foster Wallace made things up in some of his most famous nonfiction pieces, including “Shipping Out,” about his time on a luxury cruise. He didn’t specify what or how much was made up. Michelle Dean covers the story here. This has led, unsurprisingly, to people expressing strong opinions about Franzen online. It has also led to (more) discussions about truth-telling in nonfiction. Wallace was interviewed by Tom Scocca for the Boston Phoenix in 1998, and last year Scocca put the full transcript of their talk up at Slate (in five parts that start here). Some of it concerns the issues that confront an obsessively imaginative fiction writer who writes nonfiction. (Wallace told Scocca at some length that he considered himself a fiction writer above all else. This is not shocking, but I’ve argued — and I’m not alone — that nonfiction was his better form.)

Since there have been approximately 5,000 debates about nonfiction in the James Frey/JT Leroy/Everyone Else Era, and since I’m unlikely to conduct an effective one all by my lonesome at the moment, I just wanted to highlight a funny excerpt from Wallace’s conversation with Scocca, this about one of the subjects in “Shipping Out”:

Q: Also when you’re writing about real events, there are other people who are at the same events. Have you heard back from the people that you’re writing about? Trudy especially comes to mind—

DFW: [Groans]

Q: —who you described as looking like—

DFW: That, that was a very bad scene, because they were really nice to me on the cruise. And actually sent me a couple cards, and were looking forward to the thing coming out. And then it came out, and, you know, I never heard from them again. I feel — I’m worried that it hurt their feelings.

The. Thing. Is. Is, you know, 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. [. . .]

One reason why I might have put in some not particularly kind stuff on the cruise is that I felt like I’d kind of learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to hurt anybody or, you know, talk about anybody having sex with a White House intern or something. But I was going to tell the truth. And I couldn’t just so worry about Trudy’s feelings that I couldn’t say the truth. Which is, you know, a terrific, really nice, and not unattractive lady who did happen to look just like Jackie Gleason in drag.

Q: Maybe if you’d emphasized that it was not in an unattractive way. Which is sort of a hard thing to picture.

DFW: Actually the first draft of that did have that, and the editor pointed out that not only did this waste words, but it looked like I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. That I was trying to tell an unkind truth but somehow give her a neck rub at the same time. So it got cut.

Q: But you actually did want to have your cake and eat it too. Not in a bad way.

DFW: I’m unabashed, I think, in wanting to have my cake and eat it too.