Saturday, May 22, 2010

David Foster Wallace on C.S. Lewis and Tolkien

[In the middle of trying to cajole the otherwise well-read interviewer into reading The Screwtape Letters]:


... instead of is it true or not. You don't even have to - I mean, just go, it's in like the first twenty pages. The Screwtape Letters is really - it's weird cause it's a very childlike, simple book. But Lewis is incredibly smart.

And it's, it's weird, it's one of the things I noticed, I don't notice that you argue by analogy or whatever. But it's like, if somebody will say something to you, your reaction is very often to quote a line similar to it. Or to talk about whether that's - whether that's a good line or not. And I think the reason why it doesn't irritate me, but I feel it and I notice it, is that there's a similar component in me. It's a writerly type thing.

But I guess my only justification for saying to you is that I'm like, I'm really - there's something else. There's something else besides that. There's also this, is it true or not. That, does it feel true, does it taste true? And like whether it's clever, or whether, whether it's well said, or whether its fresh or not, is only part of it. It's like - ah, I don't know. It's... I can't quite nail down just what I'm saying.

I think you would find that book intensely interesting. 'Cause it's weird, I read it for the first time when I was thirty. I swear to God, I'll read Renata Adler and Nabokov's letters if you will check that out. I think you'd really like it.

In 2006 Wallace placed The Screwtape Letters atop his top 10 novels ever list . At the time this interview hadn't been published in it's entirety and there was some question as to whether he took the top 10 task seriously, as his top picks are not highly respected, literary titles. Most of them are modern, commercial works. But if you read Lipsky's book, Wallace makes it clear he has this strange admiration for a lot of cheap pop art. And it's not disingenuous, he really does like low-brow stuff on a lot of levels, in film, music and books. And believes there's a lot of artistic value in some of it. Not that he views Screwtape as pop, cheap or commercial, or even all of his top 10 that way. It's not like he just listed bad novels to be funny. For all I know his list might be dead serious, but considering many of his major influences and writers that he loves (i.e more serious, literary stuff, and some more experimental, high-art stuff), as well as his acknowledgment of many of the canonical classics as deservingly held in high opinion, it seems doubtful. Seems more like he was highlighting what he felt to be the stand-outs of certain types of authors that are under-appreciated, or even abhorred, in intellectual literary circles. Or perhaps he was using some quality+commercial-success criteria in order to make some point (though, that wouldn't explain the entirety of the list). Or maybe he just picked 10 books he liked a lot that he knew wouldn't be on anyone else's top 10. In any case, it now seems plainly clear that he definitely loves Screwtape.

On Tolkien and Lord of the Rings (interviewer, Lipsky, is in italics):

[Tells me he read Lord of the Rings five times as a teenager.]

You loved Tolkien. Is it a pleasure to have written a book long enough so readers can lose themselves in your world, same way you did in Tolkien's? [Talking about Infinite Jest]

I think it's different though. 'Cause this is a harder book, and it's more in chunks. I mean, the thing about Tolkien is, it's a very long linear narrative, where you feel like you yourself are on a voyage. And this is much more...

But on the Web boards I've visited, people DO speak about it as if entering a different world ...

That would be very neat.

Having read and loved both Lord of the Rings and Infinite Jest I can attest to the idea that Infinite Jest is an extremely complex, detailed world in it's own right, and is completely immersing in a way that is similar to what Tolkien achieved with LOTR. Though, of course, being extremely different in most other respects.

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