I was not a fan of his best known work, Infinite Jest, which seemed too obsessive and self-indulgent for plebian, pedestrian little me. However, I did appreciate a number of his essays. I still have a copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, which collected seven of those essays.
I dug it out this morning and re-read the 1993 essay called "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction." It was originally published in "The Review of Contemporary Fiction."
The Latin title, of course, is an ironic twist on the U.S. motto: "Out of many, one."
Here are some of my favorite quotes from that essay. They were easy to find; I'd highlighted them with a yellow marker:
Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. They are born watchers.That's less than 200 words from a 60-page essay. But you can feel the power and the intellect of the man.
. . . the television screen affords access only one-way . . . We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle. I happen to believe this is why television also appeals so much to lonely people . . . The lonely, like the fictive, love one-way watching . . . Lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.
. . . the most dangerous thing about television for U.S. fiction writers is that we yield to the temptation not to take television seriously as both a disseminator and a definer of the cultural atmosphere we breathe and process . . .
I'm going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fiction writers they pose especially terrible problems.
. . . irony, entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function. It's critical and destructive . . . one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow...oppressed.
Wallace was only 46 years old. The news says he hanged himself on Friday. I hate that he should have felt so much anger or . . . despair.