George Salis: How did you first discover the work of David Foster Wallace and which of his works did you first read? Please paint a picture of the beginning of this love affair.
Dave Laird: My intro to good contemporary American fiction came in, get this, a third-year American literature course (laughs), in the form of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. I plowed through the book and it left me in a euphoric fugue state for days, and I thought that I then had a mandate to find and read all of the books like it that existed. This got me to Infinite Jest shortly after, and so I read it in late 2007. I knew pretty quickly that this writer was my guy, between the highly technical and whip-smart prose, and the offsetting colloquial slacker vernacular. Reading it was an experience in getting to know an author’s psyche in a way I’ve not found since. I made short work of acquiring all Wallace’s other books and read them as fast as I could. I have no doubt that I was insufferable to be around during this period.
GS: Tell me the origin story of The Great Concavity?
DL: Having taught high school humanities courses for about five years, I felt the urge to go back to school and do something with my Wallace preoccupation, which led to my first academic conference in Paris in 2014, Infinite Wallace. Meeting folks there that I’d been reading for my thesis research was a strange kind of disembodiment, and conversations and friendships formed from that weekend that led me to feel that there was a community here around this writer that was worth exploring. I met Matt Bucher the next year at the Illinois State University Wallace conference, and we bumped into each other in O’Hare on the way home and talked books for several hours while we waited for our connections.
A few months later, in a conversation with my spouse Rachel, I was decrying the fact that there was no podcast about Wallace, having checked in with iTunes’ search function on the regular, and she suggested I start one. I didn’t feel worthy enough to do so (I hadn’t published anything on Wallace or anything noteworthy like that), but thought on it, and Matt came to mind as a potential co-host, as we’d had a great conversation at the airport and had a lot of other adjacent interests too. So I eventually reached out to him with the idea, and he kind of reluctantly agreed to give it a shot for a couple episodes and see what happened. Four years and almost 50 episodes later, we’re still at it.
GS: I’m sure it would be hard to choose, but what is your favorite episode of The Great Concavity?
DL: Yeah, this is a real Sophie’s Choice, but some really fun guests have been artist Robyn O’Neil (who was actually our very first guest, and I could not believe she agreed to be on), musician Andrew Savage of the band Parquet Courts (whose song “Instant Disassembly” we use for our intro/outro music), screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone (co-writer of Birdman), and writer Jim Gauer (author of Novel Explosives). I will say that probably the most fun episode to record though was our live episode from the 2017 ISU conference, as it’s the only episode Matt and I have been in the same room for, and we got to do it in front of the conference attendees and streamed it live online, so that was a unique experience.
GS: What is the quintessential book of DFW criticism?
DL: Probably the most indispensable one for me has been The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, edited by Lee Konstantinou and Samuel Cohen. This was the first book on Wallace criticism I bought, well before I did anything academic with Wallace. It contains several of the speeches from Wallace’s memorial in 2008, by people like Don DeLillo and George Saunders, and some great interviews and critical pieces as well. I’d be remiss if I also didn’t point to books by scholars like David Hering, Lucas Thompson, Clare-Hayes Brady, Jeff Severs, and the forthcoming David Foster Wallace and Religion: Essays on Faith and Fiction, coming out in November from Bloomsbury Academic, which I’m really excited for. Matt has a piece in it I haven’t seen yet, as do quite a few other people who have been guests on the show. I have it on good authority that Jon Baskin’s new Ordinary Unhappiness is excellent as well.
GS: There have been a lot of hit pieces/character assassinations published against DFW, confusing his moral character with his art, perhaps, or turning DFW into some kind of poster boy for misogyny. I believe a lot of this is based on what was written in D.T. Max’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. What are your thoughts on this? To what degree, if any, should these facts/opinions affect or taint DFW’s oeuvre?
DL: Yeah, let’s just say I’ve never been more on-board with Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” before.
I’ve been grappling with this question a lot since the bio came out, and even more in the past couple of years in the era of Me Too. I have to admit that it’s brought me a certain degree of discomfort in being associated with Wallace in this public way with the podcast. Mary Karr’s story with Wallace is given some airtime in Max’s biography, so the recent criticisms are not exactly news, but some of the details she’s added lately to the story via Twitter have been jarring for sure, giving pause and new light to the subject. There’s some truly inexcusable behaviour in Wallace’s past, particularly with respect to abuse towards women, and this creates a lot of tension for me as a reader and fan of his writing. Endorsing Wallace has become something of a fraught enterprise.
Of course, we have to countenance the relationship between an artist’s moral character and their work in every case, and Wallace is no exception. If the flawless behaviour of the author is the arbiter of whether their art is considered and appreciated, I think we’re left with very few works left to consult, so this is a challenge for all spectators of art. With Wallace specifically here, the work itself is what compelled me in the first place, and the work is what keeps me coming back, with all of its messiness and puzzling through the human condition, which Wallace was clearly not immune to. Great work does not excuse or justify reprehensible behaviour though, so I’m definitely conflicted here. Barthes’ call to treat the text as its own universe is, I think, possibly helpful here, and in all similar cases as well, but even within Wallace’s writing, there’s some deeply problematic stuff too.
I know that for Matt and I, and most other friends and scholars in this community, it’s very important that this topic is not shied away from, is not held with skepticism, and is given its due attention and gravity in conversational and scholarly spaces. We talk about this topic a lot on the show, and many recent academic conference presentations have addressed it as well, so the fact the community is really open to conversing about it and holding space for the discomfort it brings in terms of how we think about Wallace is a healthy thing.
GS: There are many writers who are influenced by the works of DFW. Which writers do you think have picked up where DFW left off, as it were, expanding upon his style and ethos?
DL: George Saunders is my first and immediate thought here. Not so much in terms of style as ethos, with an eye to the tenderness and empathy that I see so much of in Wallace. I see in Jessica Anthony’s outrageously good The Convalescent a similar bend toward redemption that I find in Infinite Jest. Adam Levin’s incredible novel The Instructions comes closer to Wallace in terms of form, and I cannot praise it enough. Jim Gauer’s excellent Novel Explosives walks a lovely line between Wallace’s thematic concerns and warmth toward the human predicament as well.
GS: Going backward, which writers who have influenced DFW do you enjoy the most?
DL: This will surprise absolutely no one, but Don DeLillo hits the hardest for me, no question. I had the pleasure of visiting the Harry Ransom Center in Austin this summer and spent an afternoon with Wallace’s letter correspondence with DeLillo, which had me grinning from ear to ear the whole time. I dig Thomas Pynchon well enough, particularly The Crying of Lot 49, love Fyodor Dostoevsky (who Wallace revered), Flannery O’Connor, C. S. Lewis, and Cormac McCarthy.
GS: Have you read Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men? Does it really “suck canal water” like DFW said?
DL: I have not, but did read My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist by Mark Leyner, whom in a 1995 letter to DeLillo, Wallace called “The Prince of Darkness,” due to his self-aggrandizing nature (laughs).
GS: If you could start another podcast that revolves around the work and influence of a single author, who would it be?
DL: Either Don DeLillo or George Saunders, I think. DeLillo has a pretty robust catalogue stretching back decades, so there’s a lot to consider there, and Saunders has a ridiculously promising writerly life ahead of him, and who knows, might even come on the show once in a while. I certainly don’t have the time or energy to do another show though, so Wallace is it, but we do work in writers like these all the time into our conversations, so get to have and eat our cake simultaneously.
GS: What does the future hold for The Great Concavity?
DL: Always one more episode, and probably t-shirts, I hope (laughs). Episode 50 is right around the corner, so that feels like a pretty significant milestone for us, given the initial commitment reservations Matt expressed. It’s definitely a labour of love, given the amount of editing work and guest scheduling it requires, but I think there’s a lot more ground to cover given the amount of excellent scholarship coming out all the time on Wallace, and with the way this community continues to flourish and connect. There’s a way in which doing the show feels like we’re contributing to the conversation around Wallace and American Letters, and hopefully playing a small part in keeping his work’s important legacy alive.
A list of dream guests includes the likes of George Saunders, Zadie Smith, Adam Levin, Michael Schur, Jennifer Egan, Don DeLillo, Michael Silverblatt, John Darnielle, etc., so we’ll do our best to get as many of these folks on as are interested. The International David Foster Wallace Society Matt and I are a part of is organizing a 2020 Wallace conference in Austin on June 4-6 next year, and I’m sure we hope to do another live episode there. The most rewarding thing about doing this show is the way people have expressed gratitude for the ways it’s facilitated community for them in connecting to other fans and readers, both online and in person. I think as long there’s a demand for this (i.e. basic human connection and fraternity), we’ll be energized to keep the show going.
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Dave Laird is the co-host of The Great Concavity, and a board member of the International David Foster Wallace Society. He was a weekly guide for the Infinite Winter online group read of Infinite Jest in 2016, and has presented several times at the Illinois State University DFW Conference. He has an M.A. in English from The University of British Columbia. Dave teaches senior high school humanities, and usually lives in Victoria, BC.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.