Friday, April 15, 2011

David Foster Wallace on Television and Commercial Literature

I just bought "The Pale King," and I am excited. It is my first David Foster Wallace book.

I found these two very enlightening videos (below). In the first one, he speaks about the split in the American scene between commercial literature (Stephen King, Grisham, Crichton, etc.) and the more complex literature that's not as immediately gratifying. In the second video, he talks about television and drugs as other forms of this kind of immediate entertainment.

There is a "pleasure to hard work in reading," he says in the first video. The idea is that there are certain aesthetic experiences, in all the arts (he also references classical music), that call for more "work" on part of the reader, that demand a long-term intellectual effort that might even be frustrating but, in the end, more fruitful for the soul. I am reminded of Roland Barthes' essay, "From Work To Text," in which he makes a similar distinction.

Certainly there are television series, like the ones I mentioned in my earlier post on Television as an Epic Medium, which also demand that kind of effort on part of the reader--it's why The Wire never won any awards. It was, by any standard, a highly complex narrative.

But there is, as he points out, a very capitalist underpinning behind the idea that we want something, we pay a certain amount of money for it, and we get it, without any work thereafter or therein. Mental exertion is undervalued.

It's all the more poignant when we think just how vulnerable he was, and how depressing it is that we lost such a great thinker whose ideas boiled down to those very essentials that many wise men and women told us a long time ago: to be able to listen to silence, to be able to sit still, and to be able to be frugal with one's needs, being able thus to tell what one really needs versus what one wants.

Anyway, here I am with "The Pale King," a work that, in its incompletion, is even more of a challenge to read. David Foster Wallace's words in these two interview fragments serve as a good introduction to the reading.

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