Reddit’s Ask Me Anything (AMA) series, where users get the chance to pose questions to the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen King, and Bill Nye the Science Guy, provides a surprisingly simple way to interact with celebrities. Before Reddit’s arrival in 2005, however, real-time exchanges between your garden-variety Internet user and famous personalities were occasionally conducted in Internet chatrooms. One such early case appears to be a chat between the readers of WORD Magazine and David Foster Wallace (read 30 of his essays free online), which seems to have taken place in May of 1996.
If AMAs are an orderly, if vast, Q & A session, this chat is more like a boozy group meeting with your favorite English lit professor in a smoky bar. (Read the transcript here.) Wallace, using the handle “dfw,” is on a refreshingly level field with the other chat participants, and the conversation naturally drifts from one topic to another. Things, as they often do, begin with a bit of banter:
dfw: I've had some unpleasant nicknaames and monikers in my time, but nobody's ever hung "fosty" on me before.
Keats: You know, I still think it should be spelled Fostie, or Fostey.
Keats: Fosty looks too much like "Frosty" and "sty" to me.
Keats: And makes me think of eyeballs packed in ice.
dfw: "Sty" as in an impacted eyelash or a pigpen, you mean?
Keats: Yeah. Is that what a sty as in "sty in your eye" is?
Marisa: I used to think the word "sty" was pronounced "stee".
Keats: I had no idea exactly, just an unpleasant feeling about it.
dfw: Yes. Massively painful and embarrassing, too. Like a carbuncle on the exact tip of your nose -- that sort of thing.
Keats: I used to think the word "trough" was pronounced "troff."
Keats: You know, I happen to have a carbuncle on the tip of my nose right now.
Keats: Except it's not a carbuncle, it's more like a welt. It's still embarrassing.
dfw: In my very first seminar in college, I pronounced facade "fakade." The memory's still fresh and raw.
Soon, things take a turn for the serious, and readers begin to ask Wallace about irony:
dfw: I don't think irony's meant to synergize with anything as heartfelt as sadness. I think the main function of contemporary irony is to protect the speaker from being interpreted as naive or sentimental.
Marisa: Why are people afraid to be seen as naive and sentimental?
dfw: Marisa: I think that's a very deep, very hard question. One answer is that commercial comedy's often set up to feature an ironist making devastating sport of someone who's naive or sentimental or pretentious or pompous.
Keats: I'm starting to see a lot of irony in Hollywood and in advertising, but its function seems to be to let them talk out of both sides of their mouths.
dfw: Keats: advertising that makes fun of itself is so powerful because it implicitly congratulates both itself and the viewer (for making the joke and getting the joke, respectively).
Wallace also drops a few mentions of some of his favorite authors:
DaleK: Mr. Wallace, I'm curious...who among current novelists do you find the most interesting?
dfw: Dalek -- DeLillo, Ozick, R. Powers, AM Homes, Denis Johnson, David Markson, (old) JA Phillips and Louise Erdrich.
While we can't conclusively confirm that this was indeed the real DFW conducting the chat, it's hard to deny that "dfw" sounds very much like the author. Certainly, the complete exchange is as much fun to read for its mid-90s internet chatroom nostalgia as it is for Wallace’s thoughts on irony, Infinite Jest, and the sound of one hand clapping. The whole transcript is available here.
Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.