David Foster Wallace Talks About Literature (and More) in an Internet Chatroom: Read the 1996 Transcript

dfw internet chat

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Love of Lan­guage Revealed by the Books in His Per­son­al Library

The David Fos­ter Wal­lace Audio Archive: A Lit­tle Gift For the Novelist’s 50th Birth­day

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