David Foster Wallace, who died last Friday at age 46, was a genius novelist whose brilliant, personal, reportage-rich essays were celestial events. His account of John McCain’s 2000 campaign in South Carolina against George W. Bush, collected in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, is a revered portrait of American politics. My students read his Harper’s stories “Shipping Out,” a mordant tale of his time aboard a luxury cruise ship, and “Ticket to the Fair,” about the baroque experience of the Illinois State Fair. The essays, renamed, are in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. They’re my students’ models for writing a literary journalism essay by plunging into an activity or event that makes them feel awkward. Students are to get out, experience something strange, and take notes on themselves, others, and the situation. Conscious reporting is a revelation for many creative writing students—the stuff they get!—and for journalism students, being able to use their own perceptions is liberating: the self as tool of inquiry into something larger.
Wallace’s essays could inspire any number of assignments because they defy categorization: they’re hilarious, sad, erudite, and deeply reported—there’s another category, immersion journalism. Wallace just reported and wrote the hell out of stuff he found in the world. In the 1980s I’d have stuck his essays in my Existential Journalism file, a category that meant a writer, working as a journalist, who revealed his own attitude or perspective—or bias, really, to make it into the file—but who was obviously fair. Wallace gave the lowdown on everything and everyone, including himself.
I started the file after Ted Williams wrote a story for Audubon about fishing tournaments, which he revealed he despised, and yet was sympathetic to the participants in a saltwater contest he attended. I was working as a reporter at the time and was chafing against newspapering’s objective style, which has rigor at its best but which implicitly and overtly denies the self. Since writing flows from the self, the contradiction is a reason reporters can end up feeling they’ve betrayed themselves and also failed journalism by getting personal or too involved. They’re supposed to ask What would a journalist do? instead of What should I do? The result is a New York Times reporter being criticized by some peers in the 1960s for saving a black child from a white mob at a school being desegregated in Arkansas. Or take an everyday example: the way reporters may quote what they’re sure must be lies because an official source utters them.
Wallace fully committed, and his literary nonfiction was moral in a way that’s cruelly difficult for mainstream journalism (with its he said/she said format) to be. His profound work illuminates the writer’s clear, hard, and always personal ethical task in the world: to become ever more human.