02 May 2010


Bookshelf | An Interview With David Foster Wallace by Larry McCaffery

Q: Television may be more complex than what most people realize, but it seems rarely to attempt to “challenge” or “disturb” its audience, as you’ve written me you wish to. Is it that sense of challenge and pain that makes your work more “serious” than most television shows?

A: [...] But now realize that TV and popular film and most kinds of “low” art—which just means art whose primary aim is to make money—is lucrative precisely because it recognizes that audiences prefer 100 percent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 percent pleasure and 51 percent pain. Whereas “serious” art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort. So it’s hard for an art audience, especially a young one that’s been raised to expect art to be 100 percent pleasurable and to make that pleasure effortless, to read and appreciate serious fiction. That’s not good. The problem isn’t that today’s readership is “dumb,” I don’t think. Just that TV and the commercial-art culture’s trained it to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations. But it makes trying to engage today’s readers both imaginatively and intellectually unprecedentedly hard.
[Emph. mine.]

Thumbs up: I like explanation that rely on laziness more that stupidity, because laziness can come and go while stupidity is a pretty constant state of affairs. Sure, there are some real idiots who nevertheless have a streak of intelligence for one area or another, but that's the exception. In contrast, even the most diligent and industrious of us are lazy sometimes, or when it comes to some topics.

Thumbs down: Were things ever really different? Has TV "trained" us to be lazy, or is that just the way people are? Were audiences 100+ years ago engaging with "serious" art that challenged expectations and subverted assumptions? I'm inclined to say no. Look at Shakespeare or Chaucer or Boccaccio. We think of their work as high literature now (with good reason) but it's still generously seasoned with sex and silliness which their audiences loved.

Personally I think we need to keep format and content separate when we judge things.  There's a lot of dreck TV produced.  But there are a lot of trashy books published too.  There are plenty of bad paintings and bad poems and bad short stories and bad dance performances and so on.

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