David Foster Wallace talks about entertainment, and about writing

I am a huge fan of David Foster Wallace. I really enjoyed this little video where he talks about the kind of entertainment we consume, and it led me down the rabbit hole to this second, longer, interview. I love the stuff he says in the second video about the pacing of writing, and how you pace writing to shape the pace a reader reads. I read somewhere else that he wrote everything out using pen and paper (so too, apparently, did CS Lewis).


DFW: I don’t write quickly at all. And the stuff goes through draft, after draft, after draft. Although I know when it gets to a point that sounds real to me, part of the realness has to do with speed, and being a little bit of a control freak about how fast the reader is reading stuff, wanting some stuff to be read fairly slowly and to have a kind of echoey resonance to it, and wanting other stuff to seem breathless, and headlong, and kind of speedy.

Question: What techniques do you use to make a reader read faster or slower?

DFW: I think, probably, the easiest one is just how long the sentences are.

If you can do a sentence that is kind of a run on, but you can do the grammar such that the reader never gets lost, but also never quite really gets to stop. Then you get that kind of breathless quality. The trick with that is you can do a little bit of that and at least for me it’s cool, but if you do too much of and the reader gets fatigued and kind of pissed off. And so, there’s a certain matter of varying speeds.

I don’t know. People talk about the metrics of poetry a whole lot, but there’s no language for this as far as I know. I don’t know how people talk about the complexity and kind of, in terms of the physics of reading, the rapidity with which you read and process sentences.”

“When you’re writing stuff you get to a point where it just sounds right. And I think one of the ways it sounds right is when it just gets some sort of drum beat to it.”

Interview: Another thing that occurred to me about the occasional longish sentence that people come across in your work… you’re very aware of us as living in a media culture, besieged with lots of messages and bits of information. Could it be that a long sentence is a way of keeping at bay distractions. You can’t very well say “oh honey, I’ll be with you in a minute just let me finish this sentence” if the sentence has another few hundred words to go.

DFW: The sexy thing to say would be yes… I could say that sounds really plausible to me, and we could riff about that a certain amount. The fact of the matter is that writing it, for me, is so much less sophisticated, and primitive. So much of it goes by ear or stomach. And I think that to the extent that I’m interested in attention or fragmentation it has way more to do with the way things are structured or not structured or divided up or having different facets. The sentence thing has a whole lot to do with the fact that a whole lot of people, it sounds very gooey, but it’s true, who write… I started reading very young, and one of the reasons I started reading very young is because for whatever reason, I was lonely. And one of the things I went to books for was a relationship. Now a weird kind. I never really thought I was talking to a person. But there was the sense of an intelligence there. Or another human thing that I was communing with… And I think a lot of the stuff with the sentences… Like. I’ll grin when people laugh about the long sentence thing. I don’t think. Like in some sense, I don’t really get it. Yeah. I’ve got some long sentences. But I think it’s mostly, I don’t know about anyone else, but the way that I think. I don’t think in sentences.

Interview: What do you think in?

DFW: Like a not as good Joycean tumble. I don’t think I’m very interested in reproducing the form of that, the way like stream of consciousness does, but I think I’m interested in trying to induce the feeling of that, a little bit, at least sometimes. Truth be told, when the thing about long sentences gets a big laugh, what it makes me think of is that I’ve screwed up. Because if the grammar of the sentence is ok. If the sentence is structured right. Really the reader shouldn’t even notice that it’s a long sentence. And so, probably I’m just not doing it as well as I could. It’s not a stylistic thing, and I don’t think I have any cognitive program about it.”

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