August 15, 2013

Anguish or Joy?: Thoughts After Reading "The Nature of Fun" by David Foster Wallace

Being in the studio can be like a precarious game: you stack up the colors, the column bends and shifts; add another and it tips and crashes. But for me, even with the disasters, it's a deep and abiding pleasure. So, I was happy to read David Foster Wallace's 1998 essay "The Nature of Fun" (the entire essay is at this link); I'm grateful to the artist Julia Schwartz for her link to a post about it. It's a short essay, with something of a gruesome beginning (Wallace has a close-to-vulgar sense of humor) but what I took away from it was his showing how fun, a "fuller and large-hearted kind of fun" is at the center of his writing; fun, not struggle, even though he was a man who suffered from depression. 

He writes of a book in progress being like a damaged infant, a 
mix of repulsion and love the fiction writer feels for something he's working on. ....And so you love the damaged infant and pity it and care for it; but also you hate it....hate it because...something grotesque has happened to it in the parturition from head to page...
The whole thing's very messed up and sad, but simultaneously it's also tender and moving and noble and cool.....And you want others to love it, too, when it's time for the damaged infant to go out and face the world. 
Who hasn't felt something like this in making an artwork, of whatever sort; that it doesn't come up to our standards, our expectations, our hopes? 

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818; oil on canvas, 38.6 x 29.1 in.;
image from Wikipedia.

Does this mean the artist, alone on a hilltop, watching the roiling world below, is suffering in Romantic glory? Wallace would say not:
But it's still a lot of fun.
He then goes on to a parable about an old Chinese farmer who says "good luck, bad luck, who knows?" to illustrate the back and forth of writing, which I think works for visual art too:
In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor's fun. You don't expect anyone else to read it. You're writing almost wholly to get yourself off.....Then if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for seems to make it even more fun. For a while. 
But then vanity takes over and needing to be liked results in "shitty fiction". Which you have to throw away or you'll be disliked. He ends the essay with these paragraphs, which resonate strongly with me:
The smart thing to say, I think, is that the way out of this bind is to work your way somehow back to your original motivation––fun. And, if you can find your way back to fun, you will find that the hideously unfortunate double-bind of the late vain period turns out really to have been good luck for you. Because the fun you work back to has been transfigured by the extreme unpleasantness of vanity and fear, an unpleasantness you're now so anxious to avoid that the fun you rediscover is a way fuller and more large-hearted kind of fun. It has something to do with Work as Play. Or with the discovery that disciplined fun is more than impulsive or hedonistic fun. Or with figuring out that not all paradoxes have to be paralyzing. Under fun's new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don't want to see or let anyone else see and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likeable. This process is complicated and confusing and scary, and also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is. 
The fact that you can now sustain the fun of writing only by confronting the very same unfun parts of yourself you'd first used writing to avoid or disguise is another paradox, but this one isn't any kind of bind at all. What it is is a gift, a kind of miracle, and compared to it the rewards of strangers' affection is as dust, lint. 

I have thought of myself as "playing" with various mediums and ideas, and I use the word "pleasure" rather than fun to describe my feeling toward my work, but I agree that it is a gift, for which I can only be grateful. To widen the conversation, I'd like to add that my friend, the writer and photographer Terry Allen objected strongly to the essay in an email, saying, among other criticisms, that Wallace was leaving out all those writers motivated by wanting to affect social change––we can think of Zola, or Dreiser––not by fun at all, which is self-centered. I've been thinking of this a lot today, and have come to the thought that they are not either/or; a passionately committed socially conscious writer can have fun/pleasure with their writing, just as much as a personal essayist or navel-gazing fiction writer can.

Francisco de Goya, Plucked Turkey, 1812; oil on canvas, 17.7 x 24.6 in.;
image from Alberti's Window

As an illustration of the paradoxes of art, I thought of Goya's amazing paintings of dead birds. Here is death unadorned, presented in a straightforward fashion: the dead turkey in the kitchen, about to be prepared for a meal. Yet at the same time there is so much beauty and love in this painting, in the lushness of the paint, and the tenderness of the attention. I can't help but think that Goya had a lot of fun in the making of it.


  1. thanks so much for this post - Arnold Levine sent it to me, bless his heart, it resonates with so much I write about and think about concerning my own and others' painting. Have always enjoyed seeing your work - seems I've seen some very cool windows in the not too distant past - I think the first of your work I saw was in a comilation book back in the late 70s(?) Anyway thanks for the post.

    1. Dean, thanks for your comment; I'm glad you liked this post. And thanks for the nice comment on my work.