David Foster Wallace on why nobody wants to read your sh*t

David Foster Wallace was one of the writers who showed me just how great the essay form could be. His death by suicide in 2008 was a great loss, especially when so much of the best of his career was still to come.

In this 2004 interview Wallace, in characteristic iconoclastic style, identifies why creative writing can be a hard subject to teach. But not for the reasons we commonly hear.

“This whole creative writing thing. My opinion is that how good a teacher you are has very little to do with how good a writer you are, and a lot to do with how good a reader you are. And how well you are able to read the student and handle them.”

The huge success of writing guides by blockbuster authors like Stephen King suggests most of us think the best writer to learn from must be the bestselling writer. But Wallace suggests that the best writing teachers are the ones brave enough to challenge students with a hard truth.

“This is going to sound really nasty but when you’re teaching undergrads they’re not generating literature. Most of them are coming out of a model of writing that’s fundamentally expressive. That is we want you to write therefore anything you do is good, this is good because you did it.”

In a culture where “self expression” is applauded as a universal good, David Foster Wallace argument sounds counter intuitive. If writing is not self expression, what is it?

“It’s a big problem, especially with bright undergraduates, shifting them from a mode of expressive writing where it’s good because it came out of them, where every reader is your mom, right? To communicative writing where you assume this is a busy adult with her own interests and her own time commitments, how are you going to make it worth it for her to read your stuff. You have to start talking about that as early as you can freshman comp and my experience is it is a heavy headtrip for students.”

There’s no small irony of course that Wallace was often criticised as a self-indulgent writer of very long books filled with very long sentences. But Wallace’s books continue to grow in reputation over a decade after his death, an outcome few of us as writers will ever achieve. Maybe his nasty sounding truth about writing is one all students need to hear? Writing that doesn’t aim to communicate probably fed my struggle to read novels in the last year.

David Foster Wallace’s words remind me of the excellent short book Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t by Stephen Pressfield, where the forty year veteran of the copywriting industry reflects on how to write words that people will want to read.

Listen to the full David Foster Wallace interview here.

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Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.