Editorial by John Ziegler
Death of a Salesman
On Friday, acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace hanged himself. The literary world was rocked by the news. I was neither as surprised, nor as upset by this tragedy as the many in the elite realm of reputable literature seemed to be.
I have a truly unique perspective on David Foster Wallace’s suicide. In 2004, Wallace contacted me to see if I would allow him to shadow me while I did my talk show (I was the late evening host at KFI at the time). He was doing a piece on talk radio for Atlantic magazine and, instead of wanting to focus on an established star like Rush Limbaugh (who, no doubt would never have let Wallace have near the access that I gave him), he said that he found my style interesting and different and wanted to write about me and my fledgling show.
For three very different reasons, I decided to give him whatever he needed to do the feature. First, since my real life is an open book on the air, I do not fear anyone learning the truth about what I do on or off a radio show. Second, since the show was in its infancy, I figured that any publicity was good publicity. Finally, I am embarrassed to say that I did not even know who David Foster Wallace was and I was too stupid or lazy to bother to simply "Google" him. It was only when the article was finally published that I realized what a “big deal” he was supposed to be.
Wallace spent at least two months following my every move before and during the broadcast of my show. At the time, I found him to be more than a bit eccentric, but certainly nice enough not to be bothered too much by his presence. Most interestingly, I was not at all impressed by him in any significant way. The fact that I was completely ignorant of “who” he was, I think actually gives me great credibility in this evaluation and also may give me some insight into what eventually drove Wallace to kill himself. You see, I was in no way prejudiced by his reputation as a “genius” and therefore was not blinded to the rather obvious reality that there was very little “there,” there.
It has been often said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity. I believe that is indeed true. But I also believe that there is an equally fine line between real genius and just plain weirdness. In my experience, Wallace had very little of the former, so he exaggerated the latter. In fact, his only real genius may have been his ability to understand that if the right people want to think that you are a genius, they will give you the benefit of the doubt when deciding on which side of that line you fall. It is therefore far better to be weird and thought, at worst, to be “too smart for the room,” than to play it straight and be revealed as a “one hit wonder” or even a total fraud.
After publishing a bloated 1,000 page novel called Infinite Jest in 1996 (which Time Magazine named as one of the best novels from 1923-2005), Wallace received the "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation in 1997. Being dubbed a “genius” at a young age (at least by the standards of the literary world) must have been a rather daunting burden for Wallace, especially when he probably knew deep down that he didn’t have the goods to back up those kind of elevated expectations.
The 23-page cover story
that Wallace did on me was a classic example of the smoke and mirrors Wallace resorted to in order to maintain the illusion of his brilliance.
First, the piece ended up running almost a year after our last contact. While it was never intended as a news story, there were numerous news stories that were referenced in the article that made the feature extremely dated (and yet there was no mention of the many developments that had occurred since his reporting ended in order to bring it at least somewhat up to date). I can’t believe that Atlantic magazine would have been so lenient with regard to deadlines and such details if the writer was not presumed to be a “genius.”
Second, there were numerous (though mostly non vital) details in the story that were misleading or simple factually wrong. In fact, there are two errors and a misleading statement in just the first paragraph. It is my personal view that Wallace had intended to write a hit piece on talk radio and use me as the easy and naïve target, but that once he had spent two months with me the story he found was significantly different from what he had anticipated. Consequently, he ended up only doing a partial hit job.
Thirdly, anyone who attempts to read the 23-page cover story is immediately struck by the use of many boxes off to the side of each page where Wallace shares his parenthetical thoughts/statements during his undisciplined telling of the story. As a fan of the parenthetical statement myself, I understand what he was trying to do, but I am also totally convinced that had a normal writer (one not named David Foster Wallace) presented such a jigsaw puzzle of a submission to their magazine that they probably would have laughed at him and asked him to come back when he learned how to write.
Finally, it was Wallace’s actions after the story was finally published that really revealed to me what he was all about. I was a bit miffed at some of the inaccuracies and misrepresentations as well as the lack of any update to the storyline in the piece, but as a conservative you pretty much expect that from someone in academia who is clearly a liberal (after all, everyone in the elite literary world knows that conservatives are not smart enough to be worthy of their ranks and would certainly never attain the lofty level of “genius”). I called Wallace and asked him if he would come on my show to talk about the article. I was completely shocked and incensed when he flatly refused to speak to me on the air for even just ten minutes.
I was totally enraged that after having given him two months of access to my time, he was not willing even do a cursory interview in return. He lamely claimed that his contract only required him to do one interview for the piece and that he had already fulfilled that commitment. It was obvious to me what was really going on was that he knew that I would call him out on his inaccuracies and distortions. I think that he also realized the value and importance of maintaining the aura of mystery that surrounded him by severely limiting his exposure to mass media. The New York Times in reporting on his suicide called him “a prose magician,” and like any decent illusionist Wallace knew that the fewer opportunities the audience had to see his sleight of hand, the less chance there was that they would eventually catch on to the trick.
I never spoke to Wallace again after that fiery phone call (when I immediately called back to apologize for hanging up on him he didn’t answer the phone). Without ever bothering to inform me, Wallace expanded on his “Host” piece on me for the final entry in his last book, Consider the Lobster (which was also included in the New Kings of Nonfiction collection). In that extended version of “Host,” Wallace added several quotes from me that I am positive I told him off the record, including one statement about my boss at the time (which turned out to be true) that may have had a very negative impact on my career at KFI which would end about a year after that version was published.
I know that it is considered bad form, or worse, to speak ill of the newly dead, but to me all bets are off when one commits suicide, especially when that person has a family (speaking of bad form, when did the news media change their rule about not reporting extensively on, not to mention glorifying, the suicides of marginally famous people?). I strongly believe that a large ingredient of the toxic mix that ended up forming Wallace’s self-inflicted poison was the pressure he felt of living up to the hype surrounding his writing and the guilt he must have felt for not really having the true talent to back up his formidable reputation.
While I have absolutely no direct evidence to back up this assertion, I also think it is quite possible that he knew that killing himself in his “prime” and before he had been totally exposed as being a mere mortal in the literary realm would cement his status as a “genius” forever. After all, don’t tortured artists often kill themselves? Heck, based on the glowing and reverential reporting on his suicide, in some circles ending his on life may actually be seen as a badge of honor.
Obviously, it should not be discounted that Wallace had been on medication for depression for much of the last twenty years and that there were reportedly problems within his family, possibly caused by alcohol use. I know from having been on anti-depressants myself in late 1990's that they can dramatically curtail creativity and I am sure that he was often tempted to go off of his prescriptions.
It is in this area where the greatest incongruity of Wallace’s “Host” piece lies. He goes to significant lengths to demean and almost mock me for having such a depressing worldview ( I have admitted on the air many times that I was severely depressed and considered suicide after my mother was killed in a car accident in 1994). Some bloggers writing about Wallace’s suicide have already noted this, now all too dramatic, irony.
I doubt anyone will ever know for sure why it is that the man who ridiculed me for my bouts with depression would be so weak as to succumb to his own in the most selfish way possible. However, I honestly do believe that, based on my rather distinctive experience with him, that his suicide was about far more than just an illness and should in no way be a cause for praise.
David Foster Wallace was an overrated writer in life. His suicide should not be used to elevate him even further beyond what he deserved, in death.
Of course, as Wallace wrote in the final words of his final book (after the “genius” had just expressed “doubt” over my certainty of O.J. Simpson’s guilt), “It goes without saying that this is just one man’s opinion.”
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