David Foster Wallace on Good Art in Hard Times

“Probably most of us agree that these are dark times,” the writer David Foster Wallace told an interviewer in 1993.

“But do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

Even though Mr. Wallace was young (31). Even though it was early in his career (Infinite Jest was three years from publication). He already believed that in history’s hard moments, art could – and maybe really should – do more than just distract, entertain, and be liked.

“In dark times,” Mr. Wallace continued, “the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”

It could “make us feel less alone inside.” But if it wasn’t honestly exploring what it means to be human today, well, then Mr. Wallace said, it wasn’t really art.

Art wasn’t in the business of solutions, per se. But for Mr. Wallace, engaging and artistically real writing dug into how we human beings still have the capacity for joy, generosity, and companionship in dark times. And not stop there. Art, he believed, should also examine if these capacities can be made to thrive – if so, how? If not, why?

None of this was to deny the darkness in the world. Good fiction could have a terrifically dark worldview, he said.

“But it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

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