An intriguing insight into the relationship between two great fiction writers [Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace] struggling to define what fiction is for was provided by a third smart writer [Zadie Smith] guest editing the Today programme on Radio 4 on Monday 29 December. Apparently, between Christmas and New Year there is no news. Zadie peppered the programme with many a thoughtful piece including a tribute to the late David Foster Wallace in which Jonathan Franzen recalled how, through ‘bickering road trips’, ‘awkward chess games’ and ‘even more awkward tennis rallying’, they’d settled on fiction being:
“A neutral middle ground on which to make a deep connection with another human being, this, we decided was what fiction was for; a way out of loneliness, was the formulation we agreed to agree on.”
The words ‘neutral middle ground’ seem oddly bland from two such high-wire acts, though not if you think of a space such as an airport departure lounge or a railway waiting station, a place where you might make a deep connection with a total stranger and risk saying something you might not say elsewhere. In the departure lounge space that is the blank screen/page the novelist [eventually] creates something coherent out of their own and the world’s chaos; the reader may then explore the patterns woven through language and story as a way of exploring their own chaos. Fiction as a place to reflect.
Aside from the chess,the tennis, the road trips, Franzen said that the most “intense interaction” he’d had with DFW came when reading Infinite Jest because in that book DFW had, “Arranged himself and the world the way he wanted them arranged.”
Fiction as a place to rearrange the world, or choose to pay a different kind of attention.
In fiction both writer and reader have the opportunity to pay close attention, try out new perspectives, override their default settings and day-to-day assumptions.
Paying attention is a topic on which DFW writes quite wonderfully in the piece “Plain old untrendy troubles and emotions.”
It would be wonderful if Today or any news programme gave this kind of attention to fiction all year round.