by David Wallace-Wells, New York, July 23, 2012
The way fiction has responded to [historical change] is that it’s speeded up, too. Those huge, leisurely, digressive, essayistic, meditative novels of the postwar era—some of which were on the best-seller lists for months—don’t have an audience anymore. There isn’t an audience to support a novel like Humboldt’s Gift.
They’re magnificent…but I think they’re extinct. No one is writing that kind of novel now. Well, your near-namesake David Foster Wallace—that posthumous one looks sort of Joycean and huge and very left-field. But most novelists I think are much more aware than they used to be of the need for forward motion, for propulsion in a novel. The arrow of development is much sharper than it used to be. And this, again, like the postmodern movement, it’s not a bandwagon movement. Novelists are people too, and they’re responding to this just as the reader is.
It’s why poetry is in retreat, very generally. What a poem does, what a lyric poem does, is stop the clock. It goes, right—we’re going to look at this moment, this epiphany, this little revelatory meditation on mood and setting. And the clock is going to stop while we do this together—that’s what is said to the reader. And the modern reader goes, Nah, I don’t want to do that, I’m busy. And when you’re reading some enormous piece in The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books about Iraq or Afghanistan, and there’s a poem on the page—you go, what’s that doing on the page? It looks bathetic.