Ontological Tennis. A Close Reading of David Foster Wallace's Tennis Essays

Bachelor Thesis, 2017

46 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. New Journalism

3. First Essay: “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley”
3.1. Milieu, Mathematics, Material Body
3.2. Observations on Wallace`s Style

4. Second Essay: “How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart”
4.1. Importance of the Essay Title
4.2. Narrator Perspective and Involving Oneself to Involve the Reader
4.3. Zooming in on the Missing Element and Zooming out from Book Review to Genre Bashing
4.4. The Paradox of High-Level Athletic Aesthetics
4.5. Conclusion

5. Third Essay: "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness."
5.1. Narrator Position and Style
5.2. Function of the Essay Title
5.3. Untangling the Entangled
5.4. Who is the Subject? Shifting Agencies; and Conclusion

6. Fourth Essay: "Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open"
6.1. Function of the Essay Title
6.2. Some Notes on Style
6.3. Capitalisation of the Game & Critique of Capitalism

7. Fifth Essay: “Both Flesh and Not”
7.1. Flesh and Light. Sublime Physicality
7.2. Chapter Conclusion

8. Conclusion

9. Epilogue

10. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In addition to his work as a writer of fiction (his bibliography includes three novels and three short story collections), David Foster Wallace has written a large number of essays, most of them for magazines and newspapers. His topics range from literature and film to mathematics, from music and subcultures to travel and the tourism industry, from politics to food, and have been issued in numerous collections before and after his self-inflicted death in 2008.

In my paper, I want to focus on String Theory (2016), his collected essays about tennis. The five essays approach, or better: use the sport for different goals. In his typical manner, tennis becomes a starting point for quite different topics, be it Wallace's own life, his thoughts on a literary genre (in this case "top athletes' autobiographies"), masculine physicality, transcendence, or the industry behind sports events. While stylistically Wallace follows the method of "thick description," injecting elements of metafiction and humor, he ultimately takes tennis as a starting point for ontological questions in his search for some form of deeper insight or even truth that can be found on the sidelines of his respective topic.

His approach to writing essays and the function and possibilities of that literary form displays apparent similarities with the work of the protagonists of the so-called New Journalism. After a brief introduction to New Journalism as a mode of writing and some of its elements and key terms, I will focus on Wallace's five tennis essays individually. In addition to connecting his M.O. to the tradition of New Journalism on the formal and content level, I will provide a reading of each of Wallace's tennis essays with recourses to different theoretical approaches. In other words: I will probe each essay for the question: about what is he really writing, how it is done and why is it tennis of all things that functions as his way in.

2. New Journalism

New Journalism as a style or different mode of writing journalistic articles arose in the 1960s and '70s bringing into the field of journalism elements rather associated with fiction writing. Articles associated with New Journalism were characterized by the clearly defined (and mostly openly subjective) perspective from which they were written and their length, straying from the conventional brevity of concise fact-reporting and rather offered elaborate reflections and very detailed observations. The main arena for their publication were magazines and periodicals (such as Esquire, Harpers, Life and Rolling Stone, Playboy, The New Yorker and others) rather than newspapers, which is important to mention as there is an interdependency of the literary market, the medium, and the mode of writing: magazines became popular due to their ability to react relatively quickly to a phenomenon and address it in as much detail as necessary; while magazines certainly were not as quick as daily newspapers, they were not as restricted spatially and in that regard established themselves as the 'missing link' between newspaper (up-to-date, yet brief) and book (detailed, yet belated). New Journalism emerged from that magazine culture and magazines as a distinct medium partially emerged from the way writers made use of its possibilities. The in-betweenness of the medium is analog to the in-betweenness of New Journalism as a mode between traditional journalism, fiction, and autobiographical observations, which is why it is sometimes referred to (both in a neutrally descriptive and pejorative manner) as creative nonfiction.

New Journalists tried to break with the alleged objectivity of traditional newspaper journalism, television newscasts etc. in which a reporter or author is transparent, i.e. the presentation of a story tried (or claimed) to be objective and informative by removing anything that could be seen as subjective. In other words, traditional journalists tried to be as invisible as possible, to disappear behind their facts. But since of course every article is written and every picture taken by an individual and thus automatically an extension of this individual's perspective, the negotiation of exactly this question, the impossibility of a subject to be objective, is the starting point for New Journalism. The person behind the article becomes clearly visible and his/her unique style is not hidden, but rather emphasized when writers actively claim authorship and make themselves part of their stories in order to openly point out both their involvement, perspective, and subjectivity. The reasoning follows a simple logic: if an author does this instead of claiming objectivity (which is illusory), he or she gives the reader a frame which then allows for a new transparency that is much closer to its object. Hence, and as paradoxical as it sounds at first, the story becomes more objective by being completely and frankly subjective. Moreover, the exhibited presence and position of the narrator adds a metafictional element because the work then “obliges its readers to consider first and foremost its own artifice; it disrupts the illusion that fiction gives direct access to the 'real world.'” (Cuddon 2011: 431)

This elevating of the author from a mere intermediary whose main job is to deliver the facts to an active and visible part of what is being delivered was mostly justified by the political dimension of many of the stories, which then became a conscious part of a broader social activism. After all, New Journalists mostly focused on topics outside of the mainstream and found their material in the counterculture such as youth movements, drugs, music, and in general people on the fringes of society, and therefore topics the established media would or could not cover. A famous example is Hunter S. Thompsons' literary debut Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1966) which he based on his article "The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders" originally published in the magazine The Nation. Most mediations of the Hell's Angels at the time would capitalize on the exploitable sensationalistic aspect, e.g. in the form of outlaw biker gang B-movies or gritty pulp fiction. Thompson however instead of perpetuating the well-known clichéd narrative got to know his subject matter when he spent time and rode with members of the Hell's Angels during a time span of two years. Not only did he become a literal part of the story (and shaped it through his experience), but he also helped establish the New Journalists' ethos that you have 'to get the facts straight' as Tom Wolfe, another protagonist of New Journalism, famously insisted, and really learn about (and if necessary experience) your subject matter.

Equipped with a journalistic or even "muckraking" sensibility and obligation to the facts on the one hand, on the other hand New Journalists “began to think like novelists” (Weingarten 2005: 7) transcending 'objective facts' into 'subjective truth' by using an array of literary techniques. As Wolfe points out:

What interested me was not simply the discovery that it was possible to write accurate non-fiction with techniques usually associated with novels and short stories. It was that – plus. It was the discovery that it was possible in non-fiction, in journalism, to use any literary device, from the traditional dialogisms of the essay to stream-of-consciousness, and to use many different kinds simultaneously, or within a relatively short space. (Wolfe 1975: 28)

Negotiating the position of New Journalism in a broader literary discourse, Wolfe's assessment is that nonfiction and “journalism in particular, had become literature's main event.” (Boynton 2005: xi). His background with a degree in English and a Ph.D. from Yale in American Studies implies that he is well-versed in the theoretical and methodological implications of writing and very conscious in his approach to re-forming journalistic writing through literary techniques. Accordingly, Tom Wolfe for instance would occasionally talk about himself in the third person, would use an I-narrator or would simply switch between different points-of-view to stand out against the 'normal journalistic tone' (Wolfe 1975: 30-33) and thus enable the move “beyond the conventional limits of journalism, but not merely in terms of techniques.” (ibid.: 34)

Another such limit of traditional journalism whose boundaries Wolfe, Thompson and other New Journalists ignored, overcame or shifted, was the degree of detail (along with the increased amount of time spent on researching and writing), as they worked in an abundance of small components besides the mere facts of a story in order to attain a new level of precision. The intended effect was to produce an emotional level as is common for literature, but uncommon for journalism. The depiction of “whole scenes, extended dialogue, point-of-view and interior monologue” (ibid.: 34) and the use of “exclamation points, italics and abrupt shifts (dashes) and syncopations (dots) helped to give the illusion not only of a person talking but of a person thinking.” (ibid.: 35) Wolfe himself spoke of “the joys of detailed realism and its strange powers,” (ibid.: 43) which I want to link to what Roland Barthes coined "the Reality Effect" (l'Effet de réel), the textual device he identifies that produces the feeling of a text being realistic and coherent, among other things by describing 'useless detail,' seemingly insignificant things that have no impact on the plot, however are crucial for the reader's interaction with a character or setting.[1]

I will return to the characteristic aspects of New Journalism in my analysis of David Foster Wallace's tennis essays. As mentioned before, there is an undeniable and widely-analyzed undercurrent of New Journalism in his essays,[2] but to limit one's reading to this frame would be far too reductive, given his playful and quite experimental use of additional means and methods which I will further elaborate on in the following analyses.

3. First Essay: “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley”

Wallace first tennis essay “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” was originally published in Harper's in 1992 as “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornados” (and then in revised form in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, his 1997 collection of non-fiction writing). It is openly and frankly autobiographical as Wallace gives insight into his youth and being a "near-great" tennis player, and the geographical and environmental circumstances of his Midwestern provenience which serve as an explanation for his bordering-on-obsessive interest in mathematics (“I'd grown up inside vectors, lines and lines athwart lines, grids – and, on the scale of horizons, broad curving lines of geographic force, the weird topographical drain-swirl of a whole lot of ice-ironed land that sits and spins atop plates… Calculus was, quite literally, child's play” (Wallace 2016: 3)).

3.1. Milieu, Mathematics, Material Body

Wallace organizes a certain phase in his coming-of-age around this tennis-mathematics narrative, detailing how he himself was an average athlete at best, but had certain skills that helped him prevail against his competing peers. What is outstanding is how Wallace implies that the perceptive awareness of even the smallest details that would later characterize his writing style, was the decisive factor when his focus was tennis and not yet writing that characterized and improved his tennis game, thereby insinuating that his mode of writing is merely one expression of his mode of perception and reflection, just as much as playing tennis was in his youth.

The abovementioned mutual influence of milieu (place/geography/environment) and self or self-expression (in this case tennis) is narrated via his observation that due to Illinois being so even, the terrain was mostly not flattened before a tennis court was built resulting in the court having a small slant which he could use to his advantage against players from other regions. Also, the strong winds (to which the "tornado alley" in the essay's title refer) were a constant factor and while it led the other young tennis players to despair, he included it as a part of his game, leading him to state that he was at his “very best in bad conditions.” (4) In a similar fashion as he claims specific environmental circumstances to be an essential part of his playing, he claims his natural, innate propensity towards mathematics as being derived from his milieu. This aspect informs his game insofar as he states that he was capable of seeing the limitations of the court and move in them conveniently due to his comprehension of angles and geometric shapes.

Besides milieu and mathematics, another important theme is broached, namely the (male) body, in this case in the form of Wallace's own physicality and bodily limitations (he will revisit the body as a significant aspect not only of the athlete, but as the carrier medium of the entire human condition time and again, especially in his essay on Roger Federer which I will discuss in chapter 7). As Wallace tells the story, when his peers started to hit puberty and grew stronger and taller, his body stayed the same, correspondingly his game plateaued and he was rapidly surpassed by adolescents he had beaten easily before. Not only does he emphasize the obvious physicality of athletic endeavors, but also the interconnectedness of body and self: when the player's body hits its natural limitations, the player's style – even though it is not only determined by the player's physique – automatically is frozen. Just like his relation to mathematics emerges from the milieu, his playing style emerges from the milieu and the mathematics that go with it and both are played out on the body as material vessel.

3.2. Observations on Wallace`s Style

While Wallace's tennis style as he describes it certainly is unusual (factoring in slanted courts and heavy winds as elements of his game), his literary style is just as noteworthy. There are, as I already mentioned, parallels between his writing and his tennis playing. One is the focus on small and seemingly insignificant details, which however contribute to a Barthesian reality effect and conjure up a powerful and vivid image of the particular conditions:

Now, conditions in Central Illinois are from a mathematical perspective interesting and from a tennis perspective bad. The summer heat and wet-mitten humidity, the grotesquely fertile soil that sends grasses and broadleaves up through the courts' surface by main force, the midges that feed on sweat and the mosquitoes that spawn in the fields' furrows and in the conferva-choked ditches that box each field, night tennis next to impossible because the moths and crap-gnats drawn by the sodium lights form a little planet around each tall lamp and the whole lit court surface is aflutter with spastic little shadows. (4)

His focus on richness in detail sometimes drifts into an almost meditative state via his use of stream-of-consciousness to accentuate certain moments:

And meteorologists have nothing to tell people in Philo, who know perfectly well that the real story is that to the west, between us and the Rockies, there is basically nothing tall, and that weird zephyrs and stirs joined breezes and gusts and thermals and downdrafts and whatever out over Nebraska and Kansas and moved east like streams into rivers and jets and military fronts that gathered like avalanches and roared in reverse down pioneer oxtrails, toward our own personal unsheltered asses. (5-6)

The sentence already begins with "and," creating the impression that the stream is not just beginning here, but already in full flow, an effect which is amplified by the reoccurring use (ten times) of 'and' leading to a beat poetry-like breathless listing that almost seems like a refusal to let the sentence come to a halt. This is one of the moments that not only express his 'style of thinking,' linking his thoughts together, freely associating and adding layers to layers (which he will later do excessively in the form of footnotes) but which ultimately create a very unique rhythm, not just on the semantic level, but on the level of sound. Similarly, he uses half-sentences (or at least 'ungrammatical sentences' in the sense of 'not whole') to indicate both reflection and conclusion, as for instance when he returns to explaining the circumstances with “Wind, wind etc. etc.” (5). What on the grammatical and typographical level seems like an unfinished or interrupted sentence in turn becomes the appropriate expression of what he is trying to convey on the semantic and sound level: the sentence reads like a chant or a mantra and thereby produces a congruence in form and content between the ever-same repetitive blowing of the wind and its expression in language.

As the essay progresses, Wallace tries not only to convey facts about his junior tennis career, but much more to present his subjective truth beyond these facts. When for instance he speaks about the limitations of his body, he does not merely state this fact, but uses it to highlight an emotional and psychological crisis, namely what it means to drop from feeling "being near-great" to then feeling "betrayed" by his own body:

As a junior tennis player, I was for a time a citizen of the concrete physical world in a way the other boys weren't, I felt. And I felt betrayed at around fourteen when so many of these single-minded flailing boys became abruptly mannish and tall, with sudden sprays of hair on their thighs and wisps on their lips and ropy arteries on their forearms. (13)

The personification of the body makes it an active protagonist which has agency and can as a matter of fact "betray" its inhabitant, underlining what I said earlier about Wallace's evaluation of the (athlete's) body. This goes on when his father told him after a lost match “that it had looked like a boy playing a man out there.” (13) He saw his “identity shifting from jock to math-wienie.” (15)

The body (and with it the ability to develop as a tennis player) is not the only thing that undergoes a change about David Foster Wallace. In this essay, his first about tennis, the absence of footnotes is noteworthy; because in his later work footnotes are an essential part of his writing (I will address that point in chapter 5.1). While he is already using thick description[3] as a mode of writing to some extent, in his later work the description gets thicker and thicker. He shows the reader a part of himself and his involvement in tennis, however the metafictional level is not as apparent as in later essays, when the explicit addressing of the process of writing, editing, and publishing more visibly reveals the essays' artifice (see 4.5 and 6.3).

The way in which Wallace uses language shows that he is not only writing about tennis in a journalistic fashion, but displays a highly orchestrated aestheticized tone that to some extent allows his writing to be seen as a barometer for his development as a stylist; in other words, his coming-of-age as an author is foreshadowed by his description of his coming-of-age as a tennis player and adolescent passing through the liminal threshold between boyhood and manhood. Tennis therefore becomes the field that in reality allows him to write about his biography as well as lay out his aesthetic program and implement certain tropes and themes that play a role throughout his wide oeuvre.

4. Second Essay: “How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart”

Wallace's second tennis essay is – seemingly – a relatively straightforward book review about the autobiography of tennis prodigy Tracy Austin, originally published as "Tracy Austin Serves Up a Bubble Life Story" in the daily newspaper Philadelphia Inquirer in August 1992 (and in re-edited and re-titled form at hand in his essay collection Consider the Lobster (2006)) . However, the review gradually morphs into a critique against the whole genre of formulaic and ghost-written athletes' biographies combined with reflections of the aesthetic value of top performance sport and its paradox that those who are able to partake in it are not able to enjoy it on an aesthetic level and vice versa.

4.1. Importance of the Essay Title

The title "How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart" plays in a humorous way with the evoked impression of the narrator having had an actual, personal relationship with a well-known figure which ended in the ultimate disappointment: heartbreak. The article of course goes on to reveal that as a matter of fact her book 'broke his heart,' because it is a major letdown for him. The playful misleading of the reader through a sensationalistic title reminiscent of attention-getting strategies of tabloids can definitely be tied in with methods from New Journalism, for instance Gay Talese's seminal essay "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." Talese very consciously plays with this mode of newspaper journalism to expose and subvert it: the title presents itself as a bold statement in the shape of a full-formed and grammatical declarative sentence, neatly with subject, verb and object, but eventually it lets the reader expect something different than the essay will deliver. Certainly, on one level the essay really is about Frank Sinatra having a cold and is organized around this affliction as if it were as newsworthy as other important headlines – a simple cold which any human-being has encountered can bring a stop to the whole entertainment machinery that depends on a fully functioning Frank Sinatra: “He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold.” (Talese 1966: 99) In that regard, the title is not misleading, but very appropriate. On a further level however, the essay is neither about Sinatra nor his cold, but about the very machine of which he is the central cog. Talese uses the interruption of the machine as the moment when it becomes visible in its machine-ness[4] and this is what he actually describes from a fly-on-the-wall perspective, so it is about much more and about something else than the cold itself, even though the cold is the decisive catalyst.


[1] “Thus, description appears as a kind of characteristic of the so-called higher languages, to the apparently paradoxical degree that it is justified by no finality of action or of communication. The singularity of description (or of the 'useless detail') in narrative fabric, its isolated situation, designates a question which has the greatest importance for the structural analysis of narrative. This question is the following: Is everything in narrative significant, and if not, if insignificant stretches subsist in the narrative syntagm, what is ultimately, so to speak, the significance of this insignificance? (...) eliminated from the realist speech-act as a signified of denotation, the "real” returns to it as a signified of connotation; for just when these details are reputed to denote the real directly, all that they do – without saying so – is signify it; Flaubert's barometer, Michelet's little door finally say nothing but this: we are the real; it is the category of “the real” (and not its contingent contents) which is then signified; in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism: the reality effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity.” (Barthes 1968: 143, 148)

[2] In accordance with that, Wallace has been compared to Hunter S. Thompson on many occasions, Daniel R. Roberts for instance states in his Salon article about Wallace as journalist: "In his nonfiction, Wallace most closely resembled another writer before him, a man who was also considered something other than a journalist: Hunter S. Thompson. Both writers took reportage a step further than the literary techniques of Gay Talese, Joan Didion and the New Journalism. Yes, both Thompson and Wallace shirked objectivity, happily injecting their own commentary and asides into factual reportage." Roberts, however, goes on to point out significant differences as well. For further in-depth comparisons of Wallace and New Journalism and its protagonists see e.g. Ribbat (cf. 187-198), Boswell (cf. 1-20), Mosser (cf. 1-62).

[3] As mentioned before, an especially important instrument of New Journalism is the sheer amount of detail. Besides its relation to the Barthesian Reality Effect, there is an arguably even stronger relation to the so-called "thick description," a term first coined by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle and later on by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz to refer to a new method of doing ethnography in a fashion similar to Michel Foucault's discourse analysis and consideration of the dispositif. “Thick description moves beyond neutral observation in order to capture the layers of meaning and implication inherent in a speech or gesture.” (Macey 2000: 380) The method was developed for literary studies by the "New Historians" around Stephen Greenblatt (1982).

[4] Even though the context and the agenda is quite different, Bruno Latour argues that it is "accidents, breakdowns, and strikes" (Latour 2005: 81) that can make something visible (and turn it into an actant and mediator in his ANT terminology) that was perceived as passive (an intermediary) before. He gives examples from the tragic failure of the Columbia shuttle to a simple computer as complex actor-networks (or black boxes) whose assembled-ness and complexity only shows itself in the case of a breakdown that then produces unexpected outcomes (cf. 39). In a sense, this follows the same logic as Talese's observation of the breakdown of the Sinatra machine caused by something as mundane as a cold.

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Ontological Tennis. A Close Reading of David Foster Wallace's Tennis Essays
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David Foster Wallace, String Theory, New Journalism, Tennis, Roger Federer, US Open
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Christoph Schrank (Author), 2017, Ontological Tennis. A Close Reading of David Foster Wallace's Tennis Essays, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/369564


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