The next year, a senior named Alex Borinsky asked: Have you ever not written something for fear the subject might read it?
Wallace sent Alex a response nearly as long as the last one. Yes, he said. He had backed out of book reviews because he didn't want to skewer the books. He had omitted personal details from a profile because they had been revealed in moments of indiscretion. He explained:
On the one hand, a writer has to understand that his primary allegiance is to the reader, not to the article's subject. Excessive concern about subjects' feelings can lead to all sorts of dishonesty that the reader will be able to detect (whether this detection is conscious or not). On the other hand, life is short, and hard, and it seems like good policy to inflict the absolute minimum pain/humiliation on other people as we schlep through the day.
Alex and his classmates were glad to hear this. Wallace's descriptions of the fat fairgoers had troubled them. He was snide. But he was also kind. It was instructive to realize that one could be both.