Dead Author Breeds Big Business: The David Foster Wallace Industry March 9, 2011Posted by jaldenh in News & Views.
Published on The New York Observer (http://www.observer.com)
By David Freedlander
When David Foster Wallace hanged himself with a black belt and his arms bound by duct tape on the patio of his home in Claremont, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2008, he had published a history of the concept of infinity, three collections of short stories, two books of essays and two novels. The last of the novels–the towering, 1,088-page Infinite Jest–came out in 1996.
More than a decade after the magnum opus was published, Wallace devotees voiced worries that their hero’s reputation was on the wane. They noted that for the 10th-anniversary of Infinite Jest, the publishers chose Dave Eggers to write a new introduction–a sign, they feared, that Wallace needed the imprimatur of a broadly popular figure (though Mr. Eggers had called the novel “extravagantly self-indulgent” upon its first appearance) in order to make him palatable to the next generation of readers.
The death of the author, it would seem, has changed all that. Next month will see the publication of The Pale King, the unfinished novel Wallace left stacked in a pile in his garage. This comes on the heels of two other posthumous books in the 30 months since his passing: This Is Water, a 4,000-word commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, which was stretched to book length by the neat trick (one critic termed it “un-Wallace-like”) of printing only one sentence per page; and Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, Wallace’s undergraduate philosophy thesis, padded with a number of essays by distinguished philosophers.
We have not heard the last of him. Indeed, the 34 document boxes and eight oversize folders of Wallace’s drafts, letters and juvenilia deposited at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, along with 300 books from his personal library, promise a posthumous flow that will be, if not infinite, then certainly robust. There may be another book of unpublished fiction soon in the offing, and one of uncollected nonfiction, as well as potentially two books of Wallace’s letters, one of which is said to be devoted almost entirely to his correspondence about the art of writing.
Then there are Wallace’s Boswells. David Lipsky, who was commissioned by Rolling Stone to shadow the author on the Infinite Jest book tour (the piece was killed), last year re-purposed his transcripts of their road trip into a 300-page book, And of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. D.T. Max, who wrote a feature-length obituary of Wallace for The New Yorker framing Wallace’s suicide as the end of a long struggle against both depression and avant-garde tendencies, is expanding his efforts into a full-blown literary biography slated to appear later this year.
The critics, too, must have their say. One volume of critical essays, Consider David Foster Wallace, came out on a small press last year, and another, The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, including appraisals by icons like Don DeLillo and contemporaries like Jonathan Franzen, has been promised by the University of Iowa Press.
“I think what we are looking at is something like the beginnings of the David Foster Wallace industry,” said Matt Bucher, a Project Manager at Pearson, an independent Wallace scholar and the administrator of Wallace-L, a 1,000-subscriber strong Wallace listserv. “I think it will be big, on par with James Joyce or Walt Whitman. Look at all the stuff there is out there about them. People gobble that stuff up. Look how many books there are on Kennedy.”
So far no conspiracy theories have emerged around Wallace’s life or death, but since 2008 there have been at least a dozen Ph.D. dissertations entirely or partly devoted to Wallace’s work. And where there are academics, there are soon enough academic conferences. A panel about Wallace’s legacy was staged at the Modern Language Association conference in 2009, a year that also saw entire conferences about his work at the University of Liverpool and at the City University of New York. A conference on The Pale King is scheduled for September at the University of Antwerp, in Belgium, and next week the urge to discuss him in public leaks out of the academic world and into the South by Southwest festival, where a panel next week will consider “David Foster Wallace and the Internet.”
Part of the newfound fascination with Wallace has to do with the urgency of his subject matter and the kind of readers it attracts. Wallace’s early fiction arrived just as Internet culture was forming, and his work anticipated a world where people think it worthwhile to broadcast in 140 characters the contents of their sushi lunches.
“He connects very strongly with men, especially young men, and especially IT men, the kind of guys who would be into sci-fi and that kind of thing,” said Mr. Max. “These guys need writers, they need cultural figures and they need guys who help them understand their role in the culture.”
Publishers and scholars say that the Internet fans who flocked to Wallace were able to create an instant online archive in the wake of his death. Instead of uncovering a slow trickle of uncollected or lost pieces, fans tracked down, for example, Wallace’s undergraduate thesis (now a book) and the story “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” which Wallace published as an undergraduate in a 1984 issue of Amherst Review (and which would appear after its rediscovery in the journal Tin House), and posted these writings online for immediate inspection and debate. It is like the long tail, only in reverse, where a small coterie of fans keep the work alive online long enough for the rest of the culture to discover it. A clearinghouse for this phenomenon was The Howling Fantods!, a Web site that has obsessively chronicled Wallace’s career since 1997. It has reported receiving nearly 280,000 hits per month in 2011, up from 110,000 in the months leading up to Wallace’s death.
In his recent essay “David Foster Wallace: The Death of the Author and the Birth of a Discipline,” the Irish scholar Adam Kelly wrote that Wallace criticism has begun in a “democratic vein. The ease of publication which the internet allows has meant that the detailed close reading of Wallace’s texts, traditionally the preserve of academic engagement, has in great part been carried out by skillful and committed non-professional readers, who publish their findings in the public domain of the web.”
“It’s all sped up now,” said Maureen Eckert, a professor at UMASS-Dartmouth who edited Fate, Time, and Language and describes herself as a “head-over-heels fan” of Wallace. “You think about people finding a lost manuscript of Hemingway or a Sylvia Plath poem; it’s a moment of celebration. In the case of Wallace, we have the technology, and so there are a lot of PDFs just floating around online.”
Last week a blogger at lazenby.tumblr.com posted a document comparing word by word the excerpt of The Pale King that appeared in The New Yorker and a transcription of the same passage that Wallace read at the Lannan Foundation in New Mexico in 2000.
Scott Esposito, writing on his blog Conversational Reading, posted a quick reaction: “What we see,” he wrote, “is a vision of what The Pale King might have looked like, if its editors had chosen to leave it in the disarrayed state it was discovered in. Surely this would have been a book with less mass appeal than the ‘completed’ Pale King that will be published on April 15, but would it have been truer to Wallace the writer?”
Asked about the editing process that has brought The Pale King to the public, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor at Little, Brown, told The Observer, “I am going to save that for another time. I am not sure how much I want to talk about that at this time.”
Bonnie Nadell, the Los Angeles-based literary agent who discovered Wallace when he sent her a chapter of his first novel, The Broom of the System, told The Observer that at least once a week she receives a query from someone writing a thesis about Wallace or hoping to appropriate some portion of his work for their own project. So long as the petitioners seek to violate neither good taste nor copyright, the Wallace estate has been open, Ms. Nadell said, and added that she has been pleasantly surprised at the demand.
“I am not doing anything [to promote Wallace],” said Ms. Nadell. “If anything, they are coming to me. We have other authors we represent who have died, and we deal with their estates, but David’s work continues to touch people. It’s like nothing I’ve seen.”
Beyond academia and the Internet, a legion of artists, filmmakers and playwrights have been moved to re-interpret or pay homage to Wallace. A video-art exhibition, “A Failed Entertainment: Selections from the Filmography of James O. Incandenza,” inspired by a footnote from Infinite Jest, has gone up at Columbia and Virginia Commonwealth universities. Wallace’s story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which was made into a film with his blessing, has now also been adapted for the stage. The Mountain Goats, of indie rock fame, honored the author with a song on a recent album.
Some grumbling about exploitation has been heard from the Fantods, especially when the work is widely available on the Internet, like when the Kenyon speech that became This Is Water becomes copyrighted and available for $14.99 by the checkout desk of the local bookstore.
“Clearly, some people believe that anything else published under his name will be just scraping money out of his coffin,” Mr. Bucher said.
But mostly the faithful are pleased that after poring over footnote placements in Infinite Jest among themselves for 10 years, they have now been joined by a culture at large that suddenly seems extremely interested in the life and work of a self-deprecating writer who once described himself as being about as famous as the local weatherman.
Scholars and Fantods have a few theories about the surge of interest. Part of it is simply that, like James Dean, John Lennon or Kurt Cobain, Wallace died young, 46 years old and still in his prime. With no more new work to look forward to, readers are left to fill in the gaps and pounce on any shred of lost writing that surfaces. In 2007, few would have thought that Wallace would stand to be mentioned in the same breath as literary giants like Norman Mailer and John Updike, whose “senescence” Wallace announced in a 1997 critical essay in The Observer. Mailer died 10 months before Wallace, and Updike five months after. Beyond the requisite appreciations in newspapers and literary journals, their afterlife has acquired nothing like the interest that has surrounded Wallace.
The tragedy of Wallace’s suicide and depression has played a part in heightening attention to his work and changed the way readers think about him. During his lifetime, Wallace was perceived as a difficult high postmodernist who challenged readers’ attention spans with sentences that branched off in several directions, abounded in neologisms and might spawn several discursive footnotes. In one of his earliest and most famous experimental gestures, the 467-page Broom of the System ends in mid-sentence. But all that perplexity was really a way for Wallace to depict what a mind is like in the process of thinking. The knowledge that he endured an epic struggle with depression allows readers another window to see the human-ness in his prose.
“There are some readers who approach him now as almost like a secular saint, as someone who was too good for this world,” said James Ryerson, an editor at The New York Times Magazine who wrote the introduction to Fate, Time, and Language. “By all accounts he was someone who struggled intensely and openly in his writing with his attempt to live a life of moral integrity. There seems to be some kind of truth to him.”
“I couldn’t even take it when he died,” said Ms. Eckert. “It was like our reality failed him.”
All of this activity has helped move Wallace from the eccentric periphery of American letters to the center. In their recent book All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly casually refer to Wallace as “the greatest writer of his generation”–a reckoning many would have thought incomplete, like declaring the winner of a tennis match after one set.
Mr. Lipsky, who won a National Magazine Award for his postmortem feature on Wallace in Rolling Stone, believes Wallace altered the landscape of the American literary vernacular toward a maximalist aesthetic–though one that still accommodated emotional depth–in much the same way that after Hemingway, most American writers wrote minimalist prose; and Salinger begot a generation of chatty adolescent narrators; and after Carver the literary journals were filled with Kmart realism.
“Let me put it this way,” Mr. Lipsky told The Observer, “I don’t think a week goes by that the editor of Rolling Stone doesn’t get a pitch from a writer who says, ‘I would like to do a David Foster Wallace kind of take on X.’ He is the young writer who did the most change to how young writers write.”
“It’s kind of amazing when you think about it that The Corrections won the National Book Award when it came out and Infinite Jest wasn’t even nominated,” said Mr. Bucher, the administrator of the Wallace-L listserv. “But you are calling me. How many other writers out there writing now have fan sites devoted to them? How many are getting the kind of critical reception that Wallace is getting?”
Mr. Franzen, 51, the author of The Corrections and a longtime friend of Wallace’s, declined to comment for this article because he is writing his own essay about Wallace for The New Yorker. In his recent interview with The Paris Review, Mr. Franzen compared his own career to Wallace’s: “I perceived, rightly or wrongly, that our friendship was haunted by a competition between the writer who was pursuing art for art’s sake [Wallace] and the writer who was trying to be out in the world. The art-for-art’s-sake writer gets a certain kind of cult credibility, gets books written about his or her work, whereas the writer out in the world gets public attention and money. Like I say, I perceived this as a competition, but I don’t know for a fact that Dave perceived it that way.”
In other words, Mr. Franzen may be selling books and appearing on television, but the Mountain Goats have yet to write a song for him.
It is hardly worth speculating what would have happened to Wallace’s work and reputation had he continued publishing. People who have read parts of The Pale King say that Wallace’s fiction was becoming more humane, addressing the moral questions he was laying out in the Kenyon commencement speech. There may have been more novels, more stories, more debate.
And how would Wallace have reacted to his undergraduate thesis being published by a university press, his teenage poems available to the public in an archive in Texas?
“He was deeply, scrotum-tighteningly ambivalent about fame,” said Mr. Max. “He left Pale King to be published. But did he want to become a cultural icon? I don’t think he would have been so surprised.”
“[H]e was a troubled person and was tormented by the possibility of people misperceiving him,” Mr. Franzen told The Paris Review. “His instinct was to keep people at a distance and let the work speak for itself, and I do know that he enjoyed the status he’d attained. He might have denied it, but he denied all sorts of obviously true things at different moments.”