Consider David Foster Wallace Conference
University of Liverpool, July 29-30, 2009
Keynote Address by Greg Carlisle
First, I’d like to thank David Hering and the University of Liverpool for hosting this conference, which gives us an opportunity to come together from all over the world to discuss and make discoveries about the work of David Foster Wallace. I am honored to have the opportunity to talk with you this afternoon. When I spoke with David about his ideas for the scope of the conference, he was particularly interested in both the value and methods of teaching Wallace’s work and in the development of Wallace’s fictional project, so these will be the topics of today’s address.
What is extraordinary about David Foster Wallace is that his commitment to his readers exceeded even his incomparable intellectual gifts. Wallace took nothing for granted and processed everything through the complex filter of his own high-stakes values: the techniques of postmodern fiction, popular attitudes about television, his motives for writing, hip cynicism, eating lobster, everything. His philosophy of compassion for human beings in general, one of the qualities that makes his work so valuable, is spelled out simply and beautifully in his 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College, recently published in book form as This is Water. He was aware of the dark water we swim in and tried to help us become aware not just of the water but of the other swimmers, too.
As early as 1993, his reader-centered philosophy concerning the purposes of fiction was spelled out eloquently in a seminal interview with Larry McCaffery that appeared in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. A sampling of quotes from that 1993 interview goes a long way toward justifying the value of studying and teaching Wallace’s work. Concerning what fiction should do for the reader, he said:
“I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
“I strongly suspect a big part of real art fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.”
“If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still “are” human beings, now. Or can be.”
Wallace believed he should help us see the complexity of things we take for granted, remind us that the communication we receive is heavily mediated, and create work for us to do. He said:
“One new context is to take something almost narcotizingly banal—it’s hard to think of anything more banal than a U.S. game show . . . —and try to reconfigure it in a way that reveals what a tense, strange, convoluted set of human interactions the final banal product is.”
“But what it’s [Wallace’s story about the game show is] really trying to do is just the “opposite” of TV—it’s trying to prohibit the reader from forgetting that she’s receiving heavily mediated data, that this process is a relationship between the writer’s consciousness and her own, and that in order for it to be anything like a full human relationship, she’s going to have to put in her share of the linguistic work.”
Wallace’s writing was playful and chaotic, but it was also highly structured; and he believed that good writing required the writer to be both skillful and open. He said:
“There’s an unignorable line between demonstrating skill and charm to gain trust for the story vs. simple showing off. It can become an exercise in trying to get the reader to like and admire you instead of an exercise in creative art.”
“There’s something about free play within an ordered and disciplined structure that resonates for readers. And there’s something about complete caprice and flux that’s deadening.”
“It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.”
“Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you really feel something.”
Obviously Wallace is not unique in experimenting with the structure of fiction and in caring for his readers, but there is a passionate intensity and sensitivity and self-consciousness about him which exacerbates both his attention to detail and to fair characterization and his awareness of the reader. These are the qualities that set him apart and make his work unique enough to be called by Marshall Boswell a “third wave of modernism,” changing the scope of fiction just as Joyce and Barth did before him. George Carr of the wallace-l listserv puts it this way:
“Plenty of authors were writing non-ironic, emotionally available novels before Infinite Jest was published. But [what Wallace articulated was] that readers should think hard about whether “literary” novels, as a genre, were well served by the ironic, meta-fictional innovations promoted by the previous generation. He doesn’t decide the question—in fact, he uses the techniques of his predecessors even as he pushes the reader to question their value—but he opens the debate in an articulate way, and that’s a healthy thing.”
Because of Wallace’s super-sensitivity to the needs of the story and the reader, his fear of showing off just for attention, and his commitment to his fictional mission, he achieves a more heterogeneous mix of formal innovation and emotional quality than his literary forbears. In Infinite Jest, Wallace’s character Joelle van Dyne, commenting on the oeuvre of her mentor, experimental filmmaker Jim Incandenza, says that it was “the work of a brilliant optician and technician who was an amateur at any kind of real communication,” that it had “no narrative movement toward a real story; no emotional movement toward an audience,” but that there were “flashes of something” in the work. Now, I am not one who ascribes to the cliché that experimental artists leave us cold, but I would say that, while both Wallace and his forbears provide a wealth of intellectual pleasures to their readers, the emotional heat of Wallace’s forbears does indeed come in flickers and flashes while Wallace’s heat is consistent.
Here are some examples of what I mean, and this is meant to be a celebration of challenging, epic literature, not a critique of Wallace’s predecessors; although I am obviously favorably biased towards Wallace, as I’m sure many of you are. I’m taking a chronological look at these great novels through the lens of my own time, ignoring how much these novels speak to their own moments in time. Even so, it is still my belief that Infinite Jest will transcend its time period to an even greater degree than most of the novels I admire here. Let’s start with Joyce’s Ulysses. The “Oxen of the Sun” chapter is set in a maternity hospital and divided into nine parts (mirroring the nine months of gestation) that in Blamires’s words parody “English prose style from Anglo-Saxon days to the twentieth century” and therefore track the development of contemporary English while also alluding to the corresponding month-by-month development of the fetus. That is brilliant and even funny at times, but often unreadable. I love the opening of “Sirens” too—which gives us that wonderful page-and-a-half preview of sounds and snippets of language that will be used throughout that chapter—and that sequence in “Ithaca,” the chapter structured like a catechism, which provides a beautiful, exhaustive description of the uses of water. But in all these passages, I never stop thinking, “What great technique, what experimental mastery.” I read through Ulysses with admiration, and I am often profoundly moved; but there are long sequences that drag for me, and I’m rarely desperate to know how the characters will fare.
I have similar feelings about Beckett’s first three-novel set, published in the early 1950s. There is a nugget of genius buried on almost every page, but I am always conscious of Beckett’s unique rhythm even as I admire it; and I only finished The Unnamable because I’m stubborn. Even with the last three-novel set from the early 1980s, which made use of extraordinarily efficient, short paragraphs instead of paragraphs that went on interminably page after page after page, much of my enjoyment came from an intellectual admiration of what Beckett was doing and how he had finally gotten where he wanted to get with these late novels; although I was far more emotionally affected by this later set, especially by Company, which is just perfect.
For me, the middle book of the holy trinity of epic, twentieth-century novels that begins with Ulysses and ends with Infinite Jest is Williams Gaddis’s The Recognitions. But even as I marvel that the scathing recognitions Gaddis has about American malaise back in 1955, especially concerning advertising, still apply today, and even as I am floored by his masterful writing, I still feel like I am outside the story looking in, observing the characters with great interest but more emotionally affected by Gaddis’s brilliant writing than with the characters.
John Barth’s experiments were crucial for getting us to think outside the box of long-standing narrative conventions. Who doesn’t love that in his 1968 collection, Lost in the Funhouse (the title story of which inspired an early Wallace novella), one story asked us to cut out and make a mobius strip of a piece of text and another had so many nested speakers that the quotation marks took up half the line of text? Of course Barth has a serious agenda, but in his work comedy and stylistic fun are so dominant that tragic recognitions are usually suppressed for me. I look at Thomas Pynchon in much the same way. With Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973 he gave us our first bold, action-packed postmodern epic, but all the farcical and sexual eccentricities keep my reading primarily an intellectual one except for a few rare moments. Don DeLillo is another well-known postmodern master, and although his work is often quite humorous, too, he strikes me as the most subtle and aloof of these exemplary authors, wise but relatively soft-spoken.
For me, Wallace is funnier than everyone I’ve mentioned, but also more intense (my friend Brian compares starting Infinite Jest to being grabbed by the throat); and Wallace is funny and intense at the same time. Think of the Eschaton scene in Infinite Jest, where young children play a nuclear-conflagration game with tennis balls, which is both engaging and hilarious because Wallace has spent pages detailing the set-up of the game with geekish obsession. But then real violence erupts, and the upperclassmen mentors are too compromised by illicit substances to intervene, and the whole thing gets real serious and ominous even as some of the violence becomes farcical and cartoonish. And I am in that game with those kids, and I am watching it with the mentors, and I desperately want to know what happens to everyone, and I am laughing at the cartoonish quality of it, and I am getting a chill from Wallace’s description of a whistle, a siren, and falling snow. It’s so much fun, I’m not conscious of the work I’m doing flipping from main text to endnotes and trying to follow shifting narrative perspectives, calculus, game rules, and today’s game scenario. I see that a paragraph is going on for pages, but I don’t stop and think about that stylistically until I take a break from reading. And I don’t realize that a sentence has gone on for 200 words or more because it’s parsed so perfectly and the syntax sounds so natural in my head that I don’t notice its length until I reread it or until someone on the internet points it out. Unlike in the other works I cited, I always know what is happening, no matter how convoluted the action. I may have to work to make sense of how the action fits into the big picture of the story, but the action itself is clear (or clearly ambiguous) because the details of the action have been exhaustingly described with self-conscious care and yet are still entertaining to a degree we haven’t seen in those previously cited works.
After finishing some of the books cited above, I thought “I’d like to read this again someday”; after finishing Infinite Jest, I thought, “I want to read this again right now,” a common reaction found on internet postings. That’s why I decided to write my study Elegant Complexity, so I would have an excuse to savor that text continuously for several years. It’s rare that an author of fiction inspires me to do additional reading, but if not for Wallace, I wouldn’t have read half the authors I cited earlier. I just ordered a Vollmann anthology because of the compliments Wallace gave Vollmann in the McCaffery interview I revisited in writing this address. I spent 14 months trying to understand a 600-page anthology of modern and postmodern thought because Wallace made me want to know more about it. This is his value: he creates work for the reader that is fun and challenging, and he makes you want to research and to explore. His work is both self-conscious and other-oriented, so detailed and so clearly like a conversation he’s initiating with the reader—an invitation to collaboration—that when you read his fiction, you identify with the characters so much that often up there in your head it seems like you’re an actor playing the roles that you’re reading.
Wallace’s ability to create this sense of intense intimacy in his writing is what has garnered him a legion of devoted, obsessed fans who praise him all over the internet. There is a unique quality about his fan base. Wallace’s philosophy and writing style prompt both serious literary criticism and regular human conversation. Quite frequently the wallace-l listserv discusses items of personal interest and offers opinions about general topics that have nothing to do with Wallace’s work, not an uncommon practice for internet communities but certainly uncommon for communities devoted to revered literary figures that generally stick to more aesthetic topics. There also seems to be more interaction between electronic and academic communities on the subject of Wallace’s work than is standard for revered literary figures. Wallace’s journalism often seems even more intimate than his fiction, given that he is usually directly addressing the reader. This is why Wallace aficionados often suggest that new readers start with one of his essay collections before moving on to his fiction. I don’t think we can get a complete appreciation of the value of Wallace’s fiction and the relationship he creates with his readers without also considering his other work: his journalism, interviews, and critical and philosophical writing. I’m primarily talking about his fiction today, but his non-fiction is just as paradigm-shifting as his fiction.
Clearly what Wallace has to say is of value not just to lovers of literature but to everyone, but to date he has not been taught extensively in the classroom. There are several reasons for this. First, he is a relatively new author canonically speaking, his first major work being published in 1987. And although there are several academic articles and theses available on the internet, only a handful of books about Wallace’s work have been published, half of them guidebooks for Infinite Jest. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to teaching Wallace is that his work is shifting the way we think about reading and writing fiction so much that we don’t know how to talk about it yet. John Baskin, in the recent first issue of the Chicago-based journal, The Point, writes eloquently about this obstacle and ties it to Wallace’s conversational approach:
“For Wittgenstein, the point of the philosophical “conversation” was to address confusions intrinsic to his reader’s language and way of life. Rather than one “philosophical method,” he advanced in the Investigations a variety of techniques for addressing various confusions, “like different therapies.”
“Wallace attempted to enact such a conversation in his art. He would borrow from the Investigations not only themes—solipsism, language, meaning—but also the theoretical bulwark for a literature that was simultaneously challenging and therapeutic in the Wittgensteinian sense. The therapy was necessary and even urgent for a readership which, Wallace believed, had internalized not only postmodernism’s theoretical prejudices but also its involute habits of thought. The millennial subject was addicted to the same pathologies he was desperate to escape; nowhere was this more evident than in the difficulty literary critics had in responding meaningfully to Wallace’s books. What Wallace wanted to “share” most was a way out. But he would start with his readers, in the middle. The maze of contemporary thinking would have to be dismantled from within.”
The goal of my address today is to get us thinking about how we can get a wider audience to consider David Foster Wallace. First, we should understand Wallace’s philosophy of both life and art. I’ve touched on that a little today by quoting from the McCaffery interview and the Baskin essay, but we also need to look at seminal essays like “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in Wallace’s collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and selections from his other non-fiction works. Next, we need to try and understand what is happening across the entire body of his fictional project in terms of both form and content and see if we can draw some broad conclusions that will help give us a context for studying more closely each of his individual works. Finally, we need to look at what’s been done so far in terms of teaching Wallace and brainstorm ways we can enhance those teaching methods and continue to promote Wallace’s work and bring it to the widest possible audience.
One technique that Wallace has used across his body of work is to leave climactic events unresolved or undefined. We can see this technique in his earliest work, in Infinite Jest, and in his later writings, too. I wrote about this technique in the Wallace tribute section of the latest double-issue of the Sonora Review and used graphs and calculus analogies, but we won’t get into all that here. I’ll just say that although Wallace isn’t the first author to digress from the standard crisis-climax-denouement structure, the degree to which he intensifies this lack of resolution is quite unique, working a plot sequence into a frenzy of “chaotic stasis” (that’s a phrase from Infinite Jest) or truncating the narrative as it makes an exponential rise to a climax that we’ll never reach. Far from being a gimmick, this technique mirrors the anxiety we feel in a culture that gives us a “confusion of choices” (another phrase from Infinite Jest) or when we face an impossible choice. In tragedy, someone makes the impossible choice and nobly suffers the consequences. In Wallace’s fiction, self-conscious characters are often frozen with indecision, suffering before a choice is even made. Although Wallace’s use of footnotes and endnotes is usually cited as his method of creating work for the reader, those techniques are actually more for reminding the reader that what he or she is reading is mediated. It is this undefined-climax technique that allows Wallace to put the work of completing or making decisions about the narrative on each individual reader, perhaps giving them the perspective and practice for making decisions in their own lives.
I’ll just give brief examples of this technique from each of Wallace’s works of fiction to establish its ubiquity. His first novel, The Broom of the System, ends in the middle of a sentence. In the novella that closes his first story collection, Girl with Curious Hair, characters embark upon a long journey and do not arrive at their destination. Infinite Jest is rife with examples of pre-climactic narrative truncations, including the Eschaton episode mentioned earlier. “Forever Overhead,” from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, chronicles the fear of a boy on a diving board and ends with him there, trying to talk himself into jumping. In the first story in Oblivion, three narrative threads converge and are truncated before their crisis events are defined. In the 2007 New Yorker story, “Good People,” a boy contemplates his feelings and responsibilities towards the friend he has impregnated as they prepare to discuss the situation. The story ends just as they are about to talk. Now thanks to another New Yorker story that accompanied the D. T. Max article earlier this year, we know “Good People” is actually part of The Pale King—Wallace’s unfinished, third novel that will appear next year—and that the boy has a wife and baby, presumably the same good people. But most of the pieces of fiction that appear after Oblivion and that we now know are episodes of The Pale King still make use of this undefined-climax technique, although it appears that in his last works Wallace may have gotten closer to suggesting actions we can take to escape the unresolved oblivion of indecision.
If there is a way to encapsulate what Wallace was trying to do throughout his writing career, perhaps it is to say that he was honing in on what lies at the heart of the American malaise of the turn of the third millennium and trying to help us see the black and grained spots on our souls, an extremely difficult task because—repeating the earlier Baskin citation—the “millennial subject was addicted to the same pathologies he was desperate to escape” and the “maze of contemporary thinking would have to be dismantled from within.” Looking back at Wallace’s early work, I’m sure we would be able to articulate the beginnings of this project, although I believe Wallace was still distracted a little with the problem of breathing new life into tired conventions without compromising the truth and immediacy of what he wanted to express. But with Infinite Jest form and content merge perfectly, and Wallace presents an extremely perceptive and funny and obsessive account of the American problem that is also extraordinarily sad. There is a crushing honesty and sense of loneliness about this book. And although chaotic and sprawling, it is immaculately structured; purposefully shifting time, location, and point of view to better mirror our frenetic culture, but with a rigorous thematic unity so subtle that critics have trouble detecting it. It took me five years and 500 pages to articulate it in my book, Elegant Complexity.
With Infinite Jest, Wallace takes a big step towards achieving the goals he stated in the McCaffery interview, because Infinite Jest has the potential to inspire people to face what they want to deny: their “sense of entrapment and loneliness.” A measure of Wallace’s success in fighting this pervasive sense of loneliness is evidenced by the number of electronic communities that spring up in response to his work, many of which have as their exclusive subject the reading of Infinite Jest. The highest-profile electronic community to date is congregating as we speak over at infinitesummer.org. Thousands of people are reading and discussing Infinite Jest at the main site and on Facebook and Twitter through September 22.
Although I don’t see how anyone couldn’t identify with the characters in Infinite Jest (it would be like telling a close friend you can’t understand why they’re upset when they’ve just opened their heart and soul to you) most of the characters are extreme personalities: athletes-in-training, addicts, spies, assassins in wheelchairs. In his subsequent work, Wallace often creates characters that a wider range of his readership might identify with. In “Mister Squishy” from Oblivion, Terry Schmidt is a product-testing facilitator, but he still experiences the obsession and loneliness that the characters in Infinite Jest do. Because Oblivion is a book of stories instead of a really long novel, there is a narrowing of focus that gives us the impression that Wallace is even closer than he was in Infinite Jest to diagnosing why we are obsessed and lonely and bored and what has brought about our state of oblivion. From what we know of The Pale King from the D. T. Max article, Wallace’s stylistic flair becomes even more subtle and his characters, I.R.S. agents, have jobs that are even more isolating, helping his readers, many of whom perhaps spend their days relatively isolated at their work stations, better identify with the loneliness and boredom of his characters. There are indicators that The Pale King may even suggest more clearly and overtly than in Wallace’s previous work treatment or therapy for our indecision, loneliness, and boredom; that it may help us choose our way out of oblivion; that it may be Wallace’s best effort to, as he put it to McCaffery, “dramatize the fact that we still “are” human beings, now. Or can be.”
Max says that The Pale King is about “paying attention to things that matter” and quotes from one of Wallace’s notes about the novel’s idea: “Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” Max characterizes the novel’s ambitions this way: “It would show people a way to insulate themselves from the toxic freneticism of American life. It had to be emotionally engaged and morally sound, and to narrate boredom while obeying the physics of reading.” The theme of the importance of making a choice which was expressed so eloquently by the spies in Infinite Jest continues to resonate in The Pale King. One of the characters in novel says, “If I wanted to matter—even just to myself—I would have to be less free, by deciding to choose in some kind of definite way.” And perhaps the best example of the move from crippling indecision to the hope and bliss inherent in making a choice come from these two excerpts from “Good People,” which surely will remain in The Pale King:
“But sitting here beside this girl as unknown to him now as outer space, waiting for whatever she might say to unfreeze him, now he felt like he could see the edge or outline of what a real vision of Hell might be. It was of two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent. There would be battle but no victor. Or never a battle—the armies would stay like that, motionless, looking across at each other, and seeing therein something so different and alien from themselves that they could not understand, could not hear each other’s speech as even words or read anything from what their face looked like, frozen like that, opposed and uncomprehending, for all human time. Two-hearted, a hypocrite to yourself either way.”
But then he ends the story with this:
“There on the table, neither frozen nor yet moving, Lane Dean, Jr., sees all this, and is moved with pity, and also with something more, something without any name he knows, that is given to him in the form of a question that never once in all the long week’s thinking and division had even so much as occurred—why is he so sure he doesn’t love her? Why is one kind of love any different? What if he has no earthly idea what love is? What would even Jesus do? For it was just now he felt her two small strong soft hands on his, to turn him. What if he was just afraid, if the truth was no more than this, and if what to pray for was not even love but simple courage, to meet both her eyes as she says it and trust his heart?”
Is that not amazing? We’ve got to figure out how to get Wallace taught in more classrooms than just ours and how to expand the Wallace discussion in those classrooms beyond just a story or two at the end of the semester. I don’t think it’s presumptuous or audacious to suggest that we make more room in our curricula for Wallace; we still seem to want to characterize Wallace as a young upstart rebel (which is natural given the enthusiasm and passion in his writing), but he’s in his third decade of publication and was 46 when he died. We’ve been admiring and eulogizing him, which is of course appropriate, but now the time has come to evolve the critical conversation about Wallace and to champion him for what he is: the best and most important author of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I think a world in which Wallace is a household name would be a more mindful, passionate, and compassionate world. Who doesn’t want that? It’s on us now to continue the conversation he started.
How do we do this? What tools already exist, and what else do we need? We have a wealth of important and thoughtful commentary on Wallace’s work, much of it quite rigorous and specific, but it is spread out in several individual literary journals and in various places on the internet. Nick Maniatis of Canberra, Australia has done an amazing job of collecting anything and everything about Wallace and providing links to much of the criticism available online at his award-winning site, thehowlingfantods.com (that’s another phrase from Infinite Jest). There aren’t many books dedicated specifically to Wallace’s work. The first was Marshall Boswell’s survey of each of Wallace’s fictional works through Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Understanding David Foster Wallace (which has just come out paperback). Since then three guidebooks for Infinite Jest and I believe at most two monograph-style books have been published.
Most of the commentary available is on the content of Wallace’s fiction and his thematic or philosophical interests, and it usually focuses on one work (often Infinite Jest) or one theme rather than taking a broad look at recurring themes and motifs across the body of his work. This has been a perfectly acceptable approach so far, because it’s taken us a while to catch up and understand what Wallace was saying. I wrote Elegant Complexity in part because I wanted to understand and articulate the structure of Infinite Jest. I also pointed out as many intratextual connections as I could find and exhaustively identified instances of a set of recurring themes. I hope I’ve provided a resource that will help each new generation in their study of Infinite Jest, and I believe my book is a good resource for identifying themes common to all of Wallace’s work. But as I continue to explore Wallace’s work, I also want to take a cue from critics like Baskin, who I cited earlier, and attempt to discover more of what Wallace was trying to do with his fiction. Responding to Baskin’s identification of Wallace’s work as a conversation, Marie Mundaca, who did the interior design for Oblivion, posted this:
“In a way, [Wallace’s] readers are putting the sweat-equity into a start-up that will hopefully break free of the cynicism and stagnation of contemporary thought. It really saddens me that I only started to realize this with [Oblivion], because Infinite Jest and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again were so entertaining I was only processing the deeper message on a sort of subconscious level. I knew there was something there, something telling me how to think about not being trapped in my head, but it was difficult for me to access consciously.”
I think we’re all starting to come to realizations like this and that we should begin initiating this conscious access. I’ve just started work on a book about Oblivion, and this time in addition to identifying structures and themes, I want to try and identify how Wallace’s tactics for achieving his literary goals change from Infinite Jest to Oblivion to The Pale King.
Something else we can do is start taking a closer look at the form and structure of Wallace’s writing. In addition to my article on Wallace’s unresolved-climax technique, the Wallace tribute issue of the Sonora Review included a piece by Sven Birkerts on Wallace’s style and his use of the sentence. My favorite work in this vein in something James Tanner posted on the wallace-l listserv that then got picked up by a more high-profile blog, kottke.org. His tongue-in-cheek analysis is entitled Growing Sentences with David Foster Wallace. Tanner starts with two short sentences of 14 words total that contain the gist of a Wallace passage; then he proceeds to build the actual Wallace passage, a single sentence of 98 words, in nine instructive steps that are as funny as they are accurate. I think if Tanner analyzed in this way comparable passages from the authors I cited earlier I might be able to support with rigorous technical analysis my personal speculations of why Wallace’s work has more emotional resonance for readers.
My favorite approach for teaching Wallace is what Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Wallace’s colleague at Pomona College, did just last spring. She taught a course called David Foster Wallace in which she assigned her students to read all of his books, one at a time except for Infinite Jest which was assigned in 100-page chunks beginning about a month into the class. She created a blog so her students could discuss what they read and expand on what was said in class, and the students created an electronic resource for posterity as the final project of the class. The students provided some pretty impressive commentary, and Fitzpatrick’s enthusiasm and sense of academic rejuvenation were evident in her comments about the class online. And this is all on Fitzpatrick’s website so we have a model for our own future classes.
I believe Fitzpatrick’s choice to include all of Wallace’s work, fiction and non-fiction, is the right choice. We need to study everything he’s published as well as interviews and critical assessments of his work, and we need to have a forum for generating new critical assessments. What we must not do, and something that I hope subsides as we get further away from the shock of his death, is view all of his writings and interviews through the lens of his suicide. I’ll cite from a post by George Carr that makes this point eloquently and succinctly:
“[Wallace] was ill, and he died from his illness. Trying to re-imagine his death as a volitional act that bears on his morality or his desires about how to live in the world is a misunderstanding.”
We have excellent online resources with Maniatis’s site, thehowlingfantods.com, and the wallace-l listserv and various blogs and other sites devoted to Wallace, but to focus and centralize and cross-reference the wealth of critical ideas that are out there, I think we need to start generating more print resources as well. We know that a volume of Wallace’s uncollected work is coming after The Pale King, which will give this material a wider audience and perhaps prompt more discussion of the evolution of Wallace’s project. When Bonnie Nadell, Wallace’s life-long literary agent, mentioned this upcoming collection back in May at the Wallace tribute event at the University of Arizona that coincided with the publication of the latest Sonora Review, Marshall Boswell made a plea for a Wallace Reader, a sampling of his published work that would bring him a wider audience, citing the boost in readership this type of anthology gave Faulkner. I think that’s a great idea. We should collect all his interviews, too. We should collect the best of what’s online in print format, too. We should publish the papers from this conference and from the upcoming conference in November in New York. Finally, we should have a Wallace Quarterly. It is not too soon to have this. A Wallace Quarterly would give us a regular forum for continuing the critical conversation about Wallace’s work and would provide a central, structured locus for that formal conversation. If you start this, I will be your first subscriber.
If our responses to Wallace in our electronic communities can spill out into our classrooms, into more print resources, and into conferences like this one, I think we stand a good chance of bringing Wallace’s conversation to a wider readership. The Wallace events and conferences this year in Arizona back in May, here in Liverpool now, and coming up in November in New York are a great start to what I hope will be regular face-to-face meetings of the Wallace community that strengthen our long-standing online connections. This community is vital to continuing and expanding the conversations Wallace started with his readers. Let’s keep talking.
Again, I’d like to thank David Hering and the University of Liverpool for the opportunity to speak with you this afternoon. We have plenty of time for comments, questions, rebuttals, and/or discussions about any topic you like. Who’s first?