“Consider David Foster Wallace” Conference – Part II

Blogger here.  Below is a reflection on the discussion that took place between the moderator and three guest panelists based on my copious notes and now two-week-old memories of the evening.  In order to create a blog post that is cohesive and coherent that attempts to recapture the experience of being there, I will write about the topics in a more thematic format rather than a sequential or chronological order.  And my apologies to the panelists and anyone else who might be offended if I attribute a statement to the wrong speaker or if I misquote any of them; I’ve done my best to try to remember who said what and my hand could only write so fast as I took notes, so hopefully I get those important details mostly correct.


“We’re not here because of his public legacy as a writer, but because of the personal connection to Wallace that so many of his readers felt in reading his works.”

The discussion’s moderator – Julius was his name – led the guests to the stage and all four sat down.  Julius opened the proceedings with a few remarks about the purpose of the evening’s conference: to discuss not just Wallace’s writing, but to discuss Wallace the writer.  Who he was and what he attempted to do through his writing.  As DT Max later put it, to consider what it was that draws readers to Wallace the man, not just to his handiwork; for there hasn’t been a writer in recent memory who has attracted so much attention to his personal life like Wallace has.  His fans don’t simply enjoy his writing, but through his writing feel a real connection to him as a person.

Julius introduced the evening’s guests:

DT Max, writer for The New Yorker magazine and author of Wallace’s soon-to-be released biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.[1]

Laura Miller, author and writer for Salon magazine and The New York Times Book Review.[2]

Jonathan Letham, novelist, essayist, and Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and English at Pomona College.[3]

The first question posed to the panel was how each of them had been introduced to Wallace and how writing.

DT Max – or Daniel – spoke of reading Broom of the System for the first time.  Into the minimalism that dominated 1980’s literature came this novel from nowhere written by a little-known Amherst grad.  Broom was so different from anything being written at the time, which instantly grabbed Daniel’s attention.  Although the two never met, watching Broom burst onto the literary scene the way it did left an indelible mark on Daniel, leading him to continue to follow Wallace throughout his career.

Laura’s first glimpse of Wallace came through her first reading of the “Cruise Ship Essay” in Harper’s magazine.[4]  Like Daniel, she commented on how “different” his writing was at the time of its publication.  She went on to review a number of his books for The New York Times Book Review and interviewed Wallace several times for Salon magazine.

Jonathan, just a few years younger than Wallace, remembered having several friends in common while in college, although they never actually met.  They were “almost colleagues,” as he put it.  Like Daniel, he was impressed and even a bit intimidated by the “different-ness” and “maximalism” of BOTS.  Jonathan also commented on Wallace’s reputation as a “brilliant teacher.”  Being both a writer and teacher himself, he noted that a person is often very good at one of these skills, but very rarely good at both.

After discussing some of the common themes in both Wallace’s life and writing – which I will come back to later – the panelists continued discussing the literary and cultural context in which Wallace emerged as a writer.  Politically and economically, Reagan’s policies ruled the land,[5] but there was also a countercultural undercurrent that was very present.[6]

As Daniel spoke of earlier, there was the dominance of minimalist fiction in the 1980’s that pushed aside the maximalist work of the 60’s and 70’s.  Daniel later commented that this difference in literary tastes was reflective in the drug use in each era: the maximalism of the 60’s and 70’s being similar to the laid-back pot smokers of those decades, and the minimalism of the 80’s being like the anxious cocaine addicts of the 80’s.  The verbose, grandiloquent prose of Wallace’s fiction certainly broke away from the minimalism of his contemporaries and hearkened back to the maximalism that preceded them.

In addition to this anxiety-ridden minimalism, literature was branching out into a number of interesting directions.  Part of the countercultural movement mentioned above was a new interest in multiculturalism.  Readers and scholars wanted to hear more than just the voices of the “Dead White Guys.”  The flavors and styles of international writers were influencing many of the writers here in the States.

Another direction in which fiction writers were taking their craft was into the – as one panelist put it – “vanity of metafiction.”  Fiction became very self-referential and experimental as authors toyed with narrative voice and plot structure.  Literature had lost much of its artistic purpose, other than to simply be artistic.

Then along came David Foster Wallace.

[1] The title is taken from §25 of The Pale King, a short, but intriguing description of the mind-numbingly boring activities of the wigglers in the IRS processing center.  This enigmatic line is nestled in the midst of a whole lot of page turning.  I plan to write about it soon in a future post… once I fully understand what it means.[back]

[2] She interviewed Wallace several times and reviewed a number of his books.  She was the only one of the three guests who actually met Wallace.[back]

[3] This is the professorship that Wallace held before he passed away.[back]

[4] “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” was also my first exposure to Wallace’s writing, and from my many conversations with other readers of Wallace, this seems to be the one piece that “hooks” many new readers.  It is so beautifully written, and at the same time so funny.  Such a joy to read and such a great way to introduce a new reader to Wallace.[back]

[5] These policies and their potential long-term repercussions are the topic of discussion in the “civics lesson” chapter in The Pale King (§ 19) and and underlying theme throughout most of the unfinished novel.  I plan to write about that section very soon in an upcoming Letter.[back]

[6] The panelists did not go into a lot of detail about the politics and social climate of the 1980’s, but did mention their importance in a rather vague way.  And since I was busy watching The Smurfs and playing with Legos, I can’t really offer any additional commentary.[back]


One thought on ““Consider David Foster Wallace” Conference – Part II

  1. In response to this post’s first footnote — lovely usage, by the way — I think I can help clarify part of what Wallace may have meant by that line, “Every love story is a ghost story.” To wit: I quoted the line to my American Lit professor, explained the The Pale King’s story and unfinished state as best I could, and she immediately responded that this was, in many ways, horror fiction. Gothic horror, to be specific. Examples she cited include the purgatorial condition of wigglers like Lane Dean Jr., the presence of ghosts Garrity and Blumquist, and the line from Subsection 8, “The sun overhead like a peephole into hell’s own self-consuming heart,” the last of which she sees as hearkening back to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” if only briefly. Personally, I see flashes of Frankenstein when pondering on the direction of the plot, compounded with Subsection 9’s passing references to The Terminator and Blade Runner. A horror story by way of Simulacra and Sensation, perhaps? Either way, I hope this comment yields plenty of food for thought.

    Jeff C.

    PS And yes, The Pale King is my favorite Wallace book!

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