This spring saw the publication of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, edited by Lee Konstantinou and Samuel Cohen. The book, which is an anthology of scholarly criticism as well as more personal essays and remembrances, is one of the first particles in an accumulating wave of posthumous evaluation of Wallace. This year will be, in short, the first crash of DFW studies. This year we’ve seen or will shortly see: an updated paperback edition of The Pale King, a collection of interviews with Wallace, an assortment of previously uncollected essays by Wallace, another scholarly book of essays on Wallace, and the D.T. Max biography. As Konstantinou notes below, there is even a mini-genre brewing of pilgrimage essays about writers visiting the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, where Wallace’s papers are housed. (This has resulted in at least one crucial piece of writing so far: Maria Bustillos’s “Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library,” [http://www.theawl.com/2011/04/inside-david-foster-wallaces-private-self-help-library] which analyzes the annotations Wallace made in his own collection of pop psychology books and illuminates how Wallace might have thought of his own giftedness. Pointedly, these books were removed from circulation shortly after Bustillos’s article was published at The Awl, signaling a kind of grim validity to her reading of them.)
But what’s interesting about this wave of Wallace books is what’s present in Cohen and Konstantinou’s book: the equal footing of personal remembrance and scholarly analysis, the double voices of the academy and the “creative” writers. Both camps—if it’s even fair yet to separate them as such—are still forming alongside one another, metabolizing Wallace’s influence.
Barrett Hathcock: How did the pieces come together? How did you hit upon this combination of academic scholarship and memoir/personal remembrance?
Lee Konstantinou: The pieces came together in a semi-random way, as these sorts of anthologies often do. My co-editor Sam Cohen and I initially put together a roundtable panel at the Modern Language Association convention in 2009 to reflect on Wallace’s legacy. The roster of that original roundtable was quite different from the TOC of the book-version, was in fact almost exclusively academic. So Kathleen Fitzpatrick was there, Sam and I were there, and Wallace’s Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch was there (the one example of a non-academic). A number of others—Marshall Boswell, Stephen Burns, Mary Holland—gave great talks, but weren’t able to contribute to the book because of scheduling conflicts.
My Gmail archive reveals that the idea of inviting creative writers emerged in a conversation with my co-editor, but there wasn’t a very sophisticated explanation for why we thought this was a good idea. Lots of people were writing smart things about Wallace, both inside and outside the precincts of The Academy, so it probably seemed natural—as it still does—to invite everyone to the same table. As we say in our intro, we believe that canonization involves both critics and creative writers.
Sam deserves the real credit for making it happen. He somehow magically convinced a number of famous authors who had already written tribute pieces to let us reprint their memorials in the book.
BH: What did you learn about Wallace from editing this book?
LK: I learned a lot from the essays themselves. Reading cutting-edge scholarship on Wallace’s writing was an education in itself. More broadly, I came away with a sense that Wallace was incredibly coherent across the different genres he dabbled in—he expressed many of the same concerns in his journalism, fiction, and critical essays. At the same time, because his writing life has so many tentacles, it’s actually incredibly hard to write coherently about Wallace. You pull at one cute little tentacle and the whole Cthulhuesque beast is upon you, dragging you down into the deep.
BH: What is your take on Jonathan Franzen’s various DFW-related pronouncements after his initial memorial essay (which you included in this volume)? I am thinking specifically of “Farther Away,” the essay that appeared first in the New Yorker and now titles his most recent book of essays, as well as his comment to David Remnick during an interview at the New Yorker festival last year, where Franzen claimed that Wallace fabricated parts of his nonfiction pieces. The reason I ask this question is because Franzen is a well-known close friend and contemporary writing rival of Wallace and seems to be offering several potentially competing interpretations of Wallace, as both a friend and professional writer.
LK: We were very pleased to have Franzen’s piece included in our book—our goal was certainly not to deify Wallace or be his hagiographers—but ultimately I’m ambivalent about the Wallace-Franzen public psychodrama that has emerged since 2008.
I enjoy literary gossip and celebrity culture as much as the next person, but it threatens to distract from what’s really important—the work itself. In “Farther Away,” Franzen claims to want to correct the saintly image that many formed about him after his death, especially the image formed by those who may only have read Wallace’s Kenyon college commencement speech, “This is Water.” This is a correction not to our interpretations of Wallace’s prose but to the image readers might have formed of him. One of the themes of our anthology is how hard it is to separate Wallace-the-person from Wallace-the-writer, so Franzen’s concern is understandable.
Of course, if gossip is what we care about, it’s hard not to read Franzen’s claims in light of the admitted competitive streak between the two writers. Franzen after all put his own Kenyon College commencement speech—”Pain Won’t Kill You”—in the lead position of Farther Away: Essays. As for his comment during his conversation with Remnick, it’s hard to say what it means, since Franzen only dropped a hint and didn’t elaborate on that hint. Some might view that as a kind of passive-aggressive gesture, in as much as it raises serious questions but doesn’t take responsibility for the moral force of those accusations.
Franzen’s writings about Wallace are ultimately most interesting to me as crafted works of essayistic art, not as op-eds or journalism. To that extent, ironically, given his comments to Remnick, the facticity of Franzen’s claims are less interesting than their emotional truth. And the emotional truth is hard to avoid: his good friend’s suicide has left him angry and devastated.
BH: Both Franzen’s latest novel Freedom and Jeffrey Eugenides’s latest novel The Marriage Plot seem to contain Wallace figures as
characters? What do you make of this in particular, and what do you think the legacy of Wallace will be for creative writers more generally?
LK: In death, Wallace has become a gigantic figure, far larger than he was in life. I think we’ve willfully forget the starkly mixed reviews his fiction often received, the constant complaints that his journalism was great but his fiction too esoteric and difficult. It’s not surprising that he’s now becoming a figure his contemporaries—and undoubtedly his successors—will feel the need to slay or grapple with. One strategy for such slaying is representing him as a thinly-disguised fictional character. In the two cases you mention, there is some degree of ambiguity as to whether Franzen and Eugenides have Wallace in mind. I find the case more convincing in the case of Eugenides, despite his denials. It’s appropriate, given that Wallace made John Barth—or rather Lost in the Funhouse’s Ambrose—a character in his own fiction. Again, what matters is the artfulness with which this is done, not some laundry list of correspondences with Wallace’s life.
BH: What is the next step in Wallace criticism? Where does it stand now, as a field of inquiry? Where do you think the next area of attention will be?
LK: I think the next step in Wallace criticism will come when D.T. Max’s bio comes out and scholars have time to pore over the Ransom Center materials. There will be, I suspect, a pretty vanilla—but nonetheless absolutely necessary—intellectual-historical and scholarly account of all of Wallace’s published work, integrated with what we know about his biography. Next comes the usual methodological pluralism of the humanities: Wallace and animal studies; Wallace and advertising; Wallace and whiteness studies; Wallace and psychoanalysis; Wallace and post-postmodernism; etc. These research programs could take up the better part of a decade to reach their fullness. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. My suspicion is that the project Wallace tried to inaugurate—the move beyond irony and critique—is finally taking hold among humanities scholars. There’s a huge new range of writing on affect, ontology, literary sociology, which in some ways reflects Wallace’s priorities—so his greatest impact my end up being not as an explicit object of study but an inspiration for methodologies that look at other writers and literary works.
BH: Related, how do you think scholars (and more casual readers) might use the Wallace archive at the Harry Ransom Center and the other Pale King-related draft material? (From your perspective, have we ever seen such a critically popular and seemingly generation-defining writer have his draft materials released almost simultaneously with his surge of popular and critical attention?)
LK: No, we haven’t seen anything like this before. A lot of the excitement around the Ransom Center materials is coming from non-academic readers and fans. A number of moving and insightful articles have already been published on what we could call pilgrimages to the Ransom Center. That’ll be a trend. Young writers of great ambition will want to be in the presence of sacred relics or auratic objects. I like to pretend I’m above that sort of author-worship, but it’s pretty stunning to hold a postcard Wallace wrote to Don DeLillo in your own hands. Or for that matter, Thomas Pynchon’s hand-written notebooks from his Cornell days (also at the Ransom Center!).
BH: This might be hard to answer, but as a scholar, do you think the definitive version of The Pale King has been published? And if not, what would you like to see in a future edition? Or is the concept of a fixed edition absurd at this point?
LK: There can’t be a definitive edition of The Pale King. Someday, we’ll end up having the digitized edition of every paper Michael Pietsch recovered from the garage in Wallace’s Pomona home. But it’s just not clear what it’ll mean when it’s put together. My sense is that Michael did a great deal of work putting the manuscript together, a great job. He managed to make it a real book, not just two covers slapped on a random assortment of bound papers. It seems more likely than not that when we talk about The Pale King we’ll more or less be talking about the book Michael made, maybe with a scholarly apparatus, a few extra sections, but basically as-is.
BH: What do you think is the most overlooked piece of Wallace writing, either critically or popularly?
LK: The Broom of the System is probably Wallace’s least cited book, taking into account publication dates. Interestingly, his co-authored book on rap, Signifying Rappers is his most cited, at least according to Google Scholar.
BH: Who are Wallace’s contemporary heirs, either in fiction or nonfiction? Who is, in a way, carrying the postironic torch?
LK: It’s a bit early to say definitively, but one clear group of successors are clustered around Dave Eggers’s literary enterprises—McSweeney’s, The Believer, Wholphin, etc. Adam Levin’s The Instructions, published by McSweeney’s, has been compared to Wallace. Another style of contemporary postirony can be found in the ethos of the authors clustered around n+1. Chad Harbach, for example, seems invested in the Franzen-Wallace relationship—he wrote an insightful review of Oblivion—though he seems to have written a more Franzen-esque book, stylistically.
BH: What is Wallace’s influence abroad? Is it different?
LK: Great question—I wish I had a good answer, but I’m not sure. Wallace has obviously had an impact in English-speaking countries. Zadie Smith has a very long essay on Wallace in her book of essays, Changing My Mind. Outside the English-speaking world, I can’t say. Infinite Jest seems to have been translated only into three languages, but I’m sure serious readers abroad would read it in English anyway. There are really smart scholars in Denmark and Germany studying American literature. When I came up with the idea of doing a project on postirony and Wallace, I thought I was very clever. A Google search quickly revealed I had been beaten to the punch by a Danish scholar named Tore Rye Anderson, who had already written on Wallace’s postirony, albeit in a different [way]. So I imagine he’s having some effect. Can’t say more than that.
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. His first novel, a series of linked stories called The Portable Son, was published by Aqueous Books in 2011.
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