In this post, we look at three takeaways for writers from David Foster Wallace.
Who Is David Foster Wallace?
David Foster Wallace (born 21 February 1962, died 12 September 2008) was an American novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. His novel, Infinite Jest, was named one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005 by Time magazine.
Because of his heavy use of meta-fictive elements and many layers of footnotes, he is often cited as a literary maximalist and the peak example of post-modernism in fiction. He is best known for his novel Infinite Jest (1996), his divisive story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), and his collections of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (2005).
Quickly—What Is Postmodernist Literature?
- If modernist literature was tonally naïve, self-serious, and despairing, postmodernism, by contrast, was tonally cynical, ironic, and flippant.
- Where modernism searches for meaning, even tries to create its own meaning, postmodernism vehemently denies any such meaning ever did or could exist.
- If modernism tried to experiment with form and structure, postmodernism sought to obliterate them through deconstruction and meta-commentary, all with a wink and a smirk.
Both traditions were a little bleak, huh?
Re-Evaluating David Foster Wallace
Well, in recent years, some fans, scholars, and critics have re-evaluated Wallace’s legacy as a postmodernist given a few odd details about his later career:
- When asked to make a list of his ten favourite novels ranked in order, almost every entry on his list was a work of popular fiction.
- He began teaching works of works of popular fiction in his grad school literature courses.
- He wrote an essay about the effect of TV on literature, in which he speculated about the rise of a new group of artistic rebels who are sincere rather than ironic.
Some might call these odd bits of trivia Wallace’s ultimate cynical and ironic acts. But, for the sake of argument, let’s consider what we can extrapolate from them if they were, in fact, heartfelt.
His Favourite Books
- The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (1942)
- The Stand by Stephen King (1978)
- Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (1981)
- The Thin Red Line by James Jones (1962)
- Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (1973)
- The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988)
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
- Fuzz by Ed McBain (1968)
- Alligator by Shelley Katz (1977)
- The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy (1991)
Whenever I’ve shared the list of Wallace’s of favourite books, most of the time his fans will laugh and insist that he was trolling everyone. Where are the more radical modernists and his fellow postmodernists? No Pynchon? No DeLillo? After all, his work was highly experimental. So, he couldn’t have been a fan of Stephen King or — god forbid — a pop-theologian like C. S. Lewis?
Personally, because of how idiosyncratic Wallace’s list is, I find the troll argument unconvincing. I imagine that, if he was being ironic, he might have selected books that were widely disdained—or at least controversial. But his list reads like a thoughtful, honest contemplation of which books he returned to for the pleasure of reading rather than the sort ‘favourite books’ people often flaunt as a bid for social cachet.
What He Taught
Curiouser still, if Wallace was trying to flout authors such as Thomas Harris (who appears twice on the list), why would he dedicate so much time and space in his literature curriculum to studying the Hannibal Lecter series? That’s right—David Foster Wallace taught Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs in his graduate literature courses. Now that is some serious dedication for a mere prank!
What He Wrote
Finally, the following quote from his essay on future rebel artists seems to show he was looking forward to, and striving toward, a type of writing that transcended postmodern irony:
‘The next real literary “rebels”… might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels… who dare… to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treats plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal”. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.’
3 Takeaways For Writers From David Foster Wallace
It would be much easier to assume that Wallace never did escape post-modern irony, but I prefer to hope and believe he learned sincerity. Here is my takeaway:
As Wallace exemplified by his top-ten list:
1. Be brave! Love your favourite books loudly, proudly, and sincerely.
As he displayed by including the Hannibal Lecter series in his lit courses, we ought to acknowledge that…
2. Popular literature absolutely can be worthy of serious academic study.
And, finally, if you want to be revolutionary writer– the kind of anti-rebel DFW predicted would rise…
3. Write, without apology, the things you would love to read!
I hope these takeaways for writers from David Foster Wallace inspire you.
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by Oliver Fox
Oliver earned his BFA from the University of Memphis (2015). After graduation, he worked as an editorial assistant for The Pinch (’16). Currently, he works as a manuscript analyst and is an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans.
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