“Are we not all of us fanatics?”—Infinite Jest
Today marks twenty years since the first email was sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Since that day, another 77,000 emails have found their way through the waste.org servers and in to the inboxes of thousands of subscribers. Twenty years of email! The very phrase inspires dread in some. Yet, these emails have brought me so many delightful surprises, so many new ideas to consider, and a real sense of community.
In 2009, I wrote a history of how wallace-l came to be, so I won’t rehash that particular story here. I expected traffic to decline after Wallace’s death in 2008 and it has somewhat, but each month sees a handful of new, substantive posts. After his death, we began to see the emergence of a real “Wallace Studies” in academia as well as other discussion-worthy topics like David Lipsky’s book-length interview, D.T. Max’s biography, the publication of The Pale King, the opening of his archive at the Ransom Center, and dozens of other scholarly works. What has had a greater impact on the email list is the rise of Twitter and Facebook. I now retweet links about Wallace or any mentions of his work rather than composing a new email. But there are still things that cannot be said in 140 characters. I created a list of wallace-l members on Twitter and find myself reading the sorts of short messages there that might have passed as just-chiming-in emails in the past. But, the advantage of email remains, its primitiveness, its text-only nature, and its anonymity. Facebook forces us to focus on the visual elements, the lazy scroll that does not push us to read its contents so much as to “react” to them.
But, despite a decrease in traffic, I suspect there will be many more anniversaries to celebrate. So, it might seem like 20 years is a long time for an email listserv (and it is), but The Howling Fantods is almost 20, and we are getting to the point where digital communities have established and entrenched histories and archives.
I’ve asked Rob Short, who has done some scholarly work on the Wallace fan community, to compile some statistics for this anniversary. So, any stats mentioned here are courtesy of him.
- The top five posters (who, coincidentally, represent the “over 2,000 posts” club) have collectively contributed over 14,000 posts.
- Those folks are:
- George Carr (3,707)
- Hillary Brown (3,295)
- Prabhakar Ragde (2,540)
- Maria Bustillos (2,410), and
- Matt Bucher (2,094).
Most of those posts (thousands!) were from a period of years before 2008. So, looking at those names for me in 2016 calls to mind an earlier time when Wallace was still writing and publishing, and finding others to talk about his work was vital, an epiphany. And yet, for all those names that popped up in the “from” field of emails, there are hundreds of other subscribers who simply lurk and have never posted.
Rob also created a word cloud of the most-used terms in all wallace-l posts.
Earlier this month, I asked our 1400+ subscribers to send me any sort of fond memories or kind words about the listserv and I will share a couple of those stories below. If you have not read Maria Bustillos’s appreciation of the list, do check it out. A few people emailed me and thanked me for keeping the list going, but the dirty secret of that is that it doesn’t require much work from me at all. In fact, I want to thank all of you who have contributed to such enlightening conversations and who have provided for me the best possible home on the web I could imagine, a real Shangri-La.
The true heroes behind the scenes are the mysterious folks who own and operate waste.org. I know almost nothing about them. They have never asked us for anything. In return for hosting the listserv (and Pynchon-l and a lot of other stuff) for 20+ years, they have literally never contacted me or anyone I know. The waste.org FAQ states:
Who pays for it?
Back when internet was expensive and we had a bunch of phone lines (and we were young and poor), WASTE was supported primarily by user donations. Today, you should probably give your money to the EFF instead.
So that’s exactly what I’m going to ask you to do. If you are inclined to thank waste.org for hosting wallace-l all these years, please make a donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation https://supporters.eff.org/donate/
Now I am going to leave you with two stories from longtime members of the list. Here’s to another 20 years.
George Carr’s story
I’ve been on the list since about 2002, no later than 2003; as I wrote in the blurb that’s still up on the Howling Fantods describing the Brief Interviews Project, I joined after re-reading Brief Interviews and looking for online reviews & commentary. I can’t say exactly when I joined, as my Gmail account only goes back to 2004; I remember getting my Gmail Beta invitation from a fellow lister!
The story that dominates the early years of my time on wallace-l was gathering all the unpublished pieces for what would become the original samizdat DFW Reader; that was a major group effort, as I got scans and Inter-Library Loans from all over the country, and even talked to staffers in the archives of the newspapers that DFW reviewed books for, to make a little extra scratch. The resulting book is a project I’m still proud of, even though more than half of it has since been officially published; I loved how listers were so willing to pen their own essays about wallace-l, and how easy it was to get people excited about the prospect of reading more of DFW’s work.
Oddly, I was kind of distanced from wallace-l by the time Wallace died; we hadn’t done a Group Read in some time, since finishing the big Oblivion analysis project (“OO” in each email header, please!) and I was just treading water until the next book came out. His death actually happened on my wedding anniversary, so every year I commemorate both events, each year more one than the other.
I remember the list being VERY cathartic around the time of Wallace’s death; whatever part of my feelings I wanted to indulge, I could find companionship on wallace-l: cold-eyed cynicism, frustration at the treatment/pharmaceutical scenario that led to his death, awed contemplation of the much deeper and different grief experienced by his family and close friends; it was all thrown out there, as we all helped each other figure out the best way to come out the other end of that tunnel of emotion. In a strange way, that experience and the wallace-l help with processing it helped me greatly when my mother died almost a decade later; by then, I knew pretty well how to feel grief while understanding it at the same time, and what kind of emotional place I wanted to aim for, after the immediate sadness was over. Having felt such frustration and anger over Wallace’s untimely demise, the fact that she lived a long and full life — raising children, traveling the world, reading great literature in depth — made it ultimately easier to deal with her death, emotionally.
Even after the publication of TPK and the realization that there just won’t ever be any more DFW, and even after the amateur analysis we’ve done has been mostly surpassed by the work of hardcore academics, I’ve never felt it would be right to leave wallace-l. It played such a huge part in what I now consider my maturing years, helping create my adult-ish attitudes about everything from what makes great fiction to online etiquette, I don’t ever want it to come to an end. But if it does, I’ll know how to deal with it.
These days, I mostly enjoy the discussion of everyone’s reading lists, and new discoveries that kindle some of the same fire that burns hot in DFW’s writings. I continue to meet up face-to-face with listers whenever possible, and love keeping an ear on the chatter; some of my favorite books of the past decade have found me through wallace-l recommendations.
Ryan Blanck’s story
I know it sounds cheesy and cliché, but finding wallace-l was, in many ways, a life-changing event for me. Maybe not on par with a religious conversion, but it was a profoundly important thing for me.
The stars aligned in the spring of 2009 as I was introduced to DFW, then started my Letters to DFW blog, then I found “my people” in wallace-l. I was a novice writer wanting to take my craft to a new level. I found my muse. And I found a community to help foster my growth.
Because of wallace-l, I was able to hone my art and craft as a writer. I was able to move from periodic blog posts to writing and publishing my book, Supposedly Fun Things. I was afforded the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Antwerp to present my first academic paper at the Work in Process conference. I was named a Featured Panelist at the first annual DFW conference, which led to the publication of my Infinite LEGO book. And most recently, I was asked to be a guide in the Infinite Winter group read.
But more than these opportunities and experiences has been the friendships I’ve forged through Wallace-l. Even though I’ve only met a handful of listers in person, I feel an incredible bond to this worldwide group of fans and scholars. And for that I am grateful.
From DFW to wallace-l
As I mentioned in my 2009 article about wallace-l, there was one instance where David Foster Wallace was asked directly about this email list that followed his every word. At a March 2003 Bookworm event at Barnes & Noble in LA, list-member Christina Wilson asked him to write a brief message to the list. That note was, at one time, posted on a wallace-l resources page created by Marcel Molina called andbutso.com. That page is long gone so I want to repost the message here, for a little more posterity: