Twenty Years of wallace-l

Posted: April 29th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: DFW | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

“Are we not all of us fanatics?”—Infinite Jest

Today marks twenty years since the first email was sent to Since that day, another 77,000 emails have found their way through the 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 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 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 for hosting wallace-l all these years, please make a donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation

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 That page is long gone so I want to repost the message here, for a little more posterity:




Interview with Greg Carlisle and Nick Maniatis

Posted: June 5th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: DFW, personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Over at The Howling Fantods, Greg Carlisle and I were interviewed by Nick Maniatis about the history of Greg’s books Elegant Complexity and Nature’s Nightmare.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Fantods: David Foster Wallace, wallace-l, and Literary Fandom Online

Posted: November 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: DFW, personal | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments »

This paper was presented at the Footnotes conference at CUNY Grad Center on November 20, 2009. It was a thrill and an honor to be part of that panel and conference. For reviewing key passages of this paper, I’d like to thank Nick Maniatis and Dan Schmidt. I would also like to thank my wife, Jordan Bucher, for providing all the time I needed to “research stuff online.”



The online culture of David Foster Wallace fandom is unique in the world of contemporary fiction. Well, maybe it bears some resemblance to the online fandom of Thomas Pynchon, but more on that later. I want to give a brief overview of the history, evolution, and power of wallace-l and other David Foster Wallace fan sites and then talk a little bit about how these communities have influenced the direction of Wallace scholarship.

Since the release of Infinite Jest in early 1996, the primary gathering place for Wallace fans has been the email listserv wallace-l. Wallace-l is hosted on a server and website called—a reference to the slogan posted on Trystero’s mailboxes in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Appropriately then, first hosted (and created) pynchon-l. Email discussion lists have existed since at least 1986 when the first LISTSERV application launched, and USENET groups gained popularity throughout the 1980s, but it was the 1992 launch of the mailing list manager application Majordomo that made creating and managing an email discussion list easy and commonplace. Pynchon-l was one of the first email discussion lists to use the Majordomo software and the current online archives of pynchon-l date back to the time of that switch – January 31, 1992 (pynchon-l). However, the discussion of Pynchon in particular dates back in to the early 1980s in various bulletin boards and USENET groups (rec.arts.books).

When it comes to groups of people gathered to discuss literature in the public sphere, if you were to try to trace a thread from French salons of the Eighteenth Century to mass media, from the academic departments and conferences of the Twentieth Century to the online discussion groups and sites of the Twenty-First Century, the first thing you might notice is that appearances and affiliations are becoming less important. It’s often impossible to discern someone’s gender, race, educational background, or social standing from his or her online persona—especially on text-only discussion lists. In this context, ideas—not titles or credentials—are paramount. In some ways, the rise of the Internet, email discussion groups, and wallace-l parallels the rise of the amateur.

In late 1995, members of the pynchon-l list ramped up their anticipation of the release of Wallace’s gargantuan, Pynchonesque novel Infinite Jest (Di Fillippo). Pynchon fans, not content to wait ten years or so for their man to release new novels, happily picked up other novels recommended to each other or by the mainstream press as having any resemblance at all to Pynchon’s style. Wallace’s The Broom of the System (1987) certainly put him on the map as one of those young novelists to look out for, but many Pynchon fans were in no way prepared to consider Wallace Pynchonesque. By mid-February 1996, however, several members of the Pynchon list had read and digested and began to discuss Infinite Jest. It was quickly suggested that these readers either get back on topic (Pynchon) or get their own list (GYOB). One pynchon-l list member, Dan Schmidt, said that if a Wallace list were started, he would volunteer to administer it. And so, in April 1996 (still Bill Clinton’s first term, mind you), Wallace-l was born.

However, back on pynchon-l, there was outright hostility towards Wallace both before and after the creation of wallace-l. Wallace was called an “unskilled imitator” (Maus), “a very vindictive man” (Grant), and told “You’re no Thomas Pynchon” (Padgett). The few people who regularly defended Wallace on pynchon-l were also members of or became members of wallace-l (Argue). Despite their shared origin, this schism between the two lists has persisted and the number of subscribers on both lists is less than two percent of the total combined membership.

A large proportion of the early Pynchon list members were university professors, college students, some other type of university professionals familiar with email discussion groups, or software programmers. Thus, the Pynchon list developed a reputation as being full of serious, hardcore fans who were usually sticklers about the USENET admonition to stay on-topic. Discussions of David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest, for example, were tolerated to some degree and quantity, but were still considered off-topic if they crossed some invisible threshold of annoying more people than they gratified. Jules Siegel argued that the “single most unifying theme” of pynchon-l is disagreement (Siegel 5), and no subject is more vigorously debated than what exactly constitutes an on-topic or off-topic post.

Because academics were more familiar with listservs and more comfortable discussing the ins and outs of literature, it’s only natural that many of the academics who have written books or articles about Wallace have been, or currently are members of the list. The short list includes Greg Carlisle, author of Elegant Complexity; Marshall Boswell, author of Understanding David Foster Wallace; David Hering, editor of the forthcoming volume of essays Consider David Foster Wallace; Timothy Jacobs, who wrote several key articles and a dissertation about Wallace; the organizers of this conference; and many others.

It should be noted that pre-Google, the Pynchon and Wallace lists were somewhat difficult to find. They had to be sought out. A first-time reader might have attempted to look up or and eventually closed their browser without experiencing or learning anything substantive or new. What the technology of email lists offer is something that many readers of Infinite Jest crave—a chance to ask another human being: what the hell happened to Hal??? or that’s the ending? seriously? that’s the ending!? Almost 14 years later, the list still gets these questions. A good deal of readers committed to finding out more about these characters after they’ve finished the novel kept digging and found a plain, text-only site with a sign-up form for subscribing to an email list about David Foster Wallace. The list is difficult to find, difficult to join, and, for first-time users, difficult to interact with. This high barrier for entry means that the number of users stays somewhat low—between 500 and 1000 for the past seven years or so. Of that number, the majority are lurkers (people who never post to, but do read, the list).

This small group of dedicated fans is also a key resource for translators of Wallace’s writing. Members of the list have answered questions and helped with translating challenging passages for Italian, Dutch, Spanish, and German editions of Wallace’s fiction and non-fiction. This is a practice that seems commonplace on the list now, but would be inconceivable in the world of contemporary fiction even forty years ago. For example, were fans of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse consulted on its Russian or Japanese translations? Before the Internet age, this would be almost impossible to do, but it is also unlikely that a translator would know of a group of John Barth fans and trust their understanding of his use of the language. If anything, the translator might discuss a tricky issue or two with a fellow translator or a Barth scholar at a conference. In terms of how Wallace is perceived around the world, this use of the hive-mind cannot be underestimated. It not only attracts an international population to the list, but furthers the understanding of the most idiomatic and idiosyncratic parts of Wallace’s writing.

However, this gets us closer to the question of what kind of people join the list, and it brings up larger issues about communities and intellectual discourse and group psychology. The list includes English professors, writers, musicians, mathematicians, artists, lawyers, bloggers, women who have deep and abiding crushes on Wallace, and every stripe of over-educated young man dying to talk about “important” literature. Like every community that relies on conversation as its primary form of interaction, there are cantankerous gadflies, sages of wisdom, and chatty Cathies. However, the ruling ethos of the list is one of toleration and respect for others.

Up to this point we have mostly been talking about wallace-l, but the other pillar of online Wallace fandom is, of course, The Howling Fantods. As a community gathering place, The Howling Fantods has gone through at least three iterations. The first—and still continuing—iteration is that of a place that posts things that others in the Wallace community (and elsewhere) have written and seen. Nick’s willingness to not limit the site to published reviews or news, but to intersperse it with original writing, college theses, guest posts, and bibliographic records has made it indispensable to both the casual fan and the scholar. The second iteration was a period of two years or so wherein The Howling Fantods had its own forums. This was a lively period of discussion that primarily focused on topics related to the details of the plot of Infinite Jest and where to find more of Wallace’s writing online. The only limiting factors during this phase were technical. The forums were hosted on a free ezboard and the entire contents of the forums were lost in 2005 when the ezboard site was hacked (Maniatis). The third iteration is the current state of the site, which includes a blog of news items and space for comments. While these comments are not as frequent or lively as the former forums or wallace-l, they do provide a chance for Wallace fans across the world to interact.

In 1996 and 1997 there were simply not many other online spaces for David Foster Wallace fans to meet and converse. At that time there were several essays and stories by (or interviews with) Wallace hosted on other sites that were often linked or printed out. The May 1996 interview and feature on particularly stands out as a notable example of a unique piece of arcana of the early web-only publications ( In fact, the interviewer for that feature, Valerie Stivers, was an early member of wallace-l.

The ability for fans around the world to meet in a central location (in this case, wallace-l) also allowed the formation of something like a hive-mind. This group sensibility was helpful in tracking down obscure bits of Wallace’s writing and then disseminating that writing (usually in the form of xeroxes sent via snail mail)—creating a kind of hybrid of a back-channel inter-library loan and sub rosa mail system. The irony of Wallace fans circulating USPS-delivered samizdat was not lost on said fans. These basement tapes of sorts in some ways were more effective in their xeroxed form as they eluded the grasp of copyright-sensitive literary agents and provided a sense of tangible thrill to both recipient and sender. Clicking on a link on a public website fails to convey this sense of accomplishment. The actual work of tracking down every scrap of Wallace’s writing and gathering it together into a collective mass continues to this day. In fact, I would suspect that most fans of Wallace’s writing have read something of his that has not been published in book format. This is unimaginable for a writer like John Updike, who collected and published all his own scraps, or a writer like Pynchon, whose scraps are nonexistent or not meant be found, or a writer like Jonathan Franzen, who lacks a fan listserv or a centralized group of long-devoted fans.

The intersection between David Foster Wallace’s unpublished work and his fans’ enthusiasm for unearthing it is illustrated in the example of “The Planet Trillaphon.” In July 2008, Ryan Niman, a Wallace fan from Seattle, spent time digging through the Amherst library looking for previously unpublished work. He discovered plenty of odds and ends in the Amherst humor magazine Sabrina and the Amherst Review, but the gem was Wallace’s first published story (1984) called “The Planet Trillaphon as it Stands in Relation to The Very Bad Thing” (Niman). This story is a semi-autobiographical tale about a college student dealing with depression, anti-depressants, and suicide (Wallace). Niman posted a PDF scan of the story on his authoritative bibliographic website, The Knowe, in September 2008, shortly after Wallace’s death. He promptly received a takedown notice from Wallace’s agent and literary executor, Bonnie Nadell. However, many members of wallace-l had already saved PDFs of the story and circulated it amongst each other. One list member, Cheston Knapp, worked as a staff member for the literary magazine Tin House and worked with Nadell to get the story published in the Fall 2009 issue of that magazine. The discovery of the story, the sharing of it, the exchange of ideas, and the eventual publication were undertaken not by scholars, but by fans on wallace-l.

Another thing that separates Wallace’s fans from those of other writers is their emotional—or even moral—connection to his work. Wallace was the model of the postmodern literary highbrow, yet he strove for a sincere engagement with the world – this is reflected in his fans (Bustillos). The etiquette of interacting with hundreds of other Wallace fans is implicitly influenced by Wallace’s own ethics.

Unlike many other authors with devoted online fan communities, Wallace shied away from even acknowledging his most hard-core fans. Wallace himself was reluctant to even acknowledge that he had fans that discussed his work in detail. The only time I know that he was directly confronted with the existence of wallace-l was at a March 2003 live taping of Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm in Los Angeles. After the event, one lister, Christina Wilson, spoke to him for a while and then asked him to sign a blank sheet of paper with a message for the list. She tells him:

“I belong to this listserv called wallace-l and I just thought it might be nice if maybe you could write a few words of greeting to them.” Suddenly, all the chemistry between us starts redoxing off in the wrong direction. “Well, tell me a little more about this,” he says, kind of distant now. “It’s just this forum where people who enjoy your writing can talk to each other. It’s not like we’re even obsessively talking about you or even your writing all the time – most times it seems like we just talk about current events or culture.”…
“What should I write?” he asks. “Just a greeting. It doesn’t have to be much,” I offer. He pauses. “You know, for emotional reasons and sanity,” he confides, “I have to pretend this [wallace-l] doesn’t exist.” (Wilson).

After his death, George Saunders said that Wallace “let’s just say it—was first among us. The most talented, most daring, most energetic and original, the funniest, the least inclined to rest on his laurels or believe all the praise.” And I believe this is key to understanding his relationship to his fans: his disinclination to even acknowledge the sort of praise that this devoted following implies would be a major breach of humility, a disservice to his obligation as a writer to write. Every minute spent at a public reading or a press interview or interacting with fans was a minute not spent in pursuit of the truth.

Though critics, throughout his writing life, frequently misunderstood his books, Wallace seemed content with not forcing his interpretation of his own works on anyone. As Dr. Charles Kinbote says, in his Foreword to John Shade’s poem, Pale Fire, “for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.”

Works Cited

Argue, Darcy James, “A defense of DFW and IJ.” pynchon-l. 14 Dec 1998. E-Mail.

Bustillos, Maria. “The Wonder of Wallace-L.” Infinite Summer, 1 Sept 2009. Web. 3 Nov 2009

Di Fillippo, Paul. “DF Wallace.” pynchon-l. 31 Dec 1995. E-Mail.

Grant, Jane, “a very vindictive man.” pynchon-l. 11 Dec 1998. E-Mail.

Maniatis, Nick, “The Howling Fantods.” The Howling Fantods. Web. 2 Nov 2009 (original URL)

Maus, Derek, “unskilled imitator.” pynchon-l. 12 December 1998. E-Mail.

Niman, Ryan. Interview about “The Planet Trillaphon.” Web 2 Nov 2009

Padgett, Penny, “You’re no Thomas Pynchon.” pynchon-l. 19 March 1996. E-Mail.

pynchon-l. “pynchon-l.” 31 Jan 1992., Web. 9 Nov 2009.

Siegel, Jules, and Christine Wexler. Lineland: Mortality and Mercy on the Internet’s Pynchon-L@Waste.Org Discussion List. San Francisco CA: Intangible Assets Manufacturing, 1997. Print.

Stivers, Valerie. “Interview with David Foster Wallace.” 05 May 1996: n. pag. Web. 9 Nov 2009.

Wallace, David Foster. “The Planet Trillaphon as it Stands in Relation to The Very Bad Thing.” Tin House. Issue 40. Web. 1 Nov 2009

wallace-l. “wallace-l.” 26 Apr 1996., Web. 9 Nov 2009

Wilson, Christina. “Report of 2003 Live Taping of Bookworm.” 2003. Web. 1 Nov 2009
[Note from DFW to wallace-l: ]

Appendix A
wallace-l stats (as of 11/2/09)
• members: 758
• first post: April 26, 1996
• total posts: 57,230
• busiest month: January 2004, 1678 posts
• (this works out to a post every 30 minutes for 31 straight days).
• Average per month: 351.1 posts
• Admins: Dan Schmidt (April 1996–April 2002), Matt Bucher (April 2002–present)
• Note: there is also a digest version of the list, which does not send messages as they arrive, but groups them into 30kb batches. During one of the periods of heavy traffic on the list, Mike Jolkovski commented that switching “from digest to regular emails was like going from chamomile tea to crystal meth, with similar destructive effects on one’s quotidian adjustment.”

A Few Key Dates
• April 26, 1996 – wallace-l created
• April 10, 2000 – first major re-read of Infinite Jest begins (IJIJ – a riff on pynchon-l’s GRGR {Gravity’s Rainbow Group Read}, said to stand for In Jesting Infinite Jest. This four-letter acronym in the subject line helps thread the discussion and search for messages in the archives later).
• June 18, 2004 – group read of Oblivion begins (OO:).
• November 2, 2004 – George W. Bush elected to second term; much fighting and gnashing of teeth on wallace-l.
• April 21, 2005 – longtime list-member J.B. Brent Sclisizzi dies.
• May 6, 2005 – second major IJ re-read begins (IJSR – Infinite Jest Slow Read); takes more than a year to complete.
• September 12, 2008 – David Foster Wallace dies
• October 6, 2008 – IJIM (Infinite Jest In Memoriam) reread begins
• June 21, 2009 – The Infinite Summer project begins, receives national media attention.

Appendix B


David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest

Posted: April 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: DFW, personal | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Here are a few things I’ve written about David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest:

Why Read Infinite Jest

How to Read Infinite Jest

The Royal Tenenbaums and Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Character Profiles

Remembering David Foster Wallace