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


Footnotes Conference

Posted: November 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: DFW, personal | Tags: , , | No Comments »

I will be presenting a paper at this conference next week in New York. It’s mostly about the history of wallace-l and the role the list has played in shaping popular and scholarly ideas about Wallace’s work. I’ll post the full text of the paper a couple of days after the conference. Looking forward to meeting everyone!