Essay on Fiction Advocate

Posted: January 8th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: DFW | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

I recently wrote an essay about David Foster Wallace and my experience with the D.T. Max biography here on Fiction Advocate.


Posted: September 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: personal | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Here are a few things I’ve written lately, or places where I’ve been quoted or mentioned online.

Back in June I was quoted in this ABC News article about dad blogs.

I wrote a weird little thing about what Ringo Starr thinks about while he’s drumming. It was on the blog of the Missouri Review.

My most recent piece for Google Sightseeing was about Colima, a volcano in Mexico.

Several places have mentioned my Street View blog, Apres Garde, including this Italian newspaper (TMNews) and

I contributed a short piece on The Pale King to an Italian DFW site for their Pale Winter project. It was kindly translated into Italian by Roberto Natalini and Andrea Firrincieli.

On my Roberto Bolaño site, I wrote an essay about his novel The Third Reich.

Recent Update

Posted: October 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: DFW, personal | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

I haven’t updated this site for a while because of a bizarre WordPress error, but all seems well now.

I’ve been busy the past six months! I’ve posted a lot of new things at, tons of new images at Apres Garde, and started posting a lot over at mlkshk. I’ve started one mlkshk for Breaking Bad (new favorite show) and one for modern homes. I think I only have one new post up at GoogleSightseeing, but I have a couple more in the works.

I was quoted in this CultureMap series about the DFW archives at the Ransom Center in Austin (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5).

And just a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated Arlo’s first birthday!



The Pale King

Posted: February 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: DFW | Tags: , , | No Comments »

David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, unfinished novel The Pale King will be published on April 15 and I am really excited about it. Of course, it’s the complete opposite reality of how I’d like to read it—without Wallace alive to finish it and talk about it. But the fact is, the book is being published in this reality and it’s the last novel of his we’ll ever see (I assume). When the book comes out, I’m going to be writing about it over on my site Simple Ranger. In fact, I’ve already written a couple of posts about it (The Pale King approaches, The Pale King so far) and there will be more posts about it over there before April 15.

Goings on

Posted: January 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: DFW, personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

I’ve been busy lately! Last month I was interviewed for this article on the Wall Street Journal‘s Speakeasy blog:

If the movement to which Eckert is alluding has a head, it is probably Matt Bucher of Austin, Texas, whose day job is editing textbooks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. For the past eight years, Bucher has administered Wallace-L, the largest list-serve connecting Wallace fans across the United States. … Bucher explains that Wallace-L spun off from a Thomas Pynchon emailing list in the late 1990s. It has swelled from about 100 members in 1996-97 to 1000 at present. Bucher, who started monitoring the list in 2002, reports that there was a roughly 25% increase in membership in the months following Wallace’s death. Though generally pleased, Bucher complains that some of the information online has gotten less reliable.

Also, I was mentioned in this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Meanwhile, Sideshow Media Group, run by an independent Wallace scholar named Matt Bucher, just published Consider David Foster Wallace, a collection of critical essays born out of the first academic conference on Wallace, held at the University of Liverpool in 2009. (Another Wallace conference took place that year at the City University of New York.)

In Street View news, my Apres Garde blog was mentioned in this Italian news article:

Over at my other site, Simple Ranger, I’ve posted some things that weren’t right for Apres Garde:

Street View Essay – Macau

Vending Machines of Yokohama

And a bunch of “Best of” Apres Garde posts that collect thematic posts there:
Best of Apres Garde – People
Best of Apres Garde – Roads
Best of Apres Garde – Fields
Best of Apres Garde – Darkness
Best of Apres Garde – The Sea

wallace-l Interviews David Lipsky

Posted: April 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: DFW | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

In 1996, David Lipsky spent five days with David Foster Wallace at a pivotal moment in Wallace’s life—the very week he finished promoting Infinite Jest. Lipsky never wrote the resulting Rolling Stone article, but now the interview is published in full: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (Broadway Books). Rarely do we get to see such an extended portrait of a writer during the moment their masterwork enters the public arena.

David Lipsky graciously allowed members of the wallace-l mailing list to submit questions about his time spent with Wallace, Wallace’s life and writing, and other details despite the list not having yet read the book. Lipsky’s answers defy the common convention of simplicity in service of delving into deeper issues like how Wallace’s writing was able to connect so deeply with readers and what his death therefore means (and also what kinds of music DFW was into). As you’ll see, in the book and in interviews, Lipsky’s preference is not to speak for David Foster Wallace, but to hand you back a thick slice of Wallace’s own words and then ask for your side of the conversation. Despite his distaste for large, public gatherings where he was the focus, Wallace was a natural conversationalist. And, as you’ll see here and in Although Of Course, so is Lipsky

Matt Bucher: Many of the members of the list have followed Wallace’s career from the beginning. What’s surprising about your interview with him is that he seems to be willing to talk about parts of his life he’d never discussed with any other journalist in any other interview. By the end of the trip, he told you stories we’ve never heard before. Were you aware of that at the time? Why do you think he was so open and honest with you?

David Lipsky: I wasn’t at the time—I could see that he was trying very hard (he was working) to get his answers right.  Particularly in the last two days, he keeps turning the tape machine off as he collects his thoughts, sort of air-writing, then turning it back on when he’s got things the way he wants. I think he could tell how much I loved his work and he also knew my tastes: we’d spent days talking books and movies, and there was (Nabokov, DeLillo, not Updike) a good bit of overlap. And there was also just the time and distance. I joke in the book that he got open and honest by the Henry Ford principle: any people driving together more than forty miles can’t help becoming comfortable.

But during the drive, it didn’t seem like he was being honest and open; it just felt like a conversation. When I reread the talk once I got home, I was amazed by it. Really: why had he told me that stuff about McLean, about Michael Pietsch’s edits and printing the book in nine-point font? He could have skipped all of it, and nobody would have been the wiser. But also I think that’s just him.  One of the lessons I get from his work is personal non-editing:  giving a chair to all thoughts and impressions, which will include the best and the ugliest.  It’s why other writing often seems comparatively flat: more formal and more ritualized, more like nametag conversations at a convention. He’s inviting in every thought.  (So much David was afraid critics would notice. “But the fact that she [Michiko Kakutani] would think that this was just every thought I seemed to have for three years put down on the page, just made my bowels turn to ice. Because that was of course the great dark terror when I was writing it. Is that that’s how it would come off.”) So if he was going to talk about his very grim time at Harvard and McLean hospital, or nice stuff at Amherst and Arizona, he was going to talk about it all the way.

I also think we were having fun—I mean I think the book is a record (him kidding me about wet dreams and my Updikephilia) of us having fun. I was sitting on the living room carpet, him playing Brian Eno, his dogs kind of batting me over, all of which is conducive to being open.  The trip, aside from everything else, was a very good time.  The reading was good tense fun.  (Every time I read that guy on the signing line asking about David’s “heart song,” I smile. Or the escort decoding one of his jokes. Or his jokes about escorts.) The plane ride was fun, the mall was fun.  All of which is one big reason I wanted to do the book:  to give people the chance to be around him and to spend those hours the way I had.  And I hope and like to think one reason is he was having a nice time too.

But here’s the reason David gives.  We’re talking about LaMont Chu from Infinite Jest, how it seemed to me that LaMont’s anxieties about fame as a tennis player were pretty clearly a stand-in for a young writer’s drive for reviews and profiles.  He laughed a sort of dark, exposed, pleased laugh.  “Only a writer under, like, thirty would have known that that came out of bitter truths.” I said he must’ve guessed someone would notice and ask. “Except only another writer would. That’s the good and bad thing about choosing you to do this. I’m serious, man—like this would have been over a day ago if you hadn’t been somebody who writes novels.”

Maria Bustillos: When you met Wallace, did you get a sense that he was an ongoingly troubled man? Could you ever have guessed, at that time, that his life would end this way? Did the first-person account of his problems with depression strike you as indicators, as possible harbingers of a catastrophic breakdown? Will you comment on how his suicide has affected your own attitudes toward depression and mental illness?

David Lipsky: First — I’m sorry, talking about Wallace puts me in a good mood — I’d like to say to Maria, and everyone on wallace-l, that very nice thing Wallace taught all of us how to do.  Which is to compress sentences, spring-load them, by wedging in what would otherwise be four or five dribbling words after the sentence’s action as a modifier.  That “ongoingly troubled man” is a great Wallace front-loaded sentence.  Just the way my last one was.  A great writer changes the way everyone unconsciously thinks, writes, speaks.  He taught thousands of people how to do that.

Not for a second—but to jump ahead, I don’t like thinking about his suicide, and another big reason I did the book was to not have that be the picture people had of him.  It’s why I pushed the afterward to the front: so the last image you get, when you close the book, is of Wallace happy, alive, thirty-four years old, confident, leaving for a dance.  (The other reason I don’t think many people outside wallace-l will get:  I thought how Infinite Jest begins in Glad instead of Y.D.A.U., and A Supposedly starts with him recalling the Nadir at the Fort Lauderdale airport coffee shop. A friend of mine was reading the book at my house and looked up and said “Wallaceian,” without being able to put a finger on why. So I’ve focus-grouped this.)

But about his suicide: I don’t think of it as an expression of his will.  The friend who read the book actually then had an argument with me about that. I think of it as a medical story, a prescription drug story.  I interviewed a Harvard Medical School professor, and he understood the story immediately: if you’ve been on the same agent for a very long time (“agent” is the term of art, and David’s agent, as everyone here knows, had been Nardil for two decades) it’s impossibly hard to get off it, and there’s also a small chance that you might not be able to come back on. That’s what happened to David.  So my attitude towards depression and mental illness is stay with medications that work. I don’t think his death had anything to do with The Pale King or any other personal situation; if he hadn’t wanted—for smart, legitimate health reasons—to go off Nardil, Maria and all of us wouldn’t be thinking about this.

I was shocked when David died. I got an email that I was pretty sure was a mistake or a very odd joke.  David talks a lot in the book about depression; but he talks about it as something in his past, an awful place he visited, got to know gruesomely well, and then fought his way out of. He called what happened to him, around when Girl came out, “the most horrible period” he’d ever gone through.  “And I admit I have got a grim fascination with that stuff. I’m not Elizabeth Wurtzel. I’m not biochemically depressed. But I feel like I got to dip my toe in that wading pool, and not going back there is more important to me than anything. It’s like worse than anything.”

He didn’t even call what happened to him a depression. “It sounds weird—but I think it was almost more of a sort of an artistic and religious crisis, than it was anything you would call a breakdown. I just—all my reasons for being alive and the stuff I thought was important, just truly at a gut level weren’t working anymore…It may be what in the old days was called a spiritual crisis or whatever. I think I had lived an incredibly American life. That, ‘Boy, if I could just achieve X and Y and Z, everything would be OK.’ And I think I got very very lucky. I got to have a midlife crisis at twenty-seven. Which at the time didn’t seem lucky; now it seems to me fairly lucky. But now maybe now you can understand. That period, nothing before or since has ever been that bad for me. And I am willing to make enormous sacrifices never to go back there.”

So, to move back, I may have been naive or not paying the right kind of attention. I didn’t see any harbingers.  He was just a huge amount of fun to be with — so smart to talk to, so awake to everything. (There’s that “record digitally” joke I talked about with Mark Athitakis.  That’s not a depressed mind at work.  That’s lightning.)  And his work—even when it goes dark—always has the tremendous buzz and energy of perception in it.  That’s what he was like to be with in the car. He told me some very hard stuff. But if you’d asked me to name the most mentally healthy American writer in August of 2008 I would have said, without hesitation, “David Foster Wallace.” I cried, in 2005, when I read the last two pages of “Good Old Neon.” Especially the last parenthesis: “considerable time having passed since 1981, of course, and David Wallace having emerged from years of literally indescribable war against himself with quite a bit more firepower than he’d had at Aurora West.” That was the sound of a man at peace. I don’t cry in books but I cried there.

He’s seemed warm and wise and kind—even when he gets pissed off at me, he forgives it and stays kind.  There’s a part in the book with a quote from Jonathan Franzen, who I’m sure you all know was his last decade’s closest friend.  Franzen says, “Does it look now as if David had all the answers?”  His dying the way he did doesn’t alter my answer to that question. There’s stuff he says in the book that I think of all the time. Really unexpectedly. If I’m quizzing myself on what I should or shouldn’t do (that’s more the kind of reading I do: I turn to books for advice; the whole library is self-help), or thinking about books, or why I love certain kinds of writing: A David remark will pop up. I think the way his life ended was a medical error—the thing from his twenties coming back, a brain suddenly deprived of what had become a necessary element—but for me it doesn’t shine its way back through his life and work to the beginning. And looked at from the other side, from when I parked near his lawn, nothing in the five days together made me guess this.

Brian Cochran: Would this book really be coming out now if he were alive?

David Lipsky: That’s a good question, Brian, and no, I don’t think it would be.  I read the week again about two and half years ago and loved it, and was trying to think of some way it could work as a mammothly long piece. Because there David still was, happy and open, talking about things I hadn’t read him talking about.  And on the page, there was the preserved experience of that time, what he was like when he was young.

But one reason I wanted to publish this book, as I was answering to Maria, was an image coalescing around David that was heavy, sad, dark: What he’d done, what it meant. And there was a chance that people would begin to picture him as always grim and lightless, a cautionary tale, which isn’t at all what he or the books are like. (His books and thoughts are best-case. And they’re comic.) There’s something his sister said, in the beginning of the book. “My own anxieties are many. My brother was a hilarious guy, a quirky, generous spirit, who happened to be a genius and suffer from depression. There was a lot of happiness in his life. He loved to be silly, he made exquisite fun of himself and others. Part of me still expects to wake up from this, but everywhere I turn is proof that he’s really most sincerely dead. Will he be remembered as a real, living person?”  That’s why I wanted to do this, and do it this way: David in action, not as a story moving towards an end we all know. And with the reader seeing that that—generous, funny, happy—was what he was like to be around.

Allan Wood: Is there any indication that DFW knew or hoped or imagined that  IJ would be the important novel it has become? We’ve read Pietsch saying that after he read some of the manuscript, he wanted to publish IJ more than he wanted to breathe. Did Wallace give any indication that he felt he had really nailed it?

David Lipsky: That’s funny, Allan.  I really smiled when I read this, because I asked the exact same question, in two parts, in more or less the exact words that you did.

Lipsky: “Michael Pietsch’s presentation. He went to his sales force, at their conference, and said, ‘This is why we publish books.’”

David: “I  wasn’t there. I know he  really liked it. And I know he really read it hard, because he helped me—I mean, that book is partly him. A lot of the cuts are where he convinced me of the cuts. But also, editors and agents jack up their level of effusiveness when they talk with you, to such an extent that it becomes very difficult to read the precise shade of their enthusiasm. What’s being presented for you and what they  really feel.”

And then at little later I asked your second part—exactly the way you did.

Lipsky: “But when did someone come to you and say, ‘David, you really nailed it’?”

David: “It’s very odd, because Michael would say really nice stuff to me, and he’d say it in the context of having critical suggestions. So I could write it all off as you know, Well he, this is the sugar that’s making the medicine go down.
“And Charis [Charis Conn, his first Harper’s editor] liked it, but Charis likes everything I do. There was some stuff—because Mark Costello is really good friends with Nan Graham, who knows more about the publishing industry than anybody. She was DeLillo’s editor, which as far as I’m concerned does it for me. So I can remember—when they did this postcard thing, and they wanted to do signed bound galleys and sent me boxes full of paper—my not knowing what to make of it. And calling Mark and having Mark find out, I presume from Nan, that this meant that they were going to support the book, and that they were into the book or whatever. Which given that the book is a thousand pages made me think that they thought it was a pretty good book.”

I think David hoped it’d be a great book. Mark Costello told me David announced to him all at once in college, “I want to write books people will read 100 years from now.”  David said he worked harder on this book than any other.  But he was immensely prickly with himself—he graded himself on a very steep curve—so he didn’t take the early reviews seriously. He said, “The book takes at least two months to read well. If two years from now, I’ve got people who like have read the thing three times, who come up and say, ‘This thing’s really fucking good,’ then I’ll swell up…like, if I have a bunch of conversations, like with this guy Silverblatt [Michael Silverblatt, host of NPR’s Bookworm], or with Vince Passaro, or with like David Gates, somebody who clearly read the book closely. And a bunch of people are saying it’s good, then I’m probably gonna start feeling wholeheartedly good about the book. As it is, there’s a kind of creeping feeling of a kind of misunderstanding.”

He also said a great thing about how you start to write a really good book. “I think I have a  really low pain threshold. I think the  ‘I’ll show people,’ or ‘People are really gonna like this’— thinking that way has hurt me so bad. That when I’m thinking that way, I’m not writing. That that’s this thinking in me that’s gotta reach this kind of fever pitch, and then break. In order for me to even start—not to get in the groove, but to get started…And I would still hear the, ‘This is the best thing ever written,’ and ‘This is the worst thing ever written.’ But it’s sort of like, you know how in movies there will be a conversation, and then that conversation gets quieter, and a different conversation fades in. I don’t know, there’s some technical word for it. Just, the volume gets turned down. . . I mean, this is absolutely the best I could do between like 1992 and 1995. And I think though that if everybody’d hated it, I  wouldn’t be thrilled, but I don’t think I’d be devastated either. It’s about that it got, it became alive for me.”

George Carr: What do you know about DFW’s decisions about what to submit for publication and what to keep tinkering with?  And were there any early pieces that he later regretted publishing or later disavowed?

David Lipsky: He’s very funny and negative about Broom.  He’s talking about how some reviewers use strong early work as a club to beat later stuff. “The nice thing about having written an essentially shitty first book is that I’m exempt from that problem. There were a lot of people who  really liked Broom of the System, but unfortunately they’re all about eleven.”

He also said, about Broom, “I wrote Broom of the System when I was very young. I mean, the first draft of that was my college thesis. There are parts of it that I think are good. But it’s—I wince.” I liked Broom, so we went over this some more.  David had written a 17-page letter to Gerry Howard, his editor, explaining why he’d resist certain changes, especially to the last pages.  I asked whether he’d reread the letter.

“Oh sure…It’s a brilliant little theoretical document, unfortunately it resulted in a shitty and dissatisfying ending, right? And in fact it was a very cynical argument, because there was a part of me—this was a year and a half after I wrote it, and I knew that that ending, there was good stuff about it, but it was way too clever. It was all about the head, you know? And Gerry kept saying to me, ‘Kid, you’ve got no idea.’ Like, ‘We  wouldn’t even be having this conversation if you  hadn’t created this woman named Lenore who seems halfway appealing and alive.’ And I couldn’t hear. I just couldn’t hear it. I was in…Dave Land.”
“I had four hundred thousand pages of continental philosophy and lit theory in my head. And by God, I was going to use it to prove to him that I was smarter than he was. And so, as a result, for the rest of my life, I will walk around…You know, I will see that book occasionally at signings. And I will realize I was arrogant, and missed a chance to make that book better. And hopefully I won’t do it again. It’s why I will not run  lit-crit on my own stuff. And don’t even want to talk about it.”

It just occurred to me:  I mention in the book that David is carrying a Heinlein novel around on his tour—reading it on the plane, in his hotel. I didn’t give the title.  It was Stranger in A Strange Land. Now I wonder if that might have been a small meta-joke on his part: how odd it felt for him to be on this tour, surrounded by all these eager-to-be-helpful book people.

Extra credit Carr point: After he wrote “Westward,” he had a terrible time getting started on anything else.  He wrote a long piece on adult film that’s different from the AVN piece, but never published it.  (“I have some really riveting taped interviews with porn stars, too.”) And he struggled with fiction. “I started hating everything that I did. I remember I did two different novellas after ‘Westward,’ that I worked very hard on, that were just so unbelievably bad. They were, like, worse than stuff I’d done when I was first starting out in college. Hopelessly confused. Hopelessly bending in on themselves…”

George Carr: Rumors about DFW’s drug habits are plentiful but unconfirmed.  Was there a period in DFW’s life when his recreational drug use was casual (non-addicted)?  And was there an event that signaled/caused a shift to more self-destructive use?

David Lipsky: He talks about it.  I think he was casual as a teen.  We’re talking about TV, and how he faced in-house restrictions, a screen-ration per day. I asked if he ever went over to friends’ homes to sneak a little extra. “When I went to my friends’ houses we would do bones,” he says. “That’s what I went to friends’ houses for.”

He began smoking (like Hal) on his tennis team. “I started to smoke a lot of pot when I was fifteen or sixteen, and it’s just hard to train when you smoke a lot of pot. You don’t have that much energy. So I was still going to tournaments. But I was mostly doing it, going to hang out with the guys and party. And I was getting to the quarters instead of the semis of these tournaments. And there was just a general kind of slippage. Fifteen, sixteen, something like that. I mean, starting really to kind of like it.” He says, “I smoked a reasonable amount of dope, particularly in college and grad school. And…uh…and drank a lot.”

I don’t think, George, that it was an event: it was a kind of sadness that came to him around the time he finished “Westward”—which he felt had kind of ended one course in his fiction. “It was after finishing that and doing the editing on that, that I remember getting really unhappy.” He was at Harvard, having the trouble writing that you asked about a little above. At that point, it was mostly alcohol. “I was really stuck. And drinking was part of that. And it’s true that I don’t drink anymore. But it wasn’t that I was stuck because I drank. I mean, it was more that—and it wasn’t like social drinking going out of control. It was like, I really sort of felt like my life was over at twenty-seven or  twenty-eight. And that felt really bad, and I didn’t wanna feel it. And so I would do all kinds of things: I mean, I would drink real heavy, I would like fuck strangers. Oh God—or, then, for two weeks I  wouldn’t drink, and I’d run ten miles every morning. You know, that kind of desperate, very American, ‘I will fix this somehow, by taking radical action.’ And, you know, that lasted for a, that lasted for a couple of years.”

A friend emailed, very generously, to say I should quote David less when talking about him—but I love his work so much I’m going to go ahead anyway. I mean, that’s the book’s point, to let David’s story come from him.  So here’s another reason why he drank, and apologies in advance if my friend reads this. “I was sort of a joyless drinker. I think I just used it for anesthesia. I also remember, I mean really buying into—I don’t know how much you yourself escaped this. But it’s fairly hard to get a book taken when you’re in grad school. And to get a whole lot of—to get your juvenile dreams fulfilled real fast. I think I had this idea of: you know, went to Yaddo a couple times. And I saw that there’s this whole image of the writer as somebody who lives hard and drinks hard. You know, is found in amusing postures in gutters and stuff. And I think when you’re a kid, and you don’t have really kind of any idea of how to be what you want to be, you fall for these sort of cultural models. And the big thing about it is, I don’t have the stomach or the nervous system for it. I get  really, really drunk. Then I’d be sick for two days. Like sick in bed, like a bad flu. Just kind of debilitated.”

A bit later he says, “I’m also aware that some addictions are sexier than others.  I think my primary addiction in my entire life has been to television.  And the fact that I don’t have a television, but now enjoy sitting in the second row of movies where things blow up—this is not an accident.  But I am aware that that’s of far less interest, than the idea of heroin, or of some grand, you know, something that confirms this mythos of the writer as some sort of titanic figure with a license to. . .”

Extra Carr Point 2: Stopping, to his surprise, didn’t offer an immediate improvement. “The scary thing to me was that…I mean I was going through a lot of confusions about sort of writing, and art, and all this kind of stuff at the time. And I thought quitting drinking would help. It made things worse. I was more unhappy, more scared, more paralyzed when I quit drinking. And that scared me. And I think the period that I  really consider a kind of dark— The period that I think you know about, where I went in on suicide watch, was months after I had stopped drinking.”

Jonathan Goodwin: Did you happen to chat with Wallace about why he chose to go to the U of Arizona MFA program, esp. given his later open disdain for how fiction was taught there?

David Lipsky: I did. I was curious too; it’s not in the book.  For better or worse—and to his annoyed and still-sore surprise—he didn’t get into Iowa, which is probably the best-known writing program.  And he couldn’t attend Hopkins, since John Barth taught there: “I was so in thrall to Barth, I just knew it would be sort of a grotesque thing.”

He thought Arizona hadn’t been his sharpest idea. “In a way I made a stupid choice: They are a highly, incredibly hard-ass realist school. I was doing very abstract stuff back then, most of which was  really bad. But it was just funny, because it’s also a really careerist place. And they had to go from almost kicking me out, to this sort of tight- smiled,  ‘we’re  proud  of  you,’ you know, ‘that you’re a U of A man.’ I felt kinda embarrassed for them… It was just so delicious. I had gotten to have unalloyed contempt for them, they showed what they were like. They didn’t even have integrity about their hatred.”

On the other hand, he felt very lucky to have found Tucson. “Arizona is the only place—it’s the first place I’ve ever lived, that I truly absolutely loved. Like geographically. The warmth and the—have you ever been there? It’s an interesting town, you can live there on practically nothing, because all the houses have carriage houses behind them that people rent out for like $150 a month. And it’s a great—it’s like a town preplanned for Bohemia, almost. And there’s a whole lot, there’s a  really cool like leftist cultural world. Because a lot of grad students just end up teaching  part-time at the U of A and living there for like ten, twenty years. And it’s just really gorgeous.”

Lisamichelle Davis: It seems to me that the key to the heart of “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” (as opposed to the work’s many fun, ironic, meta-, and po-mo features) is Wallace’s distinction between the statements “you are loved” and “I love you.”  The final sentence of the story, “You are loved,” not only highlights that distinction (which Wallace discusses in detail earlier in the story), but also suggests that the narrator and/or author believes  that “you are loved” is the far more important of these two statements.  Why?  As human beings, what do we gain from feeling that we are loved that does not or cannot also flow from feeling that a particular person loves us?  What does that say about Wallace’s views on loneliness and connection?

David Lipsky: Lisamichelle, I think you kind of slyly answered that question yourself at the end.  Marie Mundaca wrote a beautiful essay at I think, that ends with her walking home after leaving the Little, Brown offices, having finished up the design for This is Water, seeing the words “You are loved” chalked on the pavement. She has a photo of it in the piece. And that’s the thing I flashed on just now. Aside from that moment’s eeriness, just how good and broad those words feel: “You are loved.”

This is just me as a reader. I think there’s a fear, in David’s work — it’s at the margins of the stuff about Hal — of being loved only for a specific achievement.  And then there’s a different fear, which Orin seems to have, of the implied possession — of being pocketed when someone says “I love you.” (On the other hand, David says a kind of tetherless, emotional-brakes-locked sex can leave a person feeling “rather lonely. And if you’re thinking of Orin in the book a little bit, that’s fine.”) “You are loved,” seems boundless and non-determinate. It means the whole of you, wherever you go: it’s a wide map you can walk over anywhere. I think David, from the little I got to know him, had very keen receptors for fraudulence: his own, where he found it and tried to excise it, and others peoples’.  My favorite story of his is “Good Old Neon,” where that’s not just the subtext but the whole thing.  (A few days ago, I found this great question on “Ask MetaFilter”: “How Do I Stop Being Neal From ‘Good Old Neon’?” A bunch of people tried to answer—this one, presumably, came from someone in the hospitality industry:  “This is a very vague question, but the first thought that came into my head is ‘travel.’ Just buy a plane ticket and go there.”) And what makes Neal finally want to leave is learning that his own problem, inability to love, is such a cliché it’s a sure-fire laugh-getter on Cheers. And there’s the Depressed Person in “The Depressed Person,” who can’t feel anything other than her need for relief; that’s how other people loom to her, as relief.  And then the pop quizzes in “Octet” seem to all be about tipping the answerer towards selflessness. Away from “I love you,” towards that “You are loved.” (Think of the difference if you’re serving a meal: “I fed you,” “You are fed.”) And in “Adult World”—this has become a tour of the Wallace short-fiction oeuvre—happiness steps into the Roberts’ marriage when the couple learns to, essentially, both masturbate.  That’s a comically successful marriage, no love at all.  Wallace ends with the dry line, they were “…ready thus to begin, in a calm and mutually respectful way, to discuss having children [together].”

I’ve kept thinking of something David says near the end of the trip. “There are all kinds of reasons for why we’re so afraid. But the fact of the matter is, that the job that we’re here to do is to learn how to live in a way that we’re not terrified all the time. And not in a position of using all kinds of different things, and using people to keep that kind of terror at bay. That is my personal opinion.” For me, that’s the line I think of, as the difference between “I love you” and “You are loved.” It’s giving something without wanting anything back. It’s the warmest thing in the list of lessons learned by the residents at Ennet house.

David Hering: Did Wallace’s feelings about “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” change once Infinite Jest had been published and well received? Was he able to accept that piece more or did he still feel that he didn’t like it?

David Lipsky: More “Westward”—which I guess is why it’s such an ideal group read. David wasn’t sure yet how Infinite Jest had been received; he said, very self-effacingly and with a good canny knowledge of the book business, that he’d have to wait a couple years to find out if it was any good.  He was happy to offer that clear negative estimation of Broom. Which he thought was “in many ways a fuck-off enterprise.”

But “Westward” was one of the few things he wrote, he says, that got up off on the table and walked on its own. “You talk about, I’ve said that three or four times something came alive to me, and started kind of writing itself, and that was one of them. Although it  wasn’t a very happy experience.”

So I never got the impression he didn’t like it: he loved it, it had been important for him, but writing became a lot harder afterward. I’m going to try to combine some different things he said about “Westward” into one block.  I think, for him, that novella was the closing the office and packing the bags of an early writing self.

“I really think that for me just personally, ‘Westward’ was this real seminal thing. Like I  really felt like I’d killed this huge part of myself doing it…. This is what’s embarrassing. I know it’s not that powerful for anybody, but I really felt like I’d blown out of the water my whole sort of orientation to writing in that thing. And had kind of written my homage and also patricidal killing thing to Barth… That story at the end of Curious, which not a lot of people like, was  really meant to be extremely sad. And to sort of be a kind of suicide note. And I think by the time I got to the end of that story, I figured that I  wasn’t going to write anymore… Well, I just thought I’d, I just  didn’t see the point of it anymore. I mean, the stuff that I was interested in seemed—I mean, I really felt like ‘Westward’ had, at least for me, had sort of folded it up into this tiny, infinitely dense thing. And that it had kind of exploded.”

It’s after “Westward” that things, he says, got trickier and grimmer at Harvard.  But when I told him I’d enjoyed the story, he was very pleased. The strange thing is, he’d written the first draft by hand—and then came to New York for an Us photo shoot and it was stolen from his trunk. He found the airline bag it was in, and walked around Washington Square hunting for the pages.  And then he went back to Yaddo and wrote a complete new version in a week. “The first half was real different,” he says. Which meant he loved the story so much that he wrote it, and let it write itself, twice. Which I think you’d only have the heart to do if you were loving something.

Dan Scharf: I’d be interested to know if DFW talked to you about future professional plans, i.e. did he have ideas for books or essays that he wanted to write in the future (other than The Pale King), did he ever think of writing in any other mediums (always wondered if he ever thought of writing a screenplay or play)?

David Lipsky
: I’ve read somewhere his saying he didn’t want to write screenplays because he liked to maintain control of both sides of the chess set.  He said a smart thing about the difference between movie-work and prose-work; he’s just described himself as both a bit of an exhibitionist and shy. “At the same time, I think that somebody who’s writing, has part of their motivation to sort of impress themselves and their consciousness on others. There’s an unbelievable arrogance about even trying to write something—much less, you know, expecting that someone else will pay money to read it. So you end up with this, uh…I think exhibitionists who aren’t shy end up being performers. Plying their trade in the direct presence of other people. And exhibitionists who are shy find various other ways to do it. I would imagine that maybe film directors, it’s the same way.”

He was just very enthusiastic, incredibly enthusiastic.  He says, “You know, I’m thirty-four. And I’ve finally discovered I really love to write this stuff. I  really love to work hard. And I’m so terrified that this—that this is going to somehow twist me. Or turn me into somebody whose hunger for approval keeps it from being fun. I mean, I think Infinite Jest is really good. I would hope that if I keep working really hard for like the next ten or twenty years, I can do something that’s better than that. Which means I’ve gotta be really careful, you know?” And he says, “I know this is gonna sound drippy and PC. I’m just, I’m really into the work now. I mean it’s really—and I feel good about this. Because, you know, we wanna be doing this for forty more years, you know? And so I’ve gotta find some way to enjoy this that doesn’t involve getting eaten by it, so that I’m gonna be able to go do something else. Because being thirty-four, sitting alone in a room with a piece of paper is what’s real to me.”

Barbara Warren: I’m interested in artists’ marriages and families.  What did David think/say/feel/hope for/fear in the domestic realm?

David Lipsky: I am too. I think he was.  He’s very clear about it. The year before we spoke, his sister had gotten married. “And it was a tough summer. It was very hard for me, because I would like to be married, and I would like to have children. And it was hard for me when my sister got married, who’s like younger than me.”

But he anticipated it’d be difficult—that he didn’t work on an especially marriage-conducive schedule.

“I think if you dedicate yourself to anything, one facet of that is that it makes you very very selfish. And that when you want to work, you’re going to work. And you end up using people. Wanting people around when you want them around, but then sending them away. And you just can’t afford to be that concerned about their feelings. And it’s a fairly serious problem in my life. Because, I mean, I would like to have children. But I also think that the sort of life that I live is a pretty selfish life. And it’s a pretty impulsive life. And I know there’s writers I admire who have children. And I know there’s some way to do it. I worry about it.”

And he missed the nice parts of a marriage, as Infinite Jest succeeded. “I  really have wished I was married, the last couple of weeks. Because yeah, it’d be nice to have somebody to—you know, because nobody quite gets it. Your friends who aren’t in the writing biz are just all awed by your picture in Time, and your agent and editor are good people, but they also have their own agendas. You know? And it’s fun talking with you about it, but you’ve got an agenda and a set of interests that diverges from mine. And there’s something about, there would be something about having somebody who kind of shared your life, and uh, and that you could allow yourself just to be happy and confused with.”

Charis Woods: Given DFW’s frequent use of nightmares in his work (the face on the floor in IJ, Gately’s dreams in hospital, Oblivion and more…), I was wondering whether he ever talked about having terrifying dreams.

David Lipsky: Charis, it never came up.  He mentioned that he was an uneasy flier. But then on the airplane out (flight to Minneapolis), he was totally relaxed and happy, and then on the way home (tour over) he dropped the Heinlein in his lap and fell asleep. I watched the clouds and landing lights out the window behind his profile.

My first night in his house, we didn’t get a huge amount of sleep. One of his dogs (Jeeves, who’s in the cover photo with him) got caught on a cycle. Howl, pause, repeat. Finally, David said, “Jeeves—enough.”  Maybe noisy active dog ownership precludes nightmares.

He says he took a lot of instruction from the way David Lynch deploys nightmare on film. “That whatever the project of surrealism is works way better if 99.9 percent of it is absolutely real. And that’s something, I wouldn’t even be able to put it that clearly if I didn’t teach. Where I see my students, you know—‘not enough of this is real, you know?’ ‘But it’s supposed to be surreal.’ ‘Yeah, but you don’t get it.’ Surrealism  doesn’t work. I mean, most of the word surrealism is realism, you know? It’s extra-realism, it’s something on top of realism. It’s that one thing in a Lynch frame that’s off. That if everything else weren’t picture-perfect and totally structured,  wouldn’t hit. Wouldn’t punch the viewer in the stomach the way that it does.”

Trent Cable: What kind of roadtripper was Wallace? Did he like to snack and drink, if so what were his snacks and drinks of choice? What did he like to listen to when there were breaks in conversation–CDs (if so, what), local stations, NPR?–and I guess more generally, what his taste in music was and what was the level of passion? Did he like to play road games? Stuff like that.

David Lipsky: No road games.  Complaining about other, lane-jumping drivers (“this guy is a true asshole”), an open Diet Pepsi can to spit in.  His music tastes were pretty eclectic. He loved the REM song “Strange Currencies” (“I mean, I will find one or two songs—I listened to ‘Strange Currencies’ over and over again all summer”). He knew the music he liked very well—the way Nabokov could track certain themes and lines across a centuries’ novels—so well he could hear where they were being picked up by other artists. On the other hand, he says, “I have the musical tastes of a thirteen year old girl.” He listened to Nirvana while writing Infinite Jest; and also to “this woman named Enya, who’s Scottish.” (On Nirvana, it was only because a grad student had given him a tape; he was that kind of listener, too—he got his playlists from other people.)

Ben Timberlake:  Did he have any surprising ethics and principles ready at hand? Do you ever wish to be able to read his writing without having had a closer relationship to him than most readers? I add my thanks to Lipsky for considering questions from the list.

David Lipsky: Not at all. You’ll have to tell me, if you read the book. The surprise really was his kindness. He said a thing I find really beautiful, that I put on the back of the book. I think this was his main principle; it’s one of the last things he says. It had to do with finding a way to be kinder to yourself—in a forceful way that would come from being kinder to other people.

“There’s a kind of queer dissatisfaction or emptiness at the core of the self that is unassuageable by outside stuff. And my guess is that that’s been what’s going on, ever since people were hitting each other over the head with clubs. Though describable in a number of different words and cultural argots. And that our particular challenge is that there’s never been more and better stuff coming from the outside, that seems temporarily to sort of fill the hole or drown out the hole.”

I asked whether internal means could fill it too.

“Personally, I believe that if it’s assuageable in any way it’s by internal means. I think those internal means have to be earned and developed, and it has something to do with, um, the  pop-psych phrase is loving yourself. It’s more like, if you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a  really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. I know that sounds a little pious.”

Scott Handy: I would like to know what brand of dip DFW dipped. Seriously… Somehow I had him pegged as a Kodiak guy.

David Lipsky: Kodiak. Absolutely. It’s what he brought with him, it’s also what Hal chews (“I really need to quit, it makes your fucking jaw fall off”). I double-checked with his family, who say, “Kodiak.”

I’d just like to thank Matt Bucher and everyone who contributes to wallace-l.  I’ve learned a tremendous amount by being one of the serv’s lurkers.  When I met Matt at the Footnotes Conference, I was meeting a celebrity.

Suttree paper, comments by DFW

Posted: March 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: DFW | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments »

Shawn Miklaucic has shared a paper he wrote in 1997 for David Foster Wallace’s English 487 class. The topic is Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and Fredric Jameson. Wallace’s annotations appear throughout. Thanks, Shawn!

Shawn Miklaucic Rnslish 487… by on Scribd

Crappy iPhone pics of the DFW stuff currently on display in the Ransom Center lobby

Posted: March 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: DFW | Tags: , , | 4 Comments »

Rich’s conclusion (which I agree with) is that the public/private elements of reading need not be mutually exclusive, at least until the dawn of a DeLilloan nightmare, when mass-reading groups assemble in a single room like a bunch of Moonies tying the knot. Rich introduces Matthew Bucher, who runs an online discussion group for David Foster Wallace Fans called “Wallace-L.”While Bucher is a clear example of the modern reader—interested in making connections and building communities—he also values the solitude that reading provides: “I still read the book at home at night by myself with one lamp.”

Of the DFW archive, I wanted to see what the Ransom Center had chosen to display in the lobby the day after the acquisition announcement.

There are four items on display:

1. the cover page of the first two sections of Infinite Jest sent to Bonnie Nadell. The page is covered in notes.

2. a notebook of typescript pages of Infinite Jest

3. the heavily annotated galley of the Borges biography DFW reviewed for the NY Times in 2004.

4. the poem about Vikings Wallace wrote at the age of six or seven. It is believed to be the first time he signed anything “David Foster Wallace” (top of page).

There are also some great letters to and from Vera Nabokov regarding Vladimir Nabokov possibly writing the screenplay for The Day of The Locust or Invisible Man.

Modern Reader

Posted: January 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: DFW, personal | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

I’m leading a group read of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 over at my blog

You can also follow the conversation on the bolano-l mailing list.

The project got a nice write-up yesterday in the LA Times Jacket Copy blog.

by Motoko Rich

Published January 23, 2010

Communal reading can also help for books that are challenging to approach on your own. How many people actually got through “Ulysses” outside of a college class? Matthew Bucher,  a textbook editor in Austin,
Tex., who administers “Wallace-L,”an online discussion group for fans of David Foster Wallace, said that the expertise of mathematicians, linguists and other fans sharing insights with the online group vastly improved his reading of “Infinite Jest.”

That doesn’t stop Mr. Bucher from having a deeply intimate relationship with books. “I still read the book at home at night by myself with one lamp,” he said. “The next day it does enhance my experience to talk about it.”

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