Dueling Foster Wallace Bios: Two Hit Market, One Sells

l david foster wallace gett Dueling Foster Wallace Bios: Two Hit Market, One SellsEarlier this month, editors at publishing houses across New York received two separate book proposals for biographies of the late David Foster Wallace. One came from the journalist and critic D. T. Max, the other from Rolling Stone contributing editor David Lipsky. Both writers had published intimate, reported profiles of Wallace in the months following the author’s suicide, on Sept. 12, 2008, and both pieces had been enthusiastically received and widely discussed. Mr. Lipsky’s piece, which went on to win a National Magazine Award, was first out of the gate, appearing in the Oct. 30 issue of Rolling Stone just five weeks after Wallace’s death. Mr. Max’s piece, which revealed the planned publication of an unfinished final Wallace novel, followed in March in The New Yorker.

Mr. Max’s biography sold at auction via Elyse Cheney last week for a sum in the low six figures to Viking Press, the same imprint of Penguin that published the hardcover edition of Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, in 1987. As of Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Lipsky’s book did not appear to have found a buyer; Random House, which currently has the author under contract for two other books, apparently passed on it. Mr. Lipsky’s literary agent, Lisa Bankoff of ICM, did not return calls or emails seeking comment. Mr. Lipsky could not be reached.

The dueling book proposals were about as radically different in scope and intent as one could expect two biographies of the same guy to be. While Mr. Max, a former Observer reporter, aims to write a cradle-to-the-grave narrative about Wallace’s life and the historical-cultural backdrop against which he produced his work, Mr. Lipsky seems to have in mind something like a memoiristic sketch based almost entirely on a series of lengthy interviews he conducted with Wallace over the course of a week in 1996 for a Rolling Stone profile that ended up getting spiked.

Those interviews, which took place while Mr. Lipsky and his subject traveled around the Midwest to and from the last event of the Infinite Jest book tour, sat unpublished in a drawer until Mr. Lipsky was called upon last fall to report on Wallace’s death for Rolling Stone. And though the interviews made up the heart of the piece he wrote in October, there remain hours and hours of tape that have never seen the light of day. The proposal Ms. Bankoff submitted to editors—titled “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”—consisted mainly of a transcript of the interviews totaling more than 200 pages, as well as some supplementary front and back matter in which Mr. Lipsky affectionately describes the electrifying material as having “the feel of a highway conversation.”

A cover letter calls the book “a different form of biography,” which it sure would be, if what Mr. Lipsky and his agent have in mind is actually just putting the 1996 interview in between hardcovers. Unfortunately we couldn’t get either of them on the phone to clarify, but for what it’s worth, the pitch letter says Wallace’s sister Amy has read the material, approved of it, and “said she wouldn’t want anybody else to undertake the project.”

Although Pub Crawl did talk to one publisher who had received Mr. Lipsky’s submission and was enthusiastic about working with him, some editors who saw it expressed skepticism that the transcript of Mr. Lipsky’s conversation with Wallace could be turned into a book wholesale. 

“I think it will satisfy a different itch, and that is to kind of hear that incredible music again: the sound of David Foster Wallace at full tilt,” said one editor who saw both proposals and decided to pursue Mr. Max’s. “But whoever does it is going to have quite a task turning it into a proper book.”

Viking publisher Paul Slovak said readers should expect Mr. Max’s biography to come out no earlier than 2011. He said it will be a relatively short book that will attempt to get at “why David Foster Wallace matters and what he tried to teach us.”

“We see it as an important book that should get a lot of attention,” Mr. Slovak said. “Daniel [D. T.] is very interested in exploring how David Foster Wallace became the person he was and what it felt like to be him.”

Mr. Max said he was also very eager to write about the cultural context from which Mr. Wallace sprang—something he couldn’t do in his New Yorker piece.

“The reason I wanted to go longer on him is that most writers live and die in a room writing, and Wallace definitely did that, but he also lived and died out on the street,” Mr. Max said. “He was in the world in a way that most writers are not. Because of his peculiar openness to the world and his peculiar kind of sensitivity, everything that happened in this country affected him and entered his fiction in a way that I don’t think is true of other writers.”

He added: “We don’t know the book where the author is a child in the ’70s … where he first becomes a writer in the Reagan era, attacking when everyone else is retreating. And where he keeps trying to produce during the profound blandness of the Clinton years. … That’s not on the bookshelf yet. Because the writers who’ve gone through this experience are just too young—they’re in mid-career; much of their work is ahead of them,” Mr. Max said. “So in the tragedy of Wallace’s early death, I see an opportunity, a chance to write down a story so recent, it’s strange.”

lneyfakh@observer.com