Dead Author Breeds Big Business: The David Foster Wallace Industry

When David Foster Wallace hanged himself with a black belt and his arms bound by duct tape on the patio

When David Foster Wallace hanged himself with a black belt and his arms bound by duct tape on the patio of his home in Claremont, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2008, he had published a history of the concept of infinity, three collections of short stories, two books of essays and two novels. The last of the novels–the towering, 1,088-page Infinite Jest–came out in 1996.

More than a decade after the magnum opus was published, Wallace devotees voiced worries that their hero’s reputation was on the wane. They noted that for the 10th-anniversary of Infinite Jest, the publishers chose Dave Eggers to write a new introduction–a sign, they feared, that Wallace needed the imprimatur of a broadly popular figure (though Mr. Eggers had called the novel “extravagantly self-indulgent” upon its first appearance) in order to make him palatable to the next generation of readers.

The death of the author, it would seem, has changed all that. Next month will see the publication of The Pale King, the unfinished novel Wallace left stacked in a pile in his garage. This comes on the heels of two other posthumous books in the 30 months since his passing: This Is Water, a 4,000-word commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, which was stretched to book length by the neat trick (one critic termed it “un-Wallace-like”) of printing only one sentence per page; and Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, Wallace’s undergraduate philosophy thesis, padded with a number of essays by distinguished philosophers.

We have not heard the last of him. Indeed, the 34 document boxes and eight oversize folders of Wallace’s drafts, letters and juvenilia deposited at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, along with 300 books from his personal library, promise a posthumous flow that will be, if not infinite, then certainly robust. There may be another book of unpublished fiction soon in the offing, and one of uncollected nonfiction, as well as potentially two books of Wallace’s letters, one of which is said to be devoted almost entirely to his correspondence about the art of writing.

Then there are Wallace’s Boswells. David Lipsky, who was commissioned by Rolling Stone to shadow the author on the Infinite Jest book tour (the piece was killed), last year re-purposed his transcripts of their road trip into a 300-page book, And of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. D.T. Max, who wrote a feature-length obituary of Wallace for The New Yorker framing Wallace’s suicide as the end of a long struggle against both depression and avant-garde tendencies, is expanding his efforts into a full-blown literary biography slated to appear later this year.

The critics, too, must have their say. One volume of critical essays, Consider David Foster Wallace, came out on a small press last year, and another, The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, including appraisals by icons like Don DeLillo and contemporaries like Jonathan Franzen, has been promised by the University of Iowa Press.

“I think what we are looking at is something like the beginnings of the David Foster Wallace industry,” said Matt Bucher, a  Project Manager at Pearson, an independent Wallace scholar and the administrator of Wallace-L, a 1,000-subscriber strong Wallace listserv. “I think it will be big, on par with James Joyce or Walt Whitman. Look at all the stuff there is out there about them. People gobble that stuff up. Look how many books there are on Kennedy.”

So far no conspiracy theories have emerged around Wallace’s life or death, but since 2008 there have been at least a dozen Ph.D. dissertations entirely or partly devoted to Wallace’s work. And where there are academics, there are soon enough academic conferences. A panel about Wallace’s legacy was staged at the Modern Language Association conference in 2009, a year that also saw entire conferences about his work at the University of Liverpool and at the City University of New York. A conference on The Pale King is scheduled for September at the University of Antwerp, in Belgium, and next week the urge to discuss him in public leaks out of the academic world and into the South by Southwest festival, where a panel next week will consider “David Foster Wallace and the Internet.”

Part of the newfound fascination with Wallace has to do with the urgency of his subject matter and the kind of readers it attracts. Wallace’s early fiction arrived just as Internet culture was forming, and his work anticipated a world where people think it worthwhile to broadcast in 140 characters the contents of their sushi lunches.

“He connects very strongly with men, especially young men, and especially IT men, the kind of guys who would be into sci-fi and that kind of thing,” said Mr. Max. “These guys need writers, they need cultural figures and they need guys who help them understand their role in the culture.” 

Publishers and scholars say that the Internet fans who flocked to Wallace were able to create an instant online archive in the wake of his death. Instead of uncovering a slow trickle of uncollected or lost pieces, fans tracked down, for example, Wallace’s undergraduate thesis (now a book) and the story “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” which Wallace published as an undergraduate in a 1984 issue of Amherst Review (and which would appear after its rediscovery in the journal Tin House), and posted these writings online for immediate inspection and debate. It is like the long tail, only in reverse, where a small coterie of fans keep the work alive online long enough for the rest of the culture to discover it. A clearinghouse for this phenomenon was The Howling Fantods!, a Web site that has obsessively chronicled Wallace’s career since 1997. It has reported receiving nearly 280,000 hits per month in 2011, up from 110,000 in the months leading up to Wallace’s death.

Dead Author Breeds Big Business: The David Foster Wallace Industry