Dead Author Breeds Big Business: The David Foster Wallace Industry

In his recent essay “David Foster Wallace: The Death of the Author and the Birth of a Discipline,” the Irish scholar Adam Kelly wrote that Wallace criticism has begun in a “democratic vein. The ease of publication which the internet allows has meant that the detailed close reading of Wallace’s texts, traditionally the preserve of academic engagement, has in great part been carried out by skillful and committed non-professional readers, who publish their findings in the public domain of the web.”

“It’s all sped up now,” said Maureen Eckert, a professor at UMASS-Dartmouth who edited Fate, Time, and Language and describes herself as a “head-over-heels fan” of Wallace. “You think about people finding a lost manuscript of Hemingway or a Sylvia Plath poem; it’s a moment of celebration. In the case of Wallace, we have the technology, and so there are a lot of PDFs just floating around online.”

Last week a blogger at lazenby.tumblr.com posted a document comparing word by word the excerpt of The Pale King that appeared in The New Yorker and a transcription of the same passage that Wallace read at the Lannan Foundation in New Mexico in 2000.

Scott Esposito, writing on his blog Conversational Reading, posted a quick reaction: “What we see,” he wrote, “is a vision of what The Pale King might have looked like, if its editors had chosen to leave it in the disarrayed state it was discovered in. Surely this would have been a book with less mass appeal than the ‘completed’ Pale King that will be published on April 15, but would it have been truer to Wallace the writer?”

Asked about the editing process that has brought The Pale King to the public, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor at Little, Brown, told The Observer, “I am going to save that for another time. I am not sure how much I want to talk about that at this time.”

Bonnie Nadell, the Los An
geles-based literary agent who discovered Wallace when he sent her a chapter of his first novel, The Broom of the System, told The Observer that at least once a week she receives a query from someone writing a thesis about Wallace or hoping to appropriate some portion of his work for their own project. So long as the petitioners seek to violate neither good taste nor copyright, the Wallace estate has been open, Ms. Nadell said, and added that she has been pleasantly surprised at the demand.

“I am not doing anything [to promote Wallace],” said Ms. Nadell. “If anything, they are coming to me. We have other authors we represent who have died, and we deal with their estates, but David’s work continues to touch people. It’s like nothing I’ve seen.”

Beyond academia and the Internet, a legion of artists, filmmakers and playwrights have been moved to re-interpret or pay homage to Wallace. A video-art exhibition, “A Failed Entertainment: Selections from the Filmography of James O. Incandenza,” inspired by a footnote from Infinite Jest, has gone up at Columbia and Virginia Commonwealth universities. Wallace’s story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which was made into a film with his blessing, has now also been adapted for the stage. The Mountain Goats, of indie rock fame, honored the author with a song on a recent album.

Some grumbling about exploitation has been heard from the Fantods, especially when the work is widely available on the Internet, like when the Kenyon speech that became This Is Water becomes copyrighted and available for $14.99 by the checkout desk of the local bookstore.

“Clearly, some people believe that anything else published under his name will be just scraping money out of his coffin,” Mr. Bucher said.

But mostly the faithful are pleased that after poring over footnote placements in Infinite Jest among themselves for 10 years, they have now been joined by a culture at large that suddenly seems extremely interested in the life and work of a self-deprecating writer who once described himself as being about as famous as the local weatherman.

Scholars and Fantods have a few theories about the surge of interest. Part of it is simply that, like James Dean, John Lennon or Kurt Cobain, Wallace died young, 46 years old and still in his prime. With no more new work to look forward to, readers are left to fill in the gaps and pounce on any shred of lost writing that surfaces. In 2007, few would have thought that Wallace would stand to be mentioned in the same breath as literary giants like Norman Mailer and John Updike, whose “senescence” Wallace announced in a 1997 critical essay in The Observer. Mailer died 10 months before Wallace, and Updike five months after. Beyond the requisite appreciations in newspapers and literary journals, their afterlife has acquired nothing like the interest that has surrounded Wallace.

The tragedy of Wallace’s suicide and depression has played a part in heightening attention to his work and changed the way readers think about him. During his lifetime, Wallace was perceived as a difficult high postmodernist who challenged readers’ attention spans with sentences that branched off in several directions, abounded in neologisms and might spawn several discursive footnotes. In one of his earliest and most famous experimental gestures, the 467-page Broom of the System ends in mid-sentence. But all that perplexity was really a way for Wallace to depict what a mind is like in the process of thinking. The knowledge that he endured an epic struggle with depression allows readers another window to see the human-ness in his prose.

Dead Author Breeds Big Business: The David Foster Wallace Industry