Dead Author Breeds Big Business: The David Foster Wallace Industry

“There are some readers who approach him now as almost like a secular saint, as someone who was too good for this world,” said James Ryerson, an editor at The New York Times Magazine who wrote the introduction to Fate, Time, and Language. “By all accounts he was someone who struggled intensely and openly in his writing with his attempt to live a life of moral integrity. There seems to be some kind of truth to him.”

“I couldn’t even take it when he died,” said Ms. Eckert. “It was like our reality failed him.”

All of this activity has helped move Wallace from the eccentric periphery of American letters to the center. In their recent book All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly casually refer to Wallace as “the greatest writer of his generation”–a reckoning many would have thought incomplete, like declaring the winner of a tennis match after one set. 

Mr. Lipsky, who won a National Magazine Award for his postmortem feature on Wallace in Rolling Stone, believes Wallace altered the landscape of the American literary vernacular toward a maximalist aesthetic–though one that still accommodated emotional depth–in much the same way that after Hemingway, most American writers wrote minimalist prose; and Salinger begot a generation of chatty adolescent narrators; and after Carver the literary journals were filled with Kmart realism.

“Let me put it this way,” Mr. Lipsky told The Observer, “I don’t think a week goes by that the editor of Rolling Stone doesn’t get a pitch from a writer who says, ‘I would like to do a David Foster Wallace kind of take on X.’ He is the young writer who did the most change to how young writers write.”

“It’s kind of amazing when you think about it that The Corrections won the National Book Award when it came out and Infinite Jest wasn’t even nominated,” said Mr. Bucher, the administrator of the Wallace-L listserv. “But you are calling me. How many other writers out there writing now have fan sites devoted to them? How many are getting the kind of critical reception that Wallace is getting?”

Mr. Franzen, 51, the author of The Corrections and a longtime friend of Wallace’s, declined to comment for this article because he is writing his own essay about Wallace for The New Yorker. In his recent interview with The Paris Review, Mr. Franzen compared his own career to Wallace’s: “I perceived, rightly or wrongly, that our friendship was haunted by a competition between the writer who was pursuing art for art’s sake [Wallace] and the writer who was trying to be out in the world. The art-for-art’s-sake writer gets a certain kind of cult credibility, gets books written about his or her work, whereas the writer out in the world gets public attention and money. Like I say, I perceived this as a competition, but I don’t know for a fact that Dave perceived it that way.”

In other words, Mr. Franzen may be selling books and appearing on television, but the Mountain Goats have yet to write a song for him.

It is hardly worth speculating what would have happened to Wallace’s work and reputation had he continued publishing. People who have read parts of The Pale King say that Wallace’s fiction was becoming more humane, addressing the moral questions he was laying out in the Kenyon commencement speech. There may have been more novels, more stories, more debate.

And how would Wallace have reacted to his undergraduate thesis being published by a university press, his teenage poems available to the public in an archive in Texas?

“He was deeply, scrotum-tighteningly ambivalent about fame,” said Mr. Max. “He left Pale King to be published. But did he want to become a cultural icon? I don’t think he would have been so surprised.”

“[H]e was a troubled person and was tormented by the possibility of people misperceiving him,” Mr. Franzen told The Paris Review. “His instinct was to keep people at a distance and let the work speak for itself, and I do know that he enjoyed the status he’d attained. He might have denied it, but he denied all sorts of obviously true things at different moment
s.”

Dead Author Breeds Big Business: The David Foster Wallace Industry