kottke.org posts about David Foster Wallace
String Theory, a collection of David Foster Wallace’s writings on tennis will be out next month.1 The five pieces in the book include his NY Times’ essay on Federer and a 1991 piece from Harper’s. John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote an introduction, which was published recently in the New Yorker.
The collection is also available on the Kindle, without the Sullivan intro.
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest turns 20 years old this month. To mark the occasion, the Harry Ransom Center, home of DFW’s archive of papers, is posting some of the more interesting findings by visiting scholars. Here, for instance, is a letter written by Wallace to his editor a few months before IJ’s publication.
Update: In a NY Times essay adapted from his forward to an upcoming 20th anniversary edition of IJ, Tom Bissell reflects on why Infinite Jest still resonates 20 years later.
In interviews, Wallace was explicit that art must have a higher purpose than mere entertainment: “Fiction’s about what it is to be a … human being.” And here, really, is the enigma of David Foster Wallace’s work generally and “Infinite Jest” specifically: an endlessly, compulsively entertaining book that stingily withholds from readers the core pleasures of mainstream novelistic entertainment, among them a graspable central narrative line, identifiable movement through time and any resolution of its quadrumvirate plotlines. “Infinite Jest,” in other words, can be exceedingly frustrating. To fully understand what Wallace was up to, the book bears being read, and reread, with Talmudic focus and devotion. For many Wallace readers this is asking too much. For many Wallace fans this is asking too much.
While researching this post on some weekend reading from David Foster Wallace, I stumbled across Way More than Luck, an anthology of notable commencement speeches.
Here, in an anthology of some of the finest of the genre, brilliant creative minds in every sector offer their wisdom: David Foster Wallace on living a compassionate life, Debbie Millman on the importance of taking risks, Michael Lewis on the responsibility that good fortune merits — and so many other greats. Some of this advice is grand (believe in the impossible), and some of it is granular enough to check off a life list (donate five percent of your money or your time).
See also The Top 7 Commencement Speeches of All Time.
“The more people think you’re really great, the bigger the fear of being a fraud is.” That’s the most resonant line for me from the first trailer for The End of the Tour, the story of a five-day interview between reporter David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace that takes place in 1996, just after Infinite Jest came out.
The movie is based on a book Lipsky published called Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I read and thought was great.1 Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky and Jason Segel does as much justice to Wallace as one could hope for, I think. I am cautiously optimistic that this movie might actually be decent or even good. (via @jcormier)
The Atlantic has republished and reformatted Host by David Foster Wallace on their website. Originally published in 2005, Host was a profile of talk radio host John Ziegler and contained several layers of footnotes, which are beautifully handled in this new online version.
The Nick Berg beheading and its Internet video compose what is known around KFI as a “Monster,” meaning a story that has both high news value and tremendous emotional voltage. As is SOP in political talk radio, the emotions most readily accessed are anger, outrage, indignation, fear, despair, disgust, contempt, and a certain kind of apocalyptic glee, all of which the Nick Berg thing’s got in spades. Mr. Ziegler, whose program is in only its fourth month at KFI, has been fortunate in that 2004 has already been chock-full of Monsters — Saddam’s detention, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Scott Peterson murder trial, the Greg Haidl gang-rape trial, and preliminary hearings in the rape trial of Kobe Bryant. But tonight is the most angry, indignant, disgusted, and impassioned that Mr. Z.’s gotten on-air so far, and the consensus in Airmix is that it’s resulting in some absolutely first-rate talk radio.
Yesterday was the 10th anniversary1 of Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College, among the finest ever given IMO.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
That speech is also available as a short book, This Is Water. If you read both of those things and hunger for more, luckily there is so much much more.
This an excerpt of the excellent commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005, set to video.
I’ve either heard or read this speech at least 8 or 9 times, and I still got sucked in to watching the entire video.
You can read the whole speech online and in book form or watch it on YouTube. (via kung fu grippe)
The David Foster Wallace Reader is a collection of Wallace’s best, funniest, and most celebrated writing.
Where do you begin with a writer as original and brilliant as David Foster Wallace? Here — with a carefully considered selection of his extraordinary body of work, chosen by a range of great writers, critics, and those who worked with him most closely. This volume presents his most dazzling, funniest, and most heartbreaking work — essays like his famous cruise-ship piece, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” excerpts from his novels The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, and The Pale King, and legendary stories like “The Depressed Person.”
Wallace’s explorations of morality, self-consciousness, addiction, sports, love, and the many other subjects that occupied him are represented here in both fiction and nonfiction. Collected for the first time are Wallace’s first published story, “The View from Planet Trillaphon as Seen In Relation to the Bad Thing” and a selection of his work as a writing instructor, including reading lists, grammar guides, and general guidelines for his students.
If you’ve somehow been waiting to dig into Wallace’s writing but didn’t know where to start, this is where you start.
One of the last interviews David Foster Wallace gave was with Bryan Garner, a lawyer and lexicographer who became friendly with Wallace due to their mutual love of language. That hour-long interview is reproduced in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing.
David Foster Wallace was at the center of late-20th-century American literature, Bryan A. Garner at that of legal scholarship and lexicography. It was language that drew them together. The wide-ranging interview reproduced here memorializes 67 minutes of their second and final evening together, in February 2006. It was DFW’s last long interview, and the only one devoted exclusively to language and writing.
It was Wallace’s piece featuring Garner in Harper’s, Tense Present, that cemented him as a favorite writer of mine, even before I tackled Infinite Jest. Wallace later expanded the essay to 62 pages in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.
Just after Infinite Jest was published, David Foster Wallace came to Boston and did a radio interview with Chris Lydon. Radio Open Source recently unearthed that interview, probably unheard for the past 18 years, and published it on their site.
When I started the book the only idea I had is I wanted to do something about America that was sad but wasn’t just making fun of America. Most of my friends are extremely bright, privileged, well-educated Americans who are sad on some level, and it has something, I think, to do with loneliness. I’m talking out of my ear a little bit, this is just my opinion, but I think somehow the culture has taught us or we’ve allowed the culture to teach us that the point of living is to get as much as you can and experience as much pleasure as you can, and that the implicit promise is that will make you happy. I know that’s almost offensively simplistic, but the effects of it aren’t simplistic at all.
Farnam Street is featuring a handout given by the late David Foster Wallace to his fiction writing class in 2002. It’s titled YOUR LIBERAL-ARTS $ AT WORK and covers five common usages gotchas.
2. And is a conjunction; so is so. Except in dialogue between particular kinds of characters, you never need both conjunctions. “He needed to eat, and so he bought food” is incorrect. In 95% of cases like this, what you want to do is cut the and.
Jason Segel is set to play David Foster Wallace in a movie adaptation of David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
Story finds Lipsky accompanying Wallace across the country on a book tour promoting “Infinite Jest,” just as Wallace starts to become famous. Along the way, jealousy and competition bubbles up between the two writers as they discuss women, depression and the pros and cons of fame.
Reaction from the DFW fan club abut Segel playing DFW has been tepid, to say the least.
Speaking of lobster, you could do much worse today than reading David Foster Wallace’s classic piece for Gourmet about attending the Maine Lobster Festival. As you might imagine, Wallace quickly veers from the event at hand into something more interesting and unsettling for Gourmet’s gourmet readers: do lobsters feel pain and do they suffer for your dinner?
Given this article’s venue and my own lack of culinary sophistication, I’m curious about whether the reader can identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts. I am also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused. Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?
A selection of previously uncollected essays from David Foster Wallace is coming out in book form in November.
Both Flesh and Not gathers 15 essays never published in book form, including “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” considered by many to be his nonfiction masterpiece; “The (As it Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2,” which deftly dissects James Cameron’s blockbuster; and “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” an examination of television’s effect on a new generation of writers.
Wallace’s previous collections often included expanded articles with extra material cut from previously published pieces (like the cruise ship one and the state fair one). It would be wonderful to read a longer version of his NY Times piece on Federer but for obvious reasons I’m not holding my breath. Even just the first paragraph makes me want to sit down and read the whole thing for like a fifth time:
Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.
In July, we mentioned Infinite Boston, a project from William Beutler to map and photo the Boston-related locations in Infinite Jest. Today Beutler announced Infinite Atlas, which expands nationally on this project, and Infinite Map, a limited edition print featuring 250 “of the most interesting locations” from Infinite Jest.
As it received high marks from friends, I wanted to like John Jeremiah Sullivan’s recent NY Times Magazine profile of Venus and Serena Williams more than I did, but I think Sullivan had so little access to the sisters that it turned into more of a sick Frank story than expected.
The story has been told so many times, of these early years, when Compton got used to the sight of the little girls who would always be playing tennis at the public park — or riding around in their faded yellow VW bus with the middle seat taken out to accommodate the grocery cart full of balls — but somehow the strangeness and drama of it retain a power to fascinate. The idea of this African-American family organizing itself, as a unit, in order to lay siege to perhaps the whitest sport in the world and pulling it off somehow. “I remember even talking to my sisters and brothers,” Oracene said, recalling a time before anyone had ever heard of the Williams sisters, “and telling them: ‘The girls are going to be professional. We’re going to need a lawyer, and we’re going to need an accountant.’ “
Isha, the middle daughter — sharply funny and practical, fiercely loyal to the family — told me: “Life was get up, 6 o’clock in the morning, go to the tennis court, before school. After school, go to tennis. But it was consistency. I hate to put it [like this], but it’s like training an animal. You can’t just be sometimey with it.” She still can’t sleep past 6.
My favorite observation from the story was actually from a behind-the-story piece that ran on the magazine’s blog.
One thing Venus talked about that was interesting was how easy it is for professional athletes to pick up other sports. So what they are good at is not the sport itself, but it’s just a way of being in the world. It’s a sense of their own bodies and an ability to manipulate their own bodies and have sort of a visual map in your head of what the different parts are doing. At one point she was talking about doing a benefit with Peyton and Eli Manning. They’d almost never played tennis before and they started out awful, and she said it was amazing to watch them. It was like watching a film. Every stroke they hit was noticeably better than the last. Every time they hit the ball. She said you could almost watch their brains working and by the end of it they were totally competent tennis players.
The Super Manning Bros anecdote hits because, as David Foster Wallace pointed out in his evisceration of tennis player Tracy Austin’s biography, it can be difficult for gifted athletes to talk about why and how they are able to do what they do. But Venus obviously can and I wish there’d been more of that in the main essay.
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, is out next week.
David Foster Wallace was the leading literary light of his era, a man who not only captivated readers with his prose but also mesmerized them with his brilliant mind. In this, the first biography of the writer, D. T. Max sets out to chart Wallace’s tormented, anguished and often triumphant battle to succeed as a novelist as he fights off depression and addiction to emerge with his masterpiece, Infinite Jest.
Since his untimely death by suicide at the age of forty-six in 2008, Wallace has become more than the quintessential writer for his time — he has become a symbol of sincerity and honesty in an inauthentic age. In the end, as Max shows us, what is most interesting about Wallace is not just what he wrote but how he taught us all to live. Written with the cooperation of Wallace’s family and friends and with access to hundreds of his unpublished letters, manuscripts, and audio tapes, this portrait of an extraordinarily gifted writer is as fresh as news, as intimate as a love note, as painful as a goodbye.
The Daily Beast has an excerpt of the book. Max also wrote an article about Wallace in 2009 for the New Yorker. (via df)
Infinite Boston is a photo tour of some of the Boston locations that inspired locations in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
In July of what might have been Year of Glad, one year ago this week, I traveled to Boston, Massachusetts with the express purpose of visiting as many of the landmarks and lesser known precincts that appear in, or provide inspiration for, the late David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest as I could manage on a Thursday-Sunday trip. My reasons for doing so will become apparent at a later date, but for now I am pleased to present what I am calling “Infinite Boston”: a ruminative travelogue and photographic tour of some fifty or so of these locations, comprising one entry each non-holiday weekday, from now until sometime in early autumn.
A German experimental theater recently put on a production of Infinite Jest. They turned the 1079-page book into a 24-hour play that took place all over Berlin.
The play is Infinite Jest. Yes, the 1,079-page David Foster Wallace novel. Germany’s leading experimental theater, Hebbel am Ufer, had the gall not only to stage the world theatrical premiere of an Infinite Jest adaptation, but to play it on the grandest stage possible: the city of Berlin itself. Over the course of 24 hours, the shell-shocked and increasingly substance-dependent audience is transported to eight of the city’s iconic settings, which serve as analogs for the venues to which the discursive novel continually returns.
But so we’re at this AA meeting in a Boston school cafeteria, which in this case is the cultural center of a city quarter that was drawn up from scratch in the 1960s in the far, far north of Berlin, like practically halfway to the Baltic, this sticks-of-the-sticks-type section of town. And the actor sharing his history of teen addiction to Quaaludes and Hefenreffer-brand beer is droning on far too long and starting to give me the howling fantods.
Every internet article about Wallace is required by law to include footnotes and this one is no exception. (thx, paul)
A book containing David Foster Wallace’s previously uncollected nonfiction is due out in November.
Beloved for his epic agony, brilliantly discerning eye, and hilarious and constantly self-questioning tone, David Foster Wallace was heralded by both critics and fans as the voice of a generation. BOTH FLESH AND NOT gathers 15 essays never published in book form, including “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” considered by many to be his nonfiction masterpiece; “The (As it Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2,” which deftly dissects James Cameron’s blockbuster; and “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” an examination of television’s effect on a new generation of writers.
There are also several books about Wallace and his writings coming out over the next few months.
In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote that videophone technology wasn’t popular due in part to vanity.
And the videophonic stress was even worse if you were at all vain. I.e. if you worried at all about how you looked. As in to other people. Which all kidding aside who doesn’t. Good old aural telephone calls could be fielded without makeup, toupee, surgical prostheses, etc. Even without clothes, if that sort of thing rattled your saber. But for the image-conscious, there was of course no answer-as-you-are informality about visual-video telephone calls, which consumers began to see were less like having the good old phone ring than having the doorbell ring and having to throw on clothes and attach prostheses and do hair-checks in the foyer mirror before answering the door.
Now DC-area plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Sigal is offering what he calls the “FaceTime Facelift”.
“Patients come in with their iPhones and show me how they look on [Apple’s video calling application] FaceTime,” says Dr. Sigal. “The angle at which the phone is held, with the caller looking downward into the camera, really captures any heaviness, fullness and sagging of the face and neck. People say ‘I never knew I looked like that! I need to do something!’ I’ve started calling it the ‘FaceTime Facelift’ effect. And we’ve developed procedures to specifically address it.”
Using Jeffrey Eugenides’s newest book, The Marriage Plot, as a jumping-off point, Evan Hughes explores how the personal relationships and jealousies amongst a cadre of writers that included Eugenides, Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Karr, and David Foster Wallace pushed each of them to produce their best work and plumb the lowest depths of their self-loathing.
It was another novel-in-manuscript that had propelled Franzen toward his new phase — the thousand-plus pages of Infinite Jest. Almost all of what Franzen had read at the Limbo had been written in a kind of response to Wallace after getting an early look at his groundbreaking book. “I felt, Shit, this guy’s really done it.” As Franzen saw it, Wallace had managed to incorporate the kind of broad-canvas social critique that the great postmodernists did into a narrative “of deadly personal pertinence.” The pages Franzen produced then, he says, “came out of trying to feel good about myself as a writer after what an achievement Infinite Jest was.” His comments to Wallace weren’t all sunshine, though; he also “pointed toward some plot problems.” Wallace granted that the problems existed, Franzen told me, but said that he would thereafter deny ever having admitted it.
Nevertheless, Franzen knew it was “a giant book,” an end point of sorts. “It was clear that it was not going to be appropriate of me to try to compete at the level of rhetoric and the level of formal invention that he had achieved.” He turned instead to “a family story about a midwestern Christmas,” the beginning of which he read at the Limbo. The result was The Corrections.
In this week’s NY Times Magazine, Maud Newton tells us why she doesn’t like David Foster Wallace’s writing and blames DFW for the voice of the internet being too familiar. Maybe she’s not actually doing this, but the whole thing is really sort of annoying, too, because to me, it kind of seems like she kind of uses all of the DFW tropes she’s railing against. Then again, who am I, anyway? (Those previous 2 sentences are an example of the internet writing Newton claims DFW inspired. I think I’m a master and I probably should have written the whole post in this style.) I think I missed the point, Ms. Newton, I’m a lesser thinker.
Of course, Wallace’s slangy approachability was part of his appeal, and these quirks are more than compensated for by his roving intelligence and the tireless force of his writing. The trouble is that his style is also, as Dyer says, “catching, highly infectious.” And if, even from Wallace, the aw-shucks, I-could-be-wrong-here, I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach grates, it is vastly more exasperating in the hands of lesser thinkers. In the Internet era, Wallace’s moves have been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument.
(Via Gabe Delahaye)
Russell Brand’s post about Amy Winehouse is a lovely tribute and a sobering reminder.
When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction you await the phone call. There will be a phone call. The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they’ve had enough, that they’re ready to stop, ready to try something new. Of course though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone.
Frustratingly it’s not a call you can ever make it must be received. It is impossible to intervene.
Could help but think of Wallace while reading this, particularly this bit:
All addicts, regardless of the substance or their social status share a consistent and obvious symptom; they’re not quite present when you talk to them. They communicate to you through a barely discernible but un-ignorable veil. Whether a homeless smack head troubling you for 50p for a cup of tea or a coked-up, pinstriped exec foaming off about his “speedboat” there is a toxic aura that prevents connection. They have about them the air of elsewhere, that they’re looking through you to somewhere else they’d rather be.
Someone at Yahoo Answers posted the first page of Infinite Jest with the title “First page of my book. what do you think?” The crowd was not impressed:
No discernible voice/tone in this writing. Rambling descriptions. I, frankly, do not care where each and every person is seated. I don’t care what shoe you’re wearing. If you take out all the unnecessary details, you’d be left with about seven words.
See also what happens when a photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson gets critiqued on Flickr.
to better show a sense of movement SOMETHING has to be in sharp focus
A portion of David Foster Wallace’s personal library now resides at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Maria Bustillos visited the Center and discovered clues to Wallace’s depression scribbled in the margins of several self-help books the writer owned and very carefully read.
One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.
Much of Wallace’s work has to do with cutting himself back down to size, and in a larger sense, with the idea that cutting oneself back down to size is a good one, for anyone (q.v., the Kenyon College commencement speech, later published as This is Water). I left the Ransom Center wondering whether one of the most valuable parts of Wallace’s legacy might not be in persuading us to put John Bradshaw on the same level with Wittgenstein. And why not; both authors are human beings who set out to be of some use to their fellows. It can be argued, in fact, that getting rid of the whole idea of special gifts, of the exceptional, and of genius, is the most powerful current running through all of Wallace’s work.
Marie Mundaca designed a few of David Foster Wallace’s books, including The Pale King.
As it turned out, it was too distracting and sad for me to read while I was designing it. Wallace’s tiny, pointy notes were all over the manuscript copy, mostly name changes and corrections and small additions. One character, Elise Prout, used to be a “G3,” and a phrase that said “been squashed like a cartoon character” was changed to “worn the brown helmet.” His notes reminded me of the post-it notes that would come back to me on galley pages of the essay “Host” from Consider the Lobster — notes that said things like “Totally bitchingly great” — and I remembered that I no longer lived in a world where David Foster Wallace was alive.
Little, Brown timed the release of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, to coincide with tax day in the United States because the book revolves around activities at the IRS. But Amazon and other bookstores have already started selling the book…it’s been on sale since March 22 actually. Amazon has copies of the book in stock (I ordered mine yesterday)…your local bookstore might as well.
But in a move that’s either clever or stupid, the ebook version of the book isn’t available for the Kindle or for iBooks until April 15. Is this a ploy to get people to buy more hardcover copies? Or just sort of a “we didn’t really think about this” situation?
The latest issue of the New Yorker has a new excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
Every whole person has ambitions, objectives, initiatives, goals. This one particular boy’s goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.
His arms to the shoulders and most of his legs beneath the knee were child’s play. After these areas of his body, however, the difficulty increased with the abruptness of a coastal shelf. The boy came to understand that unimaginable challenges lay ahead of him. He was six.
Except that it’s not really new…Wallace did a reading of it back in 2000; the audio is available here. A comparison of the transcript of that reading and the “finished” version published in the NYer can be found here. (thx, @mattbucher)
This infographic attempts to explain all the interpersonal connections in Infinite Jest. (via personal report)
David Foster Wallace’s final novel, The Pale King, is now available for pre-order on Amazon.
The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, IL, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling. And he has arrived at a moment when forces within the IRS are plotting to eliminate even what little humanity and dignity the work still has.
THE PALE KING remained unfinished at the time of David Foster Wallace’s death, but it is a deeply intriguing and satisfying novel, hilarious and fearless and as original as anything Wallace ever undertook. It grapples directly with ultimate questions—questions of life’s meaning and of the ultimate value of work and family—through characters imagined with the interior force and generosity that were Wallace’s unique gifts. Along the way it suggests a new idea of heroism and commands infinite respect for a writer who dared to take on the most daunting subjects the human spirit can imagine.
Kindle users, don’t forget to click on the “I’d like to read this book on Kindle” link just under the cover image. (thx, robert)