The World According To DFW

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has been on a spending spree for years, purchasing the papers of literary titans like James Agee, Norman Mailer, and Don DeLillo (among innumerable others).

Now, they’ve added David Foster Wallace’s sprawling scribblings to their collection, much of it available online. Highlights include a handwritten early draft of Infinite Jest, books from Wallace’s personal collection, featuring his chicken-scratch marginalia, a dictionary with words Wallace circled–which probably came in handy during the composing of his landmark essay “Present Tense: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage,” first published in the April 2001 Harper’s. The manuscript of the elusive Pale King is there, as well.

Here’s Wallace’s longtime agent, Bonnie Nadell, on how the DFW papers ended up at UT-Austin:

Organizing David Wallace’s papers for an archive was not a task I would wish on many people. Some writers leave their papers organized, boxed, and with careful markers, David left his work in a dark, cold garage filled with spiders and in no order whatsoever. His wife and I took plastic bins and cardboard boxes and desk drawers and created an order out of chaos, putting manuscripts for each book together and writing labels in magic markers.

But what scholars and readers will find fascinating I think is that as messy as David was with how he kept his work, the actual writing is painstakingly careful. For each draft of a story or essay there are levels of edits marked in different colored ink, repeated word changes until he found the perfect word for each sentence, and notes to himself about how to sharpen a phrase until it met his exacting eye. Having represented David from the beginning of his writing career, I know there were people who felt David was too much of a “look ma no hands” kind of writer, fast and clever and undisciplined. Yet anyone reading through his notes to himself will see how scrupulous they are. How a character’s name was gone over and over until it became the right one. How David looked through his dictionaries making notes, writing phrases of dialogue in his notebooks, and his excitement in discovering a wild new word to use.

On Reality & Its Discontents

Quite possibly the most brazenly insubordinate and thought-provoking book I have read since Walter Benjamin‘s landmark essay “The Work of Art In the Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” is David Shields’s highly hyped “manifesto,” Reality Hunger. (Inverted sentence structure intended, BTW.)

I don’t know if I am yet prepared to follow Shields into the novels-are-not-really-novels wilderness, but I do share his frustration with the reading and writing of fiction nowadays. This frustration, it seems, is infectious: see Zadie Smith‘s bracing Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, in which she questions the purpose of the novelist in today’s world.

As Shields has it,

[Writing fiction] feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in a costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody.


Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real.

and even

I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels.

A deserved slap to the side of the faces of storytellers, perhaps. A conversation starter, at least.

What is more real? So-called nonfiction (“reality”) or so-called novels (“imagination”)? What is the relationship between reality and the imagination? Why would anyone read–or, for that matter, write–novels in this day an age, when oftentimes the reading public will gravitate toward the nonfiction tome over the novel? These are trenchant, age-old questions that harken back to that perennial candidate for the first novel ever, Don Quixote. For me, the fiction/nonfiction debate (“throwdown”?) strikes a personal chord. It’s no secret my first novel came out in the overwrought shadow of that other book about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and, as Shields and Smith would have it, it’s also no secret readers devoured the nonfictional version of the story with more ferocity than they did the fictional version. (I don’t mean to imply my book is any better than the other, I-still-cannot-bear-to-utter-its-name book.)

As I feverishly read Reality Hunger–and, earlier today, a frolicsome chat with Shields over at The Millions–I was frequently reminded of something Richard Powers said to me in our Believer interview:

A chemist can say how atoms bond. A molecular biologist can say how a mutagen disrupts a chemical bond and causes a mutation. A geneticist can identify a mutation and develop a working screen for it. Clergy and ethicists can debate the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. A journalist can interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are wrestling with their faith while seeking to bear a child free of inheritable disease. But only a novelist can put all these actors and dozens more into the shared story they all tell, and make that story rearrange some readers’ viscera.

As I’m once again lost at sea with a longer fictional project, I sure hope he’s right.