Sketching the Outlines

Thoughts on The David Foster Wallace Reader

by Lisa Borst

Illustration by Ben Ross

published November 21, 2014

Last week, Little, Brown, & Company released The David Foster Wallace Reader, a sort of Greatest Hits collection of some of the most acclaimed and best-known works (both fiction and non-) of a writer who, in the six years following his suicide, has become one of the publisher’s top-selling names. Curated by a long and impressive list of “advisers”—among whom are counted authors like George Saunders and Jonathan Franzen, as well as Wallace’s mother, college roommate, and others who knew him personally— the Reader ostensibly aims to present a singular, centralized guide to Wallace’s works, spanning early experiments in fiction written during his undergraduate career through his later nonfiction magazine work, frequently harrowing short stories, and excerpts from his three highly acclaimed novels.

“The purpose of this David Foster Wallace Reader is simple,” write Karen Green, Bonnie Nadell, and Michael Pietsch—Wallace’s wife, agent, and editor, respectively— in the Reader’s introduction: “to gather in one volume a selection of the most celebrated, most enjoyable, funniest, and most remarkable work by this always-remarkable writer.” Scanning the book’s table of contents, though, it’s difficult to parse exactly what a reader familiar with David Foster Wallace is meant to get from The David Foster Wallace Reader. Given the widespread accessibility of Wallace’s works already, the act of arbitrarily compiling, abridging, and re-selling them seems at best unnecessary, and at worst in opposition to Wallace’s central concerns.

Since his death, Wallace has become, to many readers, a kind of preposterously brilliant, voice-of-a-generation sort of figure, revered on college campuses for his innovative synthesis of radically clever, postmodern irony with a hyper-sincere, astoundingly empathetic approach to almost endless varieties of human suffering and guilt. I’ve heard him referenced endlessly in English classes, witnessed students wearing shirts advertising institutions that only exist inside his fictional worlds, seen his sentences tattooed on people’s bodies. Once, at a party, I watched two students deliberately select a copy of Infinite Jest from a bookshelf, roll a joint on its iconic clouded cover (the novel, it’s worth mentioning, is pretty directly about substance abuse), then place it back on the shelf next to the Pynchon and Gaddis against which it’s frequently measured.

I’ve personally fallen pretty far into the DFW obsession hole too: barring a select few of his more esoteric publications (there’s a short book somewhere about the semiotics of hip-hop, or something, and a monograph on the concept of infinity), I have— and I say this with a certain mix of pride and cringing privileged guilt—read just about every published DFW work you can find in a bookstore or on the licit and illicit ends of the Internet. I’ve written four or five papers revolving around a particular essay on television and critical theory that he wrote in 1990. Once, Wallace’s wife, Karen Green, came to Brown to read from her 2013 book about his suicide. I skipped class to go, cried in the dark in the McCormick Family Theater, briefly shared a bench and a platter of red grapes with Green at the event’s reception, then left without speaking to her, heart shaking, tangentially star-struck.

All of which is to say that I’m not totally sure whom The David Foster Wallace Reader is trying to reach. It seems that Wallace has historically ranked alongside folks like Captain Beefheart and Willaim Gass in a weird, elite category of artists about whom people either seem to care intensely, fervently, cultishly—or very little. Lacking much of a casual fan base, then, Wallace’s works, shortened and compiled, present an odd sort of paradox: a hefty, pricy hardcover, the Reader is designed to fit in nicely on a shelf next to Infinite Jest and Oblivion and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again—but at the same time it’s not much more than a diluted and abridged paraphrasing of those widely revered works, ostensibly offering little to the existing reader.


The David Foster Wallace Reader clocks in at just over 950 pages long, nearly approaching the notorious heft of Wallace’s colossal 1996 novel, Infinite Jest. It’s divided into three sections: Fiction, Teaching Materials (a short collection of syllabi and handouts on grammar from Wallace’s career as an undergraduate writing professor at Pomona College), and Nonfiction. Maybe every third or fourth selection is followed by an afterword, a little two-page write-up by a friend or colleague of Wallace. Perhaps because they’re sandwiched between Wallace’s own works—which, on the sentence level, are pretty nearly virtuosic and (as Wallace once self-identified, sheepishly, in a letter to the novelist Jonathan Franzen) “linguistically calisthenic”—these afterwords are, by and large, not very good, offering such maladroit critiques as “This is the book’s saddest passage” and “I will never think of tennis in the same way again.” By far the most salient piece of criticism is the introduction to the Teaching Materials section, written by Sally Foster Wallace—DFW’s mother. Like her son, Sally Foster Wallace is an English teacher, and her descriptions of Wallace’s passion for grammar are decidedly charming. “We were fond of groaning about composition and decomposition,” she notes; “grading and degrading”—as are the included teaching-related email exchanges between them: “I handed my papers back yesterday, and saw a burning effigy outside a frat party last night that looked a bit suspicious,” Wallace writes to his mother.

Like the majority of the afterwords in the Reader, though, existing criticism of Wallace’s works has historically been pretty lacking: D.T. Max’s 2012 biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, was not particularly well-received, criticized as anemic and unnecessary, and David Lipsky’s account of a 1996 road trip with Wallace, published four years ago under the title Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, was largely considered a fairly transparent moneymaking endeavor. In the absence of much new critical insight, then, one wonders whether The David Foster Wallace Reader might fall into the same legacy-squeezing trap.


That the Reader is a pretty obvious attempt to cash in on what’s got to be Little, Brown, & Co.’s crowning jewel is a significant source of my unease about the project. Like clockwork, one or two new books by or about David Foster Wallace have been published every year since his 2008 death, and—propelled, some argue, by the media attention his suicide stirred up—his books have sold posthumously in unprecedented numbers. In an essay published in The New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen wrote of the aftermath of Wallace’s death: “People who had never read his fiction, or had never even heard of him, read his Kenyon College commencement address in the Wall Street Journal and mourned the loss of a great and gentle soul. A literary establishment that had never so much as short-listed one of his books for a national prize now united to declare him a lost national treasure.”

And it’s true that something like an obscure, early-career essay about free will simply would not have been a lucrative posthumous publishing endeavor if there wasn’t an existing community of prodigious buyers—many of them, I’m going to posit, young, liberal, well-educated Americans raised in a media-saturated culture that seems to all but implore both postmodern cleverness and the foray into anxious sincerity—for whom Wallace has, in death, become something between a soothsayer and a martyr. In the past few years, as universities have begun offering undergraduate classes on his works, and as plans for an upcoming biopic about his life (oddly starring Jason Segal as Wallace) have surfaced, it’s become pretty clear that Little, Brown & Co. is well aware of Wallace’s extensive and endlessly hungry audience—and the publishing house, it seems, has been increasingly desperate to dig up unpublished or uncollected works, milking Wallace’s corpus for everything it’s worth.

But what’s frustrating about The David Foster Wallace Reader, for the well-versed Wallace fan, is that just about every essay or excerpt or story in it has already been published—and, indeed, they’ve mostly been established as contenders among Wallace’s best-known and -loved works. The selections in the Reader, for the most part, aren’t obscure, back-catalogue ephemera; they’re essays and stories, like 1996’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” or 2004’s “Good Old Neon,” that are already being read and reread and emailed to loved ones by countless anxious, sincere, college-educated millennials. (Conspicuously, “This Is Water,” the commencement address Wallace delivered at Kenyon in 2006 and perhaps his single most-known work, is absent from the book.) 

The Reader, in fact, contains only one previously unpublished work aside from the short selection of teaching materials—a story called “The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation To The Bad Thing,” which Wallace wrote during his junior year at Amherst College. (Weirdly, though, the story—while a pretty clearly autobiographical account of Wallace’s experiences with depression during college—takes place not at Amherst but at Brown University, making the whole thing hit even more uncomfortably close to home than usual, for yours truly at least.) While a salient foreshadowing of the themes and styles that would ferment into Wallace’s later, better-known work, “The Planet Trillaphon” as an entire anthology’s sole new piece is all in all pretty lame, and, I think, pretty symptomatic of the Reader’s most obvious flaw: that, much to my own and my peers’ personal disappointment—and, evidently, to Little, Brown, & Co.’s—Wallace’s canon has at this point been pretty much thoroughly milked.


Books by or about David Foster Wallace published in the six years since David Foster Wallace’s 2008 death:

This Is Water (2009)
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace (2010)
David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview (2010)
The Pale King (2011)
Both Flesh and Not: Essays (2012)
Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will (2012)
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Biography of David Foster Wallace (2012) MFA vs. NYC (2014) (contributor (but, like, a pretty central one))
The David Foster Wallace Reader (2014)


There’s an unfortunate sort of person who will sneer hard in your direction if you admit that your only exposure to Bob Dylan is through his Greatest Hits album, or that you saw the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney but aren’t familiar with the rest of his work. And maybe it’s true that there’s something sort of painful about a Best-Of collection: an oeuvre distilled seems to suggest that we’re incapable of wading through a particular body of work ourselves, that we need an elegant $35 guide to help us out. In the case of David Foster Wallace, this assumption feels particularly off-base, mostly because his works are 1) relatively recent and widely available, and 2) not overwhelmingly extensive. Author-specific anthologies, I’m tempted to posit, are for daunting, disparate, un-tackle-able bodies of work from long ago, ones that would be impossible to cobble together from the display tables at your university bookstore. Anthologies are for H.P. Lovecraft and early American folk music, not for a body of work you can download in one click from any number of illegal places on the Internet.

An anthology also—and this is where The David Foster Wallace Reader, for me, really begins to find itself in a sticky spot—necessarily gestures toward a certain mission or ideological project within a particular corpus. There’s a reason, I think, that author-specific anthologies are almost never published during the lifetime of the author in question. By definition, an anthology is externally curated; it’s an attempt by a third party to shave a large body of work into something cohesive and neat and small. It necessitates deliberately imposing a unified meaning onto a body of work that may or may not contain linear ideologies or belief systems.

The selections in the Reader are organized chronologically within each of the book’s three sections. Thus, the pieces are meant to walk us through the major ideological trends across Wallace’s career, allowing us to watch his voice and concerns develop in real-time: within the Fiction section, for example, we see his prose progress from the Wittgenstein-influenced, heavy-handedly metafictional preoccupation with linguistics in 1987’s The Broom of the System, to the maximalist sincerity of Infinite Jest, to the sadder, more internal, less flashy style of his last short stories and the unfinished novel The Pale King. The book’s chronological structure, though, risks presenting this progression too neatly. Wallace’s corpus contains ruptures and breaks; spanning several decades and combining and traversing forms, it changes its mind several times across its lifetime.

As part of a postmodern lineage of theory-informed fiction alongside writers like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo and, more recently, Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, Wallace’s works—indebted as they are to a critical tradition that is by definition skeptical of metanarratives—resist linearization. Thus, statements like this one by novelist Hari Kunzru, in the afterword for the 1988 short story “Little Expressionless Animals,” present an odd paradox: “The word expression is dulled from overuse. This is the story in which twenty-five-year-old Wallace sharpens it up and cuts into a topic to which he’ll always return: the difficulty, the near impossibility—as he sees it—of interpersonal connection.”

It’s true that, throughout his works, Wallace stressed the crippling limitation of written communication: “What goes on inside,” he wrote in the mostly autobiographical 2006 story “Good Old Neon,” “is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.” But by that token, assigning to his 20-year body of work a singular ideological project beyond this idea seems beside the point: if to write is to necessarily be misinterpreted, then what does it mean to be curated, abridged, and packaged into a neat hardcover?


I worry that it’s just as antagonistic and pointless and anti-DFW to make sweeping, too-neat generalizations about the archetypal David Foster Wallace reader as it does to make them about The David Foster Wallace Reader. Many of the David Foster Wallace readers I know are intensely devoted anal completists who very nearly attended Pomona College, can quote the story “Incarnations of Burned Children” verbatim, etc., etc. At the same time, though, posthumous presentations of Wallace’s work have positioned him as a sexy sort of public intellectual, a Cobainianly sensitive monument in death. Six years after Wallace’s suicide made him a household name, we’re at a point at which merely having a copy of Infinite Jest on your bookshelf is a bit like having Neutral Milk Hotel in your record collection: it’s a major generational touchstone, an easy display of cultural capital.

Given the cultural space that Wallace has come to occupy—and doubtlessly will only continue to grow into, as his works increasingly enter the realm of required reading within the American university—I wonder: What does The David Foster Wallace Reader offer to the existing reader? What might it offer to someone unfamiliar with his work? Does reading the arbitrarily designated “best” 200 pages of Infinite Jest count the same as having read the whole huge thing? Will anyone know but you—and furthermore, does that factor into what and why we read? Is it an asshole move to even ask?