Illustration: Kate Prior

The Democratization of David Foster Wallace

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cult of Dave

by Daniel Roberts

The Dave Wallace we meet in David Lipsky’s 2010 book is hard to like.

In the oral-history/road-trip-journal/catalog-of-neuroses Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace, simply in the unvarnished things he says to his interviewer, is difficult to take. At times he sounds like a nervous wreck (“If I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell whether I like you or not, because I’m too worried about whether you like me”), at times like a run-of-the-mill jerk (“I would have liked to get laid on the tour and I did not”). He’s jealous of the success of other young writers: “This lady Donna Tartt came? You know? And I read Secret History. And I thought it was, you know, it was pretty good. But feeling that, ‘Oh shit, now me and all these guys are displaced.’” He’s combative with the interviewer: “I don’t know whether you’re a very nice man or not… it’s very clear that you don’t believe a word of what I said.”

He doesn’t sound like the kind of person you hoped for if you went into Lipsky’s book having already read and adored Wallace’s books.

He sounds like — gasp! — a human being.

The idea of Wallace being flawed didn’t sit well with many of his adoring fans. After his death, there were a number of simultaneous cultural responses: a rush by readers to announce themselves as Wallace devotees (see: the legions of people running around with ‘inspiring’ Infinite Jest tattoos); a rush by critics and pundits to pen think-pieces on his legacy; and a rush, gradual at first, then rapid and overwhelming, by publishers to capitalize on his death.

Little, Brown took a much-loved 2005 graduation speech by Wallace at Kenyon College and turned it into a cloying coffee-table book called This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. (Yikes, just look at that title.) Publishers gathered up every scrap of his writing they could and re-issued it to make whatever money might be made. His college thesis on free will, the wonky book of rap analysis he co-wrote with Mark Costello, his final interview before he died, disparate essays he wrote for various publications — all of it was re-published or re-packaged, culled together for anthologies and collections and commentaries, all of it made into objects to be bought and cherished. It seemed, for a time, awfully depressing.

Then came the backlash to the Wallace worship. Bret Easton Ellis chimed in to call Wallace “overrated” and “pretentious.” Wallace’s friend (and friendly rival) Jonathan Franzen declared in The New Yorker in 2011, “he wasn’t Saint Dave.” Franzen upset people further when he casually suggested to New Yorker editor David Remnick that Wallace exaggerated facts and embellished quotes in his non-fiction.

Then came the backlash to Franzen’s own backlash. People accused him of sour grapes. They piled on, eager for more reason to hate the crotchety, award-draped birdwatcher who has so disdainfully insulted the Internet.

Franzen and Wallace in 1996 at the launch party for Infinite Jest; photo by Marina Garnier

It did feel like Franzen was a child sitting at the back of the classroom, muttering under his breath about the cool kid, He’s not as great as you think… One Wallace worshiper wailed on a story at The Awl, “There’s no reason [for Franzen] to continue to smear his friend’s name.” Another commenter retorted, quite reasonably, “The people who knew him knew a human being who could be as angry, bitter, insecure and caustic as any other writer… That wasn’t all he was by a long stretch, but it was part of who he was, and it’s gradually being erased by the posthumous Cult of Dave.”

That’s precisely right: the Cult of Dave that exploded after Wallace’s death centered around putting the author on a pedestal, as a brilliant literary mascot to worship, rather than what he appears, in Lipsky’s interviews, to have been: a talented writer who was also, perhaps, sometimes, an asshole.

The Cult of Dave is about demonstrating that they “get” this obsessed-over writer, whereas others just aren’t smart enough. They want to ensure that all portrayals do his legacy justice. They don’t like the idea of his being less than perfect. The favored mantra of twelve-step programs everywhere to “accept the things I cannot change” comes to mind.

But the Cult of Dave was borne out of something healthy: a love of Wallace’s writing. Of course, the looniest of his fans aren’t satisfied with simply enjoying this deceased person’s writing; they seem to want to elevate the idea of the man himself, and own it. After his death, everyone scrambled to own some piece of The DFW Brand. Just as bad as the fans that adored him were the snobby critics that presumed Wallace too challenging for the general population. Too many reviewers appear to feel they are above the readers of their reviews. They, too, exhibited an ownership tendency over Wallace after his death.

But as Christian Lorentzen wrote in New York Magazine, “Nobody owns David Foster Wallace anymore.”

And that’s fine. After all, Wallace was something of a secret populist. Just look back at half of the things he says in Lipsky’s book, or at the essay “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” or at his (hard-to-watch) 1997 TV interview with Charlie Rose, in which he says, whether honestly or not, that he hadn’t been aiming to make Infinite Jest a ‘difficult’ book, but simply to convey his own loneliness: “I wanted it to be extraordinarily sad and not particularly postmodern or jumbled up or fractured.”

That ‘DFW’ has become such a commodity, a buzzword, practically an Internet meme, would likely shock no one more than Wallace himself. He admitted to Rose that after his first novel, “I got some attention for some work that didn’t really deserve it at an age when I had a hard time handling it… I had a hard time with it.” He simultaneously wanted the attention and was terrified by it — perhaps the condition of many writers.

Wallace became such a commodity that someone — some talented and well-regarded someones — deemed it worth making an entire movie in which he and a second writer mostly sit in a car arguing with each other. The End of the Tour succeeds at what it wants to do (and Segel and Eisenberg, as Wallace and Lipsky, are enthralling), but it is hard to imagine the movie would be appealing to anyone who isn’t already obsessed with, or at least familiar with David Foster Wallace. Even among those people, half of them are (misguidedly) outraged it was made (and many have “condemned the movie sight unseen”). And yet here it is, the result of visible effort and care by the actors and filmmakers. Its existence is another product of the Cult of Dave. But if it leads a few more people to decide to pick up one of Wallace’s books, that’s a wonderful thing.

Eisenberg and Segel in a tense scene from The End of the Tour.

Lorentzen, in the New York Magazine piece, suggests that the loss of Wallace to the mainstream culture is something unfortunate: “he’s slipped out of the hands of those who knew him, and those who read him in his lifetime, and into the cultural maelstrom, which has flattened him.” Flattened? Not for me. I liked many of his novels, short stories, and essays before he died, and I didn’t like some of them, and whatever cultural worship there is of Wallace doesn’t change that.

No one owns Wallace, and that’s the great equalizer.

The flipside of commoditization is democratization. In the explosion of attention since his death, Wallace has been democratized. He has gone mainstream, he’s become a household name, his writing is open to all — that’s a great thing.

It took me a while to understand and accept that.

In addition to Franzen and various cultural commentators, there were others who also shunned new readers from adoring Wallace. I was nearly one of them: the worshipers, the evangelists, the snooty, self-appointed experts on all things Wallace. I exhibited all the symptoms.

I wrote my senior thesis in college on Wallace, focusing on his non-fiction and its similarities to the style of Hunter S. Thompson. (In the years since, I’ve met two other middle-class white men that wrote their college theses on the same topic, one that I had thought was so blisteringly original.) The week Wallace died, I devoted my weekly column in the campus newspaper to a holier-than-thou explainer on him. I recall that it said something like, “I bet you’ve never heard of this author that killed himself this week, but here’s why he was so important and was a once-in-a-generation genius.” Some creative writing major in the year above me picked a fight with me at the town bar that night; I couldn’t really blame him. He taunted in a snide voice, “Yeah, who is David Foster Wallace, what, I’m too stupid to know about him?” He had read Infinite Jest — “way back in high school, asshole” — and a few days later, we shook hands and became friends. (He, too, of course, was just another person eager to show off his understanding of Wallace.)

Later that year, a friend of mine who had never been much of a fiction reader asked to borrow my copy of Infinite Jest. I hesitated. “You really think you’ll read it? It’s more than 1,000 pages… try starting with one of his essay collections.” He insisted. Three months later, I noticed it in his dorm room, lying under an old coffee cup. He admitted he would never open it, gave it back to me with no protest, and I felt a pompous satisfaction. (I knew it!)

That sickness followed me to New York, where I moved after college. When I saw a young person, girl or guy, reading one of Wallace’s books on the subway, I would always strike up a conversation, ask if it was the first book of his they’d read (it usually was), counsel them, unasked, on which one to read next. In many cases it got me a girl’s phone number, in some cases the conversation fizzled quickly, but in all cases I knew what I was doing and that it was anything but charming and still I couldn’t help myself. When I did meet someone who really was familiar with Wallace, or claimed to be, I comforted myself with the bet that, well, they may have read his essays, they may have slogged through Infinite Jest, but surely they hadn’t read, say, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way,” the 140-page novella that, for my money, best showcases all of Wallace’s literary tricks and tics.

By 2011, when The Pale King came out (it remains my favorite of all his books), this particular persona (and I?) had already become a cliché: the arty bro, East Coast-educated, reading Wallace in a backwards hat on the train, picking up women in bookstores. It was such a cliché that on one first date, when I mentioned having written my college thesis on Wallace, the girl’s face fell and she said her last boyfriend had written his college thesis on Wallace and that she hoped I would never mention the author again.

I was one of the people who groaned at every new publication about Wallace, who felt some sort of cosmic injustice had been done. The David Foster Wallace Reader. The Last Interview. What, god forbid, would come next? The DFW doll? Coffee mugs with motivational DFW-isms? (I believe those exist, actually.) An Enfield Tennis Academy board game?

What made me come around? What cured me of this reactionary resentment of the DFW marketing bonanza? I sort of got over him.

I don’t mean to say that I decided he was any less talented than I had thought; I think he is probably one of the few who deserves that oh-so-overused book blurb “one of the greatest writers of his generation.” But I devoured everything he wrote, re-read my favorites, then moved on. I discovered a slew of other fiction writers, equally unknown to mainstream readers as Wallace had once been, and equally deserving of their own flag-waving obsessive fans. And some of them I simply enjoyed more. (To name just a few: David Gates, Jane Smiley, Will Self, Donald Antrim, Steven Millhauser, Deborah Eisenberg.) I also re-read Infinite Jest and discovered, first, that I should not have read it in high school because that was too early and I had missed a lot, and second, that the book is often rambling and indulgent and, yes, sorry, needed stricter editing.

That helped me curb my worship.

A funny thing happens in the myopic literary world (or, these days, on Literary Twitter): we forget that the spats, book releases, accolades, or scandals that seem so significant to us are usually just raindrops in the larger pop culture ocean.

At the end of the day, [Wallace] was a writer, and if you love his writing, why wouldn’t you want as many people to enjoy it as possible?

When The Art of Fielding, for example, was published to rave reviews and strong sales a few years ago, it felt like a ‘moment.’ The book was the focus of a giant feature in Vanity Fair. I read the novel twice and thought, as other young writers did, that this was surely the dream: critical acclaim and mainstream attention. But I remember feeling shocked, one year after its release, when many people I knew, who loved to read fiction, told me they hadn’t read or even heard of it. Perhaps it hadn’t been such a major cultural event. A few other relatively recent literary ‘scandals’ I can recall would include James Frey’s loose use of the memoir label for his book A Million Little Pieces, Bret Easton Ellis insulting the deceased Wallace, Claire Messud’s response to being asked whether her protagonist in The Woman Upstairs was likable, and Jennifer Weiner complaining about the attention showered on Jonathan Franzen and other male writers. But the vast majority of the country took no notice of these contretemps and has never heard of Chad Harbach, Messud, Weiner or even Franzen. (This is why it was such a shocking coup when he graced the cover of Time.) If they’ve heard of James Frey, it’s only because of Oprah.

So it is with Wallace, too: for all the hue and cry over how he’s been deified, to the majority of the world he is a dead postmodern novelist they know nothing about. And they don’t care. And so why should those who do know the value of his work want to keep him off-limits?

Bring Wallace to new audiences. Publish him in every country and every language. Slap his bandana-clad face onto souvenir t-shirts like they did to Che Guevara, if you wish! Why not? If you don’t like the hype, ignore it, and enjoy the writing.

All of this brings to mind a Facebook group I spotted in college (remember Facebook groups?) called “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get one.” No one owns Wallace, and that’s the great equalizer. No merchandise, or indie film, or big-budget biopic (certainly that’s what will come next) can change that. At the end of the day, he was a writer, and if you love his writing, why wouldn’t you want as many people to enjoy it as possible?

Early on in Lipsky’s book, Wallace is agonizing over the optics of doing an interview with Rolling Stone, seeking to convey his desire not to look like the kind of person who would care about how he comes across in an interview with a magazine (but oh, how he cared!). He tells Lipsky, “There’s nothing more grotesque than somebody who’s going around, ‘I’m a writer, I’m a writer, I’m a writer.’”

But that’s what Wallace was. He was clearly brilliant, he was clearly talented, he was clearly troubled. And in his absence, what will endure more than any bickering over his legacy, or endless parsing of his text, is the text itself.

Daniel Roberts is a journalist in New York. He’s written about David Foster Wallace for Salon, NPR, Berfrois, and Flavorwire.