Why David Foster Wallace Matters

Illustration: Render Stetson

Connecting deeply with readers never
goes out of style

by Matt Bucher


Nearly eight years after his death and 19 years after Infinite Jest was published, it’s worth asking why David Foster Wallace’s writing still resonates so strongly. Why is his cultural reputation still climbing? Something that lasts 20 years can hardly be called a fad.

Wallace matters today because he is a complex symbol of something we don’t really have a name for, a combination of what some people think of as hype/buzz and the authentic Real Deal. He was self-conscious about drawing attention to himself, yet he clearly stood out, bandana and all.

He told David Lipsky that carrying a book through publication was like raising a child: “It’s good to want a child to do well, but it’s bad to want that glory to reflect back on you.” He tried to deflect attention from himself back on to the books he published, but that didn’t always work.

His works matter today because readers who connect with his writing still find an unmatched intellectual prowess clinging to an emotional tidal wave. So many novels attempt to marry a highbrow storytelling technique with a heart-rending, sincere connection, but so few succeed.

Wallace matters today because he is a complex symbol of something we don’t really have a name for, a combination of what some people think of as hype/buzz and the authentic Real Deal.

Wallace believed that stories could make people feel less alone, thus it follows that those stories, if they are effective, will have lasting and intrinsic value to the reader who finds a fellow traveler and a Native Companion in them. It’s easy enough to find one’s self reflected in art, if you are willing to look, but it’s rare to find a reflection that is so comforting, so easy to love.

In a 1996 interview with SPEAK magazine, David Foster Wallace explained what was wrong with the way he approached writing when wrote his first novel, The Broom of the System:

“That paragraph at the end [of the book] is missing the word word, so I thought I would bridge the formal and the reference. Instead I missed on both counts. Ten years later, I understand that people read for intellectual reasons and emotions. And that the ending that I wrote is almost off-putting, like giving the finger to the reader. I am interested in a marriage of the two. Before I wanted to throw out the emotional in favor of the technical. Now I would get rid of the technique to save the emotion.”

Well, he saved the emotion. Wallace’s greatest contribution to literature was his ability to document and transfigure not only the last two decades of the twentieth century in America, but also the years of “literally indescribable war” he fought against himself. He did not live through the Great Depression or the firebombing of Dresden — he came of age in the malaise of the 1970s, Reagan’s 80s, Letterman, antidepressants, and MTV.

The most beloved DFW pieces of writing (Infinite Jest, the State Fair essay, the cruise ship essay, This is Water) are still passed around like tokens of love and amulets of cool because they are, in fact, not hipster-ironic but full of heart. “The art’s heart’s purpose” of each one is sincere and unguarded. And they are funny as hell.

It seems like every year now we are reassessing and repositioning how we view DFW’s work. The trend will continue for many more years. 2016 will mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of Infinite Jest, 2017 will mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Broom of the System, 2018 will mark ten years since his death. A decade from now we will still live in the fragile shadow of Wallace’s death. That calendar day in September still holds the power to make a DFW fan consider the loss. Ask a Beatles fan what December 8, 1980 was like. Sudden death creates its own fiction, but the truth is that David Foster Wallace — what he wrote and what he stood for — is as important today as he was in 2008.

DFW still matters and he will for a very long time.


Matt Bucher is the administrator of the David Foster Wallace listserv, wallace-l. He lives in Austin, Texas.