Academics explain David Foster Wallace to me

A report from the 5th-annual David Foster Wallace Conference, where the author’s most devoted readers are wondering how to approach him in 2018.

Academics explain David Foster Wallace to me

A report from the 5th-annual David Foster Wallace Conference, where the author’s most devoted readers are wondering how to approach him in 2018.

First, the flyers were defaced. Hung in the hallways of Illinois State University’s English department, the message was inked identically on each one: NAH I DON’T LIKE PREDATORS, above the clip-art lobster and below the promise of pizza.

This was mid-October 2017 — post-Weinstein, pre-C.K. The flyers announced an info session for a committee to plan and execute the school’s 5th-annual David Foster Wallace Conference. Wallace taught at ISU for nearly a decade; he wrote almost all his major works there, including the 1996 behemoth Infinite Jest. He also liked to sleep with his students, was abusive to his girlfriend at the time, the writer Mary Karr (whom he’d tried to push from a moving car not long before moving to Illinois in the summer of 1993, and also once hurled a coffee table at), committed statutory rape while away on book tour (or at least told a friend he did), and wrote to his friend Jonathan Franzen to say that he sometimes thought he was “put on earth to put his penis in as many vaginas as possible.”

This stuff had been public knowledge for years (all of the above is drawn from D.T. Max’s 2012 Wallace biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story). But with Weinstein looped on cable news, Wallace’s past behavior seemed freshly reprehensible, and more people were willing to speak out against a school-sanctioned celebration of his work.

Ryan Edel, the conference’s chairman, took the flyers down and tried to forget about them. Edel, a big, soft-voiced Chicagoan with thick glasses and a graying beard, spent five years as a military linguist before going to ISU to get his Ph.D in 2011. As a general rule, conference chairs are experts in their field: authors of monographs, anthology intros, controversial journal articles. Edel, in contrast, had barely heard of Wallace when he took on the job in 2016. He just hadn’t realized that his more-or-less provincial university hosted a conference of international significance.

His ignorance of Wallace, who died by suicide in 2008, extended to the writer’s personal life. Edel had heard hints of bad behavior, and received at least one strongly worded letter from a member of the ISU community calling him out for “honoring someone who had taken advantage of women, particularly students,” as he described it. But stacked against all the deification of Wallace as a world-historical genius/saint, this stuff had failed to fully dent his consciousness. Now, he couldn’t post to the conference’s Facebook page without being asked point-blank how he justified celebrating an abuser. Maybe the monocled bone-bags over in Updike Studies would scoff at a question like that, and start pompously discoursing on the need to situate writers in their original context. But Edel started personally answering every angry Facebook comment, unambiguously condemning Wallace’s behavior in self-searching mini-essays that could run to five or six hundred words.

“How do we negotiate the fact that we have a brilliant author who did some despicable things?” he told me. “And how do we make sure that while studying his work, we don’t inadvertently give the impression that the behaviors are somehow okay?”

The question is thornier with Wallace than it would be for most of his contemporaries. Plenty of people love the novels of Jeffrey Eugenides — but how many of them love Jeffrey Eugenides? Wallace’s work overflows with complex and vibrant characters, but of these the most enduring — the only one to transcend his writing, a la Holden Caufield or Jay Gatsby, to become a pop culture figure in their own right — is Wallace himself, the “Wallace” of his first-person essays and reviews.

This Wallace was self-aware, morally engaged, alert to hypocrisy (especially his own), and deliriously funny. You felt like you knew him, even if you knew, and knew he knew, that it was all on some level a ruse, that the ‘I’ on the page was always an invention. There are other reasons for his fandom’s intensity — Infinite Jest’s sprawl has made it the rare literary novel able to generate and sustain genre-style online communities — but it’s the voice that brings his fans two hours south of Chicago to the town of Normal, Illinois, from multiple continents and both U.S. coasts, paying anywhere from $40 (for students/part-time workers) to $150 (for teachers/full-time workers) to get in. This year, I was among them.

Ryan Edel delivers welcoming remarks on the conference’s opening night.

Ryan Edel delivers welcoming remarks on the conference’s opening night.

The conference took place in early June in Stevenson Hall, a high school-sized rectangular box enclosing dozens of drab classrooms and five entire university departments, plus Wallace’s old department office. The building was so big you barely noticed the conference: About 50 people were there, but in a space designed for thousands of students, they did make a crowd. Edel, in his commendable earnestness, had tacked flyers to the walls of Stevenson with “MeToo” in hundred-point font above instructions on an anonymous assault-reporting system.

Only crammed into the classrooms did we feel like a genuine audience, though this feeling applied only to those classrooms hosting popular talks. There were three and sometimes as many as four panels programmed simultaneously, so that conference-goers were forced to decide whether to check out a Felskian interpretation of Wallace’s “Octet” or to just say fuck it and vibe out to an examination of the ’hermeneutics of suspicion’ as they relate to the work of DFW (more often “DFDubs,” to conference-goers).

Which is how a surprisingly accessible talk on the “synecdochic network of the Encyclopedic novel” — from Kathryne Metcalf, a neon-orange-haired graduate student in American Cultural Studies at Bowling Green State who’d driven through the night from Ohio to get there — wound up being delivered to me, and only me, while at regular intervals raucous, sold-out-crowd laughter erupted from the next room (this from a panel titled “Depression, Alienation, and the Medical Gaze in Infinite Jest”). Eventually another person did slink in, allowing me to tactfully flee next door, which sounds cruel but by this time Metcalf had ceded the floor to her Skyped-in co-panelist, an Italian named Marco who’d spent much of the talk darkly muttering to someone (or something) off-camera. (“Honestly I don’t really know what happened,” Metcalf told me, over make-your-own-tacos at lunch. “He defined the word ‘ouroboros’ over and over, and then he talked about programming for a while, and then he defined ouroboros a couple more times, and then it was over.”)

I should say that these Ph.Ds were all funny and self-aware about their weakness for jargon, and that, like journalists or fiction writers (or anyone engaged passionately in a field deemed more or less valueless by society at large) they were all hilariously forthright on the abasements of academia.

But also, only maybe 65 percent of the conference attendees were academics, a number closer to 100 percent at many other lit conferences. Some are artists or creative writers, but plenty are just fans; people like Peter Christensen, an energy-industry communications manager who found Wallace’s work through a crossword puzzle clue — “author who used a lot of footnotes,” as he remembers it — and for the third year straight has taken vacation time and ventured from Washington state to talk Wallace in windowless rooms. He was presenting for the first time this year, on Wallace’s famously impenetrable monograph on infinity, said to be riddled with errors by those with the professional training to read it.

The Wallace conference was not, in fact, 40 men in bandanas talking over each other. But you can’t discuss Wallace in 2018 without mentioning his Bros. This Type, most often a young white man fanatically committed to making women read Infinite Jest, spent a couple of years as a niche concern before breaking through to the mainstream with a viral essay on the website Electric Literature called “Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me.” This was part of a whole sub-genre of essay, not all of them dedicated to Wallace (or even books — most of these essays are about Rick & Morty now), condemning certain white male artists on the basis of their worst white male fans.

The closest thing I saw to a Wallace bro at the conference barely fit the description: a man in his early twenties who wore a suit and tie on all three days of the conference (the only one, at any point, to do so) and carried his copy of Infinite Jest from panel to panel. On occasion I spotted him kind of tenderly rubbing the book up and down its fore edge in a way that verged on obscene. And so when this guy told me that the author Clare Hayes-Brady, a lecturer in American literature at the University College Dublin, was a rockstar in the world of Wallace Studies, I was inclined to believe him.

Attendees watching Clare Hayes-Brady’s keynote (left) and Hayes-Brady live via Skype (right)

Attendees watching Clare Hayes-Brady’s keynote (left) and Hayes-Brady live via Skype (right)

Hayes-Brady couldn’t make it this year (too pregnant to fly, according to her doctor), and so her talk came in the form of a pre-recorded YouTube video projected via laptop onto the main lecture hall’s immense screen. Edel struck on the innovative and extremely unsettling idea of having this video play directly alongside a Skype window showing Hayes-Brady in real time, watching us watch her keynote, or rather watching us watch her watch us watching both her and her keynote, while at the same time attempting strenuously to seem unwatched by a two-man camera crew filming us as part of an in-progress documentary about the DFW conference and Wallace’s relationship to Illinois.

Her talk — titled “Reading Your Problematic Fave: David Foster Wallace, feminism and #metoo”— was a smart, engaged, and slightly annoyed response to essays like “Men Recommend.” It also dealt with the other major nodes of contemporary Wallace-hatred: his severe mistreatment of women and the misogyny embedded in his work, which on its surface was always eager to seem right-minded (even or especially when, as in 1998’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a short story collection anchored by ranting male monologues about women, he was ventriloquizing irredeemable psychopaths).

“Can we as readers justify time spent on the creative output of artists whose ethical actions we find lacking?” Hayes-Brady asked, perhaps posing the central pop-cultural question of our time. The debate is everywhere: in essays, on message boards, on failed first dates, in controversial interviews with clueless celebrities. Hayes-Brady fell decisively on the engage side of things. In her view, to protest a “bad artist” by ignoring their work is to engage in "a neoliberal, late capitalist mode of understanding or encountering art.” “If we consider resistance in this way, as a form of boycott, it immediately turns that disengagement into an individual consumer action," she said. And if the Bad Artist in question is shielded — by Weinstein-style wealth, or by being dead — then “they are effortlessly exonerated in this model.”

An ethical way to continue teaching Wallace, Hayes-Brady suggested, would be to rigorously study the latent misogyny in his work, for what it can tell us about “the texture of the world Wallace lived in.” She spent the last stretch of her speech demonstrating exactly how that might be done, rigging a blacklight to an excerpt from Brief Interviews and forensically analyzing the stains — say, the double-silencing of its female protagonist, whose rape is described solely by a man, to another female character who is never heard in the text. You could also, Hayes-Brady suggested, defuse and enhance Wallace’s work by studying him in tandem with thematically similar works by writers he influenced, like Porochista Khakpour and Zadie Smith.

I thought these concepts were compelling, and mostly persuasive, but then I would think that, as would everyone else in the room. Hayes-Brady’s talk gave us exactly what we wanted; perhaps what many of us came to Normal to find: a cogent and nuanced permission structure within which to a) continue reading Wallace (none of us were ever going to stop doing this, anyway) and b) justify our continued reading to others — others who, like anyone with a political conviction in 2018, are fundamentally unpersuadable, and who either way wouldn’t take well to being accused of neoliberalist sympathies.

David Foster Wallace reads selections of his writing during the New Yorker Magazine Festival in New York September 27, 2002.

David Foster Wallace reads selections of his writing during the New Yorker Magazine Festival in New York September 27, 2002.

Diego Baez, a thoughtful, laid-back professor/poet with a fresh-cut fade and friendly smile, grew up around ISU, so each year’s conference is a kind of homecoming for him. This year he brought along his father-in-law, a physiatrist whose whole professional worldview was rocked by reading Jest on Baez’s suggestion.

In past years Baez — who’s been to every conference — had tweeted his annoyance with the conference’s wall-to-wall whiteness, and he was ready to do same this year, especially when he learned that the post-keynote “Diversity Panel: The Wallace Studies Community in 2018” he was asked to moderate was to be composed of a white woman and two white guys. But one of these white guys ceded their seat at the last minute to Wendy Liu, a writer and programmer who also built the conference’s website, and in the end Baez agreed to moderate the panel.

There were about 20 of us there in the classroom, not counting the documentary crew and the couple dozen people watching from home via livestream. Baez, in tight shorts and a Wu-Tang t-shirt, opened with a quick history of the Diversity Committee (itself a sub-group of the larger International David Foster Wallace Society, DFW scholarship’s global hub, with 170 dues-paying members and a board whose quarterly Skype calls need to accommodate at least a dozen time zones) before asking the panelists to introduce themselves.

“Hi, I’m Wendy Liu,” said Liu in an affable yet slightly hostile voice. “I was asked to be on this panel two hours ago.” Nearly everyone laughed, except a middle-aged man in the crowd’s exact center, with the graying scruff and thick-framed glasses of an aging gen-X creative type — the look of someone who might have once invented a font, or played drums in a seminal hardcore band. This was Matt Bucher, a kind of Renaissance man of Wallace scholarship/commemoration: host of the all-Wallace Great Concavity podcast, advisor to the The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies, President of the International David Foster Wallace Society, admin of the long-running wallace-l listserv and — judging from certain tense public exchanges between him and Ryan during that year’s Society meeting — the almost certain future chair of the DFW Conference.

Bucher rose from his seat.

“I was supposed to be on this panel,” he said. “I volunteered on this panel partly so that we could have a panel. But I felt like part of the problem was having a diversity panel with two white dudes on it, and I didn’t want that to happen. So I asked Wendy to replace me.”

With that established, Wendy related her come-to-Wallace moment. It was two years ago, when she was 24 and running a Cambridge Analytica-stye data-mining startup in Silicon Valley. Her unswerving commitment to writing code and generating huge sums of cash was badly shaken by Trump’s election, which sent her straight to her local library to make some sense of the world in which we’d wound up. There, almost at random, she came across “E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” — Wallace’s 70-page polemic published in the summer 1993 edition of the Review of Contemporary Fiction that railed against irony generally and the New Jersey-based comic novelist Mark Leyner specifically. From there she promptly read everything else Wallace had written. From the criticism surrounding his work she learned the term “neoliberal,” which more or less instantly led her into political activism and the world of socialist economics blogging.

“People aren’t going to come to the books if the popular conception is that he’s Harvey Weinstein.”
Matt Bucher

From the intros onward the panel’s tone was strenuously polite — all sympathetic nods and no-you-go-firsts — until about 20 minutes in, when Bucher rose again.

“There’s a popular conception that David Foster Wallace is a misogynist writer. Do you think David Foster Wallace was a misogynist writer?” he asked, jabbing his pen in Liu’s direction.

“Mm, look at that,” said Baez, in a voice that cracked up the room.

“I feel like that question doesn’t really make sense,” Liu said.

“I’m basically putting myself in the place of a Twitter troll,” said Bucher.

“Yes,” said Baez, to more laughter.

Bucher continued with unrelenting seriousness. “I’m telling you, that is a popular conception: on Twitter, David Foster Wallace is now lumped in with Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie. There was a bookstore in Maine that pulled his books off the shelf. Throw DFW in the trash heap of history, right? Because he’s a misogynist writer. So: is he a misogynist writer?”

Liu’s response, more or less, was that it didn’t really matter. As she told me later, Wallace’s personal life just does not factor into her relationship with the work.

“A better question,” said Baez, “might be where are the misogynies — where does it surface in his work, where does it surface in the biography?” This appeared to shift the conversation: a Floridian art critic in the audience brought up Wallace’s ’90s-style homophobia and his apparent comfort with, for instance, writing a whole scene of Infinite Jest in the imagined dialect of a drug-addicted black woman.

“My worry is that, okay, let’s say there’s a good academic paper that addresses heteronormativity,and race, and privilege — no one’s gonna read that,” Bucher said. “Compared to how many people will YouTube something like: ‘David Foster Wallace Was an Abusive Asshole.’ People aren’t going to come to the books if the popular conception is that he’s Harvey Weinstein.”

Bucher eventually dropped his theme; Wallace was exhaustively and intersectionally flayed for another 20 or so minutes; and then the panel amiably disbanded to a talk from that year’s celebrity guest, Sean Allen Pratt, the voice behind Infinite Jest’s 56-hour audiobook.

“I wanted to come in and say: here are the problems with this book. I could’ve been met with defensiveness, but I wasn’t. These are people who spend their lives studying him and they’re like, yeah: let’s talk about the problems.”
Colleen Leahy

Colleen Leahy, an 27-year-old producer for Wisconsin Public Radio, showed up at last year’s conference in a shirt that read “I Haven’t Read Infinite Jest.” She told me that her first reaction upon trying to read it was “Fuck that. Fuck that noise. Like, what the fuck? No no no no no no no no no. Like, no no no no no.” Pause. “No.”

That was in college. She’d been assigned it in a class and made it 40 pages through. From then on, she hated DFW and everything he stood for: needless obscurity, books-as-badges, white-guyness-as-prerequisite-for-genius, mouth-breathing lit-bros, etc. Leahy went to the conference last year as research: She’d decided to start a podcast with her friend Makini Allwood, And But So, about hate-reading DFW, and wanted to learn a bit about the book’s apparent fans, maybe call them out for not talking about race enough.

But then something unexpected happened. They talked about race. They talked about sexism. They won her over.

“I wanted to come in and say: here are the problems with this book,” Leahy said. “I could’ve been met with defensiveness, but I wasn’t. These are people who spend their lives studying him and they’re like, yeah: let’s talk about the problems.”

She came back this year to present on her podcast, which is currently in production, but also because she’d enjoyed herself last year.

Hayes-Brady had spoken of the necessity of engagement for critics, but most people aren’t critics. If Wallace Studies, the nascent academic field dedicated to the author that started forming in 2009, hopes to maintain the vibrancy that’s distinguished it from other areas of inquiry, it’ll need people like Leahy: everyday, engaged readers whose careers aren’t bound up in that reading.

She sketched the engagement/disengagement debate from the civilian side: “You can say fuck this culture, this is not for me, it never has been for me, I’m gonna read Maggie Nelson, I’m gonna read Jesmyn Ward, I’m gonna read Jeanette Winterson, I’m gonna read fucking Adrienne Rich, I’m gonna read Toni Morrison. Fuck those guys, I don’t need them. Or you can say: I’m gonna read all those amazing women, and also I’m gonna read Wallace and tell you why you’re wrong, and also admit where I was wrong. And I don’t think there’s a right approach.”

Students Vera Ekhator (left), Daniel Shusset, and Mattelyn Wadley present on what they learned from their undergraduate “Philosophical Ideas in Literature: David Foster Wallace” course at Gettsyburg College.

Students Vera Ekhator (left), Daniel Shusset, and Mattelyn Wadley present on what they learned from their undergraduate “Philosophical Ideas in Literature: David Foster Wallace” course at Gettsyburg College.

Early in the conference I’d noticed an older woman seated alone at one of the makeshift dining hall’s long folding tables. During Edel’s opening-night spiel she’d chimed in to thank us all for coming, how much it meant to her. She started to tear up. One of Edel’s affable grad-student assistants filled me in on her identity: Victoria Frankel Harris, emeritus English professor at ISU, who’d been there since the ’70s and brought the concept of deconstructionism to Illinois. Her husband, Charlie, also an ISU professor, hired Wallace; Victoria had the office next to him. Wallace also very nearly married her daughter, whom he dated seriously for a number of years.

We were sitting in an empty classroom on the conference’s last day. Harris, slim and saturnine, had that smoker’s laugh, rich and raspy, and it came out often when she talked about Wallace.

“David is very dear to me,” she said. “He was extraordinarily intuitive, which was linked to empathy with him. And he hated pretentiousness. I think he felt very safe here.”

Harris said that Wallace has been treated unfairly in the media, and was dismissive of Mary Karr’s claims. I didn’t press her on that — maybe that makes me a bad journalist, but I couldn’t see the value in confronting an elderly widow about the misdeeds of a dead loved one. Harris carted out her favorite Wallace anecdotes with evident pleasure — the time Wallace wrote to “warn” ISU’s hiring committee about being straight, white, and male; the time Wallace thought he lost his car, only to realize he’d lent it to a student.

Listening to her, I had the uncanny sense having heard these stories. I then realized I had: they’d turned up in D.T. Max’s Wallace biography, for which Harris was a source. Harris also suggested, vaguely, that Jonathan Franzen’s public relationship with Wallace was not what Franzen lets on. “[Franzen] said David depended on him,” she said. “Well, I know what David thought about Franzen, and I know who depended on whom.” Unfortunately, she refused to elaborate.

In Max’s biography, we learn that Wallace called his public image “the Statue.” By the time the book came out, in 2012, the Statue had already become the Shrine, burnished by every longform deep-dive, every This is Water quote photoshopped onto a filtered stock photo of a dandelion, all those fervid hectoring Bros.

Things have changed. I don’t know how it is on your internet, but on mine the Devil’s Advocate is a loathed figure, marginally more dignified than a straight-up office ass-patter. But this was not what the conference-goers looked like. Matt Bucher, for example, is by all accounts an emphatically kind and generous person who’s made centering this stuff one of the Society’s main priorities. At the diversity panel, Bucher wasn’t bloviating. He wasn’t talking just to talk. There was real emotion in his voice, when he was questioning Liu. What he wanted to know was: What do you say when you’re told, over and over, that the work you love is tainted, and that loving it taints you too?

Edel is preparing for the “extreme possibility” that the Wallace conference will be rendered politically untenable. If and when that day arrives, Edel said he’ll drop Wallace from the conference’s name and expand the event’s scope: new disciplines, new authors. But he does plan to retain some of the Wallace programming and (ideally) all of the Wallace scholarly community, making it, in effect, a Wallace conference in disguise — a sheet draped over the Statue, while they work out some way to restore it.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Makini Allwood’s name.

Daniel Kolitz is a writer living in Brooklyn.