David Foster Wallace signed his emails with Xs and Os. He used smiley faces to punctuate sentences and told his agent he “couldn’t wait” to see her again. He was a human.
His emails are stored in the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas where I worked as an undergrad. With them are some of his papers with notes in the margins, and his little scribblings. There are boxes upon boxes upon boxes of his writing; scholars come from all over the world to gingerly page through. They take notes on yellow legal pads. Sometimes they sigh.
I went through Foster Wallace’s emails, reluctantly, to fact check a line for a piece in a national publication. The author had no idea which email the line was from, so I spent probably seven hours one day reading correspondence between Foster Wallace and his agent, Bonnie Nadell.
I didn’t want to read his emails because by that point I already hated David Foster Wallace. Xs and Os and all.
I read Consider the Lobster and Other Essays — probably the most approachable work of the late American author David Foster Wallace — at eighteen years old.
The world of progressive liberalism was a world away from the Texas suburb where I grew up, and the idea that rational thought, brilliance even, could be so beautifully written, like it was a great novel, was something I hadn’t ever encountered. All this to say that on first approach, I loved David Foster Wallace.
I dove head-first into his sparse canon of writings and speeches. I watched him give speeches from podiums on YouTube. I learned quickly the way that David Foster Wallace wanted to be read and I tried with all the earnestness of a college freshman to read him that way. Here was a man who was asking himself all of the questions I was too embarrassed to tell anyone that I was asking about myself.
“Am I a good person?” he wrote in Consider the Lobster. “Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference?”
One has plenty of time to consider morality on the green lawn of a state school campus, or at least I did. It took me months to read Consider the Lobster. It had never taken me more than a month to read anything. And it wasn’t because I hated Foster Wallace; it was because it took me that long to process what he was saying — also, I had class.
As much as I loved his essays though, I couldn’t tackle Infinite Jest. In part because I typically love short novels written by women that are deeply saturated in heartbreak and trauma. But also because I literally could not read Infinite Jest for five minutes without being interrupted.
I had a roommate and our tiny dorm room had poor natural light and zero solitude. So I took this brick of a book with me to the grass outside. Or to the coffee shop, where I learned to drink espresso instead of lattes, surrounded by the mustachioed, plaid-shirted men of Austin who bummed cigarettes off me and gave me book recommendations. I was inside a parody of a coming of age/enlightenment movie montage.
Or at least, I was until I started trying to read Infinite Jest in public.
“To make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people,” Foster Wallace writes in Consider the Lobster.
Foster Wallace couldn’t communicate with me directly, but his fans certainly could, and they were assholes.
They were the type of men, I would realize later, who call themselves feminists but assault women. They were politically and vocally progressive liberals who were actually misogynists, and I could barely read Infinite Jest over the roar of their thoughts.
Any woman who has existed in the world sporting something that is typically or even popularly known to be loved by men has experienced this phenomenon. That your love for this piece of revered art cannot just exist on its own: it must be explained.
How could you, a woman, love this book that is 2000 pages long and about thought?
It is part straight misogyny, and part intrigue. Try wearing a Radiohead T-shirt in public to a bar filled with young men and see how many conversations about Kid A you can have before you realize that only one of the guys actually wants to hear your opinion on it.
I read half of Infinite Jest before I gave up. I was exhausted. Infinite Jest was so much bigger than the 2000 pages I lugged around. It was a fanbase that I couldn’t be apart of — partially because I wasn’t one of these boys, and partially because, well, I hated the book.
In the spirit of transparent journalism, I was ready to write a hit piece on the fanboys of David Foster Wallace. I had been at a Foster Wallace conference the Ransom Center held a couple of years ago when what had seemed to be a normal conversation devolved into two men (one of them wearing a bandana) yelling. In my mind, David Foster Wallace was the masturbatory wet dream of white liberal men everywhere. Which meant he couldn’t possibly be for me.
Jessica Smith destroyed that entire theory. She’s about to be a grad student at the Texas Tech University in the fall where she’ll get her PhD and teach literature to undergrads.
She’s a huge David Foster Wallace fan, and the first person I talked to. I was hoping she’d relay the same kind of frustrations I had felt, but she didn’t. Instead, we had an incredible conversation about literature and Foster Wallace and loving something so much it transforms you.
Jessica, like me, tried to read Infinite Jest too young. “I had this thought, you know, I’m a serious writer; I better read Infinite Jest,” she told me. “I probably put it down after maybe 100 pages. I was such a cliché.”
Jessica says that some of the pressure to read Infinite Jest was internal. She wanted to read the big books of American history, and think on that level even though, at times, her youth made that impossible and limited her relationship to the book. But later the pressure to read him came from his universal renown among the literary population. Her English teachers, whether out of obligation or true love, unanimously recommended him.
“I think it’s just like any profession,” Smith told me. “Climbers always want to do the highest peak, and Infinite Jest is definitely a high peak.”
This metaphor of a peak seems apt. Have you ever met someone who has climbed Mt. Kilamanjaro? Or Mt. Whitney? Or even Everest? Sure, they will talk to others who have climbed the same peak about the terrain and the flora and fauna, but what makes a climb isn’t those things. It’s the trail that you, as a climber, take. It’s the place where you fell.
“I find people to be fiercely attached to what their idea of him is,” Smith said. “It’s hard to have a discussion that doesn’t dissolve into emotion, which is interesting. People are really defensive about their David Foster Wallace experience.”
That word experience is so integral to David Foster Wallace. Like any artist, we approach him with our own baggage and background — life lived — that affects the way we read him. How we read when we read David Foster Wallace, or any author, is a completely individual experience.
Religion is unionized by a shared text. The faiths of the people within that group may vary dramatically. They may pick and choose the passages they want to back up the beliefs they already hold and end up in very different places of existing. Their relationships with their god may exist in astoundingly varied realms, but their Gospel is the same.
So, too, are the fans of Foster Wallace.
“I notice a lot of men mansplaining David Foster Wallace, which is standard," Jessica told me. “But I worry that I over-talk him. I try to hold back sometimes because I worry that I can ruin him by loving him so much that I set up the wrong expectations for someone who’s maybe not prepared for that kind of read.”
Jessica loves Foster Wallace the writer and Foster Wallace the great mind. Wallace, for her is a man who “writes about a lot of new ideas, about how to be a person, how to function best to create.”
As Foster Wallace himself once said, “Making the head throb like the heart.”
Fandom is an extreme experience. Christian Rock festivals are over the top lovefests. One Direction concerts are filled with massive hoardes of screaming girls. Comic Con has a fandom that dresses themselves in expensive and complex costumes.
Any fandom can be off-putting when approached as an outsider. You don’t know the lingo, you aren’t accustomed to the rhetoric, you hate the two-page sentences. Whatever.
Foster Wallace fans model themselves after their creator. But unlike other fandoms, modelling after Foster Wallace means being fiercely and completely devoted to their work. “I think it’s what a fan thinks that the object of their affection thinks is cool,” Jessica tells me. “You want to stay in your room and work for eight hours a day and maybe, you know, rescue dogs.”
After I spoke with Jessica, I couldn’t write the piece I wanted to write. Every horrible experience I had had with David Foster Wallace fans wasn’t about him at all. They were the fringes of an intense, intelligent, and maybe even well-meaning group of people.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.