Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace Dies

Heard the sad new from Preeta that American author David Foster Wallace took his own life on Friday evening at the age of 46. As Preeta says :

... it's a tremendous loss ... was a genius according to most definitions of the word: a true innovator, a challenger of convention, someone who changed his art form as much as he contributed to it. The art of the novel hasn't been the same since Infinite Jest and his influence is apparent in the work of so many who've followed ...

Timothy Williams writes the New York Times obituary and Michiko Kautani appraises his work.

Postscript :

Obituary by Michael Carlson in the Guardian and a heartfelt blog post by Robert Potts.

Guy Adams in the Independent explores the author's dark side.

Charlie Rose interviews him here.

Harpers provides links to a whole lot of his writing.


Anonymous said...

Another writer suicide.

Anonymous said...

Terribly sad...the last piece I read from him was his homage to Federer, and I was wowed by his talent that he could write so engagingly on many subjects.


Anonymous said...

I am currently reading his collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, and it's amazing!

Fallen Angel

bibliobibuli said...

another? yes! i've updated the link to patrick earnest's essay on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Dozens of obituaries have appeared since yesterday, but the one in the Guardian offers a glimpse of how he was perceived across the pond:

(If the link doesn't work, perhaps someone can help -- I am only semi-literate when it comes to computers.)


Chet said...

The author Jonathan Carroll posted a link to a commencement address that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005.

David Foster Wallace Commencement Address

John Evans said... least he had the wherewithal to shuffle off his mortal coil at the same age as George Orwell and Oscar Wilde. A novel of 1079 pages? Better to let your mind roam, dance around the room and play air guitar, rather than submit yourself to such bum-numbing verbiage!!

bibliobibuli said...

or not read books at all and go sit in a nice tree while the rest of us puzzle them out, John

much better

Anonymous said...

Ah, such a nice, sensitive comment about a person who took his life in great mental anguish three days ago, John!

-- Preeta

Leon Wing said...

I've started reading his stories yesterday, to commemorate him.

Anonymous said...

John is right... and still surviving. In fact, more than surviving. There's a difference I guess.

Anonymous said...

All sorts of people survive -- I regret to inform you that it is not such a great talent in and of itself.

As for John being "right" -- well, first of all, he hasn't read the book, so it's debatable how right he can be. His judgment is limited by what he knows, which is the number of pages (and maybe the cover, if he took the time to look that up). Let's gauge the "right"ness of John comment by comparing to reviews by people who did read the book, shall we? We don't even have to look at the obituaries, which you might say are trying to be kind. Go take a look at contemporary reviews of the book.

But perhaps the more important point is that if one of my loved ones hanged himself and I came across someone rejoicing that "at least he had the wherewithal to shuffle off his mortal coil," I would be hurt. Too often people forget that what they write on the internet is every bit as real -- and more indelible -- as what they say to people's faces. I'm trying to remind you. You are writing about human beings, and human beings are reading this. The internet gives us this illusion of facelessness, and that is what it is: an illusion. Your anonymity conveniently protects you -- it doesn't protect David Foster Wallace's grieving family, students, friends, and fans.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Survival is not as easy as you think. Maybe it is for you, but for a lot of people, it's not that easy. So many good writers are talented, and yet failed to die of old age, that must tell you something about how difficult it is to survive as a writer.

The reviews (on Amazon) are mostly mixed.

I don't think John was rejoicing, he was just expressing an opinion. I haven't read the book either, but I (and I presume John) wasn't talking about the book, we were talking about a presumably talented writer not being able to survive on his talent alone. I was talking about his being brave enough to decide enough was enough.

It's funny isn't it? people aren't hurt by thoughts not expressed, but they are hurt by thoughts expressed. Why is that, when nothing has changed? someone doesn't think different if he chooses not to express himself. If you ask me, someone who doesn't like me (and keeps quiet about it) is more dangerous than someone who doesn't like me (and is very vocal about it.)

It's like some people prefer to live in denial. They prefer to think things don't exist if they don't talk about them. If I close my eyes the world disappears, doesn't it? I don't talk about it, you don't talk about it, people don't get hurt, everyone is happy, yes ? :)

Thing is, if I deny reality for long enough, I will soon have to face it. I don't want to wake up suddenly and discover that I don't have enough money to survive, and I can't get hired because, well, who hires an aging writer?

So I can't shield myself from the truth, because sooner or later it will catch up with me. You have to take care of your finances, because you don't have a steady paycheck and you don't know where your next meal is coming from.

What does my anonymity protect me from exactly?

Anyone wishing to sue me for defamation or anything like that can easily get all my details with
a subpoena.

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent" -- Eleanor Roosevelt.

And John, air guitar is best done in your underwear, with the volume WAY up, and the neighbours yelling at you to turn it off :)

How I wish.

Anonymous said...

fuck amazon reviews...even if you go to sophie fucking kinsella books 'the reviews are mostly mixed'...go to proper book reviews...

btw; based on this interview alone (link below) i think david foster wallace was a very interesting guy(and writer) kind of guy.

now, pass me that cupcake will you please...

ah pong

Anonymous said...

Amazon's reviews are probably better in that they represent a broader cross-section of the reviewing public.

Anonymous said...

_reading_ public I mean. Blah :P

(I need an editor :P)

Anonymous said...

I think what Ah Pong (and I) are saying is that that broad cross-section is not so reliable, because, well, to put it bluntly, most people are stupid. Look at the vast number of people who are convinced by the McCain/Palin campaign -- do you trust their literary tastes?

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Preeta --

I think, sadly enough, that pandering to literary tastes do not figure highly in either party's plans.

Your publisher wouldn't have published your book if he thought most people were stupid, I mean it's quite a gamble to be publishing a book like yours. So the fact that it will make you a millionaire (if you're not one already) must prove that most of the book-buying public are not stupid.

Anonymous said...

A. Mous:

No, of course literary tastes don't figure in either party's plans. Kindly reread my comment. I only said that the same (stupid) people who are taken in by "arguments" full of logical fallacies and outright lies are the ones writing many of those reviews on Amazon. Bringing politics into it was just an example -- I did not imply that the Republican party had direct agency in the matter of literary tastes, no. There's lots of other evidence that most people are stupid, i.e. that they lack basic reading comprehension and reading skills. Politics is by no means the only evidence, but I chose it because it was familiar.

As for publishers publishing literary fiction because they know it will sell and make us all millionaires: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Tell me another joke. Have you ever considered stand-up comedy? Publishers regularly lose money on literary fiction. They make that money back on things like self-help books and celebrity memoirs. And you know why? Because most people are _______ (fill in the blank).

Anonymous said...

"Basic reading comprehension and REASONING skills," I meant above.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Preeta -

Well they're the book reading public, even if they're stupid, they're still a more reasonable cross-section than a few reviewers. As a measure of popularity, I think it's fairly viable. As a measure of quality, well.. quality is relative. It's subject to the same laws that state that vegetarians are "above" omnivores and poor old men are "above" movie stars. Some books are "above" others for that one reason.

Thing is, a ringgit is a ringgit. As far as most publishers are concerned, ten stupid people are worth more than one intelligent one.

You're not seriously telling me that you and your publisher are knowingly going to _lose_ money by selling the book? no way :)

PS. A publisher that actually knows a book is going to lose lots of money but still publishes it? you have to introduce me to them :)

Anonymous said...

As a measure of popularity, yes, Amazon reviews are reliable. I was talking about quality. Apples and oranges. And yes, quality is subjective. So you're free to trust Amazon readers if you want; I'll go with other measures, including reviewers in major newspapers and magazines.

Yes, I am seriously telling you that publishers regularly lose money on literary fiction. Of course they always *hope* that they will be lucky and happen to publish the one book in a million that actually makes money, but they know they probably won't.

You don't need my introduction or anyone else's -- just send your manuscript to an agent in the US or UK, and if they love it, they'll send it out for you. Any publisher you have heard of (do you really want me to list them all out in alphabetical order for you?!?) is used to losing money on literary fiction. If they love something enough, they take a chance -- and then sell lots of copies of Chicken Soup For the Evangelical Moosehunting Soul to make up for it. That's how the business works. People in the publishing industry are possibly more keenly aware than anyone else on earth that most people are stupid. They lament that fact quite openly all the time.

If publishing one novel makes people millionaires, why do you think most first novelists I know (and I know a lot of them) are languishing in adjunct teaching jobs and lectureships? Believe me, the number of writers of "literary" fiction (I don't love this word but I don't have a better one) who support themselves entirely through their writing is so miniscule that you have actually heard all their names.

Anyway, what are we even arguing about? All I was saying is that it's silly to dismiss a book on the basis of its length. The person who originally made that comment has apologised for it and retracted it. Are you seriously *still* arguing that reading Infinite Jest is a waste of time because 1) it's too long; and 2) some Amazon readers didn't like it?

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

I odn't know about the US and UK, but I can't see anyone here publishing anything they'll knowingly lose lots of money on.

So no one makes money? I mean surely you're going to make money from this?

Ans John I think was just being honest. The opportunity cost of reading a 1079-page novel is immense. Most people will say they want to read it (like they want to read Ulysses, or War and Peace) but never get around to it.

They're hardly languishing. A professorship (are you going for your PhD ? :) ) commands a pretty good salary in these parts.

Anonymous said...

_And_ not _Ans_ :P

Anonymous said...

Ah but I wasn't talking about a professorship. Most writers don't have a PhD (I don't and won't), so they can't get full professorships -- they are adjunct professors or lecturers, and often make *less* than teaching assistants (who already make a pittance at most universities). They struggle to make ends meet -- I'm not just saying that to be romantic. I know people who have chosen to wait tables at restaurants rather than taking those adjunct jobs, because waitresses make a lot more money.

A full professorship can eventually pay decently. But the starting salary even for someone with a PhD is very low compared to that of a lawyer, a doctor, anyone in banking or finance, or almost anyone in the corporate world.

As to my personal finances, you can ask me about that in person if you want :-) .

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

I wanted to correct one inaccuracy: it's possible for a more established writer to get a full professorship without a PhD, once they get some public recognition for their work. I was talking about younger writers -- debut novelists (the vast majority of whom hardly get any publicity for their books), people who've had one or two collections of short stories or poems published. Nobody hears about these people, and it's not because they lack talent.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Oh, for Anonymous and anyone else who's curious about the tribulations of the publishing industry, there's a great article on it here

It's not cheery news, but you'll see that I wasn't making up what I said about the industry. Page 2 particularly relates to the discussion we've been having here.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

I'm not asking you about your personal finances, I'm asking you whether you can survive solely by writing novels. I'm also making a point (which you've made for me actually) it that it seems like education is a big waste of time. A writer makes a lot less than someone waiting tables -- food is a necessity, books are a luxury. In bad times and good, people have to eat. People don't HAVE to read books.

I'm saying that in trying times, when you are worried about meeting expenses, and working all you can, the time taken to read that book could have been better spent working, or should have been better spent working. All education does is make you unfit for things like garbage collection (and waiting tables, overqualified you know.)

So you're stuck in this situation where the demand is mostly at the other end of the spectrum. If you're "educated" you're part of a very tiny minority.

The problem with writing is that it doesn't directly "connect" the reader. It's not a service and it's not a product. If I run, for instance, a restaurant, I know what to do, give them good food and good service. These things are the same the world over, good food is good food, it doesn't depend on who's doing the tasting. Good service is good service. If I run a cybercafe, for instance, I know what everyone wants, air conditioning, stable, fast Internet, fast computers, comfortable chairs etc. If I take care of all the variables, I will have a great chance of surviving.

If I want a salary of $X, I have to make $X + expenses. And to make $X + expenses I have to take care of the variables. That's all there is to it. It's almost child's play to make money in the services industry, just take very good care of your customers. There's the secret right there.

In the writing and publishing industry, the variables are unknown. No one knows what makes a good book. You just sort of write and hope. You set fire to a large stack of currency notes, and hope strangers will like the bonfire enough to give you more of it to burn.

What is the purpose of education if it means you have to live a lower standard of life than someone who is uneducated? If. majority are right (which is the premise of democracy) and the mojority are stupid, then by being smart you have alienated yourself from the majority, and are thus an outsider.

H.G. Wells "Country of the Blind" essentially makes the same point I think. In the country of the stupid, the intelligent man is dangerous and criminally insane.

So maybe this is what's happening, the "stupid" are running the world, and the minority intelligent are being eliminated because they don't have enough power, wealth or influence to survive.