DFW goes to Texas

David Foster Wallace's papers are acquired by the University of Texas's archive

Meredith Blake, at the New Yorker's "Book Bench" blog, reports that the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas (the repository of the personal archives of writers such as D H Lawrence, James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, and homegrown writers such as Don DeLillo and Norman Mailer) has just added to its holdings the papers (and part of the personal library) of the late David Foster Wallace.

The recently acquired haul from Wallace's garage in Claremont, California includes heavily annotated copies of novels by, among others, Don DeLillo (a salient influence on Wallace, of course) and Cormac McCarthy (the fly-leaf of McCarthy's novel Suttree bears the observation "set-up is slow -- does not set stage"), some juvenilia from his pre-high school days and a handwritten draft of his second and last novel, Infinite Jest.

Wallace's agent, Bonnie Nadell, announced the acquisition in a blog post:

But what scholars and readers will find fascinating I think is that as messy as David was with how he kept his work, the actual writing is painstakingly careful. For each draft of a story or essay there are levels of edits marked in different colored ink, repeated word changes until he found the perfect word for each sentence, and notes to himself about how to sharpen a phrase until it met his exacting eye. Having represented David from the beginning of his writing career, I know there were people who felt David was too much of a "look ma no hands" kind of writer, fast and clever and undisciplined. Yet anyone reading through his notes to himself will see how scrupulous they are.

Nadell knows whereof she speaks, of course, but I'm not sure anyone who'd actually read Wallace's fiction (or listened to him talk about his fictional practice) could ever have thought he was an "undisciplined" writer. On the contrary, the sinuous sentences and swollen paragraphs of his mature style were feats of an almost inhuman syntactic and rhetorical discipline. In an essay on Wallace I wrote for the NS not long after his suicide in September 2008, I quoted a passage from the story "Mr Squishy" (from the 2004 collection Oblivion) that seemed to me representative of his later mode:

. . Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknowing and -knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he'd watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg's cap's public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm or the way after any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other's arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness . . .

This, I wrote, "is writing of extraordinary syntactic control" -- the product, precisely, of what Nadell calls Wallace's "exacting eye".

Wallace left behind an unfinished novel, entitled The Pale King. It is due to be published next year.



Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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How the radio stations reacted to Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize

For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat.

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature inspired a bewildering gamut of radio responses. At first, proof of his talent was abundantly forthcoming, Andy Kershaw yelling down the line for World at One from a motorway services on the M6 within ­moments of the announcement. (“I can’t understand why they didn’t give this to him 41 years ago!”)

However, a full six days after Talk Radio excitedly reported the event on its home page (“a pivotal part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s”), the online feature has yet to attract a single comment. That’s zero talk. For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat, though Heart FM firmly quoted the chair of the English faculty at Oxford (“The Tennyson of our time”), and pencil-suckingly dissected lyrics (“Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’/ Up the road . . .”).

Is it poetry? Is it literature? You could tell it was doing everybody’s head in. But when, on Radio 4’s Front Row, Billy Bragg praised Dylan for “bringing a literary and poetic thread into pop music”, the argument sounded terribly old.

The whole battle about Dylan being as great a poet as Tennyson is a hangover from an ancient battle, from a time when it actually had to be pointed out that this pop-music stuff can be brilliant and clever. A time when boring people battled for respect and prestige for an obvious genius. Over on Radio 2, Mark Goodier cheerfully played “Tangled Up in Blue” (“Major, major prize for Bob today. If that isn’t a decent excuse to play a song, I don’t know what is”). But by Sunday, on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, the gloves were off and guests were declaring that they couldn’t stand Dylan’s voice (cliché, pathetic).

By Monday Simon Armitage was saying that Dylan’s lyrics had no more sophistication than something composed by a child. Is it poetry? Is it literature? Well, it kind of is. But it kind of isn’t. And it doesn’t matter very much, except to the likes of Dylan – and only a long, long time ago. Now he hardly requires the approbation. The Nobel Committee has given the prize to the one writer in the world who doesn’t need it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood