In the archive with David Foster Wallace

Wallace's papers aren't a wormhole into the writer's psyche.

The late David Foster Wallace was often hailed as a literary genius, a writer who dwells in his readers' minds as a kind of meta-human, his mysterious and innate powers suggesting a different plane of existence. Even other writers are not immune to dishing out such hyperbolic praise. Zadie Smith, for example, declares that Wallace is "in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us". Visit the Wallace archive at the Harry Ransom Center, however, and a different story will emerge, that of "Dave Wallace", the ambitious, insecure and hard-working author of complex novels and expertly precise journalism.

The Harry Ransom Center, part of the University of Texas in the hipster enclave of Austin, is a climate-controlled humanities archive housing 36 million manuscript pages, five million photographs, and thousands of pieces from the worlds of art, theatre and film. The David Foster Wallace archive opened in September 2010 and contains correspondence, handwritten drafts, manuscripts, juvenilia and 306 annotated books from Wallace's personal library.

It should be noted that the archive is not a shimmering wormhole into Wallace's personal psyche or a curtain-twitching view into his private life. The archivist, Stephen Cooper, describes the collected manuscripts as "clean", meaning they are primarily work-related, with little annotation other than that to do with the nuts and bolts of writing (editorial interjections, corrections and the frequent and frantic use of the word "Stet").

Take a sidestep from the Wallace archive to that of the novelist Don DeLillo, however, and we find the younger writer with his guard down, in correspondence dating between 1992 and 2001. In these letters a clearer image of Wallace the writer surfaces, far from the mythical genius presented by the more zealous commentators. He engages DeLillo with an almost childish insecurity, worrying about his ability and his self-discipline, bemoaning the "daily temptation to dick around". Wallace clearly sees DeLillo as a mentor, someone to turn to for advice and inspiration. In fact, he openly worries about the influence DeLillo has on his work, admitting in the letters that parts of his second novel Infinite Jest (1996) may seem "piratical" (this influence can also be seen in the Wallace-annotated copies of DeLillo's novels in the collection, where notes for Infinite Jest have been jotted on the title pages and in the margins).

Wallace's relationship with DeLillo is mediated through talk of writing, books and film, and a picture of his cultural existence can be pieced together. His mini-reviews of films are particularly telling as they show him as an unpretentious consumer of entertainment (a theme in much of his fiction). He urges DeLillo to see films such as The Matrix and also-ran Hollywood thriller Boiler Room (depicting the film's main lure as lead actor Giovanni Ribisi's face: "male but like something right out of Klimt at his ghastliest").

Knowing Wallace was insecure about his ability as a writer gives the reading of the various drafts of Infinite Jest a strange inflection. Throughout the intricately numbered pages (sequential numbers, each with additional sub-pages labelled with letters), there are small splurges of this self-doubt in the margins. "I don't want to be writing," Wallace scrawls as he sweats through the construction of what would become footnote 110 in the novel, and a shaky-handed, "Thank God!" on its completion (there are also tiny outpourings of the heart in these margins; maudlin, teenager-like reactions to failing relationships and unrequited love that we are all probably guilty of). It is especially illuminating to see how much work Wallace and his astute, level-headed editor Michael Pietsch did together. Pietsch treads carefully between suggesting ways to make the novel better artistically and ways to make it more approachable to the paying reader (Wallace tells DeLillo that these commercially-minded alterations make him feel "slutty"). This torturous and intricate work began around 1994 and would continue for almost two years.

The Wallace archive at the Harry Ransom Center efficiently dispels the "genius" status awarded to the writer, not because his writing isn't singularly and bewilderingly excellent (it is, even in draft form), but because it presents him as a human being, one of us. Declarations that Wallace is in some other "time-space continuum" are unhelpful because he worked so hard to depict what it means to be a human being in this world, in an age lacking sincerity, but saturated with ironic posturing. With The Pale King, Wallace's long awaited posthumous novel approaching its release date, we should perhaps brace ourselves for another storm of this type of commentary. But thinking of Wallace as "Dave", the writer who slogged through research (the archive reveals he even took tedious classes in tax law to help with The Pale King), sweated each sentence to achieve perfect prose, and strove to depict our own world with unflinching emotional honesty, perhaps makes the work all the more astonishing.

Graham Foster is completing a doctoral thesis on the novels of David Foster Wallace at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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SRSLY #103: Dunkirk / Nadiya's British Food Adventure / Brooklyn Nine-Nine

On the pop culture podcast this week: Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, the BBC cookery show Nadiya's British Food Adventure and the mumps episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen using the player below. . .

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SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s head of podcasts and pop culture writer. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

Buy tickets for our Game of Thrones quiz and our live episode at the ShoutOut Festival here.

Dunkirk

The trailer.

Why you should watch Harry Styles in Dunkirk.

Anna's line-by-line review of Harry's dialogue.

Nadiya's British Food Adventure

The programme on BBC iPlayer.

Even the Telegraph liked it! Truly she is queen of British hearts.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

The mumps episode is series 3 episode 12, "9 Days".

For next time:

We are reading Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]gmail.com.

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See you next week!

PS If you missed #102, check it out here.