In 1997, John Updike dismissed David Foster Wallace as “just a penis with a thesaurus“. Yet he is now become a legendary figure in our culture – even immortalised in a Hollywood film starring Jason Segal, The End of the Tour.
With his 2005 speech to students at Kenyon College, This is Water, having gone viral, and a plethora of articles and blogs written about him, it seems we just can’t get enough of a man we have elevated from tortured literary genius admired by an intense cult following into a huge presence in our cultural and public consciousness – a man seen by some as a sort of modern literary saint; a professor of sustaining wisdom who is there to shine a light to guide our way forward, and also who can help us make sense of a world, which so often seems senseless.
A criticism of Wallace is often that his writing is long, difficult – bordering on inaccessible. Certainly, his most infamous work Infinite Jest, which runs at over 1000 pages, can be off-putting both for people who have never come across Wallace before, as well as those who admire his other work.
Because it is his other work that often provides the greatest insights into both the world around us; as well as who Wallace was as a man – and his insights into society and human behaviour.
So, friends; we’ve done you a solid. We’ve trawled through the interwebs and put together the following list of essays, articles, and even some short stories, which have been written by Wallace and which are, importantly, totally free. Happy reading, comrades!
Also the title of perhaps his greatest collection of essays, this article in particular is an absolute classic. Wallace visits the Maine Lobster Festival to do a report for Gourmet, and ends up taking his readers along for a deep, cerebral ride. We consider questions like, “Do lobsters feel pain?” that make us question the relationship between humans and animals. Over the course of the piece, Wallace turns the whole celebration into a profound breakdown on the meaning of consciousness.
“Suddenly everybody has flags out — big flags, small flags, regular flag-size flags”. Wallace explores human (particularly American) reactions to national tragedy, in an essay that asks fundamental questions of our relationship to ‘nationhood’ and patriotism.
What is an introduction for? In this piece, Wallace considers why just about every important word on The Best American Essays 2007’s front cover turns out to be vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous, or else ‘true’ only in certain contexts.
Wallace has a gift for taking journalism and experimenting with that it is for, and what an article can – or should – be. Harper‘s sent DFW to report on the state fair, and he emerged with this – a feature “wherein our reporter gorges himself on corn dogs, gapes at terrifying rides, savors the odor of pigs, exchanges unpleasantries with tattooed carnies, and admires the loveliness of cows.”
The cruise has often been a controversial type of holiday. Wallace explains – with humour, grace and wit – why the luxury cruise has the potential to be lethal.
Lots of people – especially anyone who has watched The End of the Tour – will know that Wallace was a big fan of tennis. Like, really big. But this stunning piece isn’t just about the sport, or even, really, about one sportsman. Rather, Wallace delivers a profile on Roger Federer that soon turns into a discussion of beauty with regard to athleticism. It’s hypnotising to read.
“For me, a signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny.”
Success, identity, and all else besides are explored in this stunning essay. Again, Wallace uses tennis as the ‘in’ road to these topics. In the piece, he invited readers “to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything.” He adds, “I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.”
How human beings find endless ways of looking at one another (in both sinister and beautiful ways). Fiction! Television! Voyeurism! Loneliness!
Grammar and the way we use language has always been a topic of fascination for Wallace (we go into some of the tips and advice he had for writers in our article about his book, Quack this way). If you’re a writer, a reader, or just generally interested in the way language effects meaning, this one’s for you, as Wallace dives into the world of dictionaries, exploring all of the implications of how language is used, how we understand and define grammar, and how the “Democratic Spirit” fits into the tumultuous realms of English. It also considers race bias in academia and the evolution of language to the pros and cons on non-standard English.
“A book-in-progress is a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.”
When the David Foster Wallace died, he left behind a series of fragments: notes towards a dictionary all of his own. “Now go do the right thing”
How does the literary establishment impact new writers and authors who stumble into its clutches? A thorough, academic style essay on a topic with obvious parallels to Wallace’s own lived experiences. “The honeymoon’s end between the literary Establishment and the contemporary young writer was an inevitable and foreseeable consequence of the same shameless hype that led to many journeyman writers’ premature elevation in the first place.”
Admittedly, this website is a little difficult to read; but it has a genuinely fascinating extract from DFW’s Infinite Jest that poses questions about our relationship with technology that is perhaps even more relevant today than it was when he wrote it.
“Once when I was a little boy I received as a gift a toy cement mixer. It was made of wood except for its wheels—axles—which, as I remember, were thin metal rods. I’m ninety per cent sure it was a Christmas gift. I liked it the same way a boy that age likes toy dump trucks, ambulances, tractor-trailers, and whatnot. There are little boys who like trains and little boys who like vehicles—I liked the latter.” A personal essay Wallace wrote for the New Yorker that considers, well, ‘all that’.
Another tennis themed essay (he does love them!) this is one where Wallace looks back on his midwestern youth and the way it’s influenced him as an adult. “I grew up inside vectors, lines and lines athwart lines, grids – and, on the scale of horizons, broad curving lines of geographic force.”
An essay charting Wallace’s experience in the press corps following John McCain around during his (ultimately doomed) bid for the republican presidential nomination.
From his collection of essays, Consider the Lobster. Did you know that, every year, between one and two dozen Americans are admitted to hospital having tried to castrate themselves? You do now.
Is anything still worth dying for? Wallace considers this in typically beautiful detail that leaves you questioning all sorts of things.
Fiction from Wallace published in the New Yorker – ““Peace on earth good will toward men,” says Gately, back all the way on his back, smiling up at the cracked dun ceiling, not even a hint of a tic to betray anything but a tolerant willingness to let it all pass, for the moment. To work itself out, seek its own level, settle, blow over. Die of neglect. He’s pretty sure he knows who farted.”
What is real? What has the increasing reliance on special effects in film-making done to the industry and our perception of reality? All these questions and more are discussed in this fascinating reflection on the inverse relationship between the amount of special effects used in a film and the quality of the story.
“Rap, whether fecund or sterile, is today’s pop music’s lone cutting edge, the new, the unfamiliar, the brain- resisted-while-body-boogies. And that alien, exhilarating cutting edge has always been black.”
Any movie fans in the audience? This one’s for you if so. In this fantastic essay, Wallace hangs around on the set of Lost Highway (jealous) and dissects the greatness of America’s most distinctive director.
Host rides shot-gun with a radio DJ. It’s a hell of a ride.
Fiction – but not as you know it. Showcasing Wallace’s amazing gift with structure and form – and his ability to spin emotion and stories out of things that are left out of the story, as much as what is actually left in it.
“In this sequel to Rabbit at Rest, which ended with the hero on his deathbed, beset with transmural infarctions and the consequences of his own appetites, Rabbit Angstrom, ambivalent hero of four Really BigNovels, athlete, adulterer, Republican, duly designated observer of the U.S. scene, and synecdoche of a generation’s pathos, negotiates the pitfalls of post-life America in his own erratic way,and learns some very special truths he’d suspected all along …” (Published in Harpers)
More fiction from Wallace published in Harpers magazine. Close, intimate observations of a ‘typical’ Midwestern family – easy to read aspects of this as autobiographical (though that may or may not be the point).
Excruciatingly short fiction from Wallace – as if only to show he can write pieces of work that are genuinely breathtaking and doesn’t need over 1000 pages to do so. This is a must-read story for anyone who feels like they want to be heartbroken.