Other literary forms
David Foster Wallace’s writing showcases a remarkable talent, as adept at the novel as at the short story and as skillful in nonfiction as in fiction. Although the literary heft and cultural impact of Infinite Jest may have led critics during Wallace’s lifetime to consider him primarily a novelist, he was a writer capable of excellent work in any genre, and in years to come his versatile contributions to the short-story and nonfiction forms will doubtless add to his reputation as much as did his second novel. In Girl with Curious Hair (1989), his first collection of short stories, Wallace demonstrated his keen eye for representing the complexities of life in the late twentieth century. He would follow with later short-story collections Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion (2004).
As an essayist, he published detailed philosophical explorations of the death of the author and on the love-hate relationship between fiction and television in the United States as well as humorous travel reports such as “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (originally published as “Shipping Out”), a chronicle of his misadventures aboard a mass-market luxury Caribbean cruise liner. During his visit to the Illinois State Fair in “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” Wallace weaves his way among pungent livestock and nauseating rides and indulges in too many prizewinning desserts when he is mistaken for a contest judge. Other essays, including personal profiles of film director David Lynch and tennis player Michael Joyce, provide insights into Wallace’s artistry and excellence. The compilation of these essays into A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (1997) established Wallace as a significant commentator on the modern American lifestyle; he cemented his reputation as a skilled nonfiction chronicler with the essays (published in venues as diverse as Gourmet, Rolling Stone, and Harper’s magazines) collected in Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays (2005). In 1990, Wallace published Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present, which he coauthored with novelist (and college roommate) Mark Costello. Wallace also published Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (2003), a treatise on the mathematical premise of infinity and the nineteenth century mathematician Greg Cantor.
David Foster Wallace achieved a remarkable degree of recognition early in his career. In addition to numerous prizes awarded for individual short stories, he was honored with several prestigious awards, including the Whiting Foundation’s Writers’ Award in 1987 and a National Endowment for the Arts Writer’s Fellowship in 1989. His cultural analysis of rap music, Signifying Rappers, written with Mark Costello, was nominated for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. Girl with Curious Hair earned the Quality Paperback Club New Voices Award for fiction in 1991, and Wallace was a National Magazine Award finalist in both 1995 (for “Ticket to the Fair”) and 1997 (for “David Lynch Keeps His Head”). He won the Lannan Foundation Award for Literature in 1996 and in 2000, and received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1997.
Blythe, Will, ed. Why I Write: Thoughts on the Practice of Fiction. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. This collection of twenty-five essays on fiction writing includes Wallace’s “The Nature of the Fun.”
Bruni, Frank. “The Grunge American Novel.” The New York Times Magazine, March 24, 1996, 38-41. Offers an author profile of Wallace in the midst of the excitement generated by the publication of Infinite Jest. Nominates him as the literary spokesman for the 1990’s generation.
LeClair, Tom. “The Prodigious Fiction of Richard Powers, William T. Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace.” Critique 38, no. 1 (Fall, 1996): 12-37. Compares Wallace’s Infinite Jest with the ambitious novels of his contemporaries, Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations (1991) and William T. Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels (1987). LeClair explores the root of the word “prodigious,” demonstrating how these authors display a vast range of encyclopedic information in their fiction in order to reorient readers with the natural world.
Olsen, Lance. “Termite Art, or Wallace’s Wittgenstein.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 2 (Summer, 1993). Demonstrates the ways in which philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein greatly influenced Wallace’s writing: Both use cynicism as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself.
Rother, James. “Reading and Riding the Post-scientific Wave: The Shorter Fiction of David Foster Wallace.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 2 (Summer, 1993). Seeks to demonstrate how Wallace’s work differs from popular postmodern literature. Rother argues that the writer’s “craftiness” is just part of his pursuit for higher meaning.
Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” In A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997. Argues that the self-conscious irony of metafictionist writing has been absorbed by the mass media. Asserts that innovative art must posit new values rather than merely expose false ones. An indispensable text for students of twentieth century American literature.
Wallace, David Foster. “An Interview with David Foster Wallace.” Interview by Larry McCaffrey. The Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 2 (Summer, 1993). In an extensive and cerebral interview, Wallace demonstrates the outspokenness and intelligence for which his work is often lauded.