Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Archives of David Foster Wallace

The New Yorker just published an article about the recent acquisition by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas of the David Foster Wallace archive. The content of the archive offers an amazing glance into the inner workings of an unparalleled (and missed) writer. It includes multiple drafts of his novels "Infinite Jest" and "Broom of the System", and copious drafts of and notes for many of his essays, including those collected in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again".

That DFW held on to early drafts and working notes is no surprise. I generally keep everything I've written. Not because I want future generations of admirers to gaze upon my words in reverence, but because I'm obsessed with not throwing away or deleting even a sentence that might come in handy later. I have dozens of saved drafts of stories and novels, dog-eared printouts and forgotten archived.doc files, sure that the minute I delete or toss something, tomorrow I'll wish I had it to use again.

Part of DFW's archive are hundreds of books from his personal collection. “Virtually all of the books are annotated, many are heavily annotated." Apparently, "Wallace was especially fond of taking notes and compiling vocabulary lists on the inner cover. The collection, heavy on contemporary fiction, contains nearly all of Wallace’s friend Don DeLillo’s novels, including some pre-publication typescripts. Other titles include Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink,” and “The Tipping Point,” and Jonathan Franzen’s “Strong Motion.”

What I love about this is the idea of Wallace, whose writing brims with impressive verbiage, scribbling down the words he was most fond of in the white space of his collection. I tend to treat my books as beautiful totems of the author that must be retained in their new condition and wouldn't dream of writing in them. I wrote words I liked and wanted to use in my writing in a notebook. But, a part of me loves this idea of adding to a classic, long published book that I admire. Even if I attempted this, I couldn't come up with as eloquent a doodle vision as this.

DFW was working on a novel when he died. "The Pale King" will be released by Little, Brown in April '11, at which time, according to, "Little, Brown will create a website to make large chunks of the manuscript available to fans, so they can see how the book came together and 'have a detailed sense of Wallace as a working writer.'"

Archiving the physical work of esteemed authors is nothing new. Especially at the Ransom Center, which also hosts the archives of Norman Mailer, Walt Whitman's poem and essay manuscripts, the letters of Edith Wharton, along with material from Carson McCullers to James Jones to James Baldwin, among many others. But you don't have to be dead to enjoy such a status, as the Ransom Center also houses material from Thomas Pynchon, Larry McMurtry, and Don DeLillo.

Watch DFW on Charlie Rose from 1997 here. It's a pretty incredible interview, where Rose asks David his take on some contemporary movies, about David Lynch who he wrote about in "Fun Thing", and about the movie Shine whose director Scott Hicks was a guest earlier on the same show. Incredible, but a little sad and cringy the way Rose squeezes David for information about things other than his writing, in order to get deeper into his writing mind. Rose also doesn't always listen to David's answers or allow the interview to flow organically. Rose also asks about David's non-fiction, his use of footnotes and endnotes, and his fame in the wake of "Infinite Jest".

DFW talking about which group of writers he considered himself a member of:

No comments: