American culture suffered a huge loss this weekend when the writer David Foster Wallace apparently took his own life. He will probably be remembered as the author of fat post-modern novels including "The Broom of the System" and "Infinite Jest," and challenging short stories such as those contained in the collections "Girl With Curious Hair" and "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men."
For my money he did his best work as a journalist, probing the nature of art and American culture, politics, tennis and lobsters, in essays for Rolling Stone, Harper's and other magazines. His collection, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," should be on everyone's bookshelf.
The appreciations are just beginning to roll in. Michiko Kakutani provides a fine overview of his work in this New York Times article.
I had only fleeting contact with Wallace, a few years back when he agreed to submit a list of the ten greatest works of literature of all time to my project, "The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books." True to form, he provided one of the most surprising and provocative contributions. Here's his list and my response to readers who mystified by his choices. I also include a thoughtful note on the subject from a close reader of Wallace which includes a quote in which the late author discusses great books.
David Foster Wallace's Top Ten List:
1. The Screwtape Letters - C.S. Lewis
2. The Stand - Stephen King
3. Red Dragon - Thomas Harris
4. The Thin Red Line - James Jones
5. Fear of Flying - Erica Jong
6. The Silence of the Lambs - Thomas Harris
7. Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein
8. Fuzz - Ed McBain
9. Alligator - Shelley Katz
10. The Sum of All Fears - Tom Clancy
Inquiring minds want to know: Is he serious?
Beats me. To be honest, I don't know what Wallace was thinking — he doesn't phone, he doesn't write ... . But I do think there's a certain integrity to his list.
If I had asked, "What are the Top Ten works of popular commercial fiction that most critics and serious authors sneer at" his list would be on target. Within their genres, each of his picks is a stand out.
Perhaps he's suggesting that even though we tend to define fiction, especially great fiction, in a specific way, it works, in fact, on different levels. Harris' "Red Dragon"and Clancy's "The Sum of All Fears" aren't trying to be "Hamlet"; Jong's "Fear of Flying" has different aims than "The Sound and the Fury" (except for the chief aim of engaging its readers).
On their own terms, each of Wallace's picks is a great achievement.
I doubt Wallace thinks "Fuzz" is a better literary creation than "Moby Dick," but he might say it's more enjoyable. To take that a step further, the fact that the "Top Ten" contributors selected 544 different titles suggests that there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to great books, there are only the books that mean the most to each of us.
That’s a little bullcritty, I know. But hey, that's my business.
Wallace aficionado Jonathan Baskin offers this take:
I've read nearly every interview Wallace has ever done, and he is often asked for his influences, or books that are important to him. Here is one example of the kind of answer he usually gives, in response to Salon's Laura Miller's question about what books make him feel "human and unalone," which is how Wallace describes the affect of great fiction:
"OK. Historically the stuff that's sort of rung my cherries: Socrates' funeral oration, the poetry of John Donne, the poetry of Richard Crashaw, every once in a while Shakespeare, although not all that often, Keats' shorter stuff, Schopenhauer, Descartes' "Meditations on First Philosophy" and "Discourse on Method, "Kant's "Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic," although the translations are all terrible, William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience," Wittgenstein's "Tractatus," Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," Hemingway -- particularly the ital stuff in "In Our Time," where you just go oomph!, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, A.S. Byatt, Cynthia Ozick -- the stories, especially one called "Levitations," about 25 percent of the time Pynchon. Donald Barthelme, especially a story called "The Balloon," which is the first story I ever read that made me want to be a writer, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver's best stuff -- the really famous stuff. Steinbeck when he's not beating his drum, 35 percent of Stephen Crane, "Moby-Dick," "The Great Gatsby.""
Now, this is just one interview, but never have any of the novels he mentioned on his list appeared anywhere in the interviews I've read. Nor have I ever heard him praise any books even remotely like those books.
He has also, I might add, written long, fawning essays about Dostoevsky and Kafka, and claimed to be a huge John Updike fan --somehow none of these authors made his cut.
Now, at first when I saw his list, and all the Thomas Harris and Tom Clancy books, I assumed he had just made a joke out of the list. Frankly, I was surprised he'd done it in the first place, so it didn't seem so outlandish that he'd have fun with it. I don't have the book in front of me right now because I'm at work, but I think it was somewhere around # 5 when I saw the Jong book, that I really got confused. Because Jong is not a crassly "popular" writer like Clancy or Harris, but he's also not really literary -- she's in that broad pseudo-literary realm populated by writers who want to be real writers, but simply aren't good enough...these are the kind of writers which only seem acceptable until you read their much more talented near-contemporaries, like David Foster Wallace.
I knew when I saw Jong's book on there, though, that Wallace wouldn't have put it on in jest, because he doesn't have a cruel sense of humor, and it would have been cruel to put Erica Jong's book on in jest. Because Jong has aspirations of being a real writer (Thomas Harris, it might be argued, is precisely the author he wants to be), and Wallace would never put someone down in that way who was really trying.