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Is David Foster Wallace Serious?

David Foster Wallace has one of the most … interesting “Top Ten” lists.


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.

There were a few other entries like Jong as well, which really gave me pause, and
the more I thought about it, the less I understood what point Wallace could be
trying to get across. It's almost like he went to a rack in a bookstore and poked
randomly at ten books, or farmed the job out to a 13 year-old who liked to read (my
list might have looked something like Wallace's when I was about 12). Yes, the
books he chose may be great achievements on their own terms, but why would
Wallace use those kinds of terms? He is clearly aware of other, better terms, and his
writing is steered by them. I simply do not buy he enjoys "Red Dragon" as much as
he enjoys "Hamlet," or "Brothers K," or "Gravity's Rainbow."

Posted by J. Peder Zane at 5:27 PM

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Lisa Guidarini said...

I wouldn't want to begin to speculate on DFW, but that is one eye-popping list. If I
had to guess I'd say he's being ironic, and maybe he was in a snarky mood at the
time. I don't really think he's been very heavily influenced by any of these writers,
but maybe they're just good books he uses to level off unstable furniture or
something, so to him they seemed good choices at the time (?).

March 7, 2007 8:51 AM

AV said...

Surprising list indeed. Coming from Wallace, this could be some kind of post post-
modern statement. However, his choice of "genre" books is even more surprising.
Why, as some afficinados may ask, he has chosen Ed mcbain over Elmore Leonard,
Tom Clancy over John Le carre, and a lessar known work by CS Lewis, over the
better known, Lord of the rings. What do we see next - Harry Potter?

March 18, 2007 5:52 AM

Marco said...

Wallace is very much a sincere writer and speaker, so I believe in the sincerity of
this list. There's an interview out there -- although I don't remember from where --
where Wallace talks about loving to read Clancy. See the Eschaton scene in Infinite
Jest as an example homage.

April 4, 2007 3:29 PM

Susan said...

This post has been removed by the author.

April 15, 2007 4:32 AM

Susan said...

A few months ago I read on the DFW e-mail discussion list that he taught Red
Dragon to undergrads. I think the list is serious, and that he is making a point about
current literary "good taste" as a category as limited as any other.

April 15, 2007 4:34 AM

sanjay sharma said...

sorry, everyone,ut if you have to ask whether he is serious...

June 15, 2007 1:03 AM

Mark said...

I think DFW means that there's two different sides of a writer's brain: the side that
needs nourishment, so it can produce (i.e. Joyce, Pynchon), and the side that simply
needs enjoyment (Clancy, Harris).

His list reads like a "Cool Summer Reading for Dads and Grads!" list on Amazon, or

I think it's a junk-food list, and DFW knows it. This is what he reads when he wants
to switch off and be entertained, and he means to point out that it's not all
pretentious name-dropping.

July 21, 2007 11:02 AM

Jeb said...

Infinite Jest has some elements that are very specifically identifiable as having been
influenced by Red Dragon, including one section of almost-verbatim homage, and
also some elements that were arguably influenced by Silence of the Lambs. I'm
quite sure he is completely serious about those.