A Report on Adam Kelly’s “David Foster Wallace: The Death of the Author and the Birth of a Discipline.”

This article does two major things.  First it gives a brief account of how David Foster Wallace (DFW) was celebrated after his death and gives a bit of insight into his popularity.  Then it dives into a chronological breakdown of Wallace Studies, ending with the important ideas relevant to and explored in Wallace Studies.  Kelly’s argument is more of a description of Wallace Studies as well as somewhat of a justification for its place in the literary academic environment.

DFW cannot be discussed without mentioning his unique interaction with the internet after the release of Infinite Jest.  He is the first major American author to have any sort of interaction with the internet, and it is one of the first aspects of the novel that makes it interactive.  It was unique because it allowed people of all walks of life to engage with the text in one place, online. This and the collection of work that was constantly added to fansites that also sprung up gave readers unprecedented access in real time to how the world was reading and interpreting DFW. The involvement of more than just academics and critics made reading this novel an experience with more dimensions, supporting Kelly’s position that Wallace Studies really started with popular curiosity.  Non-academic readers were even attending conferences in much greater numbers where DFW was the center of discussion. In fact, it also forced academics to be more engaged as well because now they had to more than ever carefully exercise the supposed abilities that they were trained to apply to his work, for they were under scrutiny by many more readers who had genuine investment in studying DFW. Therefore, it not only engaged pulled in amateur readers, but it also forced professionals to tread with caution and pursue depth, legitimizing the beginning of the field that came to be known as Wallace Studies.

DFW’s essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” was a way in which he also interacted with all readers to give his perspective on his role as he saw it after many of the post-modern authors before him.  It gave critics a lot to talk about because it allowed them to look at all of his work through a frame provided by him.  This generated a lot of discussion because, getting a lot of attention while alive, DFW could interact directly with the body of criticism and analysis of his work. He could comment on the role of metafiction and irony in his work to challenge the discussions that his works generated.  He was in a unique position that not many famous American authors had the privilege to experience.  It gave Wallace Studies an interesting place in academics because it was a dialogue more so than just a dissection.  Although DFW’s interactivity with the audience with the text is powerful, there was a significant amount of interaction that existed outside his work as well.  Before his death, this dialogue was a catalyst for even more intellectual engagement, making Wallace Studies more dynamic than other fields of literary academia.

A difficult portion of the article discussed the most interesting topics regularly touched upon in Wallace Studies, including the ethical value of DFW’s works and how he wants the reader to interpret the experience of reading his books, especially Infinite Jest.  I had trouble understanding what Kelly meant by saying “the characters in the story constituted (and self-constituted) through the frame of that language, which language the reader then encounters in the process of its deconstruction.” It seems that he is saying that the characters are described by the language, and the style of the language is also subtly shapes out perception of them.  I think this can be supported by the scene in which Erdedy’s mind races while he is waiting for the phone call from his weed dealer.  The language used in that scene and the style of the prose simultaneously give us insight into his character.  Kelly and a few of his colleagues also argue that DFW engages his readers in unique ways because he wants them to be a part of the work.  I think this is valid because some of the AA scenes almost feel like they are directly reaching out and putting a mirror to the reader’s face.  Day’s argument about how AA’s definition of an addict seems to logically include everyone is a perfect example of this.  As Kelly says, DFW creates “structures of empathy” so that we not only understand the characters, but also feel like we can learn something by looking at ourselves through what they experience.

I support Kelly’s claim that Wallace Studies are legitimately founded on the idea that DFW is a unique author who deserves to be studied in a way much different than other authors so far.  DFW has a way of creating a buzz around his work that I have not seen happen too often for long periods of time, especially in an era of technology where books are not the main form of media that most people engage with in the majority of their time. DFW play with philosophy and literary theory turns a lot of concepts inside out, which allows readers to look at writing and even themselves in new ways.  Kelly gives us an excellent deconstruction of the brief history of Wallace Studies and the most interesting conversations within it before and after DFW’s suicide.

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2 Responses to A Report on Adam Kelly’s “David Foster Wallace: The Death of the Author and the Birth of a Discipline.”

  1. flynn352 says:

    I feel like David Foster Wallace really did want his readers to “be a part of the work”. Most notably in the sections on AA, it feels much less like a narration and much more like a direct message from author to reader. When I read books, I talk about my favorite parts, characters, and how the plot played out. When I talk about Infinite Jest, it’s more about how crazy and senseless everything is, though I’m sure it’ll all make absolute perfect sense once we’re doing reading it. It’s much less about narrative and much more about the ideas in the narrative; in a way, it’s like a textbook, or non-fiction philosophy book, but with an actual story to go along with it. A very unique idea that has generated a lot of interest.


  2. mdr50 says:

    Kelly’s message is also quite apparent to me in that I too believe that Wallace’s work must be studied differently due to the fact that it was one of the the first novels of the post-modernism genre, and it contained passages that entailed intricate messages that can only be adequately addressed through harsh scrutiny. I feel that careful analysis is also required because I don’t feel that Wallace was leaving his work up to interpretation as much as I feel that maybe there was a multifinality of lessons to be derived from each passage in his book. That is to say that many of the passages in Wallace’s studies are meant to simultaneously reach several conclusions tat are no necessarily related. And how can these conclusions be uncovered if we do not subject the work to heavy analysis? However, I think that the heavy analysis and the buzz may have been due more to the time period it was released in rather than Wallace’s ability to create a buzz. Wallace had the benefit of having his novels released during a time that allowed for technology to market and promulgate his works to a much broader audience than works of previous authors.


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