8 David Foster Wallace Essays You Can Read Online

david foster wallace essay on grammar

If you've talked to me for more than five minutes, you probably know that I'm a huge fan of author and essayist David Foster Wallace . In my opinion, he's one of the most fascinating writers and thinkers that has ever lived, and he possessed an almost supernatural ability to articulate the human experience.

Listen, you don't have to be a pretentious white dude to fall for DFW. I know that stigma is out there, but it's just not true. David Foster Wallace's writing will appeal to anyone who likes to think deeply about the human experience. He really likes to dig into the meat of a moment — from describing state fair roller coaster rides to examining the mind of a detoxing addict. His explorations of the human consciousness are incredibly astute, and I've always felt as thought DFW was actually mapping out my own consciousness.

Contrary to what some may think, the way to become a DFW fan is not to immediately read Infinite Jest . I love Infinite Jest. It's one of my favorite books of all-time. But it is also over 1,000 pages long and extremely difficult to read. It took me seven months to read it for the first time. That's a lot to ask of yourself as a reader.

My recommendation is to start with David Foster Wallace's essays . They are pure gold. I discovered DFW when I was in college, and I would spend hours skiving off my homework to read anything I could get my hands on. Most of what I read I got for free on the Internet.

So, here's your guide to David Foster Wallace on the web. Once you've blown through these, pick up a copy of Consider the Lobster or A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again .

1. "This is Water" Commencement Speech

david foster wallace essay on grammar

Technically this is a speech, but it will seriously revolutionize the way you think about the world and how you interact with it. You can listen to Wallace deliver it at Kenyon College , or you can read this transcript . Or, hey, do both.

2. "Consider the Lobster"

david foster wallace essay on grammar

This is a classic. When he goes to the Maine Lobster Festival to do a report for Gourmet , DFW ends up taking his readers along for a deep, cerebral ride. Asking questions like "Do lobsters feel pain?" Wallace turns the whole celebration into a profound breakdown on the meaning of consciousness. (Don't forget to read the footnotes!)

2. "Ticket to the Fair"

Another episode of Wallace turning journalism into something more. Harper 's sent DFW to report on the state fair, and he emerged with this masterpiece. The Harper's subtitle says it all: "Wherein our reporter gorges himself on corn dogs, gapes at terrifying rides, savors the odor of pigs, exchanges unpleasantries with tattooed carnies, and admires the loveliness of cows."

3. "Federer as Religious Experience"

david foster wallace essay on grammar

DFW was obviously obsessed with tennis, but you don't have to like or know anything about the sport to be drawn in by his writing. In this essay, originally published in the sports section of The New York Times , Wallace delivers a profile on Roger Federer that soon turns into a discussion of beauty with regard to athleticism. It's hypnotizing to read.

4. "Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise"

Later published as "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" in the collection of the same name, this essay is the result of Harper's sending Wallace on a luxury cruise. Wallace describes how the cruise sends him into a depressive spiral, detailing the oddities that make up the strange atmosphere of an environment designed for ultimate "fun."

5. "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction"

david foster wallace essay on grammar

This is definitely in the running for my favorite DFW essay. (It's so hard to choose.) Fiction writers! Television! Voyeurism! Loneliness! Basically everything I love comes together in this piece as Wallace dives into a deep exploration of how humans find ways to look at each other. Though it's a little long, it's endlessly fascinating.

6. "String Theory"

"You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it's hard."

Originally published in Esquire , this article takes you deep into the intricate world of professional tennis. Wallace uses tennis (and specifically tennis player Michael Joyce) as a vehicle to explore the ideas of success, identity, and what it means to be a professional athlete.

7. "9/11: The View from the Midwest"

david foster wallace essay on grammar

Written in the days following 9/11, this article details DFW and his community's struggle to come to terms with the attack.

8. "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage "

If you're a language nerd like me, you'll really dig this one. A self-proclaimed "snoot" about grammar, Wallace dives into the world of dictionaries, exploring all of the implications of how language is used, how we understand and define grammar, and how the "Democratic Spirit" fits into the tumultuous realms of English.

Images: cocoparisienne /Pixabay; werner22brigette /Pixabay; StartupStockPhotos /Pixabay; PublicDomainPIctures /Pixabay

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Ransom Center Magazine

In the galleries: David Foster Wallace’s affinity for grammar and usage

April 26, 2011 - Courtney Reed

In the galleries: David Foster Wallace’s affinity for grammar and usage

David Foster Wallace, who was regarded by many as the best writer of his generation, was a talented essayist who was commissioned by several publications, from Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly to Rolling Stone and Gourmet , to write on topics as disparate as a luxury cruise, tennis, the Illinois State Fair, and the first presidential campaign of John McCain.

Wallace, whose affinity for and comprehension of the rules of grammar and usage were widely known, published an essay entitled “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage” in Harper’s in April 2001. An early draft of his essay can be seen in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century . The draft is a veritable rainbow, covered in red, black, blue, and green ink. Wallace notes his argument at the bottom of the page: “Language & grammar are the distinctive human attainment. They make possible almost everything we value as human (and beyond: ‘In the beginning was the Word). Facility with language… may be one of our responsibilities (like care of the earth, decency to our fellows).”

David Foster Wallace’s affinity for grammar is also seen in his library, which includes a number of books related to language, usage, and writing. One of his books about the history of the English language is underlined extensively throughout by Wallace. On one page, Wallace highlights with an exclamation point the following text: “[The average person] is likely to forget that writing is only a conventional device for recording sounds and that language is primarily speech.”

It seems that none of Wallace’s books were safe from his inquiring pen. Wallace deeply admired novelist Don DeLillo. His library includes more than a dozen books by DeLillo, whose influence on Wallace can be seen in Wallace’s extensive handwritten notes about the novels and DeLillo’s writing style. On a page of DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names , Wallace writes with his red and green pens: “D doesn’t use commas between independent clauses—only uses ‘and.’ See p. 19. Why? It gives narrative a more oral quality—We never hear this comma.”

About Courtney Reed

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30 Free Essays & Stories by David Foster Wallace on the Web

in e-books , Literature | February 22nd, 2012 10 Comments

david foster wallace essay on grammar

Image by Steve Rhodes, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

We start­ed the week expect­ing to pub­lish one David Fos­ter Wal­lace post . Then, because of the 50th birth­day cel­e­bra­tion, it turned into two . And now three. We spent some time track­ing down free DFW sto­ries and essays avail­able on the web, and they’re all now list­ed in our col­lec­tion,  800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices . But we did­n’t want them to escape your atten­tion. So here they are — 23 pieces pub­lished by David Fos­ter Wal­lace between 1989 and 2011, most­ly in major U.S. pub­li­ca­tions like The New York­er , Harper’s , The Atlantic , and The Paris Review . Enjoy, and don’t miss our oth­er col­lec­tions of free writ­ings by Philip K. Dick and Neil Gaiman .

  • “9/11: The View From the Mid­west” (Rolling Stone, Octo­ber 25, 2001)
  • “All That” (New York­er, Decem­ber 14, 2009)
  • “An Inter­val” (New York­er, Jan­u­ary 30, 1995)
  • “Asset” (New York­er, Jan­u­ary 30, 1995)
  • “Back­bone” An Excerpt from The Pale King (New York­er, March 7, 2011)
  • “Big Red Son” from Con­sid­er the Lob­ster & Oth­er Essays
  • “Brief Inter­views with Hideous Men” (The Paris Review, Fall 1997)
  • “Con­sid­er the Lob­ster” (Gourmet, August 2004)
  • “David Lynch Keeps His Head” (Pre­miere, 1996)
  • “Every­thing is Green” (Harpers, Sep­tem­ber 1989)
  • “E Unibus Plu­ram: Tele­vi­sion and U.S. Fic­tion” (The Review of Con­tem­po­rary Fic­tion, June 22, 1993)
  • “Fed­er­er as Reli­gious Expe­ri­ence” (New York Times, August 20, 2006)
  • “Good Peo­ple” (New York­er, Feb­ru­ary 5, 2007)
  • “Host” (The Atlantic, April 2005)
  • “Incar­na­tions of Burned Chil­dren” (Esquire, April 21, 2009)
  • “Laugh­ing with Kaf­ka” (Harper’s, Jan­u­ary 1998)
  • “Lit­tle Expres­sion­less Ani­mals” (The Paris Review, Spring 1988)
  • “On Life and Work” (Keny­on Col­lege Com­mence­ment address, 2005)
  • “Order and Flux in Northamp­ton”   (Con­junc­tions, 1991)
  • “Rab­bit Res­ur­rect­ed” (Harper’s, August 1992)
  • “ Sev­er­al Birds” (New York­er, June 17, 1994)
  • “Ship­ping Out: On the (near­ly lethal) com­forts of a lux­u­ry cruise” (Harper’s, Jan­u­ary 1996)
  • “Ten­nis, trigonom­e­try, tor­na­does A Mid­west­ern boy­hood”   (Harper’s, Decem­ber 1991)
  • “Tense Present: Democ­ra­cy, Eng­lish, and the wars over usage” (Harper’s, April 2001)
  • “The Awak­en­ing of My Inter­est in Annu­lar Sys­tems” (Harper’s, Sep­tem­ber 1993)
  • “The Com­pli­ance Branch” (Harper’s, Feb­ru­ary 2008)
  • “The Depressed Per­son” (Harper’s, Jan­u­ary 1998)
  • “The String The­o­ry” (Esquire, July 1996)
  • “The Weasel, Twelve Mon­keys And The Shrub” (Rolling Stone, April 2000)
  • “Tick­et to the Fair” (Harper’s, July 1994)
  • “Wig­gle Room” (New York­er, March 9, 2009)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Philip K. Dick: Down­load 13 Great Sci­ence Fic­tion Sto­ries

Neil Gaiman’s Free Short Sto­ries

Read 17 Short Sto­ries From Nobel Prize-Win­ning Writer Alice Munro Free Online

10 Free Sto­ries by George Saun­ders, Author of Tenth of Decem­ber , “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year”

by OC | Permalink | Comments (10) |

david foster wallace essay on grammar

Related posts:

Comments (10), 10 comments so far.

I got anoth­er free DFW essay for you: Big Red Son http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/books_9780316156110_ChapterExcerpt(1) .htm

Thanks very much. I added it to the list.

Appre­ci­ate it, Dan

Thanks very much for this infor­ma­tion regard­ing essays and sto­ries

Hi Dan. It’s a bit late for this, but I just remem­bered anoth­er link you might want to add. You can hear DFW giv­ing the full unabridged Keny­on com­mence­ment speech (which you link to in your list) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5THXa_H_N8 (it’s in 2 parts). Or down­load the full audio from http://www.mediafire.com/?file41t3kfml6q6 Thanks for all your hard work!

This is excel­lent, thanks so much. Will these links be up per­ma­nent­ly? I want to avoid the trou­ble of down­load­ing the stuff I don’t have time to get to now.

Just thought I’d men­tion that ‘Lit­tle Expres­sion­less Ani­mals” cuts off about 2/3rds of the way through, requir­ing you to pur­chase the issue ($40) for the chance to read the rest.

Kind of a bum­mer.

Don’t for­get “Tra­cy Austin Serves Up a Bub­bly Life Sto­ry” (review of Tra­cy Austin’s Beyond Cen­ter Court: My Sto­ry): http://www.mendeley.com/research/tracy-austin-serves-up-bubbly-life-story-review-tracy-austins-beyond-center-court-story

Also, just to let you know, the link to “Big Red Son” is bro­ken.

There’s also a ton of oth­er here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Foster_Wallace_bibliography

You can add “Good Old Neon” to your list if you like:


There’s a bunch of arti­cles with bro­ken links, notably those from Harper’s Mag­a­zine. Has any­body saved them and would be so kind to share them?

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  • David Foster Wallace

Students examine David Foster Wallace's famous Kenyon College Commencement Speech -- 'This is Water.'.

In his commencement speech to the Kenyon College graduating class of 2005, David Foster Wallace asks the graduates to pay attention to the world around them. He challenges them to examine the real value of an education, which, as he claims, has very little to do with knowledge and a lot to do with awareness of what surrounds us. His example of a white-collar worker shopping for groceries in a crowded supermarket after a long work day drives home the point that unless graduates really “learn how to think,” they will be, as he puts it, “pissed and miserable” when they confront the daily challenges of life. Towards the end of the speech, Wallace makes a bold claim: that in the daily grind of life, “there is no such thing as atheism; we all worship.” He suggests to the graduates that a compelling reason for us to worship some transcendent being or some other abstract ideal, instead of material goods, beauty, power, or personal intelligence, is that worshiping these things will “eat you alive.”

Click here to read a transcript of his address.

Below are 40 terms that some students may need to know in order to understand David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, “This is Water.” Define each word as succinctly as possible; define each word as it is used in the speech.

You may use Wikipedia or an online dictionary, but please write the terms along with their definitions on a sheet of paper. The act of writing by hand helps you remember the definitions.

  • bracket (verb)
  • default setting
  • white collar
  • bureaucratic

Thinking Critically

Answer each question as completely as you can, using well-formed sentences. Although there is no "correct" answer, please be sure to support your answer with evidence from the text.

Wallace begins his speech by telling the audience a riddle about two young fish who do not realize that they live in water. He ends the speech by telling the audience that they must remind themselves every day, “This is water. This is water.”

  • Wallace uses water metaphorically. What idea does the water metaphor convey? What does Wallace mean by water? Explain.
  • What is the rhetorical value of using the water metaphor at the beginning of the speech and at the end (this technique is called framing)?
  • Wallace use the term “default setting” throughout the speech. What does he mean by this term? Why does he say that we need to “adjust” our default settings?

What does Wallace mean by this statement? Can you give examples from things you have experienced or seen?

Does knowledge of Wallace’s suicide make a difference to you in how you perceive his speech? Does it (his suicide) change your opinion of what he says?

Writing Assignment

Listen to Wallace’s speech and read the transcript again. In an essay of five paragraphs (7-sentence introduction, three 9-sentence body paragraphs, and a 4-sentence conclusion – in other words, 7, 9, 9, 9, 4) please articulate what you believe is the main point that Wallace tries to convey to the graduates. In your answer, you may, of course, write about more than one of the ideas that Wallace uses to help him make his point. Do you agree or disagree with what Wallace says? Be sure to use examples that are not taken from the speech to support your agreement or disagreement.

Download the PDF (Printable) Version

Click the link below to download a printable version of the study guide, including the introduction, vocabulary, study questions, and writing assignment.

  • David Foster Wallace, "This is Water"

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Something to Do with Work as Play: David Foster Wallace and “The Nature of the Fun”

Photo of Kristopher Jansma

Kristopher Jansma


In a 1998 essay called “The Nature of the Fun” author David Foster Wallace illustrated a bind that many writers find themselves in—certainly one I’ve been caught in now and then.

Writing, which starts out as an act of inventive and rebellious fun, soon becomes something we take semi-seriously, and over time we begin to treat it as a kind of work.

“Write every day,” my teachers urged me, as I now urge my own students.

So, we compel ourselves to the page day after day. If we’re lucky, we share some of it with others, and if we’re really lucky, they like it. The praise is motivating; we work even harder. What about the next thing? Sooner or later someone doesn’t like what you’re doing. No problem. We can fix it. We try harder. We edit our stuff and rethink our ideas and stress out and kill our darlings until what’s left flatlines. Before long we’re having very little fun at all.

And from here it can be very hard to remember why we first fell in love with writing.

Wallace describes that original pleasure. “You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like.”

As a child, I’d occasionally be confronted by some adult about my sitting inside, scribbling in a journal on a perfectly lovely day. It must have seemed like I was terribly bored when it was just the opposite. Lifting up my journal, I’d make my best case for its superiority over the perfectly lovely day.

“In here there are dragons. Out there? No dragons.”

But steadily most of us are drawn out into the world, and this isn’t all bad, because despite its lack of dragons, reality turns out to contain lots of interesting things and people and places. Big, important things are going on: politically, sexually, historically. We may discover that our writing can say something important and even be taken seriously by people who read it.

Of this phase, Wallace writes, “…things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you’re writing for other people, or at least you hope so…The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive. Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection.”

At this point we find ourselves with seemingly few options. To retreat into writing solely for our own amusement now feels frivolous. To go on worrying about everyone else leads down a path of ego and vanity that results in what Wallace calls “shitty fiction” that must be “fed to the wastebasket.” Even if we somehow manage to write good stuff, the job becomes largely fun-free.

Wallace nails the predicament in this part of the essay, but the road map out of it isn’t totally clear.

He urges us to embrace the paradox. To find our way back to the fun we must push through the “late vain period,” which is actually good experience, because we’ll be anxious to avoid it ever again.

“It has something to do with Work as Play,” he suggests, a little vaguely.

He describes how, if we discover the joys of “disciplined fun” and write truthfully about all those “unfun” things that we’d ordinarily want to write to escape from, we’ll connect with people who feel these same things. “This process is complicated and confusing and scary, and also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is. The fact that you can now sustain the fun of writing only by confronting the very same unfun parts of yourself you’d first used writing to avoid or disguise is another paradox, but this one isn’t any kind of bind at all. What it is is a gift, a kind of miracle, and compared to it the rewards of strangers’ affection is as dust, lint.”

Well. I wish that I could say that this uplifting assertion has shown me the light and that after lots of hard work I am now perpetually awash in the miracle of affection-lint, having mega-fun all the time, but the truth is that whatever I do, I still strain to tune out the imagined opinions of others, and to remind myself that what I’m doing is supposed to be fun—even if a disciplined kind of fun.

What’s more, most writers I know seem to feel this way too. And, I’m not sure that Wallace wrote those words based on his own Zen-mastery of Work as Play—at least not initially.

In 1993, five years before Wallace published “The Nature of the Fun” in Fiction Writer, he used the bulk of it in an introduction to an excerpt of Infinite Jest for Conjunctions Magazine . (He called the excerpt simply, “From Quite a Bit Longer Thing in Progress .”)

In that introduction, he continued after the “dust, lint” line.

“All this is completely smart and true, I think. The trouble is that one doesn’t come to see this stuff by sitting in a chair blowing smoke rings and meditating his way toward epiphany.”

Infinite Jest, as many already know, ended up being a famously difficult book. It is about addiction, depression, and a heap of other unfun topics. The book is 1079 pages long, weighs more than three pounds, and contains 388 endnotes. Not foot notes, mind you, because Wallace fought his editor Michael Pietsch, “w/all 20 claws” to force readers to constantly turn back and forth in the cumbersome tome. Ideally one has two bookmarks while reading, to keep track of where they are in each part.

We talk sometimes about writers who make us work hard to understand them, but Wallace made it literal work to read Infinite Jest . And this is partly why it is so fun to read.

Remember Tom Sawyer, out there getting the neighbor kids to whitewash his fence? As long as he can convince them that it is fun, they’ll gladly do the work.

That’s one kind of Work as Play. Sometimes we flip to find an endnote that is barely three words long. Sometimes we find such a long endnote that it is like a hidden, extra chapter. The novel leaps between characters and voices and time periods. It’s philosophical, insane, funny, deeply sad, and totally disturbing. It also surely isn’t for everyone. Lots of people hate it. Lots of people love it maybe too much. (There’s a certain kind of reader that takes such pride in having read it that they go around talking about it forever after.)

I’ll admit freely that it took me something like six attempts over the course of ten years to push through it. I think I still skipped some parts. I understood maybe a third of what I did read. It’s not the kind of thing I ambush strangers about at cocktail parties. But I can say that each time I resumed it, I was reminded of how full its pages are with generous surprises and limitless playfulness, all of which makes reading it incredibly fun, even if it is often hard work.

By the time he published “The Nature of the Fun” in Fiction Writer  magazine in 1998, Wallace was apparently struggling to relocate the fun all over again. According to biographer D.T. Max, the success of  Infinite Jest had left Wallace “‘paralyzed’ by fear of failure” and unsure what to do with all the attention he’d received for it.

Once he’d criticized fellow writer Jay McInerney for “acting as a custodian for the statue of himself that celebrity [had] constructed.” Now he had his own statue to look after.

There’s “a tricky thing about fiction writing,” Wallace wrote in the essay, “A certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal.”

A year earlier, he’d written to his hero Don DeLillo that he was feeling frustrated, his work becoming erratic. That, among other things, “writing is also less Fun than it was.”

I find it remarkably comforting that someone who had recently finished a 1,079 page novel ends up right back where any young student does, trying to work out how to write every day.

DeLillo replied that he did not see anything in Infinite Jest that suggested Wallace might be “dying of funlessness” but he conceded that in this way readers and writers experience a book differently. “Where you see fun in my work,” DeLillo commented, “I remember doubt, confusion and indecision, and now experience considerable regret…”

This may have meant something to Wallace— who soon after won the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and felt more pressure than ever. The most significant change to “The Nature of the Fun” from its first incarnation is the addition of an homage to DeLillo in the opening.

“The best metaphor I know of for being a fiction writer is in Don DeLillo’s ‘Mao II,’ where he describes a book-in-progress as a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, […] wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.”

The trouble is a writer is acutely aware of the hard work that goes into a book-in-progress and so sees the finished product as a still-flawed extension of it. As DeLillo indicated, the things that may seem like fun to the reader, may not to the writer.

Wallace explains that when someone else looks at your work and sees “a lovely, miraculous, perfect, ad-ready infant”, i.e., they actually like it, then either they are a fool, or you are crazy.

But the deeper problem, as he soon points out, is that this means you “see and despise hideousness in a thing you made (and love), in your spawn and in certain ways you” and that this is a “terrible kind of self-assault, almost self-torture.”

The flaws we see in the work are manifestations of the flaws in ourselves. It represents our own shortcomings, confusions, doubts and regrets. These decidedly “unfun” things about ourselves are, as he points out, what we must pursue in order to break through the bind.

In 1993, not long before that first version of “The Nature of the Fun” emerged in Conjunctions , Wallace had a conversation with Larry McCaffery for The Review of Contemporary Fiction where he defined what he thought good art should do in dark times.

“…the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”

This was an idea that Wallace came back to again and again. It wasn’t enough for fiction to diagnose the problem; it had to present a remedy. True to his word, he presents a kind of CPR for us in “The Nature of the Fun,” in encouraging us to acknowledge the hideous flaws and the “unfun” things that are part of what’s human.

This is necessary, hard work. But the fun itself is important as well. Writers stuck in this bind of “work as play” can also write towards what’s magical, what still lives and glows. We can write towards whatever illuminates the possibilities.

It’ll sound frivolous of me to say it, but I’d have loved to read a Wallace story about a dragon. (Hey, Ishiguro did it. Why not?) Or one about little green men, or El Chupacabra, or something set in Victorian England, or on the moon. I lie awake sometimes wondering what he might have written about seeing Jason Segel play him in a movie. How much fun would that have been?

Fun is the remedy. Its nature is to be an antidote to the pain of self-consciousness and seriousness. To write for fun is a rebellious act. It rebels against a society that is continually absurd in its own seriousness. It rebels against our own too-solid sense of self. Fun lets us forget curating our own statues for a day. To knock the thing down and stack the pieces up in some new and different way. Write every day, but once in a while, play around. Be devious. Escape. Transform. Write something that is weird as hell. Somebody may like it, least of all you.

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The Marginalian

The Nature of the Fun: David Foster Wallace on Why Writers Write

By maria popova.

david foster wallace essay on grammar

After offering an extended and rather gory metaphor for the writer’s creative output and a Zen parable about unpredictability, he gets to the meat of things:

In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works – and it’s terrific fun. Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the a.m. subway by a pretty girl you don’t even know it seems to make it even more fun. For a while. Then things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you’re writing for other people, or at least you hope so. You’re no longer writing just to get yourself off, which — since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow — is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You’ve found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you’re extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you’re doing. The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive. Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever “ego” means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe “vanity” is a better word. Because you notice that a good deal of your writing has now become basically showing off, trying to get people to think you’re good. This is understandable. You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing — your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal.

Here, Wallace echoes Vonnegut, who famously advised , “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Indeed, this lusting after prestige and approval is a familiar detractor of creative purpose in any endeavor. Wallace goes on:

At some point you find that 90% of the stuff you’re writing is motivated and informed by an overwhelming need to be liked. This results in shitty fiction. And the shitty work must get fed to the wastebasket, less because of any sort of artistic integrity than simply because shitty work will cause you to be disliked. At this point in the evolution of writerly fun, the very thing that’s always motivated you to write is now also what’s motivating you to feed your writing to the wastebasket. This is a paradox and a kind of double-bind, and it can keep you stuck inside yourself for months or even years, during which period you wail and gnash and rue your bad luck and wonder bitterly where all the fun of the thing could have gone.

david foster wallace essay on grammar

He adds to literary history’s most famous insights on the relationship between truth and fiction :

The smart thing to say, I think, is that the way out of this bind is to work your way somehow back to your original motivation — fun. And, if you can find your way back to fun, you will find that the hideously unfortunate double-bind of the late vain period turns out really to have been good luck for you. Because the fun you work back to has been transfigured by the extreme unpleasantness of vanity and fear, an unpleasantness you’re now so anxious to avoid that the fun you rediscover is a way fuller and more large-hearted kind of fun. It has something to do with Work as Play. Or with the discovery that disciplined fun is more than impulsive or hedonistic fun. Or with figuring out that not all paradoxes have to be paralyzing. Under fun’s new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable. This process is complicated and confusing and scary, and also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is.

He concludes on a Bradbury-like note:

The fact that you can now sustain the fun of writing only by confronting the very same unfun parts of yourself you’d first used writing to avoid or disguise is another paradox, but this one isn’t any kind of bind at all. What it is is a gift, a kind of miracle, and compared to it the rewards of strangers’ affection is as dust, lint.

Both Flesh and Not is excellent in its entirety and just as quietly, unflinchingly soul-stirring as “The Nature of the Fun.”

— Published November 6, 2012 — https://www.themarginalian.org/2012/11/06/the-nature-of-fun-david-foster-wallace/ —





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david foster wallace essay on grammar

The Last Essay I Need to Write about David Foster Wallace

Mary k. holland on closing the “open question” of wallace’s misogyny.

Feature photo by Steve Rhodes .

David Foster Wallace’s work has long been celebrated for audaciously reorienting fiction toward empathy, sincerity, and human connection after decades of (supposedly) bleak postmodern assertions that all had become nearly impossible. Linguistically rich and structurally innovative, his work is also thematically compelling, mounting brilliant critiques of liberal humanism’s masked oppressions, the soul-killing dangers of technology and American narcissism, and the increasing impotence of our culture of irony.

Wallace spoke and wrote movingly about our need to cultivate self-awareness in order to more fully see and respect others, and created formal methods that construct the reader-writer relationship with such piercing intimacy that his fans and critics feel they know and love him. A year after his death by suicide, as popular and critical attention to him and his work began to build into the industry of Wallace studies that exists today, he was first outed as a misogynist who stalked, manipulated, and physically attacked women.

In her 2009 memoir, Lit , Mary Karr spends less than four pages narrating the several years in which Wallace pursued her, leading to a brief romantic relationship that ended in vicious arguments and “his pitching my coffee table at me.” Unlike her accounts of the relationship nearly a decade later, Karr’s tone here notably remains clever and humorous throughout. She also follows each disclosure of Wallace’s ferocity with a confession of her own regrettable behavior: regarding his “temper fits” she admits to “sentences I had to apologize for” and assures us—twice—that “no doubt he was richly provoked.” After describing the coffee-table incident, she notes parenthetically that “years later, we’ll accept each other’s longhand apologies for the whole debacle,” as if having a piece of furniture thrown at you makes you as guilty as having thrown it.

Three years later D.T. Max published his biography of Wallace, in which he divulged more shocking details about the relationship with Karr—that Wallace tried to buy a gun to kill her husband, that he tried to push her from a moving car—while also dropping enough details about Wallace’s sex life and professed attitudes toward women to make him sound like one of his own hideous men. Wallace called female fans at his readings “audience pussy”; wondered to Jonathan Franzen whether “his only purpose on earth was ‘to put my penis in as many vaginas as possible’”; picked up vulnerable women in his recovery groups; admitted to a “fetish for conquering young mothers,” like Orin in Infinite Jest ; and “affected not to care that some of the women were his students.”

In a 2016 anthology dedicated to the late author, one of those students, Suzanne Scanlon, published a short story about a student having a manipulative, emotionally abusive sexual affair with her professor (called “D-,” “Author,” and “a self-identified Misogynist”), using characteristic formal elements of “Octet” and “Brief Interviews” and dominated by the narrative voice popularized by David Foster Wallace.

None of these accounts had any visible impact on fans’ or readers’ love of Wallace’s writing or on critics’ readings and opinions of his work. Rather, one writer, Rebecca Rothfeld, confessed in 2013 that Max’s record of (some of) Wallace’s misogynistic acts and statements could not shake her “faith in [his] fundamental goodness, intelligence, and likeability” because his “work seemed more real to me than his behavior did.” Critic Amy Hungerford took the opposite stance in 2016, proclaiming her decision to stop reading and teaching Wallace’s work, but without mentioning his abusive treatment of women or the question of how that behavior presses us to re-read the same in his work.

Another writer, Deirdre Coyle, explained her discomfort at reading Wallace not in terms of the author’s own behavior—which she gives no sign of being aware of—but because of sexual and misogynistic violence perpetrated on her by men she sees as very much like Wallace (“Small liberal arts colleges are breeding grounds for these guys”) and in terms of patriarchy in general (“It’s hard to distinguish my reaction to Wallace from my reaction to patriarchy.” Any woman who has been violated, talked over, and condescended to by this kind of man, the kind who thinks his pseudo-feminism allows him to enlighten her about her own experiences of male oppression and sexual violation, cannot help but sympathize with Coyle.

But in rejecting Wallace because of other men’s sexual violence and misogyny in general, she shifts the argument away from questions about how these function in the fiction and how Wallace’s biography might force us to re-read that fiction, and allows for the kind of circular rebuttal that a (male) Wallace critic offered a year later: not all male readers of Wallace are misogynists; therefore, women should listen to the good ones and read more Wallace; let me tell you why.

These pre-#MeToo reactions to Karr’s and Max’s reports of Wallace’s abuse of women clarify what is at stake as readers, critics, and teachers consider this biographical information in the context of Wallace’s work. For, while Wimsatt and Beardsley’s argument against the intentional fallacy is compelling and important, its goal is to protect the sanctity of the text against the undue influence of our assumptions about the person who wrote it. Arguments defending the importance of Wallace’s beautiful empathizing fiction in spite of his abuse of women threaten to do the opposite.

Like Rothfeld, whose admiration for Wallace’s fiction renders his own misogynistic acts less “real,” David Hering argues that “the biographical revelation of unsavoury details about Wallace’s own relationships” leads to an equation between Wallace and misogyny that “does a fundamental disservice to the kind of urgent questions Wallace asks in his work about communication, empathy, and power”—as if Wallace’s real abuse of real women is not worth contemplating in comparison with his writing about how fictional men treat fictional women. Hering’s use of the euphemism “unsavoury” to describe behavior ranging from exploitation to physical attacks, like his description of Wallace’s work regarding gender as “troublesome,” illustrates another widespread problem with nearly all critical treatments of this topic so far: an unwillingness to say, or perhaps even see, that what we are talking about in the fiction and in the author’s life is gender-motivated violence, stalking, physical abuse, even, in the case of Karr’s husband, plotting to murder.

In the wake of the October 2017 resurgence of Burke’s #MeToo movement, we see a curious split between Wallace-studies critics and others in their reactions to these allegations. Not only does Hering’s response downplay the severity of Wallace’s behavior and its relevance to his work; it also asserts Hering’s “belief” that Wallace’s work “dramatize[s]” misogyny, rather than expressing it—without offering a text-based argument or pointing to the critical work that had already done this analysis and found exactly the opposite to be true.

He also relies on a technique used by memoirists, bloggers, and critics alike in their attempts to save Wallace from his own biography: he converts an example of male domination of women into a universal human dilemma, erasing the elements of gender and power entirely, by reading Wallace’s silencing of his female interviewer’s voice in Brief Interviews as “embody[ing] the richness of Wallace’s work—its focus on the difficulty and importance of communication and empathy, and its illustration of the poisonous things that happen when dialogue breaks down.” Such a reading ignores the fact that when dialogue breaks down between an entitled man and a pressured woman , the things that can happen go beyond metaphorically poisonous to physically sickening and injurious—as so many of the stories in that collection illustrate.

Given the same platform and the same task—celebrating Wallace around what would have been his 56th birthday—critic Clare Hayes-Brady offered “Reading David Foster Wallace in 2018,” mere months after the social media flood of women’s testimonies about sexual violence had begun. It does not mention #MeToo or the public allegations that had been made about Wallace, raising the question of what “in 2018” refers to. When asked several months later “what’s changed?” in Wallace studies, after the public (but not critical) backlash had begun, Hayes-Brady falls back on the same generalizing technique used by Hering. She reframes accusations of misogyny as an entirely academic development, beneficial to Wallace studies and unrelated to #MeToo outcry against perpetrators of sexual violence (“a coincidence of timing”). She equates “flaws in his writing both technical and also moral and ethical,” as if women had been up in arms across Twitter over Wallace’s exhausting sentence structures.

When directly asked if Wallace was a misogynist, she replies “yes, but in the way everyone is, including me,” as if we neither have nor need a separate word for men who do not just live unavoidably in our misogynistic culture but also willfully perpetrate selfish, cruel, and violent acts of misogyny against women. That is, rather than responding humanely to indisputable evidence that our beloved writer was not the saint he would have liked us to think he was (and that we would have liked to believe him to be), Wallace critics—including me, in my silence at that time—refused to allow #MeToo to force the reckoning that was so clearly required. We did so by denying the relevance of his personal behavior to his fiction and to our work, or—worse—by participating in that age-old rape culture enabler: refusing to believe women’s testimony.

Those outside literary studies reacted quite differently to the renewed attention #MeToo brought to these accusations. After Junot Díaz was publicly accused on May 4, 2018, of sexually abusing women, causing immediate public protest, Mary Karr responded by reminding us on Twitter of the abuse she had reported nearly a decade earlier, prompting a series of blog articles and interviews that supported Karr by recounting the allegations made by Karr and Max. They also began to reveal the misogyny that had shaped and stifled public reception of those allegations.

Whitney Kimball pointed out that Max described Wallace’s violent treatment of Karr as beneficial to his creative output and part of what made him “fascinating”; that in praising the “quite remarkable” “craftsmanship” of one of Wallace’s letters, Max notes only in passing that the letter is Wallace’s apology for planning to buy a gun to kill Karr’s husband. Megan Garber noted the misogyny of an interviewer asking Max why “his feelings for [Karr] created such trouble for Wallace”—an example of what Kate Manne calls “himpathy,” or empathizing with a male perpetrator of sexual violence rather than the victim.

#MeToo also began to make the misogyny of Wallace’s work more visible to his readers. Devon Price describes how reading about Wallace’s abuses against women caused them to revisit Wallace’s work and see its gender violence for the first time. Tellingly, Price also realizes that one of the reasons they were depressed when they fell in love with Wallace’s work is that they were then in a physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive relationship. Price’s realization points to another common reason why readers are blind to or defensive about the misogyny in Wallace’s work and behavior, and to a key way in which the #MeToo movement can allow reading and literary studies to illuminate misogyny in synergistic ways: we are often blind to misogyny and sexual abuse, in fiction and in others’ behavior, because we are living in it unaware. And the awareness of the spectrum of sexual abuse brought by #MeToo testimonies reveals misogyny not just in the fiction that we read, but in our own lives—one revelation causing the other.

To date, no new criticism has emerged that directly considers the implications to his work of Wallace’s now widely reported misogyny and violence toward women. But the recent publication of Adrienne Miller’s memoir In the Land of Men (2020), which describes her years-long relationship with Wallace while she was literary editor at Esquire , makes a compelling, if unwitting, argument for the necessity of such biographically informed criticism. Miller documents the connection between Wallace’s life and work in excruciating detail, recounting extended scenes between them in which Wallace speaks and acts nearly identically to the misogynists of Brief Interviews , an identification he encourages by telling her that “some of the interviews were ‘actual conversations I had when I had to break up with people.’”

But though Miller lays out the “sexism” of Wallace’s fiction, especially Jest and Brief Interviews , more baldly than any of us Wallace scholars has so far, she remains, even from the vantage point of twenty years later and post-#MeToo, unable or unwilling to identify Wallace’s treatment of her as abusive or misogynistic. In fact, most shocking about the memoir is not its record of Wallace’s behavior but its methodical and steadfast refusal to acknowledge the gender violence of that behavior, and Miller’s disturbing pattern of normalizing, apologizing for, and denying it.

Ultimately, she attempts to redirect us from the question of whether her relationship with Wallace qualifies as abuse or sexual harassment by asking, “Who looks to the artist’s life for moral guidance anyway?” and “What are we to do with the art of profoundly compromised men?” But rather than neatly pivoting from Wallace’s culpability, these questions reveal important reasons why we must consider the lives of such men in conversation with their art. For these men are not merely passively “compromised” but aggressively compromis ing , in ways that our misogynistic culture obscures, and which savvy investigation of their art and lives can illuminate. And “moral” investigation is particularly indicated by the work of Wallace, who declared himself a maverick writer willing to return literature to earnestness and “love” (“Interview with David Foster Wallace” 1993), who wrote fiction that quizzes us on ethics and human value (“Octet” 1999), and who delivered a beloved commencement speech arguing the importance of recognizing one’s inherent narcissism in order to extend care to others.

What does it mean that this artist could not produce in his life the mutually respecting empathy he all but preached in his work (or, most clearly, in his statements about it)? What does it mean that a man and a body of work that claimed feminism in theory primarily produced a stream of abusive relationships between men and women in life and art? What can we learn about the blindness of both men and women to their participation in misogyny and rape culture, despite their professions of awareness of both? How might reading Wallace’s fiction in the contexts of biographical information about him and women’s narratives about their experiences of sexual violence enable us to better understand—and interrupt—the powerful hold misogyny and rape culture have on our society, our art, and our critical practices?


david foster wallace essay on grammar

Excerpted from #MeToo and Literary Studies: Reading, Writing, and Teaching about Sexual Violence and Rape Culture , edited by Mary K. Holland & Heather Hewett. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Academic.  © 2021 by Mary K. Holland & Heather Hewett. 


Mary K. Holland

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david foster wallace essay on grammar

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