I knew the late David Foster Wallace a very little bit—not much to speak of, really, but I wrote about his work often. An interview that I did with him during the book tour for “Infinite Jest,” in 1996, achieved a surprising longevity. I reviewed his essay collection “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” for the New York Times Book Review, and his last short-story collection, “Oblivion,” for Salon. Until he committed suicide, in 2008, when anyone asked, I’d say that he was my favorite living writer, a statement that was typically greeted with astonishment and skepticism. So while I was barely acquainted with David Wallace the man, his reputation was another matter.
These two things aren’t the same, not in the case of any writer: a notion that many people would agree with in principle but that everyone has a hard time bearing in mind on a daily basis. Even the reputation of a reputation is subject to distortion. That Wallace was not widely regarded as a “great” writer during his lifetime is quickly being forgotten. Of course, a writer’s reputation changes over the years—that’s to be expected. Literary works grow or shrink in significance as the moment in which they were created recedes and as new readers bring new sensibilities to bear on them. But our memory of a reputation’s evolution itself changes, or at least that’s what seems to be happening in the case of Wallace. As more than one critic has observed, Wallace’s death, and the private suffering that it revealed, has led to the formation of an iconic posthumous public image that some of his friends have taken to calling “Saint Dave.” The critic Christian Lorentzen wrote in New York that Saint Dave is David Foster Wallace “reduced to a wisdom-dispensing sage on the one hand and shorthand for the Writer As Tortured Soul on the other.”
Yet even Lorentzen himself isn’t entirely immune to this sort of drift. In his review of “Purity,” the new novel by Wallace’s friend, Jonathan Franzen, he contrasts Franzen’s reputation for “being kind of a prick” with Wallace’s. Although Franzen had remarked upon the lack of “ordinary love” in Wallace’s fiction, Lorentzen writes, “The paradox was that Wallace’s readers felt loved when they read his books, and in turn came to fiercely love their author.”