David Foster Wallace’s Introduction to Essay Anthology

The 2007 edition of the Best American Essays comes out in October, and I can’t wait. I’m a fan of all the "Best American" series books.

Most exciting is that the guest editor for this year’s edition is David Foster Wallace, the prominent American writer (and professor in Claremont). Houghton Millfin posted Wallace’s introduction online in advance of the book’s release, and it’s vintage Wallace. Below are my favorite parts from Wallace’s intro.

On essays which help us deal with the lazy worldview that can come from information and stimuli overload:

Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help. That’s about as clearly as I can put it. I’m aware that some of the collection’s writers could spell all this out better and in much less space. At any rate, the service part of what I mean by ‘value’ refers to all this stuff, and extends as well to essays that have nothing to do with politics or wedge issues. Many are valuable simply as exhibits of what a first-rate artistic mind can make of particular factsets — whether these involve the 17-kHz ring tones of some kids’ cell phones, the language of movement as parsed by dogs, the near-infinity of ways to experience and describe an earthquake, the existential synecdoche of stagefright, or the revelation that most of what you’ve believed and revered turns out to be self- indulgent crap.

On how he, being the "Decider" (the guest editor), is probably biased:

I suspect that part of why ‘bias’ is so loaded and dicey a word just now — and why it’s so much-invoked and potent in cultural disputes — is that we are starting to become more aware of just how much subcontracting and outsourcing and submitting to other Deciders we’re all now forced to do, which is threatening (the inchoate awareness is) to our sense of ourselves as intelligent free agents. And yet there is no clear alternative to this outsourcing and submission. It may possibly be that acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to is now the real measure of informed adulthood. Since I was raised with more traditional, Enlightenment-era criteria, this possibility strikes me as consumerist and scary . . . to which the counterargument would be, again, that the alternatives are literally abysmal.

Hat tip to the Amazon Book Blog which rightfully thanks Wallace for not resorting to "blah generalizations" that we so often see in anthology introductions.

5 comments on “David Foster Wallace’s Introduction to Essay Anthology
  • Ben,

    Two questions: What does DFW teach at Claremont? And when are you taking his course?

    Hope your first week(s) as an undergraduate haven’t disappointed.

    – Cal

  • Hopefully will take his course next year! Hard for frosh to get in.

    He teaches creative fiction, the art of literary essay, and apparently a class on novels. Only one class a semester, though, of max 12 students.

  • What labyrinthine, tortured prose Wallace spews to say nothing.

    “Self-indulgent crap” describes his writing very well.

    I agree that he hasn’t resorted to “blah generalizations” in these selections from his introduction, but to use George W. Bush’s lame “The Decider” epithet to replace the words “guest editor” is truly puke-worthy.

  • The rhythmic name is imposing, like John Foster Dulles or Charles Foster Kane.

    I guess you do need to distinguish “creative” fiction from some of the other stuff that’s out there.

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