It wasn't lost on me this week that progress was made on two campaigns: the campaign for the "beatification" of Pope John Paul II and the "canonization" of David Foster Wallace. While on the "beatification" of PJP I have nothing to say, on the "canonization" of DFW I have plenty.
First, kudos to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which does a brilliant job, biweekly,of covering intellectual issues of gravitas in their insert "The Chronicle Review." I'm a big fan. In fact, I often steal the bookish magazine from my office to savor at home.
This last week the The Chronicle Review dealt with "The Afterlife of David Foster Wallace." I've read a good deal of DFW (not everything, mind you). A few years ago I did a piece for Poets & Writer Magazine on his work at the launch of his essay collection Consider the Lobster. I enjoyed reading him in depth then, enjoyed whole segments of his work, his essays and stories, but not particularly his novels.
While I'm not a literary scholar, I'm not a "common reader" either as perhaps imagined by Virginia Woolf. I'm somewhere in between. I like to call my place the "literary sweet spot," or LSS. LSS is where the sleepy-eyed literary enthusiast lives, the slightly over-educated intellectual hobbyist who writes letters to book review editors and comments on book blogs and who also might work at his own writing. I admit LSS is a grayish goo of humanity, but it exists just like microbes in pond water. LSS lives!
Anyway, I've thought a lot about the American literary canon lately, about who makes it in and who doesn't. I'm finishing a biography of Nathanael West, whose two novels Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust made "the list." His other two novels, probably rightly so, did not. What has become apparent through my work on West is the significant role scholars play in canonization, and did play in saving West and his work from oblivion (where it lingered nearly all the years he was alive.)
Of course, publishers and a number of well-known writers did some of the heavy lifting too, but it was the literary scholars who persisted in the shadows. It was the literary scholars who added West and his novels to reading lists all over America. It was literary scholars who made him a cottage industry. Frankly, before doing my research on West, I harbored some amount of disdain for the literary academic because so much of his or her work seemed so self-referential -- so myopic to drive away "common readers" and LSS members alike.
Now, though, like I said, I see. I understand that while the scholarly factory isn't perfect in its production, the literary scholar does singular and important work.
With this compliment offered, however, I cannot quiet all complaint. The literary scholar can see too closely, too clearly, see just the one thing through the microscope and miss the big other. The scholar can see the microbe and forget it sits in pond water.
I'll finish with this. As I read through the piece in The Chronicle on the coming beatification of DFW I was struck by two very funny sentences. They are funny, I imagine, to every biographer working today, and too, to the tribe who dwell in the house of LSS.
"One danger they and other Wallace scholars must sidestep is the temptation to let the writer's suicide overshadow everything else."
"On the positive side, if there is one, Wallace's suicide concentrated attention on his work."
Seriously? No wonder scholars were once burned at the stake.
P.S. Given the times, please let me clarify that I do not advocate the burning of scholars at the stake.
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