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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Writing in Practice - Vol. 2 > Making Students’ Heads Throb Heartlike: David Foster Wallace’s Infinitely Healing Pedagogy
Making Students’ Heads Throb Heartlike: David Foster Wallace’s Infinitely Healing Pedagogy
Author: Tony McMahon
Tony McMahon explores the work of David Foster Wallace and its classroom potential, examining whether these selected novels, short stories and non-fiction writings really can make “heads throb heartlike".


The American writer David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) once said that he wanted his work to make “heads throb heartlike”. Since his death in 2008, Wallace has attracted an increasing amount of academic interest. In this paper, I examine unexplored ideas surrounding the use of his novels, short stories and non-fiction in the classroom. I further explore the notion that Wallace’s “new sincerity”, “hysterical realism” or “post-postmodernism”, as his writing has been classified, opens doors for as yet unmapped opportunities for teaching. I then interrogate the work of Wallace scholars Greg Carlisle, David Hering, Marshall Boswell and Adam Kelly, coming ultimately to the conclusion that reading, writing and healing – for Wallace and for students of his work – cannot be separated. But how do teachers apply knowledge surrounding this notoriously complex writer in a practical manner inside the classroom? This paper marks my attempt to answer this question while simultaneously interrogating what Wallace meant when he famously said that “Fiction’s about what it means to be a fucking human being”.


Keywords: David Foster Wallace, pedagogy, Wallace Studies, creative writing, writing as healing, radical pedagogy


“Fiction’s about what it means to be a fucking human being”

– David Foster Wallace (Burn 2012: 26)



In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that the American writer David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) is my all time favourite author. As a writer myself, I draw influence from a good many sources. Like all writers, everything I read has some effect on what happens when I put pen to paper. But more than anyone else I have ever read, Wallace’s work, somehow, forces me to write. The seriousness with which he approaches his work, mixed with – perhaps paradoxically – the obvious fun he is having doing it, his encyclopaedic linguistic gymnastics, called “maximalist” by Max (2012: 60), and the gigantism of his works, combine for me into a nebulous admixture that literally propels me bodily from reading chair to writing desk.

Further, I would argue that this impact that Wallace can have on a reader is in no way unrelated to the subject at hand in this essay, namely teaching, specifically the teaching of creative writing and how we might go about it in a more effective and caring way.

Wallace once said that good fiction’s job was to make “heads throb heartlike” (2012: 74), and this utterance is obviously the place from where this paper takes its title. Wallace was also a teacher of creative writing, and material relating to this informs much of my arguments below. Since his suicide, Wallace has attracted an increasing amount of academic interest. In this essay, I intend to briefly outline the dynamic new field of Wallace Studies and the implications of this discipline for teachers. I will then examine ideas surrounding the use of his novels, short stories and non-fiction in the classroom to indeed perform the task he proposed: to make students heads throb heartlike. It is my contention that this pedagogical practice can open doors to as yet unmapped opportunities for learning and teaching.

But in the interest of balance, it is worth noting that not everyone is as magnanimous in their praise for Wallace as myself and the other scholars quoted in this paper. In an interview with Nathalie Olah for Vice, Bret Easton Ellis, a renowned novelist in his own right, said that:

I think David Foster Wallace is a complete fraud. I’m really shocked that people take him seriously. People say the same thing about me, of course, and I’ve been criticized for saying these things about Wallace due to the very sentimental narrative attached to him since he killed himself (2014: 1).

In an interview with Keith Duggan of The Irish Times, Easton Ellis also said of Wallace:

Never responded to the work. I pretty much read everything he wrote because you were kind of supposed to. He is a big deal in American letters and… I never really liked anything he wrote. I tried to read Infinite Jest three or four times and never cracked it (2010: 1).

Easton Ellis is not the only person to have problems with Wallace’s gargantuan second novel. The New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani, in her review, called Infinite Jest a "loose baggy monster", and:

a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr Wallace's mind… The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a big psychedelic jumble of characters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscences and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent (2010: 1).


1. An Overview of Wallace’s Oeuvre and Attendant Scholarship to Date

Despite Easton Ellis’, Kakutani’s and no doubt countless others’ misgivings, I agree with Herring that Wallace is “the most important author of the late 20th and early 21st centuries” (2010: 20). Boswell calls Wallace’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest, “a masterpiece” (2003:102), but I would go so far as to label it the defining text of postmodernism in that it began the movement away from that theoretical construct to what has been called by Kelly post-postmodernism or new sincerity (2010: 1). Since 2008, Wallace Studies has become a serious yet still emergent field in the academy. So the question then becomes, if any of what I and others are claiming is even half true: should we not see a lot more of Wallace being taught, not just under the rubric of literature studies, but also on creative writing curricula?

For those who might not be familiar with it, I will now outline the materials that would contribute to such an intervention in teaching Wallace’s body of work and the scholarship surrounding it.

Wallace published his first novel, The Broom of the System, while still an undergraduate at Amherst College in 1987. This was followed in 1989 by a short story collection, Girl with Curious Hair, and in 1990 by a non-fiction text, Signifying Rappers. In 1996, Wallace published Infinite Jest, which made him something of a poster child for the grunge generation (Max 2012: 221-3). Hot on the heels of the success of “the grunge American novel” (Bruni 1996: 1), Wallace published his first collection of non-fiction in 1997, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, ironically perhaps the entry point for a lot of first time Wallace readers, owing to the putative difficulty of the 1079-page Jest. In 1999, Wallace published his second short story collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. There is then a four-year break until the appearance in 2003 of a non-fiction work on mathematics, Everything and More, a third short story collection, Oblivion, in 2004 and finally, in 2005, a second non-fiction book, Consider the Lobster.

After Wallace’s death, The Pale King was published as an unfinished novel in 2011, and a book of non-fiction, Both Flesh and Not, appeared the following year. There have also been numerous other, mostly posthumous publications, such as Wallace’s PhD thesis, which could best be described as marginalia.

The texts that make up Wallace Studies so far are becoming more and more difficult to keep track off. These began while Wallace was still living, with Marshall Boswell’s 2003 book-length study, Understanding David Foster Wallace. Then, in 2010, we saw David Herring’s edited collection of Wallace essays, Consider David Foster Wallace. This was followed in 2012 by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou’s collection, The Legacy of David Foster Wallace. Then, in 2013, Boswell and Stephen J. Burn’s A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies appeared. 2014 saw Boswell’s David Foster Wallace and The Long Thing: New Essays on the Novels and Bolger and Korb’s Gesturing towards Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy. At the time of writing in 2015, Alard den Dulk’s Existentialist Engagement in Wallace, Eggers and Foer and Steven M. Cahn and Maureen Eckhart’s Freedom and the Self: Essays on the Philosophy of David Foster Wallace have also appeared. 2016 will see the release of at least two more academic volumes.

There are also three reading guides, two books of interviews, and a biography.

2014 also saw the release of The David Foster Wallace Reader, and this text is of particular interest to this paper. The majority of the material it contains has been published elsewhere, but there is a new section on Wallace’s teaching materials, introduced by his mother, herself a teacher as well as the author of a book on grammar.

A common theme throughout early Wallace scholarship revolved around what Adam Kelly calls the “established orthodoxy” of the “interview-essay nexus” (2010: 1). Kelly is referring to an essay Wallace wrote for the Summer 1993 edition of Review of Contemporary Fiction called “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and an interview he gave to Larry McCaffery in the same issue. This nexus, Kelly goes on to explain, is largely concerned with the idea that we examine Wallace as an author primarily motivated by the notion of moving beyond what he saw as the confines of postmodernism (2010: 1).

Kelly then goes on to posit a second wave of Wallace scholarship, one he sees as more related with what he describes as Wallace’s overall “project” as a writer. This project, Kelly suggests, is concerned with the idea “that fiction should act as both ‘diagnosis and cure,’ that it should be viewed not primarily in terms of aesthetic representation, but of ethical intervention” (2010: 1).

In September 2014, I attended the Infinite Wallace conference at The Sorbonne, in Paris, where I delivered a paper on Wallace and music. In May 2015, I then attended the second annual David Foster Wallace conference, in the author’s hometown of Normal, Illinois, where I spoke on Wallace and grunge. There were also papers given at both these conferences discussing Wallace and Situationism, Wallace and autism, Wallace and gender and a particularly interesting paper on how we have constructed ideas around this writer from the paratexts attached to his work.

Kelly himself gave the closing address in Paris, and in it he strongly suggested that Wallace Studies – largely through what he had encountered at the conference – was beginning to expand in a number of exciting new directions.

In his essay, Kelly states that:

The role of the reader of Wallace will be to take up these conversations, and to honour the dialogic quality Wallace strove for by developing new dialogues with his work. It is fair to say, in conclusion, that Wallace Studies has begun in just this mode, and the conversations between the writer and his readers look set to be many, lengthy, and perhaps even infinite (2010: 1).

From these utterances, I posit that there is no reason that a thorough examination of how we might teach Wallace in the classroom should not be a part of these new conversations that Kelly and others are telling us we can and should be having with Wallace. The works themselves, as well as commentary surrounding them, demonstrated above, are certainly plentiful enough.

As Herring suggests:

We’ve got to figure out how to get Wallace taught in more classrooms and how to expand the Wallace discussion in those classrooms beyond just a story or two at the end of the semester… I think a world in which Wallace was a household name would be a more mindful, passionate and compassionate world. It’s up to us to continue the conversation he started (2010: 20).


2. Wallace Studies: Practical Classroom Applications

“Wallace converts Baudrillard’s distinctly postmodern concept of the simulacra – that unreal thing that exists to convince us that the rest of the world is real, an idea that felt so threatening to human connection and even our notion of humanity in the 1980s and 1990s – into a method for sculpting through fiction a powerful human presence whose insistent engagement with the reader makes her feel, in her own life, less alone.” – Mary K. Holland (2013: 122).


2A. Case Study

I wanted to examine the teaching of Wallace as an intervention and call it by this name due mainly to the fact that it so rarely happens. This is surprising, given Wallace’s position in American letters, a position even his detractors, such as Bret Easton Ellis, acknowledge. There are several possible reasons: the putative difficulty of his works, their length and their relative temporal proximity. I agree wholeheartedly with Hering, though, cited above, that a way needs to be found to get Wallace into the academy, and that a world where this writer is a household name would be a decidedly better place.

For an example of healing Wallace pedagogy in action, let me recount my experiences teaching this author at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

In February 2012, I began a creative writing PhD at RMIT and, as is the case for many postgraduate students, I was offered sessional teaching work. During these classes, I have made as conscious an effort as I possibly can to place as many of Wallace’s texts onto the various syllabi as I am able, as well as weaving close analysis of these texts and what they might mean for students' wellbeing – not just their education – into class discussions.

Many of the first year undergraduate students I teach are fresh out of high school, where “guidelines” such as never using the word “I” in an essay, or not beginning a sentence with “and” are enforced with draconian fervour. For these students, Wallace’s unique blend of academia and street argot seemed a perfect welcome to the postmodern, post-structuralist university, where there is no such thing as a wrong answer, and inserting yourself into texts is the rule rather than the exception.

There is perhaps no other writer that inserts himself into his texts more than Wallace. What is more, he manages to do so while retaining the academic rigour of his essays and the high literary status of his fiction. For the most part it thrills my first year undergraduates to see that such possibilities for (healthy?) self-examination exist in literature. Some examples from a Wallace “essay” on English usage include: “Q.v. the ‘Pharmakon’ stuff in Derrida’s La dissemination – but you’d probably be better off just trusting me” (2006: 84 FN 27); “This proposition is in fact true, and, as you can see from the size of this FN, lengthy and involved and rather, umm, dense, so that once again you’d maybe be better off simply granting the truth of the proposition and forging on with the main text” (2006: 87 FN 32); “(Please just don’t even say it)” (2006: 116 FN 71); and “(Did you think I was kidding?)” (2006: 123 FN 79).

It would be disingenuous to suggest that, by the end of each semester, every student in my classes are Wallace converts. Many share Easton Ellis’ inability to be able to connect with Infinite Jest, and many struggle with Wallace more generally: his trademark arcane references, almost impossibly long sentences, complete with wildly complex syntax, and his often hyper-stimulated diversions. But on the last day of every semester I play my classes a YouTube video of Wallace’s 2006 Kenyon College commencement address, since published and internet viralized as "This is Water".

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how’s the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?" (2009: 1)

The point here is that what we choose to pay attention to takes constant work, lest the most obvious things in our lives become the most transparent, a notion not unrelated to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. Eager-eyed students about to make their way in the world appear to relate meaningfully to this sentiment that it is going to take work to remain cognizant of things that truly matter. Wallace’s entire speech runs for more than twenty minutes, and this brief analysis does not do its contents full justice. Once again, I would not be telling the truth if I said there was never a dry eye in the house after "This is Water", but I can sincerely state that there are not that many.

One of my students, inspired by what she told me was Wallace’s unique way of doing things, has commenced Honours and is now contemplating a PhD, despite the fact that she was convinced before my classes that the highest educational achievement she would ever rise to was an undergraduate degree, and that with some difficulty. Another of my Wallace students became a devotee of all things to do with the author and skilfully analyzed his canonicity in a creative writing major assignment for which he was given a surprisingly stellar mark. Yet another of my students started a band named after one of Wallace’s short stories. What this says to me is that Wallace’s healing pedagogy can lead to concretely positive results not just in the classroom, but beyond those walls as well.

Wallace’s texts have been woven by me – often spuriously I must admit – into existing syllabi throughout my time teaching at RMIT. I have utilized them as learning tools in subjects as diverse as Reading Space and Place, Textual Crossings (concerned with literary adaptations) and Developing a Writing Project. Overall results achieved with this intervention have included a striking increase in assignments reflecting interest in post-postmodern storytelling and consistently high Course Evaluation Survey scores for subjects involving Wallace’s texts.

In November, 2015, I will be chairing a panel at the 20th Annual Australian Association of Writing Programs Conference entitled “Ghost Stories, Love Stories, New Stories: Reconfiguring David Foster Wallace for the Australian Academy”. This is, to my knowledge, the first ever academic panel on Wallace to be held in this country, and it will showcase analysis of the author’s writing from both postgraduate and undergraduate students, two of whom attended the classes I taught mentioned above.

This panel is also hopefully a precursor to my university holding the first ever Australian Wallace conference in late 2016. Discussions surrounding this event are only in the most preliminary of stages, but the fact that they are occurring at all strongly suggests that Wallace’s healing pedagogy is alive and well in this particular corner of the academy.


2B. Following Wallace’s Examples

In the adaptation of Wallace’s work to a classroom setting, perhaps the most obvious strategy is that of following Wallace’s examples as a teacher. This is not difficult to do, as the Harry Ransom Centre at the university of Texas at Austin, shortly after Wallace’s death, purchased his papers and makes some of them available on its website, and all of them available to anyone who can visit the centre. These include extraordinarily intricate and playful and erudite course guides, reading lists and pop quizzes Wallace gave his students. The Ransom centre also has in its possession Wallace’s entire library of books, including teaching copies of ones he set for his literature classes.

When I visited the Ransom centre this year, I concluded that two examples of Wallace’s books in particular spoke volumes about Wallace the teacher. Both Stephen King’s Carrie and Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, with their mind-boggling number of annotations and underlining, suggest to me that there is something quite profound to be said about not being a snob in the classroom. When arguably the twentieth century’s greatest writer is communicating with his students via what many would consider pulp novels, it may be time for us all to reassess if we really need to make another semester’s worth of students slog through To the Lighthouse.

These texts also speak to the much discussed but seldom completely unpacked notion of postmodernism’s interest in the collapsibility of high and low art. What does this mean in a post-postmodern world, if such a thing even exists? And what does Wallace’s wilful projection of this trope on his students have to teach us?

Furthermore, the sheer amount of the annotations on show in the books he marked suggests to me an engagement unprecedented in any teacher I have ever seen, as is the effort he put into the course guides and descriptions I saw at the Ransom Centre.

An interesting morsel I gleaned from the teaching materials chapter in the Reader is that, according to his mother, Wallace would read every piece of undergraduate writing he marked three times, each time using a different coloured pen to make what would obviously end up amounting to a very large number of comments.

More generally, Wallace’s fiction celebrates characters who make conscious choices to pay acute attention to things that others find mundane or even outright boring: AA meetings in Infinite Jest, shopping in This is Water, taxes in The Pale King. From even the most cursory examination of his teaching materials, it becomes clear that Wallace is attempting to include his everyday job of education in this list of tasks that deserve serious, sustained attention. In this, it is axiomatic but – just as Wallace suggests with his fascination for the quotidian – bears repeating nonetheless, we teachers could all learn a thing or two.


2C. More than Teaching

Anyone who has ever taught knows what a truism it is that every teacher is also part parent figure, part social worker and part best friend/worst enemy, depending on the marks one gives out.

Despite this, one of the things I love about teaching is that sense of connectedness I feel with (some of) my students. There is nothing quite like that moment when that light bulb first turns on above that young head, or a scan of the sea of faces looking down at their mobile phones reveals one, maybe two, staring at their teacher with rapt attention.

According to Wallace’s biographer, D.T. Max, “that human connectedness could heal would become the centrepiece of Wallace’s mature credo” (2012: 312), and it is in this light that I would like to examine the author’s work as it relates to practical classroom applications.

It is not difficult to make the case that few practitioners in the recent history of literature have been as searching, as yearning or as open in their desire that their work should heal as Wallace. His premeditated aspiration that his written words might act effectively as the beginnings of community and thus a curative force for loneliness – a malaise he saw as the key one of the postmodern world – is evident from interviews he gave, the scholarship surrounding his work and also from the texts themselves.

Not only does discourse surrounding Wallace’s work suggest the author’s desire that his writing should be a “treatment plan” (Carlisle 2013: 9) for this loneliness and sense of disconnectedness humans feel from one another, but the content itself also points dramatically to this end. The “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being” (Burn 2012: 26) quote, used as an epigraph to this paper, illustrates succinctly the main thrust of Wallace’s overall project as a writer. But he also went on to add, in the same interview:

If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. [and, by hegemonic extension, the rest of the Western world] that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still are human beings, now. Or can be (Burn 2012: 26).

Thinking about this statement, it would appear certain that Wallace’s concern for the human condition as it pertains to the act of writing is nothing if not profound. It is axiomatic that students in any given classroom are going to have things wrong with them, will be troubled, finding it hard to be “fucking human beings”, so the question then becomes: where do our responsibilities as teachers intersect with this knowledge?

Who better to turn to for an answer to that question than a writer so openly, even ostentatiously, concerned with these matters?

The process Wallace outlines, what Kelly calls his “project” as a writer, is concerned with the ability of fiction to move people, both individually and collectively, towards healthier states of being through the very act of writing itself. By extension, I surmise that this effect would also take place within the act of reading a writer’s work that was concerned with this topic, thus making for, I contend, the most practical of all classroom applications.

Given the examples cited above of the effects of teaching Wallace in my own classrooms, I do not think it is in any way hyperbolic to claim that every one of Wallace’s major works are not only concerned with how writing can help us live better lives, but are in themselves writing that performs this task. Carlisle, below, examines Wallace’s writing as literal embodiment of this desire on the author’s part. This makes Wallace’s books experiential documents, concrete artefacts and tangible examples of how writing practice and our introduction of the same into a classroom environment might operably be used as a way of healing. In Wallace’s case, he saw writing and the community it engendered as a balm for his clinical depression, but this “treatment plan” (Carlisle 2013: 9) can be adapted to many different situations.

According to psychologist and writer James W. Pennebaker:

[T]he evidence of dozens of studies over a decade of research strongly suggests that there are significant, positive, consistent and identifiable relationships between writing and speaking about difficult or emotional experiences and physical health (2000: 7).

Interestingly, it is only writing, not the other arts, that Pennebaker claims has these restorative effects:

Dance, music, and art therapists, for example, assume the expression of emotion through nonverbal means is therapeutic. It should be noted, however, that traditional research on catharsis or the venting of emotions has failed to support the clinical value of emotional expression in the absence of cognitive processing… The mere expression of trauma is not sufficient to bring about long-term physiological changes. Health gains appear to require translating experiences into language… [T]he act of converting emotions into words changes the way the person organizes and thinks about the trauma… By integrating thoughts and feelings, then, the person can more easily construct a coherent narrative of the experience. Once formed, the event can be summarized, stored, and forgotten more efficiently (2000: 7).

And writing, Pennebaker goes on to claim, is always performed with the idea of community in mind:

Telling a story implies that there are other people who can listen to it… the social dynamics of writing… Is it possible that writing can bring about a richer connection between the storytellers and their social networks? Does the child who writes about a traumatic experience in the classroom subsequently make more friends? (2000: 7) 

Or, as Max puts it, concerning the writing of Wallace’s Infinite Jest:

He wanted to extend the point he had made in “E Unibus Pluram” two years before. Then he had mostly diagnosed a disease; now he was giving a model for the cure… It proposed a treatment, answering a need that Wallace saw perhaps better than any other writer… It spoke of the imminence of collapse and the possibility that one can emerge stronger from that collapse… How to live meaningfully in the present. There is a generosity to the world created by this 1,079-page novel. A great intelligence hangs over it and seems not entirely uninterested in our survival… Infinite Jest, for all its putative difficulty, cares about the reader, and if it denies him or her a conventional ending, it doesn’t do so out of malice; it does it out of concern, to provide a deeper palliative than realistic storytelling can, because, just as in Ennet House, you have to work hard to get better. The book is redemptive, as modern novels rarely are (2012: 215).

As teachers, with Wallace along for the ride, I think we can be generous, too, in the way that Max is saying Infinite Jest is generous. I think that we can be not entirely disinterested in our students' survival, beyond the merely academic, and I think that teaching, too, can be redemptive, as modern teaching, sadly, so rarely is.

This is Wallace, on his experiences of the role of writing in the classroom:

I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of fiction’s purpose it to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being human is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of generalization of suffering. Does this make sense? (Burn 2012: 22).

But how exactly does this well-known quote from the essay-interview nexus relate to teaching Wallace? According to Carlisle, in his examination of Wallace’s short story collection, Oblivion, Wallace is telling us that: “No matter how much we may want to exile certain experiences into the oblivion of unconsciousness, those experiences will find a way to surface” (2013: 33), and “What is denied will haunt us and spur further oblivion” (2013: 114). It strikes me that there are profound similarities between what Carlisle is saying about Wallace’s work and situations I am faced with in the classroom every day surrounding students unable to perform their tasks because of various ailments.

Carlisle also states:

Oblivion… is essential for tracking how Wallace got from Infinite Jest to The Pale King… If Infinite Jest documents symptoms of and a preliminary diagnosis for American societal angst and despair, and if The Pale King documents attempts to manage that condition to varying degrees of success; then Oblivion documents case studies that will lead Wallace to a more informed diagnosis and treatment plan (2013: 9, my emphases).

Of particular interest to me in the pursuit of my argument in this paper is the language that Carlisle chooses to use in analyzing Wallace’s work. “Symptoms”, “diagnosis”, “condition” and “treatment” all speak, for me, to the veracity of Wallace’s writing as curative.

Carlisle further states that, in Oblivion, “Wallace is using the crucible of the short story form to isolate the nature of the disease he began to identify and articulate in Infinite Jest (2013: 31, my emphasis)”.

Disease here could refer to any number of things: the actual disease of addiction directly explored in Infinite Jest; disease in a more general, medical sense (Wallace’s depression, perhaps); or something like what might be called the disease of everyday life. This disease (dis-ease) can take the form of cancer, anxiety or respiratory problems, but can also present itself in the form of disconnectedness, othering, performance anxiety, panic attacks, all common occurrences in the classroom, particularly, it seems, the creative writing one.

It is axiomatic that recognition of a problem is the first step towards its eradication. Not only does Wallace provide the initial diagnosis from a wildly unique perspective, he also – as Carlisle notes – provides a treatment plan, more straightforwardly, I suggest, than any other writer does.

This treatment plan clearly involves us, the readers (and teachers, and students). Nowhere, with Wallace, is this more apparent than in the closing lines to his novella-length short story that closes Girl with Curious Hair, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way”.

“Listen”, Wallace implores his readers, in one of the few one-word sentences he ever uses, shocking in the brevity we suddenly experience from this writer after having become accustomed to his page-long (and more) sentences. “Use ears I’d be proud to call our own” (1989: 373, my emphasis).

Note the interplay here between and the yearning for connection with the authorial “I” and the “our” of what I read as Wallace’s perception of his readership.

“Listen to the silence behind the engine’s noise” (1989: 373), the closing continues. What is Wallace referring to here? The silence of history? The silence that follows an unanswered question or an unthought-of idea? Simply people (such as readers and most writers, possibly?) who are not having the conversations they’re capable of? Maybe conversations between teachers and students? 

To attempt to answer these questions would be speculation at best on my part, yet the lines that follow give some clue as to this passage's relevance to my research on teaching and healing, and how this coalesces with Wallace’s overall project.

Jesus, Sweets, listen. (1989: 373, emphasis in original) Hear it? It’s a love song.

There is then a paragraph break, followed by one of the shorter paragraphs in Wallace’s entire oeuvre:

For whom? (1989: 373)

Another paragraph break, then the final three words of the story and the book:

You are loved. (1989: 373)


Conclusion: “I Know This Doesn’t Sound Hip at All”

In closing, and continuing with the notion, sappy though it might be, that writing and the teaching thereof is all about love, I will give the final words to this paper to Wallace himself. I have read these words out aloud in many a classroom to many an aspiring undergraduate writer as a kind of introduction to Wallace studies, but this discourse is really the first lesson, for me, on how one goes about teaching this writer and his works.

The head throbs heartlike indeed, for me, every time I read this. And I know it does for at least some of my students too:

It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that wants to be loved. I know this doesn’t sound hip at all (Burn 2012: 50).



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Bolger, R. and Korb, S. (2014) Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy. New York: Bloomsbury. 

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Tony McMahon has written music journalism, non-fiction and academic papers. His debut novel, The Single Gentleman’s Dining Club, was published by Overdog Press in 2007. He is currently a PhD candidate at RMIT University in Melbourne Australia, where he is working on his second novel, Sickness Country. In September 2014, he presented a paper for the Infinite Wallace conference at the Sorbonne in Paris. In May 2015, he presented at Illinois State University’s Second Annual David Foster Wallace Conference, in the author’s hometown of Normal, Illinois. He then travelled to the Wallace archives at the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas at Austin, where he researched Wallace’s relationship to Australia and his teaching materials. The published proceedings of the Paris conference will feature a chapter by him entitled "David Foster Wallace and Music: the Grunge Writer and the Hitherto Criminally Overlooked Importance of Signifying Rappers". In 2013, the opening chapter of his PhD was published as "Writing the City Otherwise: Skateboarding, Situationism and Street Press in the Practice of Storytelling" in the proceedings of the 18th annual AAWP Conference.