Saturday, November 22, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Introduction

Last week, the David Foster Wallace Reader was published. It’s a selection of his work from the very beginning (there’s a story he wrote for the Amherst Review when he was a student there) to the posthumous Pale King. One of the never-before-seen additions to the book is a collection of his teaching materials. Wallace taught college courses fairly regularly throughout his adult life, starting pretty much right after graduation. He settled at Pomona College for the last years of his life, no doubt inspiring a few students to matriculate there for the express purpose of taking his class. I know that, were he still alive, I would’ve seriously considered it at some point.

His classes have grown as legendary as anything else about him since his death. By all accounts they were rigorous, intense, demanding, and extremely rewarding. The attention he paid to each student’s writing—going over everyone’s papers three times, using three different colored pens to make corrections and notes—is the kind of stuff aspiring writers dream of. Not to mention having access to that incredible brain of his during class discussions and private tête-à-têtes during office hours. (Just thinking about this, I have to restrain myself not to fly into a jealous rage at all his former students.) There is no doubt that taking his class would be one of the most memorable experiences of one’s life.

Well, since that is no longer an option for me, I’ve decided (with at least one other person) to do the next best thing: I’m “taking” one of his classes. Specifically English 170R, which I believe is one of the first classes he taught at Pomona. It concentrates on “Obscure/Eclectic Fiction.” I’m going to do all the required reading, complete all the assignments, and follow the schedule as best I can. (The syllabus can be found here. I’m moving the schedule back two months, so 1/22=11/22, etc.)

I obviously won’t have Wallace there providing guidance or grading my papers, but I hope the experience will be worthwhile. I'm going to do my best to take it as seriously as I would if I were taking the actual class. I encourage anyone who’s interested to join in (might be cool to have other people's papers to "peer review"). Should be an interesting three-and-a-half months, anyway. (I think a “good luck” is in order; the amount of reading is pretty insane, at least for someone like me who is not a fast reader.)

The first order of business is the Student Info Sheet (I just answered the two questions, as I don’t have a campus PO Box, etc.):


Well, I’m almost embarrassed to say that the novel I most treasure is one of yours, professor. Infinite Jest really did a number on me when I read it about ten years ago. I was in a weird spot with regard to my consumption of literature at the time. I wasn’t reading all that much, and was pretty oblivious to what the novel was capable of. In an attempt to get caught up with the contemporary “literary scene,” I read Infinite Jest and for all intents and purposes haven’t been the same since. The big thing it showed me was that a novel could marry the cerebral with the emotional in a way that wasn’t contrived and actually worked and didn’t result in a story characterized by obvious diremptions (i.e., a “cerebral” section, then an “emotional” section, etc.). This was news to me, as I always assumed that the best art made you feel something and the litmus test of great art was whether you cried or not and you should leave science to the scientists, etc. Your novel (along with the work of a few other authors, notably Richard Powers) helped disabuse me of those benighted notions and showed me that great literature can engage a reader on multiple levels, that you can bring to bear every aspect of being human—intellectual, emotional, moral, analytical, etc.—when reading a great novel and be that much more rewarded for the experience. (That’s probably a good place to end, but I also wanted to say that the world-building you did in that novel was wondrous, and I think it allowed me to tap into the joy I had when I was 10 years old and reading giant fantasy books full of dragons and mystical lands and whatnot. While I wouldn’t wish to map the reconfigurations of Infinite Jest’s world onto my own reality, it is such a pleasure to revisit the world you created due in large part to how vividly you have drawn it.)

The other novel I always go back to is The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald created what is basically the perfect novel, without a single wasted line in the whole thing. I’ve always responded to the uncompromising assiduousness of Fitzgerald’s writing, how he never wrote a lazy sentence or “took a sentence off.” As far as I can tell, pretty much every sentence he wrote is crafted for maximal beauty, impact, meaning, and thematic significance. That care has allowed me to return to his work and be not only delighted all over again but also sated in a very deep way. I almost feel that Fitzgerald gives a lover of literature everything they need to sustain that love for a lifetime.


Only two: Nightwood and Desperate Characters. DC I read maybe eight years ago and Nightwood I actually just read last month. I had favorable views of both, appreciating them for very different reasons (Nightwood seems to me more in the “experimental” mode and DC is more in the classic “New Yorker” style). I look forward to revisiting them both during this course.

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