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All stories relating to David Foster Wallace

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Truth be told: Canadian writers discuss David Rakoff’s influence

(photo: Paul Roossin)

When David Rakoff died of cancer last August at the age of 47, he left behind a legacy as one of the most gifted and influential essayists of his time – and a newly finished manuscript of a novel in verse.

Published in July by Doubleday Canada, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is a marked departure from the non-fiction for which Rakoff is best known. Thematically, it’s not so different from his essays: a critical but empathetic glance at the harshness of the human experience.

Awkward but poignant truth-telling was part of Rakoff’s stock-in-trade, and his influence extended into journalism.

“David was in the forefront of and became one of the finest practitioners in a new, highly personal approach to journalism,” says Linden MacIntyre, who makes an appearance in the online book trailer for the posthumous novel.

MacIntyre, a journalist and Scotia­bank Giller Prize–winning novelist,­ argues that Rakoff was among a generation of writers who made a strong case for distinguishing between the “personal” and “subjective” in non-fiction. “[Rakoff demonstrated] that an unsentimental point of view, enriched by humour and fidelity to truth, can take journalism to a level that has greater honesty and value than the old-fashioned and often contrived struggle to achieve ‘objectivity,’” he says.

The debate is hardly new – in 1922, Virginia Woolf wrote that “literal truth-telling” is “out of place in an essay” – but the current popularity of memoirs and first-person essays brings up questions about the balance between objectivity and narrative.

In 2007, Rakoff’s friend and mentor David Sedaris came under fire after a thorough fact check by The New Republic found several of the events and characters in his work had been made up. This discovery prompted vigorous debate as to whether an author has the right to fudge facts under the non-fiction banner. But these distinctions sell the reader short, argues Canadian-born author and essayist Michelle Orange, whose debut collection of essays, This Is Running for Your Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), was released this spring.

“I tend to think that readers are savvy enough to distinguish between what is a hard piece of reporting and what is more of a narrative non-fiction,” says Orange. “There’s a line, and both writers and readers intuitively know what it is.”

Toronto novelist and essayist Stacey May Fowles describes that line in terms of “hard” versus “soft” truths. “Journalism is intended to be an objective telling of the facts of an issue or event, whereas the personal essay allows the writer room to interpret the facts through their own lens, insert feelings, and find meaning,” she says.

Fowles describes her own process of essay writing as a means of “wearing the truth” and making traumatic events easier to understand. This approach is apparent in Rakoff’s work as well, from depictions, in 2001’s Fraud (Anchor Canada), of the “touch of cancer” that he escaped as a twentysomething, to his wry reflections upon diagnosis of the “rather tenacious sarcoma” that would ultimately claim him.

Iain Reid, author of the family memoirs One Bird’s Choice and The Truth About Luck (both published by House of Anansi Press), believes the distinction between fiction and non-fiction isn’t as relevant anymore. “What matters is having a story,” he says.

Whether this attitude helps or harms the practice of journalism is something that could be debated endlessly, Reid says. Ultimately, he thinks the quality of the output justifies the approach, citing David Foster Wallace’s essays for Harper’s magazine, such as the now-iconic 1994 story “Ticket to the Fair,” as examples of writing that walks the line between journalism and “wandering-eye” narration that flirts with the conventions of fiction.

In Rakoff’s case, these narrative flourishes – the eye and the “I” – complemented his distinctly Canadian voice, despite the Toronto-bred author’s well-earned expat status in New York City.

“The first thing that stood out was how much heart his essays have,” says Mac-­Intyre. “They aren’t mean-spirited pieces, and often the joke ends up being on Rakoff. That’s pretty Canadian, if you ask me.”

Reid concurs that Rakoff’s legacy can rightfully be claimed for Canadian letters. “Even though he could be very biting,” he says, “there was this underlying heart.”

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Book links roundup: David Foster Wallace’s unpublished scene, Christopher Hitchens up for Orwell Prize, and more

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Book links roundup: David Foster Wallace, Margaret Atwood, Karen Thompson Walker, and more

Sundry links from around the Web:

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Daily book biz round-up: Oprah and Franzen all but confirmed; WSJ book section slammed; and more

Today’s book news:

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Daily book biz round-up: Oprah’s arrow points to Franzen again; Google mangles your literary faves; and more

Today’s book news:


The book industry: this week in quotes

“We’ve had the ‘woe is me, alas’ memoir, the ‘feeling orgasmic over the touch of linen on my toes alone in bed in Italy on Tuesday’ memoir, the ‘Thank Christ she wasn’t my mother’ memoir, the ‘I got rid of my husband and everything makes sense’ memoir, and now, in the case of Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story, we arrive at the “nothing in particular, on me holidays with me mum, we might be having a crisis but you’ll need a magnifying glass to find it” memoir. Publishers trot this tripe out because of the chance it might be lifted by the winds of marketing and carried to every middle-class dinner table.” – Anakana Schofield, from The Globe and Mail‘s Daily Review for Jan. 12

“A new independent study, conducted by the online monitoring and enforcement service Attributor, found that ‘nine million illegal downloads of copyright-protected books were documented during the closing months of 2009,’ according to the [Association of American Publisher's] release….Indeed, those are staggering numbers – and something that must be contended with. And yet they’re kind of perversely encouraging in a way: That many people want to read that many books, and are willing to steal to do so…. At least that goes against the ‘nobody reads anymore’ and ‘it’s the death of publishing’ story we’ve been hearing so much of. And that glass of rare Chateau Lafite 1787 is half full.“  - Mobylives

“How surreally wonderful to discover that an entire exhibition devoted to the ‘works’ of David Foster Wallace’s fictional creation James Incandenza is set to open later this month. A cult filmmaker, Incandenza is the star of Wallace’s seminal novel Infinite Jest… As was his wont, Wallace included a footnote in the novel about the filmography of Incandenza, and now using the author’s ‘detailed list of over 70 industrial, documentary, conceptual, advertorial, technical, parodic, dramatic non-commercial, and non-dramatic commercial works’, Columbia University’s Neiman Centre has commissioned artists and filmmakers to make the movies.”- The Guardian

“Three weeks after Highsmith’s arrival, a new resident appeared at Yaddo: Flannery O’Connor. Does your imagination not crackle at the idea of Highsmith and O’Connor living under the same set of roofs? As Highsmith drafted Strangers on a Train, O’Connor worked on Wise Blood…. Highsmith did not think much of O’Connor, who was disinclined to join the other colonists on their treks to the taverns of Saratoga Springs” – The New Yorker

January is SUAWOYN month … according to Colson Whitehead.

“Canada’s literary scene does not financially support more than a handful of authors, so don’t limit your work to Canada if your goal is to make a living as a novelist. You will either starve or die of frustration. It’s hard enough trying to make it as a writer without adding obstacles in your path.” – author Jeffrey Round on Open Book Toronto


David Foster Wallace: consider the exaggerations

On the film-related website The House Next Door, Glenn Kenny, a former editor at Premiere, reminisces about working with David Foster Wallace on three articles for the magazine. One of those pieces, about the Adult Video News awards, also appeared in Wallace’s 2005 essay collection Consider the Lobster. As Kenny recalls:

We worked very hard on the cut, and then there was the whole matter of legal, which was very weird, because there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s invented, starting from the dual pseudonym which he then expands into a conceit of first person plural narration. There are the characters of Dick Filth and Harold Hecuba, who were invented characters that were also composites of myself and Evan. Legal was like, “Oh-kay … Harold Hecuba’s trifocals winding up in cleavage of Christy Canyon and then never being seen again?” Obviously, that’s not what really happened. It was more like, Jasmine St. Clair got Evan into a choke hold at a party one night. But we said they should let it go because: “Neither Evan or I care about the fact that we’re Dick Filth and Harold Hecuba and … the writer’s a very big deal!”

Er, the piece was billed as non-fiction in both the magazine and the book, right?

Perhaps Quillblog is too much of a purist, but it’s disheartening to learn that Wallace apparently subscribed to the David Sedaris view that strict truthfulness is for lesser mortals. It’s also pretty dismaying to see a major magazine knowingly allowing falsehoods as long as (a) nobody’s likely to sue, and (b) “the writer’s a very big deal.”


The unfinished life of David Foster Wallace

“I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff.” So wrote the late David Foster Wallace to his editor during the composition of the mammoth novel Infinite Jest. Part mission statement, part expression of his dissatisfaction with what he viewed as the staid and outmoded realistic novel that had come to dominate American fiction, Foster Wallace’s comment, and the writing that proceeded from it, helped breathe new life into a form that was in danger of becoming unrelievedly moribund.

Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12 of last year, leaving an unfinished novel behind. The New Yorker has published an excerpt from the final novel, along with a long appreciation of the author by D.T. Max:

Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony – the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

Wallace himself needed no reminding of “how dark and stupid everything is”; he struggled with depression for much of his adult life, and was in the grip of a deep depression when he died. What is so remarkable about his fiction is that it is such a vibrant testament to life in all its passion and vitality. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he said in an interview. Hear, hear.

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Bookmarks: DFW, BHL, and a librarian in NYC

  • Was David Foster Wallace the “greatest writer of his generation?” David Lipsky makes the case in his Rolling Stone profile, excerpted here
  • An appreciation of legendary U.K. agent Pat Kavanagh, also recently deceased
  • French provocateur Bernard-Henri Lévy critiques the “barbarians” on the left
  • The Guardian on why BHL is really an intellectual lightweight
  • A New York librarian is wrist-slapped for showing parental pride
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