David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, and Author Necromancy

Sorry this is late, ye millions of people. I am [still!] traveling through places barren of the internet, but I’m returning to the land of milk and honey soon (or whatever) and will have wireless all the time again.

source: electricliterature.com

I came across this blog on The Outlet that “revisits letters from prominent writers and other artists to revive the dying art of letter writing.” They posted a postcard from David Foster Wallace to Don Delillo (a famous person I haven’t read who seems to have won many awards for books called White Noise and Underworld and Mao II, among others).

First, the phrase “revive the dying art of letter writing” caught my attention. References to “reviving the dying art of [blank]” always have about them a sort of nobility – like when someone tells you that they work for the Peace Corps or rescue puppies for a living. But how does a note from a brilliant man help revive the dying art of letter-writing? The text is a clever note – another person defending the “art of letter[-]writing” might not even recognize it as anything more than an e-mail text.

And then I want to know why we publish and discuss the letters of famous people. David Foster Wallace was particularly brilliant, it’s true, but the post-mortem ransacking of his library was unsettling to hear about. Maybe a year ago I’d think differently, but now reading writers’ letters and diaries (like Virginia Woolf’s) seems me to me a rude, fetishistic, and sort of useless thing to do.

Virginia Woolf's diary, published post-mortem

And yes, the writing is going to be good – but many people can write witty and clever letters. Writers’ letters might be constructed, but they’re only constructed for one person and in that context. Books and published works are written in an entirely different context, for public consumption and enjoyment. Looking for writers’ letters seems to me the equivalent of wanting to hear Beyonce humming while she pees.

In David Foster Wallace‘s letter to DeLillo, he talks about a large palm tree, a book they exchanged, and how Wallace recently got his license in California. The writing is quite witty to read, because Wallace was good at words. But it is saying nothing and communicates nothing but what Wallace wanted to say to DeLillo on the 1st of September of some indiscriminate year. Why do we like reading this? How would this contribute to maintaining the art of letter writing?

Looking for every word on every grocery list scratched out by an author sounds painfully like something that I would have done a few years ago, which might be why I react so strongly against it now.

Knoebel (the blogger) calls the postcard “a prose index of cultural references,” which is pretty characteristic, I think, of the annoying self-effacement with which writers’ personal and accidental writings are usually treated: something must have been so special about these holy people that it is more worth our time to read their private, unrelated writings than it would be to develop our own. And that, I think, is my main problem with this practice – if we really want to appreciate prose, or to revive the art of letter writing, we should probably start working on writing some letters ourselves.

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