One Agent’s Tribute to David Foster Wallace

By Neal Comment

Literary agent Chris Parris-Lamb of The Gernert Company wrote to GalleyCat yesterday with these thoughts concerning the death of David Foster Wallace:

I’ve never been truly devastated by the loss of a public figure before, and I just feel compelled to say this. For what it’s worth David Foster Wallace is the reason I’m in book publishing. I read Infinite Jest my sophomore year of college and that same year had an interview for an internship at a literary agency where I talked about it for almost the entire time. I was so naïve that I didn’t even understand what a literary agency was—when the person interviewing me asked me if I knew what an agent did, I said, “You publish books, right?”—but all I knew was that if there were people writing books like Infinite Jest, I wanted to be a part of bringing them to the world.

Here I am now as an agent, six years later, trying to fight the good fight (or so I tell myself), and the shadow DFW casts over contemporary literature has only increased, now for the saddest of reasons. Whether you liked his work or not, he was at the very least the kind of writer you had no choice but to form an opinion on, and we need more writers like that. Somewhere in this country there is a young genius—a member of what we’ll now call, sadly, the post-Wallace generation—trying to figure out how best to leave his or her mark on the world (Wallace, for those who don’t know, could well have become one of the foremost philosophers and logicians of his time had he not chosen to leave that academic track to pursue writing). There are more ways to do that now than ever before—certainly more than were available to Wallace, who came of age before the Internet—and perhaps it’s true that the general public doesn’t pay attention to writers in the way it once did. But Wallace’s work will live on in a way that only great literature can, and so maybe his example can serve as a call to the writers—as well as the would-be and could-be writers—of that next generation: Whether you care for his work or not, and whether you write like him or not—and it’s better if you don’t; for all the Pynchon comparisons made by people who clearly hadn’t read much of either Wallace or Pynchon, he wrote like no one else and no one else wrote like him—if you can make us look at the world around us in a new and deeper way, people will pay attention, and eventually people will care. We need you now more than ever.