10 March 2011

Wallaceblogging: Following the money

I wanted to use this week's post to respond to the questions posed over at Common Sense Dancing about THE PALE KING and whether it should have been published. Coincidentally there was also an article in the New York Observer this week titled, crudely, "Dead Author Breeds Big Business: The David Foster Wallace Industry," about the release of THE PALE KING and other DFW-related books.

First, I think there are two questions and a supplemental matter for discussion circling in here. Is THE PALE KING a finished book? No; we know from DFW's publisher and agent that he had not turned in a draft, so by that metric of readiness, no.

What would the author have wanted us to do with the unfinished draft? Here is the trouble. DFW didn't leave a Kafkaesque "Burn everything" note behind, and if he did leave a particular PALE KING indication, we have not heard of it yet. Much of the coverage has asked this question in this way: How does it best honor the author's memory -- publication or no publication? and obviously there is no clear answer there, either.

What I liked about the Observer article was the number of DFW-related books that will be arriving on shelves soon, which it brought to light for me. That should indicate how I feel about this -- that I am generally in the "the more the better" camp. If there had been a publishing-related DNR slapped on the draft of THE PALE KING, that would be a different matter... but there wasn't. And to fall into the same fallacy as the article does, I would speculate that if the author truly didn't want that unfinished piece of work published, he would have ensured it would not happen. I believe DFW's wife Karen Green is the executor of his estate and would have carried out his wishes. Again, I say that without any basis in fact, that is all rampant unhealthy speculation on my part.

I don't think any author is or would be super jazzed about publishing a first draft, but it happens a lot. On the other hand, it shouldn't surprise or dishearten anyone to know that DFW left drafts behind, and that those drafts didn't flow perfectly from the Muse through his fingers and onto the page. I think if there were a Gordon Lish situation, we would know about that by now. (I guess there could still be claimants...) On the other other hand, if the existence of drafts ruins the magic for you, possibly you (a) are not a writer yourself and/or (b) seriously need to build a bridge and get over it.

(The supplemental matter, and this is definitely a subject for a broader discussion, is whether the label of "cash-in" is dependent on the amount of money and/or the crassness with which the products are displayed. I was going to write to prove my opinion -- which is that there is a connection -- "Nobody is selling David Foster Wallace T-shirts," but um, er, oops.)

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