Tag: David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace on Argumentative Writing and Nonfiction

In December 2004, Bryan A. Garner, who had already struck up a friendship with David Foster Wallace, started interviewing state and federal judges as well as a few key writers. With over a hundred interviews under his belt by January 2006, he called David to suggest they do an interview. So on February 3, 2006, the two finally got together in Los Angeles for an extensive conversation on writing and life that offers a penetrating look into our collective psyche. Their conversation has been captured in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing.

Very few things get me more excited than reading one smart person interview another. I mean, we’re not talking TV puff pieces here; we’re talking outright depth with an incisive look at culture.

For context, Garner is the author of a book that, admittedly, I have a hard time not opening every week: Garner’s Modern American Usage, which helps explain some of the insightful banter between the two.

When asked if, before writing a long nonfiction piece, he attempts to understand the structure of the whole before starting, Wallace simply responded, “no.”

Elaborating on this, he goes on to say:

Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it.

If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know— and people are always interested and want to know what you do— most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.

I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.

Were it me, I see doing it in the third or fourth draft as part of the “Oh my God, is what I’m saying making any sense at all? Can somebody who’s reading it, who can’t read my mind, fit it into some sort of schematic structure of argument?”

I think a more sane person would probably do that at the beginning. But I don’t know that anybody would be able to get away with . . . Put it this way: if you couldn’t do it, if you can’t put . . . If you’re writing an argumentative thing, which I think people in your discipline are, if you couldn’t, if forced, put it into an outline form, you’re in trouble.

Commenting on what constitutes a good opening in argumentative writing, Wallace offers:

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

Garner, the interviewer, follows this up by asking “Do you think of most pieces as having this, in Aristotle’s terms, a beginning, a middle, and an end—those three parts?”

I think, like most things about writing, the answer lies on a continuum. I think the interesting question is, how much violence do you do to the piece if you reprise it in a three-act . . . a three-part structure.

The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other— and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument— and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

Why are transitions so important?

[pause] Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.

One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating. My own guess is that at just about the point where that amount— the amount of time that you’re spending on a sentence, the amount of effort— becomes conscious, when you are conscious that this is hard, is the time when college students’ papers begin getting marked down by the prof. Right?

But one of the things I end up saying to the students is, “Realize your professors are human beings. They’re reading these things really fast, but you’re often being graded down for reasons that the professor isn’t consciously aware of because of an immense amount of reading and an immense amount of evaluation of the quality of a piece of writing, the qualities of the person producing it, occur below, just below, the level of consciousness, which is really the way you want it. And one of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favorable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader.”

That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it— the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?

One of the things that makes a really good writer, according to Wallace, is they “can just kind of feel” when to make transitions and when not to.

Which doesn’t mean such creatures are born, but it does mean that’s why practicing and paying attention never stop being important. Right? It’s because we’re training the same part of us that knows how to swing a golf club or shift a standard transmission, things we want to be able to do automatically. So we have to pay attention and learn how to do them so we can quit thinking about them and just do them automatically.

In case you’re wondering, it was Tense Present, DFW’s review of Garner’s book that sparked their friendship. The full article, before Harper’s cuts, appears in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.

Quack This Way is an insightful interview with two terrific minds.

David Foster Wallace: Five Common Word Usage Mistakes

I’m a big David Foster Wallace fan. His 2005 commencement speech will go down as one of the best ever.

If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently … You get to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

He’s also a big proponent of thinking.

I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

Here is DFW’s 2002 Pomona College handout on five common word usage mistakes for his advanced fiction writing class.


1. The preposition towards is British usage; the US spelling is toward. Writing towards is like writing colour or judgement. (Factoid: Except for backwards and afterwards, no preposition ending in -ward takes a final s in US usage.)

2. And is a conjunction; so is so. Except in dialogue between particular kinds of characters, you never need both conjunctions. “He needed to eat, and so he bought food” is incorrect. In 95% of cases like this, what you want to do is cut the and.

3. For a compound sentence to require a comma plus a conjunction, both its constituent clauses must be independent. An independent clause (a) has both a subject and a main verb, and (b) expresses a complete thought. In a sentence like “He ate all the food, and went back for more,” you don’t need both the comma and the and because the second clause isn’t independent.

4. There are certain words whose appearance at the beginning of a clause renders that clause dependent. (They basically keep the clause from expressing a complete thought.) Examples include since, while, because, although, and as. You may have learned to call these kinds of words Signal Words or Temporal Adverbs in high school. They, too, affect the punctuation of a compound sentence.

The crucial question is whether the clause that starts with a Signal Word occurs first in the sentence or not. If it does, you need a comma:

“As the wave crashed down, the surfer fell.” “While Bob ate all the food, Rhonda looked on in horror.”

If the relevant clause comes second, you do not need a comma:

“The surfer fell as the wave crashed down.” “Rhonda looked on in horror while Bob ate all the food.”

5. In real prose stylistics, though, the Signal Word thing can get a little tricky. If you look at the last sentence of item (3) above, you’ll notice that there is no comma between “and” and “because” in the compound “…you don’t need both the comma and the and because the second clause isn’t independent.” This is because of the basic rule outlined in (4). But because is a funny word, and sometimes you’ll need a comma before its appearance in the second clause in order to keep your sentence from giving the wrong impression. Example: Say Bob’s been murdered; the question is whether Rhonda did it. Look at the following two sentences:

a. “Rhonda didn’t do it because she loved him.”
b. “Rhonda didn’t do it, because she loved him.”

Sentence a, which is grammatically standard, here really says that Rhonda did kill Bob but that her reason for the murder wasn’t love, i.e., that the reason Rhonda killed Bob was not her love for him. Sentence b says that Rhonda did not kill Bob and that the reason she didn’t is that she loves him. In 99% of cases, what someone’ll be meaning to say is what b says. So, though nonstandard in the abstract, b can be semantically correct, correct in a meaning-based context.


If you’re curious about grammar, read Tense Present, Wallace’s review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. If you’re curious about DFW, I highly recommend Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.

David Foster Wallace: The Relationship Between Ambition and Perfectionism

“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”
— David Foster Wallace

Conversations with David Foster Wallace is an essential look into the thinking of one of the great minds. It doesn’t however, offer many thoughts on the relationship between ambition and perfection. For that, we can turn to this beautiful PBS clip.

On perfectionism, Foster Wallace says:

You know, the whole thing about perfectionism — The perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in … It’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.

On learning through teaching:

I was a very difficult person to teach when I was a student and I thought I was smarter than my teachers and they told me a lot of things that I thought were retrograde or outdated or B.S. And I’ve learned more teaching in the last three years than I ever learned as a student. And a lot of it is that when you see students work where the point, whether it’s stated or not, is basically that they’re clever, and to try and articulate to the student how empty and frustrating it is for a reader to invest their time and attention in something and to feel that the agenda is basically to show you that the writer is clever. All the kind of stuff, right, when I’m doing my little onanistic, clever stuff in grad school, that when my professors would talk to me about it, I would go, “Well, they don’t understand. I’m a genius, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Now that I’m the teacher, I’m starting to learn—it’s like the older you get, the smarter your parents get—now I’m starting to learn that they had some smart stuff to tell me.

Still curious? Compliment with conversations with David Foster Wallace and the DT Max Biography on Wallace: Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace

Five years ago today David Foster Wallace committed suicide.

His May 21st, 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon college, This is Water, is one of greatest of all time.

Offering a simple explanation of the value of education and, quite possibly, some of the best life advice you’ll ever hear, it might be the best thing you read all year.

Stephen Burn has complied a series of David Foster Wallace’s interviews into a book entitled: Conversations with David Foster Wallace.

These interviews are republished in their entirety, so there is a bit of repetition on topics and themes. As the interviews take place over many years, you can also see the evolution of David Foster Wallaces’ thoughts which makes Conversations with David Foster Wallace well worth the read.

It is difficult to find a conversation with David Foster Wallace that does not have insightful moments. I’ve marked so many pages I don’t know where to start.

Here are some of my notes.

When you write fiction …

“When you write fiction,” he explains as part of his critique of a story about a young girl, her uncle, and the evil eye, “you are telling a lie. It’s a game, but you must get the facts straight. The reader doesn’t want to be reminded that it’s a lie. It must be convincing, or the story will never take off in the reader’s mind.”

When asked ‘What would you like your writing to do,’ Wallace gave an honest answer.

It’s very hard to separate what you want the writing to do from your own desires about how you will be regarded because of the work. … So no feelings about desired effect are pure, free of selfish ends.

But there are a few books I have read that I’ve never been the same after, and I think all good writing somehow addresses the concern of and acts as an anodyne against loneliness. We’re all terribly, terribly lonely. And there’s a way, at least in prose fiction, that can allow you to be intimate with the world and with a mind and with characters that you just can’t be in the real world. I don’t know what you’re thinking. I don’t know that much about you as I don’t know that much about my parents or my lover or my sister, but a piece of fiction that’s really true allows you to be intimate with … I don’t want to say people, but it allows you to be intimate with a world that resembles our own in enough emotional particulars so that the way different things must feel is carried out with us into the real world. I think what I would like my stuff to do is make people less lonely. Or really to affect people. … You can’t make sure that everybody’s going to like you, but damn it, if you’ve got some skill you can make sure that people don’t ignore you.

A really great piece of fiction.

A really great piece of fiction for me may or may not take me away and make me forget that I’m sitting in a chair. There’s real commercial stuff can do that, and a riveting plot can do that, but it doesn’t make me feel less lonely.

There’s a kind of Ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do. It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone— intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I’m in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art.

Interviewer: Who are the writers who do this for you?
OK. Historically the stuff that’s sort of rung my cherries: Socrates’s funeral oration, the poetry of John Donne, the poetry of Richard Crashaw, every once in a while Shakespeare, although not all that often, Keats’ shorter stuff, Schopenhauer, Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy and Discourse on Method, Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic, although the translations are all terrible, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Hemingway— particularly the ital stuff in In Our Time, where you just go oomph!, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, A. S. Byatt, Cynthia Ozick— the stories, especially one called “Levitations,” about 25 percent of the time Pynchon. Donald Barthelme, especially a story called “The Balloon,” which is the first story I ever read that made me want to be a writer, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver’s best stuff— the really famous stuff. Steinbeck when he’s not beating his drum, 35 percent of Stephen Crane, Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby. And, my God, there’s poetry. Probably Phillip Larkin more than anyone else, Louise Glück, Auden.

Echoing comments made by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, Wallace believed in taking joy in the process.

There is a lopsided emphasis in writing programs on hermetic fiction, the mechanicalness of craft, technique, and point of view, as opposed to the more occult or spiritual side of writing— taking joys in the process of creation.

A generation that inherited nothing as far as meaningful moral values.

MTV is just hypnotic. So you’ve got us kids, twenty to thirty-five, right on the edge, and all the kids coming after us really getting sucked into that stuff, but learning it in a way that doesn’t allow any sort of incredulity at all. … This is a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values, and it’s our job to make them up, and we’re not doing it. And we’re being told, by the very systems that the Sixties were so right to fear, that we needn’t worry about making up moral systems: you know, that there isn’t more to being alive than being pretty, having intercourse a lot, and having a lot of possessions.

For Wallace, writing fiction was an escape to a world where time didn’t exist.

“Writing fiction takes me out of time. I sit down and the clock will not exist for me for a few hours. That’s probably as close to immortal as we’ll ever get.”

On learning from an unhappy experience in graduate school.

I didn’t have a very happy experience in graduate school, but it seems there are different ways to learn from it. You can either learn by aligning yourself with the sort of company line at a program or you can play James Dean and align yourself against it. Sometimes it’s not until you have professors— you know, authority figures— kicking your ass, and you still find yourself resisting what they’re saying that you find out what you believe.

What fiction and poetry are doing is what they’ve been trying to do for two thousand years:

affect somebody, make somebody feel a certain way, allow them to enter into relationships with ideas and with characters that are not permitted within the cinctures of the ordinary verbal intercourse we’re having here, you know: you don’t see me, I don’t see you. But every two or three generations the world gets vastly different, and the context in which you have to learn how to be a human being, or to have good relationships, or decide whether or not there is a God, or decide whether there’s such a thing as love, and whether it’s redemptive, become vastly different. And the structures with which you can communicate those dilemmas or have characters struggle with them seem to become appropriate and then inappropriate again and so on.

Responding to a question about how fiction has changed, Wallace pierces deep inside of pop culture.

[O]ne of the ways that things have changed is that fiction used to be a kind of travelogue. It used to be a way to take people to foreign lands and exotic cultures, or to important people, and give readers access to worlds they didn’t have access to. The world that we live in is very different. I can get up and watch satellite footage of a riot in Peking while I eat a Tex-Mex breakfast while I listen to Third World music on my CD player. Fiction’s job used to be to make the strange familiar, to take you somewhere and let you feel that this was familiar to you. It seems that one of the things about living now is that everything presents itself as familiar, so one of the things the artist has to do now is take a lot of this familiarity and remind people that it’s strange.

And taking the familiar and reminding people that it is strange is what he tried to do when he pointed to passive entertainment (see Infinite Jest).

U.S. viewers’ relationship with TV is essentially puerile and dependent, as are all relationships based on seduction. This is hardly news. But what’s seldom acknowledged is how complex and ingenious TV’s seductions are. It’s seldom acknowledged that viewers’ relationship with TV is, albeit debased, intricate and profound. It’s easy for older writers just to bitch about TV’s hegemony over the U.S. art market, to say the world’s gone to hell in a basket and shrug and have done with it. But I think younger writers owe themselves a richer account of just why TV’s become such a dominating force on people’s consciousness, if only because we under like forty have spent our whole conscious lives being part of TV’s audience.

I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. … Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of generalization of suffering. … But now realize that TV and popular film and most kinds of “low” art— which just means art whose primary aim is to make money— is lucrative precisely because it recognizes that audiences prefer 100 percent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 percent pleasure and 51 percent pain. Whereas “serious” art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort. … The problem isn’t that today’s readership is dumb, I don’t think. Just that TV and the commercial-art culture’s trained it to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations. But it makes trying to engage today’s readers both imaginatively and intellectually unprecedentedly hard.

it’s too simple to just wring your hands and claim TV’s ruined readers. Because the U.S.’ s television culture didn’t come out of a vacuum. What TV is extremely good at— and realize that this is all it does— is discerning what large numbers of people think they want, and supplying it.

Are there any writers that really knock you out?

I’m a huge Don DeLillo fan, although I think his latest book is one of his worst. The DeLillo of Americana and End Zone and Great Jones Street, The Names, and Libra I love. Maybe Gravity’s Rainbow is a better book, but I can’t think of anybody in this tradition since Nabokov who’s put out a better corpus of work than DeLillo. I like Bellow, and I really like the early John Updike— The Poorhouse Fair, Of the Farm, The Centaur, just in terms of sheer fucking beautiful writing. There are a lot of the Latinists too: Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, both recently dead. There are young writers now I was telling you about, like Mark Leyner; William T. Vollman, who’s got four books coming out this year; Jon Franzen, Susan Daitch, Amy Homes. The best book I’ve read recently is by Paul Auster’s wife, who’s named Siri Hustvedt. She’s a Norwegian from Minnesota, who wrote this book called The Blindfold. It’s not a lot of fun, but God is it smart. It’s the best piece of feminist postmodernism I’ve ever read. It makes Kathy Acker look sick because it’s so well crafted. I’m not sure there are any really towering giants. I think some Pynchon, some Bellow, some Ozick will be read a hundred years from now; I think DeLillo, maybe.

Wallace was clearly not a fan of the Brat Pack. Commenting on Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, he says:

Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing— flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.— is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything.

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? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.

And to give DFW the last word.

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow.

Still curious? If you want to learn more about his life, read DT Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. If you want to know more about what DFW thinks, read Burn’s book.

David Foster Wallace: The Paradox of Plagiarism

David Foster Wallace (1962–2008) remains one of the most revered authors of our time. His timeless collection of wisdom includes everything from his famous commencement speech This is Water to his profound thoughts on the relationship between ambition and perfectionism and writing in the age of information.

In The Pale King, published posthumously, Foster Wallace describes the paradox of plagiarism.

It was all pretty incredible. In many respects, this college was my introduction to the stark realities of class, economic stratification, and the very different financial realities that different sorts of Americans inhabited.

Some of these upper-class students were indeed spoiled, cretinous, and/or untroubled by questions of ethics. Others were under great family pressure and failing, for whatever reasons, to work up to what their parents considered their true grade potential. Some just didn’t manage their time and responsibilities well, and found themselves up against the wall on an assignment. I’m sure you get the basic picture. Let’s just say that, as a way of positioning myself to pay off some of my loans at an accelerated rate, I provided a certain service. This service was not cheap, but I was quite good at it, and careful. E.g., I always demanded a large enough sample of a client’s prior writing to determine how he tended to think and sound, and I never made the mistake of delivering something that was unrealistically superior to someone’s own previous work. You can probably also see why these sorts of exercises would be good apprentice training for someone interested in so-called ‘creative writing.’

… To anticipate a likely question, let me concede that the ethics here were gray at best. This is why I chose to be honest, just above, about not being impoverished or needing the extra income in order to eat anything. I was not desperate. I was, though, trying to accumulate some savings against what I anticipated to be debilitating post-grad debt. I am aware that this is not an excuse in the strict sense, but I do believe it serves as at least an explanation; and there were also other, more general factors and contexts that might be seen as mitigating. For one, the college itself turned out to have a lot of moral hypocrisy about it, e.g., congratulating itself on its diversity and the leftist piety of its politics while in reality going about the business of preparing elite kids to enter elite professions and make a great deal of money, thus increasing the pool of prosperous alumni donors.

…The basic view I held was that, whereas there may have been elements of my enterprise that might technically qualify as aiding or abetting a client’s decision to violate the college’s Code of Academic Honesty; that decision, as well as the practical and moral responsibility for it rested with the client. I was undertaking certain freelance writing assignments for pay; why certain students wanted certain papers of a certain length on certain topics, and why they chose to do them with them after delivery, were not my business.

Suffice it to say that this view was not shared by the college’s Judicial Board in late 1984. Here the story gets complex and a bit lurid, and a SOP memoir would probably linger on the details and the rank unfairness of hypocrisies involved.

The paradox of plagiarism

The paradox of plagiarism is that it actually requires a lot of care and hard work to pull off successfully, since the original text’s style, substance, and logical sequences have to be modified enough so that the plagiarism isn’t totally, insultingly obvious to the professor who’s grading it.

Update: D.T. Max questions whether David Foster Wallace ever did the stuff he says he did in the Pale King.

Practically speaking, one of the great struggles was to figure out what really happened or at least get close to it. David was writing his autobiography even as he was living it and the life and the narrative coincided but were not identical. Take an example. David used to tell people he sold thesis help for pot or money at Amherst. He even has his doppel do it in The Pale King and Stonecipher LaVache Beadsman, something of a stand-in for David, does it in The Broom of the System. David was one of the smartest people anyone ever met in their lives—everyone agrees on that—so it’s obvious that in philosophy or English, and probably history or French or economics, all subjects he got A-pluses in—he could have done it. Anyone would have been smart to make that trade with him. But did it ever happen? His college roommate and confidante Mark Costello, the one who knew him best in those years, thinks not. He thinks it’s David’s self-mythologizing. I never found anyone on the receiving end of such a transaction or had direct knowledge of one, so it’s not in the book. If I were writing a novel with David as the protagonist, it would certainly be something the character did. It’s something he should have done if he didn’t.

Still curious? Learn more about David Foster Wallace by reading Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. If you want to read some of his work, start with Consider the Lobster and work your way up to The Pale King, which was left unfinished at the time of his suicide, and Infinite Jest, his masterpiece. Finally, top off with some wonderful cultural insights.

The Best Book On The Art Of Writing

Last year, literary critic Joseph Epstein wrote The best book on the art of writing that I know is F. L. Lucas’ Style: The Art of Writing Well.

At the time of Epstein’s comments, the book was long out of print and selling for a small fortune on Amazon ($250 and up).

I’m not sure how I missed this but in response to the demand created by Epstein’s recommendation, Harriman House printed another run.

Keep in mind Style: The Art of Writing Well is not a usage guide. The best current usage guide is Garner’s Modern American Usage.

SNOOT’s rejoice.

Still curious? Check out How To Write With Style by Kurt Vonnegut.