David Foster Wallace’s Sharp Letter to His Editor: “Don’t F with the Mechanics of My Piece”


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We might imag­ine that David Fos­ter Wal­lace worked out his neu­roses pri­mar­i­ly in his volu­mi­nous fic­tion­al and crit­i­cal out­put, but as we see from a fax above to Harper’s edi­tor Joel Lovell, the painful self-con­scious­ness that drove his writ­ing man­i­fest­ed in even the most mun­dane of doc­u­ments. Wal­lace sub­mit­ted the faxed let­ter with a short essay on Kaf­ka that appeared in Harper’s in 1998. The essay itself—an account of the dif­fi­cul­ties of teach­ing the arch Czech author to Amer­i­can undergraduates—slices through com­mon­places, arriv­ing at the con­clu­sion that “the hor­rif­ic strug­gle to estab­lish a human self results in a self whose human­i­ty is insep­a­ra­ble from that hor­rif­ic strug­gle. That our end­less and impos­si­ble jour­ney toward home is in fact our home.” Reas­sur­ing stuff this ain’t, but then, nei­ther is Kaf­ka. Even amidst all of its elab­o­rate defen­sive strate­gies, Wallace’s writ­ing also expos­es the unheim­lichkeit of human embod­i­ment, and in the Kaf­ka essay, it’s a point he want­ed to make in a very par­tic­u­lar way, unmedi­at­ed by any edi­to­r­i­al inter­ven­tion.

His faxed let­ter to Lovell antic­i­pates and resists crit­i­cism and alter­nates between dis­mis­sive, self-effac­ing, and mock-threat­en­ing in his expressed desire that the Harper’s staff “not copy­ed­it this like a fresh­man essay.” He explains the con­ver­sa­tion­al style of the piece as an effort to “pro­tect me from people’s ire.” The body of the let­ter fin­ish­es with Wallace’s foot­not­ed promise to “find a way to harm you or cause you suf­fer­ing* if you fuck with the mechan­ics of this piece.” It’s clas­sic DFW: com­plete­ly idio­syn­crat­ic, a prose style induced by his “hor­rif­ic strug­gle” to estab­lish an authen­tic self. Read a tran­script below, cour­tesy of Let­ters of Note. All, of course, sic.


From: David Wal­lace

To: Joel Lovell, Harper’s [redact­ed] (Office [redact­ed])

This is pret­ty much the best I can do, I think. I feel shit­ty stick­ing a lot of what you want­ed in FN’s, but I didn’t see any work to work it into the main text w/o hav­ing to rewrite whole ¶s and throw the thing’s Sty­ro­foamish weight off.

The deal is this. You’re wel­come to this for READINGS if you wish. What I’d ask is that you (or Ms. Rosen­bush, whom I respect but fear) not copy­ed­it this like a fresh­man essay. Idio­syn­cra­cies of ital, punc­tu­a­tion, and syn­tax (“stuff,” “light­bulb” as one word, “i.e.”/“e.g.” with­out com­mas after, the colon 4 words after ellipses at the end, etc.) need to be stet­ted. (A big rea­son for this is that I want to pre­serve an oral­ish, out-loud feel to the remarks so as to pro­tect me from people’s ire at stuff that isn’t expand­ed on more; for you, the big rea­son is that I’m not espe­cial­ly psy­ched to have this run at all, much less to take a blue-skyed 75-degree after­noon futz­ing with it to bring it into line with your specs, and you should feel oblig­ed and bor­der­line guilty, and I will find a way to harm you or cause you suf­fer­ing* if you fuck with the mechan­ics of this piece.

Let Me Know,

Dave Wal­lace

* (It may take years for the opor­tu­ni­ty to arise. I’m very patient. Think of me as a spi­der with a phe­nom­e­nal emo­tion­al mem­o­ry. Ask Charis.)

via F yeah, man­u­scripts!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus: How to Teach Seri­ous Lit­er­a­ture with Light­weight Books

David Fos­ter Wal­lace Cre­ates Lists of His Favorite Words: “Mau­gre,” “Taran­tism,” “Ruck,” “Prima­para” & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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