David Foster Wallace’s Formative Reading List


The newly released big biography of David Foster Wallace, entitled Every Love Story is a Ghost Story and written by New Yorker scribe D.T. Max, gives a nitty-gritty look at Wallace as a troubled, tortured artist and human being. But DTM on DFW is also a primer on the growth of this particular writer — throughout the text we get mentions of the exact books Wallace read, and when, and how they formed his style. Here are just eight of them (one is a short story), along with the relevant excerpt from Max’s book. Follow along to become the next David Foster Wallace — or maybe just a little more well-read.

The Crying of Lot 49 , Thomas Pynchon

Max tells us, “Soon another postmodern work came his way. That book was Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Charlie McLagan, a fellow student, had turned him on to Pynchon the semester before… One day McLagan had run into Wallace and [Mark] Costello discussing One Hundred Years of Solitude and tossed them his copy of The Crying of Lot 49, which they promptly read. The novel is the story of Oedipa Maas, a young woman trying to uncover a centuries-old conspiracy involving a secret postal organization known as Trystero… One thing that caught Wallace’s eye about the book was the idea that to live in America was to live in a world of confusion, where meaning was refracted and distorted, especially by the media that engulf and reconfigure every gesture… Lot 49 was an agile and ironic meta-commentary, and the effect on Wallace cannot be overstated (so much so that in a later letter to one of his editors Wallace, ever nervous of his debt to the other writer, would lie and say he had not read the book). Wallace reading Pynchon was, remembers Costello, ‘like Bob Dylan finding Woody Guthrie.’”

McTeague , Frank Norris

Max writes, “When the semester started, Wallace showed his new commitment to fiction. He believed that if he was going to write better, he had to study it, just as he had philosophy. So during the next two semesters he took classes in the American novel and modern British poetry, finding himself particularly drawn to Frank Norris’s ungainly naturalist novel McTeague in the former and to T.S. Eliot’s cryptic “The Waste Land” in the other.”

Ratner’s Star , Don DeLillo

Max writes, “If Wittgenstein was the obvious philosophical point of departure for Wallace’s book [The Broom of the System], the literary influences were even clearer… He took the flat, echoing tone of his dialogue from Don DeLillo, whose novels he had been reading while working on the book. (One night a friend who did part-time work as an Amherst security guard bumped into him at his switchboard working his way through Ratner’s Star.)”

Then, in a footnote to the mention of Ratner’s Star: “Wallace once wrote Jonathan Franzen he was glad everyone focused on his debt in Broom of the System to Pynchon, because it meant they didn’t see how much he had taken from DeLillo.”

Less Than Zero , Bret Easton Ellis

Max reports that most of the professors at Wallace’s University of Arizona MFA program “were not fans of postmodernism… but they also did not like minimalism, which smelled trendy to them. They particularly disliked one thing the minimalists did that Wallace admired. In his class [Richard] Elman assigned both Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero… Predictably, the students in Elman’s class tore apart their easy plots and heartstring-plucking narratives. Wallace, though, did not go along entirely. He was interested in the way their simple narratives swept up and held the reader and, in the case of Ellis, how he used brand names as shorthand for cultural information like status and even to stand in for emotional states… The story “Girl with Curious Hair” was in the same key as Less Than Zero. Wallace felt that employing bored, vapid characters to capture boredom was poor writing, but as a natural mimic he admired the strong voice Ellis had found; he saw its potential. So he pushed the voice past where Ellis had taken it, moving from the stylish into the gothic or repulsive.”

It’s especially fascinating to learn how much Wallace admired Ellis and then see this recent series of tweets from Ellis, who is prolific, controversial and brutally honest on Twitter:

“Anyone who finds David Foster Wallace a literary genius has got to be included in the Literary Doucebag-Fools Pantheon…”

“David Foster Wallace carried around a literary pretentiousness that made me embarrassed to have any kind of ties to the publishing scene…”

“Reading D.T. Max’s bio I continue to find David Foster Wallace the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation…”

“DFW is simply the best example of a contemporary male writer lusting for a kind of awful greatness that he simply wasn’t able to achieve. A fraud.”


Omensetter’s Luck , William Gass

From Max: “Christmas 1985, they [Wallace and Gale Walden] each had car trouble, so they agreed that it would be romantic to join up and drive in a convoy back to Tucson, Wallace from Urbana, Walden from the South Side of Chicago… On the trip, Wallace listened to the southwestern accents. He had long wanted to write a variation on William Gass’s novel Omensetter’s Luck. The laconic hillbilly voice of the story appealed to him. As a ‘weird kind of forger,’ imitating it would be a fun challenge. ‘He started to talk out “John Billy” at rest stops,’ Walden remembers. ‘He was trying to get the cadence of the dialogue.’”

Wallace would end up including the short story “John Billy,” with its Gass-inspired dialect and complicated secondhand tall-tale, in the collection Girl with Curious Hair.

Lost in the Funhouse,” John Barth

“Wallace drove east to Saratoga Springs in July 1987,” Max writes. “[He] had brought along his story-in-progress [“Westward the Course of Empire takes Its Way”] to work on. He quickly took it up again. The story takes as its point of departure John Barth’s long story “Lost in the Funhouse,” a touchstone of postmodern fiction written in 1967 that Wallace had long loved… Barth, then, was the teacher Wallace deserved, “Lost in the Funhouse” the wise, self-aware text his own teachers could never produce to help him on his own way… As he finished his work at Arizona, he also had come to feel that there was something irritating about “Lost in the Funhouse,” condescending, and, if you were of a recursive cast of mind, false about the way Barth kept breaking into the narrative to show readers falsity. Didn’t such an intrusion, in the end, just create more of a performance?”

Ultimately, Wallace would decide that the intrusion was acceptable, and he ended his own story, which anchored the book Girl with Curious Hair at the end, with a direct love letter to the reader.

Suttree , Cormac McCarthy

Max says of Wallace that, “When he met Stephanie Hubbard and Doug Eich, a couple in the orbit of the recovery group he had just joined, his interest was both literary and culinary. He would go to their house, where Hubbard would cook, while he and Eich discussed language and fiction… Eich and Wallace shared a passion for DeLillo and also Cormac McCarthy… [They] agreed that the gritty portrait of the alcoholic in Suttree was far more interesting than the self-pitying Consul in Lowry’s Under the Volcano.”

Steps , Jerzy Kosinski

As Max cites: “In April 1999, Salon.com asked Wallace for his list of underappreciated novels, and in his response he included longtime loves like Omensetter’s Luck, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and Blood Meridian, but added Jerzy Kosinski’s little-known Steps, ‘a collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that’s like nothing else anywhere ever. Only Kafka’s fragments get anywhere close.’”