School Spirit: Debts and Gifts from Wallace and Lethem

September 15, 2023   •   By Colin Flynn

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE was everywhere on Pomona College’s campus when I arrived in 2008, just a month before he killed himself a few blocks away. In the very conference room where Lit 101 was held, there was a framed poster of a boy with smoke coming out of his ears—the same image on the cover of Wallace’s 1997 essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. When we were studying together in the library my freshman year, a friend turned her computer to me and showed me a transcribed version of Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College graduation speech, which would later be published as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life (2009). The transcription was filled with typos because it had been hand-done by a fan and posted on a spotty webpage. Such was the Wallace fervor that his fans were hand-transcribing his unpublished work and sharing it with one another online in 2008. All across campus, Wallace was the song still playing in everyone’s head, the rash still spreading in everyone’s mind.

However much of his local celebrity was due to his death, at least some portion must’ve owed to the fact that he had taught at Pomona for years, and that he had built up some goodwill during that time. In any case, the feeling on campus when I arrived was that there was simply no one in league with him. Like the tennis champion Roger Federer that he wrote about, we felt Wallace possessed a mastery so thorough and freakish that he was a god. And where even Federer had a Nadal for ballast, where was Wallace’s competition? What else came even remotely close to an Infinite Jest? Who else could trace so precisely the exact contour of a self-conscious thought?

Beside Wallace, all other prose suddenly seemed plodding, wooden, and pedestrian, a horse cart to Wallace’s bullet train. True, his writing could get baggy—but even this baggage, we theorized, was intentional, a roadblock meant to increase the pleasure of speeding up once again. The only other possible reference point was Thomas Pynchon, but precisely where Pynchon seemed satisfied with opacity, Wallace, miraculously, frequently turned outward to the reader.

That’s at least how we felt. It’s relevant that we were all roughly 20 years old. In his introduction to a later edition of Infinite Jest (1996), Dave Eggers estimates that Wallace’s average reader might be 25; whether or not that’s true, it can be argued that Wallace’s ideal reader is 20. At what other age might self-consciousness be held in such utterly high regard?

For surely that was at least partially what we were holding up when we held up Wallace: here was someone who seemed to live permanently in these back channels of self-consciousness, a sort of native guide whose mastery of the terrain we would never surpass. At an age when the self can easily (and dangerously) become an all-consuming interest, Wallace was for us a kind of guru, sage, and rock star, all in one. He had our hearts and our depraved minds.

What were we all supposed to do with his death by hanging, following a medication change and a spiral into the torment he so often described, all in a house not a mile away?

The rumors were that it was down to Junot Díaz and Jonathan Lethem to fill Wallace’s seat at Pomona. Then the rumor was that Junot Díaz was going to MIT.

Though the deadline for submission to be considered for Lethem’s first fall fiction workshop had already passed by a month, I sent in a writing sample anyway. Six months later, I found myself seated around a long wooden workshop table with 11 other students, all of us waiting nervously for Lethem to appear for our first in-person class. To fill the silence, a friend named Vera asked us all if we’d read any of Lethem’s work. I’d read Motherless Brooklyn (1999) that summer and said as much.

Hmmm, Vera said. Have any of you read The Corrections?

Slight pause.

I think you’re thinking of Jonathan Franzen, someone said.

Wrong Jonathan! said someone else, right as Lethem opened the door and entered the room.

That first day, we did an exquisite-corpse type of activity and were sent home with a short story or two to study before the next class. After a couple of weeks, we started workshopping student manuscripts.

I went in the fourth or fifth week. The night before my submission was due, I reread the opening five pages of Infinite Jest and did my damnedest for a straight-on imitation, merely replacing some of Wallace’s particulars with my own. If I had any talent, I thought, it was simply that of the imitator. I couldn’t write like myself, but what I could do was write like whomever I was reading five minutes before.

Disorientingly, my Wallace imitation went over well. To my ears, Lethem embarrassed me with praise, right there at the top of the hour, in front of everyone. Though it had only been a few weeks of class, I could not remember this happening before. I crimsoned with pity for my classmates. A young Harold Bloom, writing was competition to me, and I was being tossed the laurel wreath.

If some writers are hypersensitive to critique, there must be others who are hypersensitive to praise, and it is either a defect or a great strength that I fall into the latter camp. Nearly 10 years later, when I would next find myself in a workshop setting, I would have a flashback to my experience in Lethem’s class, and only be able to hear the praise lavished on my piece, my ears having filtered out beforehand any harsh criticisms. Only as the months passed would I slowly begin to hear bits and fragments of criticism that had been leveled at my text, until very slowly the ledger would balance out, and eventually I would be able to see that my piece had been precisely as mediocre as everyone else’s.

Do all minds work this way? Or only particularly fragile ones, or male ones, or white ones, in settings surrounded by plenty of the same?

In any case, my (imagined?) praise in Lethem’s workshop brought out the worst in me. Having established my place right at Lethem’s side, I turned mean, and held back nothing in savaging my classmates’ work. I called one classmate’s account of a debauched weekend in Las Vegas a “glorified journal entry.” I told another student I would’ve like his story if I was “into shitty action movies.” I told yet another student that, reading her story, I felt like I was watching a film by a director shooting with a handheld camera who didn’t know where to look.

Worse, I became a performer. Searching for just the right word, I would pause for five seconds at a time, and then, being a David Foster Wallacian, become interested in the uncomfortable tension my silence was producing, and protract it to its breaking point. Meanwhile, my second class submission was due soon and I had no ideas what to write about. In another class that same semester, I was reading Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom and my mind was filled to the brim with perversions. I wound up writing something about an overweight security guard at a corporate office who masturbates in the bathroom stalls while on the clock. At the story’s finale, the security guard masturbates in front of a 12-person board meeting he is for some reason invited to.

Only five people out of the class’s 12 showed up to workshop that day. Lethem didn’t take off his leather jacket as he sat at the head of the table and navigated a brief discussion about my piece. After class, I was greedy for his written feedback. It’s a testament to the strength of my self-defense mechanism that I was not especially put out when I flipped to the end of my manuscript and found no comments there one way or another.

If Lethem’s official task was to serve as Roy E. Disney Creative Chair, then his unofficial task was to console us all that he was not David Foster Wallace. Though Wallace had been dead for almost three years, his legend loomed larger than ever on campus. The semester after he died, a teacher at Pomona taught a seminar on Wallace’s works. As absurd as it sounds, almost everyone I knew had either read Infinite Jest or had an excuse at the ready as to why they hadn’t read Infinite Jest. (One popular excuse was that, at almost 1,200 pages, surely it would be more worth one’s time to read three or four historically important works than one contemporary one). It was in the midst of such Wallace-o-mania that Lethem had arrived.

During his second semester on campus, we made Lethem answer for his crime of not being Wallace by hosting a panel called “Consider David Foster Wallace.” The panel was led by a student who wore a jacket and tie and who (I’ve just checked online) would go on to work at a Washington, DC, law firm before eventually becoming a novelist in his own right. On the panel were D. T. Max, a New Yorker writer who was already at work on his biography of Wallace called Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (2012); and Laura Miller, co-founder of Salon; and sitting beside the future lawyer at the center of the table was Lethem, the culprit.

We wanted Lethem to explain himself. Who was he? Where did he come from? And above all, why was he not David Foster Wallace?

After some 15 minutes of perfunctory banter, Lethem went in for the kill. Responding to a question about the role of adolescence in Wallace’s writing, Lethem said:

In Wallace’s case, he’s really a powerfully neotenous creator. Because he takes all the kinds of things that writing, or writers, are meant to grow out of or shed, and he kind of exalts them and frames them and pushes them to the foreground and turns them into his art. And they’re problematic, they’re not easy. But they’re very much aspects of his own development that, in a sense, he almost froze in place and turned into his art form. The questions that writers are supposed to ask themselves and solve before they go out the door, he wore out of doors, as his dress.

The things writers are meant to grow out of? Wallace as frozen in place? The questions that writers are supposed to ask themselves before going out the door?

It would take time for these concepts to settle in, at least for me. But there was something sticky about them, and the image of Wallace as a writer who had not asked himself the questions that writers are supposed to ask themselves before going out the door never quite left my mind. It suggested a world outside, beyond the arabesque mental contortions Wallace’s works had taught us to think in. Self-consciousness, Lethem was implying, was merely an adolescent phase best conducted behind closed doors and cleanly resolved before writers declared themselves as such. What Wallace had done was make an art out of the struggle to grow past this stage, a struggle we exalted because it was the struggle we most keenly felt at 20 years old. But to fall in love with this struggle would be a trap, and Lethem was trying to show us how to skirt the trap. It was a thankless task.

The student leading the “Consider David Foster Wallace” panel’s name was Julius Taranto. He was in the same grade as I. Six years after hosting the panel, he published an essay titled “On Outgrowing David Foster Wallace” in the Los Angeles Review of Books. There, Taranto writes that he had come to Pomona specifically to work with Wallace, only for the author to kill himself two weeks after he arrived on campus. Whereas I had become infatuated with Wallace only after arriving at college, Taranto had been reading Wallace since he was 17, and had read his entire oeuvre during a gap year in China with the reasonable expectation that Wallace would soon be his mentor. For Taranto, Wallace’s death was an especially deep betrayal, and he spent his college years in a self-admittedly awkward stage of mourning. He considered transferring out of Pomona. He wrote Wallace-like stories for his workshops and railed against his professors when they “didn’t get it.” But then, slowly, he started to realize that they did get it, and were trying to help him grow. He decided not to transfer.

One of these professors who was trying to help Taranto grow was Lethem. As Taranto writes, Lethem was fully aware of his task:

Teaching me cannot have been that pleasant for him—an unmistakably extraordinary writer, whose books I had also loved since I was a teenager, but one whose style (unlike Wallace’s) I had no clue how to imitate—sitting as he was in his deceased peer’s Chair while I insisted on writing exactly like deceased peer. Sometimes, in conversation, I would go off on some Wallace soliloquy and could see him bite his tongue, acting reserved even though he is not reserved, generally. He knew he had to be subtle in criticizing Wallace or my work’s most Wallace-ish features, but sometimes he had to, you see. Writing like Wallace was keeping my work limited in some of the same ways Wallace’s work was limited, plus I was making myself derivative—I was not finding my voice; I was still trying to find Wallace’s.

I cringe while reading his reflections because they are my own. So deeply embedded is this embarrassment, in fact, that it’s slightly surprising for me to reach down beneath it and find that I actually absorbed some things while being Lethem’s orbit. The title of his nonfiction collection, The Ecstasy of Influence (2011), might or might not have meant something to me when he published that book the first fall he was on campus. But now, so much later, the title alone works for me as a sort of code word for an entire liberatory ethos: Bloom’s title, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), tilts downward toward, well, hand-wringing, brow-furrowing, and concern. It stops creation in its tracks by proposing a world of unpayable debts and impossible patricidal tasks. One will simply never be good enough, and so, quite frankly, one should probably never even try. The Ecstasy of Influence, meanwhile, runs in precisely the opposite direction. Under its aegis, debts become gifts and duty becomes play. Abandon conceits involving originality and ownership, Ecstasy suggests, and see what comes your way. I always forget how valuable such permission is until I run across those who are still vying for it.

I learned not only from Lethem but also from the rich cast of characters he brought to campus and into our workshop that fall. One afternoon we were joined in class by Lawrence Weschler, a one-time staff writer at The New Yorker and author of many unclassifiable works of nonfiction. When Lethem asked Weschler what jobs he would advise would-be writers to take up, Weschler suggested that they not take writing-adjacent work like editing. He was disconcertingly matter-of-fact when he announced that a would-be writer should be ready to be poor “for about 10 years.” And he sent a quiet panic about the room when he said that an ungodly amount of debt (such as the kind we were accruing that very moment at our expensive liberal arts college) could very well kill a writing career before it had even started.

He gave a reading to a crowded Crookshank Hall later that afternoon. I was sitting in the back, stoned. The last words of the reading were also the title of one of his books: “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” If such words were intriguingly opaque when I first heard them, now they seem to me of a piece with a wider philosophical fabric Lethem was weaving that semester and beyond.

Another afternoon in the same lecture hall, Colson Whitehead read a piece called “How to Write” that would appear in The New York Times the following month. It was a parody of writing advice, with clever riffs on time-worn adages. Whitehead had Lethem laughing in his seat, but since I was interested in hard-and-fast rules for writing at the time, I felt slightly mocked by Whitehead’s zipping between seeming sincerity (“Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you”) and obvious sarcasm (“Don’t be afraid: you have a best seller on your hands”). Meanwhile, I was also transfixed by Whitehead’s watch. It was large, with a metal band and face, and he kept lightly shaking it on his wrist as he read. As far as I could tell, it was a nice watch. But what struck me during the reading was the simple fact of a writer displaying even the most modest sign of wealth. It didn’t square with Weschler’s estimate that a writer should expect to be poor for about 10 years. Maybe Whitehead was already at year 12?

Whitehead also contradicted Weschler in saying that he worked as a journalist at The Village Voice for a number of years and only worked on his first novel “on the weekends.” This didn’t match with any image of the novelist I then had in my mind. Writing columns during the week and only working on your novel on the weekend? What was this? Whitehead admitted this first unpublished novel had been a failure, and then said something that would haunt me forever after: almost everyone, he said, writes a “dud” first novel.

How would I know, I wondered for years after, whether what I was then writing was that necessary first dud, or whether it was the last failure that was the “necessary” dud and what I was currently writing was the breakout success? Did I have to finish the novel in order for it to be the necessary dud, or could I write half a novel, abandon it, and have that count? The questions about this first dud novel were endless, and they were not assuaged by the examples of history. I knew Zadie Smith had said something about writing her second book in order to cover up for the embarrassment of having written her first book, then writing her third book in order to cover up her embarrassment of having written her second, etc. Don DeLillo had said that it wasn’t until working on his second book that he was really forced to understand what he was doing. Lethem had once written something about not publishing until one was 30, the better to work under the radar for longer. Why so much superstition and mumbo jumbo around first works?

After Whitehead’s reading, I made a beeline for him, cornering him against the wall by the podium. I had a question: I had been a security guard in Portland, Oregon, the previous summer, following David Foster Wallace’s edict that such work was ideal for the writer, as it allowed them the maximum amount of leisure time to read. Did he, Colson Whitehead, agree that this was the best way to spend one’s summer?

Whitehead eyed me coolly as he took small sips from a stubby bottle of water swiped from the podium. I don’t remember what he had to say in order to get me to step aside and let him pass.

Samuel R. (“Chip”) Delany sat in on one of the last workshops of the semester. That day we were discussing a story in which one of the characters kills herself. The story was a chapter from a love story set in Texas. The suicide was a jilted lover. During the class, Delany weighed in: he had known people who had killed themselves, and in most cases, they had been quite depressed beforehand. The suicide in the story seemed melodramatic because it was so sudden, he said.

When meeting a holy eminence, some are reportedly filled with a feeling of such utter serenity that they break down into tears or laughter. With all respects to such established holy persons, I can’t imagine that any of them have much on Delany when it comes to inducing in a person a sly sense of humor, calm, and delight. He has a soft, sweet voice that is nevertheless redolent with authority. Wallace hints and gestures and spirals on about suicide. One can read his entire body of work and still feel he hasn’t fully scratched his itch on the subject. But to hear the tone with which Delany spoke the words “I’ve known people who have killed themselves and in most cases they were quite depressed” was somehow to hear all one ever needed to hear on the subject.

After we had finished workshopping the student’s piece, I asked Delany in front of everyone if he ever read student submissions and shaken his head at their naivete and shittiness. He said that he’d learned to stop shaking his head years ago. He once had Octavia Butler as a student. She didn’t speak up much or make much of an impression in class. Then, seven years later, she published Kindred (1979).

When class was over, I rushed to ask Delany if he would read one of my manuscripts. He politely declined through an arabesque formulation: if in the winter, after the semester was over, I still felt like sending on a manuscript, he might have some time cleared by then. As the students flowed out of the room past us, Lethem asked if I might accompany Delany in the elevator up to his second-floor office.

Delany had a cane. The two of us piled into the elevator and said nothing as it climbed up the single floor.

By semester’s end, I still hadn’t learned the passcodes and secret signals by which one is inducted into the fiction writer’s cult. The more we progressed into the semester, in fact, the more the word “fiction” seemed to suggest a set of formal methods I was untutored in, and would be a long time in apprehending, let alone mastering. Just how far I had to go was laid out in two different ways by Lethem. Once, in class, he mentioned that he had probably had to write around 15 stories before one was publishable. Just as I couldn’t imagine the gumption required to finish a novel only for it to wind up being a “dud,” as per Whitehead, I couldn’t begin to envision what was required of a person for them to be able to write 15 unpublishable short stories. Surely, by one’s 10th short story, one might start knowing a bit about what one was doing?

In an office hours meeting, Lethem put the situation slightly differently. He knew I was on the cross-country team, so with a slight smile to himself, perhaps embarrassed at having to employ a sports metaphor, he tried to compare writing to running, suggesting that, for example, one wouldn’t go out and run a marathon without first going through the months and years of necessary training beforehand … He broke off there, still smiling, but I could imagine the rest. Essentially, from the point of view of the practicing novelist or marathon runner, I had roughly the same level of experience, at that moment, as a JV 100m-dash runner. Seen from someone like Lethem’s eyes, the most that I—personally—was capable of right then was basically training drills. True, those drills might exhibit sparks of something interesting. Likewise, they might be wince-inducing failures. Either way, they weren’t of enormous consequence. No matter how one looked at it, I had an extremely long way to go if one day I wanted to, for example, compete in the Boston Marathon.

At least that was how I chose to interpret the situation. It was also true that Lethem had often suggested the exact opposite—that there was “no rehearsal” to writing, there was simply the act itself. Maybe this is the advice his later student Tom Lin adhered to. Flipping through a Pomona College alumni magazine recently, spotted on a friend’s coffee table here in Los Angeles, I saw an article about Lin and the success of his recently published novel The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu (2021)—Lin was only 25 at the time of the article, and his debut novel had garnered acclaim from the New York Times and NPR, and had won the 2022 Carnegie Medal for Excellence. All of this was impressive, but what caught my eye was the thumbnail shot of Lethem that accompanied the article. Lethem struck me as more Los Angeles–ified than I remembered him—something about the clear-framed glasses, the wavy silvering hair, a bit of scruff. He looked like any cool Echo Park Dad. The Lethem I remembered from 10 years earlier still had a whiff of New York about him, a man with dark hair who might wear a blazer if the occasion called for it.

Ten years had passed since I had briefly been his student. It was humbling to think how many students had passed through his class since then, even more humbling to imagine what many of them, like Lin, had accomplished. Looking at Lethem’s confident thumbnail pic and reading his dorky, generous quote (“As for Tom Lin, I would simply say that if he hadn’t been one of my most attentive and fluent and compassionate workshop students I’d probably claim now that he had been”), it was a bit strange to think that I’d once sent him a Sade-influenced story about a masturbating security guard, had dogged him during his office hours long enough to make him late for picking up his kid at school, and had bothered and heckled some of his friends, who I had since realized were legends. What would Lethem have remembered of all of that? I hoped nothing. Sitting in my friend’s living room with the alumni mag in my lap, I wondered what else Lethem might’ve experienced in 10 years out at the edges of Los Angeles County—what other hundreds of students had he encountered, cloying or brilliant? His thumbnail look was sly but yielded little information on the matter.

I found myself subconsciously searching for Wallace’s name in the article as well, before realizing that that association was now a bit stale too, outdated, over 10 years old. It had probably been a long time since Lethem and the rest of the world out at Pomona had moved on to newer and more exciting reference points. Needless to say, in an article about Lin’s talents and future prospects, as initially nurtured by Lethem, there was no mention of Wallace at all.


Colin Flynn is a Dornsife Fellow in literature at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles.