The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
Shhh! Keep quiet and I will let you in on a secret.
Nobody dares say this in the literary world, but novelists have scaled back their ambitions in recent years. All big projects have been put on hold. Special clauses are being inserted in publishing contracts. I have it on good authority that you can’t write a novel longer than 650 pages without getting a 27B-6 form signed by three senior editors. And no one wants to be first to sign.
In the old days, authors aspired to write the Great American Novel -- or the Great Commonwealth Novel or the Great Fill-in-the Blank Novel as the case may be. Not any more. Nowadays, fiction has been downscaled, just like your job, your car and your 401-K. Today a writer’s highest aspiration is a movie deal or (the holiest of holies, pause while I genuflect) a place in Oprah’s Book Club. Even the phrase Great American Novel is now off limits — only uttered with a sharply ironic tone.
For your own good, you should practice saying it in front of a mirror. Put a Snidely Whiplash sneer on your face and spit it out between clenched teeth: Great American Novel ... hah! Trust me, if you get the tone just right it will help you earn a tenured position in the English Department.
In short, big, sprawling books are dead. But somebody forgot to tell David Foster Wallace. The poor schmuck! While everyone else was downscaling, he was working on Infinite Jest.
Wallace clearly was operating under the old Pynchon-house rules. He thought he could pull out all the stops and write a A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. (Whoops, that title was taken a few years later by Wallace admirer David Eggers, but you get the idea.) Nice try, DFW (the author, not the airport), but who was gonna publish a novel that approached a half-million words, with footnotes that, on their own, are as daunting as the “Penelope” section in Joyce’s Ulysses? Yes, there are 388 footnotes in Infinite Jest — all of them in a tiny font, and some of them as lengthy as New Yorker short stories.