Sept. 12 marked the 10-year anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s suicide.
Following more than a year of long overdue and heated conversation about sexual assault in the U.S., Wallace’s legacy — which is large given the cult-like following of his novel “Infinite Jest” and the viral circulation of his Kenyon College commencement speech — has not come out unscathed.
Most pointedly, Wallace has been accused of sexual, verbal and physical assault by his ex-girlfriend and fellow author Mary Karr. The details, according to Karr’s account, verge on the psychotic.
Wallace is not alone in his identity as a critically acclaimed author whose work has fixed itself in the American literature canon only for unsavory parts of his personal life to come to light much later.
Both Junot Díaz and Sherman Alexie have been accused of sexual assault as well, to name a few.
This timeline of adulation before criticism is bound to create controversy almost regardless of who is at the center of it.
What makes Wallace a particularly fascinating case, however, is the fact that many still regard him as the best and most insightful author of his generation. In other words, he’s only become more relevant and respected in the literature world.
At the same time, however, everything from his suicide, the posthumous publication of his unfinished novel, “The Pale King,” to the making of a biopic, “The End of the Tour,” about him in 2015 has served to turn him into a sort of modern American myth.
Yet most people who knew him, including Mary Karr, claim this legendary version of him is the farthest thing from who he actually was.
The conversation about Wallace’s history of assault should be welcome by fans of his work. There’s no way to know precisely how Wallace the person felt about his actions.
But the troubling parts of his past beg the question: What does one do with art that comes from a problematic person?
Using Wallace’s case as example, the answer, I suggest, is not to write his work off entirely. Instead, honestly grappling with his history of abusing others is the perfect starting block for returning Wallace to the status of an ordinary person.
This is not to say that abuse is ordinary but that being far from perfect is.
A book by a so-called perfect person about their flawless life would not be a very relatable book for most readers.
Wallace’s probable abuse of Mary Karr is no way justifiable, nor is his being made into a venerated literary celebrity.
Yet his voice remains relevant because, in his own words, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a human being,” and few writers have written about the messy problem of being a human being more candidly than Wallace.
Readers, critics and fans of Wallace alike would do well to view him not as literary giant but, like many of his characters, as a very eloquent and flawed person.