David Foster Wallace's suicide reverberates in local literary scene

Every once in a while the world punches you in the face. And right now the worlds of journalism and literature are still reeling from an uppercut to the jaw. You see, when David Foster Wallace decided to hang himself in California earlier this month, he cut off all the oxygen to his brain, killing not only an absurdly powerful talent, but also removing some happiness from those who followed and read his work.

His death was especially powerful for Minneapolis and St. Paul, the No. 1 and No. 3 most literate cities in the United States. “This is a place for writers,” says Jocey Hale, executive director of the Loft Literary Center. “And I think a lot of younger writers really admired David Foster Wallace. He shook things up. David Foster Wallace pushed the style. I also think when a major force like this dies of suicide it just makes people take pause about what are they doing with their lives. It’s shocking that someone that successful can feel so hopeless.”

Julie Schumacher, professor of writing at the U of M says she has noticed plenty of people in the MFA program talking about it. “I suppose it’s a kind of bewilderment and bafflement,” she says. “He had a wide appeal with young readers. His writing was so challenging and individual but really spoke deeply to a lot of people.”

As with many deaths, there is a sudden upsurge in interest in the person’s work (1). At Magers and Quinn bookstore in Uptown, they’re seeing a heightened interest in David Foster Wallace. “Some people haven’t heard of him and news and obits made them aware of his life,” says Jay Peterson, store manager at Magers and Quinn. “The heightened media around his whole death also help with sales. His essay collections have already sold out like: Consider the Lobster and Girl with Curious Hair and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

At Garrison Keillor’s Common Goods Books in St. Paul, manager Sue Zumberge says that while they haven’t seen an up-tick in sales, people seem saddened by the loss. “A lot of our customers have already read his work, even his lesser known work,” she says, adding. “I have a 29-year-old daughter with friends who can quote entire passages of his work. This really hit them hard over the weekend. David Foster Wallace had a gimlet-eyed view on life. And unlike Dave Eggers or Jonathan Safran Foer, who I appreciate but who really need editors, David Foster Wallace knew how to write.”

(1) This is a well-told story, but back when Gore Vidal found out that Truman Capote died, the longtime rival said that it “was a good career move.” And when Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died last year, his entire collection of his works disappeared from the shelves of Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, the largest used bookstore in the nation.

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