On the benefits of unpublished thoughts

Exhibit A (David Foster Wallace, “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think” [1998, later collected in Consider the Lobster]):

Most of the literary readers I know personally are under forty, and a fair number are female, and none of them are big admirers of the postwar GMNs [Great Male Narcissists]. But it’s John Updike in particular that a lot of them seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason—mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back:

"Just a penis with a thesaurus."

"Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?"

"Makes misogyny seem literary the same way Rush makes fascism seem funny."

And trust me: these are actual quotations, and I’ve heard even worse ones.

Exhibit B (from David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, transcript of 1996 road-trip conversation with Wallace):

Because Updike, I think, has never had an unpublished thought. And that he’s got an ability to put it in very lapidary prose. But that Updike presents one with a compressed Internet problem, is there’s 80 percent absolute dreck, and 20 percent priceless stuff. And you just have to wade through so much purple gorgeous empty writing to get to anything that’s got any kind of heartbeat in it.

Note that Exhibit B is casual, off-the-cuff conversation, and happened a full two years before it was written into the book review in Exhibit A. Plus Wallace, of course, had no way of knowing this conversation would one day show up, uncensored, on bookshelves across the land.

So either he’s piggybacking on his real friend’s anecdote while talking to a reporter (which I doubt), or else he’s taken a thought he’s had kicking around for years and used it in an elaborate framework in the book review to more expertly pummel Updike from a female perspective.

I vote for the latter.

It’s maybe a little ethically grey, but this kind of thing happens all the time. I’m okay with it. Mostly it just makes me a bit embarrassed for Wallace—to see him with his fingers so obviously in the cookie jar. We see the idea in its rough draft. That book review now reads a little less funny to me as a result.

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