"[Y]ou hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there's going to be the occasional bit of embellishment.” David Foster Wallace
Last week, Katie Roiphe gushed in Slate about the "rigorous" and "honorable" syllabi from David Foster Wallace's teaching days, currently housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Of his 1994 course in Literary Analysis at Illinois State University (which Wallace taught when he was in his early 30s), Roiphe writes, "There is in his syllabus...nothing but rigorous honesty and tireless interrogation."
As someone who is a great admirer of Wallace, the writer, as well as someone who has taught writing and literature to undergraduates, I was excited about reading these documents and was surprised and somewhat confused to find passages in the syllabi that represented something quite the opposite of "rigorous honesty."
In his 1994 course syllabus for English 102 at Illinois State, under the section titled "ANOTHER WARNING: WHAT I'M LIKE AS A GRADER," Wallace writes that the total number of students he's ever had is 387. While this seems like a lot of teaching for someone in his early 30s, I didn't question it when I first read it. It's not unfathomable for the same manic force of nature that wrote Infinite Jest to have taught a few hundred undergraduates before his 33rd birthday. After stating this, Wallace includes a seemingly meticulous breakdown of how those 387 grades were doled out, with the ostensible punchline being: I've only given two A+'s in my teaching career.
Then, things start to get fishy: 11 years later, in Wallace's 2005 syllabus for "Literary Interpretation" at Pomona College, on a page marked "Caveat Emptor," he says he's had a total of 332 students since 1991. That's 55 students fewer than the amount he claimed to have taught by 1994. In other words, one or perhaps both of these data sets is phony.
Assuming only the first data set is false, what are we to make of this unnecessary, tossed-off white lie, which was repeated and revised in two syllabi separated by a decade?
Before I go on, I should say that there are at least 387 good reasons not to even mention this minor gaffe in Wallace's syllabi: among them, (#3) one should not speak ill of the dead, (#56) this is a minor point in a minor document of a major American writer, and (#249) it's a bit of very DFW-like exaggeration in a tangential document that was probably never intended to be read by more than a handful of undergraduates. But still, it's a lie. A rather curious lie, which, depending on which syllabus you believe, either became true, or was revised to sound more plausible. Whatever the case, one can't help but recall the recent controversy surrounding Jonathan Franzen after his unsolicited comment at the New Yorker festival this year about his BFF's rather loose definition of nonfiction. But what I find more interesting is the very particular, hyper-specific, seemingly well-supported manner in which Wallace lied.
Again, assuming that only the first syllabus is bogus, what astonishes is the length Wallace goes to cover his tracks, supplying that fictional yet meticulous breakdown of how the grades were apportioned (though, in an ingenious touch, not too meticulous: for he simply lumps all the failing grades and zeros together). What we're presented with is not the obsessive-compulsive note-taking of a scrupulous teacher, but the effusive, almost over-the-top track-covering of a nervous hustler. We trust that the stats are honest and rigorous, much as Roiphe probably did, because they are unnecessary. Put another way, Wallace was being meticulous and statistical because he was lying.
By the way, the data set of grades, if you take the time to add it up, equals the amount of students Wallace said he'd taught: 387. A satisfying little mathematical proof to cover up the slightly bigger lie.