David Foster Wallace Unpacks Pop Fiction

by Chris Barsanti

4 March 2013

A newly available syllabus from a 1994 class taught by David Foster Wallace shows a great willingness to engage with mass-market fiction on a critical level.

Over at the head-dizzying emporium of good things known as Open Culture, Josh Jones recently dug up a marvelous example of syllabussing (aka, the art of creating a class syllabus; spectacular word) from the late David Foster Wallace. From 1993 to 2002, while becoming the nation’s go-to literary wunderkind, Wallace also taught at Illinois State University.

His syllabus for the Fall 1994 intro class “English 102-Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction” eschews the books we’re all used to from college English lit classes (Zora Neale Hurston, Gabriel Garcia Marquez) in favor of an eclectic mix of mass-market fiction, ranging from Stephen King’s Carrie to Jackie Collins’ Rock Star.
The most “literary” novel on the list would probably be Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (which yes, won a Pulitzer, but also sold a bazillion copies). But as Wallace notes in a section of the syllabus marked “WARNING”:

Don’t let any potential lightweightish-looking qualities of the texts delude you into thinking that this will be a blow-off-type class. These “popular” texts will end up being harder than more conventionally “literary” works to unpack and read critically. You’ll end up doing more work in here than in other sections of 102, probably.

This sounds like a challenge, and one that more English professors should try; at least the ones interested in actually pushing their students and not just trying to goose their attendance by surveying popular fiction. It’s one thing to critically unpack colonial attitudes in Hearts of Darkness (all due respect to Conrad but it’s all pretty much right there on the surface), and quite another to tease out what, say, novels like Carrie say about religion and sexuality in 1970s America or what The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tells us about the decline of the British Empire.

Whether Wallace’s syllabus needed two Thomas Harris novels, is another question entirely.

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