Infinite Jest is No Joke…Query Letters are Though

I started Infinite Jest about a month ago (on audio book, as usual). I’m about halfway through and look forward, mostly, each morning and afternoon commute to hear a little more about addiction and the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.

As a writer, each time I get into a new book, I digest it, ponder it, absorb it, study, deconstruct, and assimilate it. I’ve written before about the distraction this causes with Stephen King books. David Foster Wallace is another matter entirely. The detail of his writing is almost excruciating. Entire scenes go by where, despite the humor, anguish is my primary emotional response. This is because his writing is a work of extreme dedication and sustained passion; I will explain why that is a problem for me.

From a writer’s point of my view–my point of view–I can’t help but analyze how a book comes together. Leaving aside Wallace’s writing style, I’ve thought about the overall structure of the book, how he might describe it to an agent or publisher. How would Wallace go about writing a query letter for this? We all know the standard query letter three-paragraph pitch, allowing for varying degrees of nuance for personal flare. I can’t imagine a compelling query letter for Infinite Jest, at least not in terms of the standard query letter three-paragraph pitch, allowing for varying degrees of nuance for personal flare. (In actuality Wallace didn’t have to write a query letter for it, but that’s not the point.) Who cares? Well, I do.

Don’t get me wrong: the book is enlightening about writing as craft, which is fantastic. It also pushes me to ever higher heights of literary adventurism, which is not fantastic. I am not interesting in peddling some genre fiction (not that there’s anything wrong with that). That’s not my thing. I write experimental, literary thingamabobs, and have to dissuade myself from listing “horror, thriller, fantasy, realism, literary” as the genre(s) on my query letters. I totally get the business, know what people are looking for, know that an unknown writer bargains for less luck than a homeless man who finds a MegaMillions ticket on the street. But still, at the back of my mind, all the time when I write, I’m thinking, “Can I write a nifty query letter for this?”

Infinite Jest reminds me what a load of horse shit that question is. I’m not bitter about the business; I could certainly write whatever magnum opus I want and not worry about selling it. But that would be silly, and dishonest. Of course we write to publish. Of course we unknown writers tweet, bore friends, pay AdWords or Amazon, or simply blather to people on the train about our book(s). We also write query letters which is, I apologize, my point.

So this question sits around smoking a cigarette in the back alley of my brain, waiting for me to come out back to dump the trash. “Hey man,” it says, exhaling a plume of nicotine-tinted smoke into my former smoker face, “you’re wasting your time.” I punch it in the nose and go back inside to my knickknacks store to first dust off the long shelf of Japanese swords and then to rearrange the choir of comic book hero bobble heads. A few hobbit garden ornaments? Sure, I sell those. That big cock sculpture the Droogs use in A Clockwork Orange? Yep, got that too. A small, blue box that holds the most horrific thing in the world? I have that. The question sticks its head in the back door: “No one wants to buy that shit.”

Infinite Jest is a marvel.  It represents that freedom to Write, with a capital “W”. Go for it, it tells me. But I can’t. I could never sell it. Maybe I’m not good enough to write a query for something like that. So then it just represents the big, fat failure of my writing.

But we who write, many of us, feel that same passion that Wallace did, not just to creation, but to craft. How do we get there, after one major project after another, to the freedom to explore fully and get someone to grasp it for us, shout it the world? We spend months steeped in the wranglings of our characters, some supine louses who back stab their own mothers, and others who cradle orphan children against their ample bosoms. We want others to know them too.

I went off on a tangent. I have to get back to writing. My protagonist, Daron, is about to face off against a metal fetishist goon in the woods outside the Cauldron limits proper. There are three earless monks hiding in the shrubs, taking bets on who will bleed the most. There has been a disagreement about religion. I wish you could get to know them too.