Declumsifying DFW

In this week’s New Yorker, Deborah Treisman writes a wonderful, and hopelessly sad, elegy for David Foster Wallace, the writer (rather than David Foster Wallace, the person, whom it’s clear we never got to know nearly enough about).

He was meticulous in his writing, so it’s no surprise that he was meticulous in his copyediting.

While going over proofs of his last published story, “Good People,” which appeared in this magazine in 2007, he wrote, “I have ended up taking more of your changes . . . than I thought at first I would. But in some cases I’ve ‘taken’ them in a sort of oblique way that’s entailed further small changes around the recommended change—most often, this has taken the form of clarifying or declumsifying a phrase or passage you’d suggested, but then finding other, more innocuous ways to clumsify or ‘voice up’ that part.”

As an editor and a writer, I can appreciate Wallace’s need to assert his own voice in the face of an aggressive editor, but also the anxious need to apologize for and justify this assertiveness. Anyone who’s read DFW’s work — especially his nonfiction — will understand how recursive and self-referential his writing could get. It’s funny to see it appear even in the margins of a copyedited text.

A damn shame.

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