Columns > Published on February 3rd, 2022

Could Spider-Man Have Saved David Foster Wallace?

Here’s a totally out-of-context Chuck Palahniuk quote about a dead guy:

I think that a lot of…writers have recognized that writing the great social commentary novel, the great Remembrance Of Things Past,The Great Gatsby, that it’s kind of a dead end. Because even if you do that thing, if you write Infinite Jest, everything after that you’re going to get crucified for. And so I really do think that David Foster Wallace would still be alive if someone had said, 'Will you write 14 issues of Spider-Man?'

How does this work? And why do you need to hear about it?

Caught Up

Before you get all caught up, yes, I know David Foster Wallace had some problems. I know he was a complicated man. I’m 100% sure Chuck Palahniuk knows that, too. I don’t think anyone is looking to make light of DFW’s hard row.

I won’t force you to agree that Spidey could’ve saved DFW. It’s a big premise to swallow right off.

For now, just be willing to ask the question.

Because after we ask that question, we can ask another, better question that’s relevant to you right now, today, here.

All I ask is that before you dismiss the idea of the Web-Head Cure, you hear me out.


Here’s a little bit more of Palahniuk’s quote:

[you don’t want to always be] stuck having to write the immensely profound thing that is going to shock everyone to a new reality every single time.

Wallace wrote Infinite Jest in 1996, and it’d be his last completed novel.

Here’s Wallace in 1997, the year after Jest came out:

A lot of my problem right now is I don’t really have a brass ring, and I’m kind of open to suggestions about what one chases.

After reading about Wallace’s work on the novel that would become The Pale King, including in-depth learning about specific IRS forms and procedures and, overall, the task of trying to write a novel about tedium, you have to ask whether Wallace couldn't find the brass ring because he’d written Infinite Jest, and he was still looking up. He was looking for the brass ring somewhere beyond one of the greatest literary fiction novels ever.

Not that anyone asks for advice on getting stuck, but if you asked me, trying to write something better than Infinite Jest is a great way to go about it. Maybe so effective that it stymied the dude who wrote Infinite Jest.

Maybe if he’d taken a break, written about Peter Parker taking up tennis and playing against his nemesis, Doc Ock, who can hold 6 rackets at once, he’d have found some new places to search for that brass ring.


Palahniuk again:

You burn out so quickly [writing the great American novel], and there’s no fun in that. So just as a kind of sorbet, going to genre, going to comics, is just a lot of fun…

Wallace was NOT having fun while he worked on The Pale King.


I am tired of myself, it seems: tired of my thoughts, associations, syntax, various verbal habits that have gone from discovery to technique to tic.

Wallace also compared writing The Pale King to “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.”

Reading some of Wallace’s thoughts, you get the impression that he was bored, tired, and being pretty harsh with himself. He was battling the book as much as he was writing it.

And in some ways, you get the impression that Wallace might’ve felt like The Pale King was what he SHOULD write, not what he wanted to write.

In a letter to Don DeLillo, Wallace writes: 

I do not know why the comparative ease and pleasure of writing nonfiction always confirms my intuition that fiction is really What I’m Supposed to Do, but it does, and now I’m back here flogging away (in all senses of the word) and feeding my own wastebasket.

Maybe Wallace needed a little fun. Maybe as Palahniuk said, writing comics:

…puts you back in touch with why you love to write

Why You Need to Hear This

Let’s do a different Palahniuk quote:

History can live without one human being. I don’t matter. History can live without me…Whether or not it was the right decision, I [decided that I] was going to throw away the rest of my life writing fiction…history could live without one person.

Let’s do this serious. Let’s turn the chair backwards and straddle it, and let’s you and me talk.

When you start cataloguing the writers who ended up dead because of depression way too young, it’s goddamn nightmaric.

And a lot of writers, like Wallace, will consider changing their medication or stopping their treatment because, in some way, they feel like their sadness is at the core of who they are, as writers. Maybe not as people, but as writers.

A lot of writers will question whether, if they treat their depression, they’ll still be creative.

And I’m tired of that, man. Just fucking…I want that to stop.

Give me another 50 years of Chuck Palahniuk. I don’t care if he writes another great book or his best essay or whatever. I don’t care if he spends the rest of his days building his castle in the forest. He's earned it.

Here’s something David Foster Wallace said to his students:

It’s going to take me, like, two weeks to learn everyone’s name, but by the time I learn your name I’m going to remember your name for the rest of my life. You’re going to forget who I am before I forget who you are.

Give me another 50 years of Wallace, of that man, even if we don’t get another 50 years of Wallace the writer. Who cares if he writes another Infinite Jest

And that’s what I want you to hear: While I love reading your books, I wouldn’t choose your books over having you around a bit longer.

Could Spidey Have Saved David Foster Wallace?

Honestly, I don’t care about that question. Because nothing can save David Foster Wallace now.

I want you to ask yourself: Would writing 14 issues of Spider-Man save me?

I know, it sounds like a stupid idea. But we've tried a lot to crack the problem of depression. Writing Spider-Man is far from the worst idea. 

If you’re stuck, if you can’t hack it today, couldn’t hack it yesterday, and tomorrow ain’t looking too good, do yourself a favor—or, hey, if you won’t do it for you, do it for me: write a Spider-Man adventure. Write a silly romance. Write fetish porn that feels totally out of character.

Maybe you’ve written yourself into a hole. Maybe you can write yourself out.

Try writing your way out in a way that’s different than how you wrote yourself in.

And if your leap isn't as far as the leap from Infinite Jest to Spider-Man, push harder.

Stick around with us. 

Get Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different by Chuck Palahniuk at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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