Reading The Pale King: What the Death of an Author Reveals about the Death of the Author


Photograph by Brandi Korte

by Jarrod Dunham

“Writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin”,[1] Roland Barthes wrote in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”. Barthes, an author himself, was of course not speaking literally. And yet, the literal death of an author – the 2008 suicide of David Foster Wallace – will in the very near future raise certain difficult questions about the tenability of Barthes’ argument. “The Death of the Author” calls for an end to any question of what the author of a given text was trying to do or say. Barthes wanted to do away with the figure of the author and with him all his authority, bestowed by a long tradition of deferential literary criticism, to dictate exactly what a text is supposed to mean.

Barthes, of course, was not the first thinker to express such skepticism, nor does “The Death of the Author” represent either a culmination or amalgamation of the various anti-authorial arguments that preceded it. More than a century has passed since the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé argued that “the pure work of art implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet”.[2] T.S. Eliot echoed the sentiment a few decades later when he claimed that poetry should not strive to be personal, but rather that “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates”.[3] Poetry, Eliot argued, “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality”.[4] Eliot’s position became a cornerstone of New Criticism, a movement that found its most thorough articulation in W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s famous essay “The Intentional Fallacy”, which argued that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art”.[5] Much of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s position has since been abandoned, not least because of its implicit assumption that there exists one “correct” interpretation of any given text, but its unequivocal dismissal of any question of authorial intention remains widely influential. Indeed, few comments will provoke so much ire in a typical undergraduate literature course as a musing on what the author meant or intended.

But while anti-authorialism holds an esteemed position in critical theory, its tenets are by no means universally accepted, and even amongst sympathetic audiences they have proven remarkably difficult to implement. Michel Foucault highlighted some of the more obvious problems in an essay that reads like an answer to Barthes entitled “What is an Author?” Though it is often employed recklessly, Foucault contends that literary criticism’s traditional focus on authorship is neither an anachronism nor an accident of literary history. It serves specific functions depending on the context and nature of the discourse, not least among them “the fact that a number of texts were attached to a single name implies that relationships of homogeneity, filiation, reciprocal explanation, authentification or of common utilization were established among them”.[6] Put more plainly, those who read and enjoyed David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest can reasonably expect to likewise enjoy other books by the author named David Foster Wallace. Which turns out to be more problematic than it would seem, because Wallace’s most recent novel, The Pale King, seems at first blush to be less a coherent work than a painstakingly edited compilation of drafts, sketches and notes for an ambitious work that was left in a severe state of disorganization at the time of Wallace’s death.

Wallace apparently made some effort to organize his papers before his suicide, but his editor, Michael Pietsch, was nevertheless left with the unenviable task of sorting through a mess of “hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks and floppy disks [containing] printed chapters, sheaves of handwritten pages, notes and more”.[7] The final product to emerge from this chaos feels frustratingly incomplete: the reader is presented with a large cast of characters (including a fictionalized David Foster Wallace), most of whom end up working at a large IRS Regional Exam Center in the Everyman town of Peoria, Illinois. Themes of tedium and boredom are rife; Wallace’s interest in addiction, depression and deviance is evident; there is some suggestion of a plot involving a power struggle within the upper echelons of the Exam Center, but it never really gets off the ground floor. The book ends with only minimal development on the themes it introduces and virtually no intersection of the various threads of its plot. One is left suspecting that the book is even less complete than advertised, and then finds confirmation of that fact in a section of Wallace’s “Notes and Asides” that Pietsch, with a brief explanation, appended to the end of the book. There we learn that the novel’s “big Q[uestion] is whether IRS is to be essentially a corporate entity or a moral one”. Unfortunately, that theme is barely suggested in the text. We learn that the character named David Foster Wallace is meant to disappear “100 pp in”, a fascinating development given the author’s untimely death, but one that Wallace did not even begin to bring to fruition.

So it is perhaps neither an irony nor a coincidence that the death of this author should occasion a discussion on the Death of the Author. Wallace was an exceptional one, possessed of a unique voice, a formidable intellect, and an endearing playfulness that belied the deeply, profoundly serious nature of his concerns. That fans should rush to buy The Pale King, whatever its state of completion, is neither surprising nor troubling. But the response of academic scholars is rather more problematic. To accept as worthy of scholarly inquiry such an incomplete work implies an acceptance of the precepts of anti-authorialism: that it is the text, and not the designs or intentions of the author, that matter. On the other hand, the acceptance of this work for scholarly inquiry seems to rest precisely on the reputation of the author. It requires an understanding of Wallace’s interests and concerns that predates and is independent of the work in question. Perhaps most importantly, it risks making the very dubious assumption that the critic is capable of predicting what the work might have looked like, had Wallace lived to complete it.

But of course, having dismissed questions of authorial intention, it becomes rather difficult to approach any unfinished, posthumously published pieces. The classic example may be Kafka, who famously instructed his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to burn all his unfinished manuscripts upon his death. Brod disregarded Kafka’s wishes, and as a result the world received the great unfinished works The Trial and The Castle, and Kafka’s reputation as a major literary figure was thereby firmly established. But in contrast to The Pale King, Kafka’s unfinished works were merely unfinished: his writing proceeded in an orderly fashion such that, barring any revisions that he might ultimately have made, his novels lacked nothing but an ending.

Wallace’s final work lacks much more than an ending. Had that been its only handicap, few readers would have noticed. Both of his previous novels, The Broom of the System (1989) and Infinite Jest (1996), end abruptly in the middle of seemingly climactic scenes. But The Pale King is unfinished from the get-go. That fact alone, of course, needn’t be a problem. Scholars of Wallace, of both the literary and biographical variety, can persuasively argue that his unfinished manuscripts, along with his notes, discarded drafts, and even his various correspondences, may be of interest in understanding him and his work as the subject of scholarship, and indeed as Foucault raises in “What is an Author?”, the very cogent question of what, exactly, constitutes a “work”.

But even granting the most liberal conceivable answer to Foucault’s question, it must objected that The Pale King, being the product of Pietsch’s organization and editing no less than Wallace’s writing, cannot be considered a single constitutive “work” of Wallace’s, but at best as a collection of a number of more-or-less related “works” – which, interestingly, are designated as “sections” rather than “chapters” in the book. A scholar who approached The Pale King from such a perspective would have a wealth of material to work with: fifty “works” ranging in length from a paragraph or two to in excess of 100 pages. But he or she would be left with the frustrating question of just how much of this material is relevant, how much of it possessed of the kind of depth and latitude of meaning that makes literary analysis a fruitful and insightful endeavor?

David Foster Wallace

Alternatively, the scholar may take the author-be-damned approach and examine The Pale King in its totality, understanding it, if any such understanding is necessary at all, as a text to be attributed to Wallace and Pietsch together, though Pietsch is not formally credited for his work on the novel and his name only appears in the salutary line of the “Editor’s Note” at the beginning of the book. But while such an approach apparently avoids any of the pitfalls of the intentional fallacy, it would still have as the subject of its analysis a frustratingly fragmented and incomplete work which, did it not bear the name of the author of Infinite Jest on its cover, it is difficult to imagine would receive any scholarly attention whatsoever.

The scholar thus faces a conundrum: stick to the guns of anti-authorialism and accept the limitations of the text, or admit that Wallace’s intentions may be discernable up to a point and engage in criticism that rests precariously on presumptions and hypotheticals. Unless, that is, a radical “third way” may be taken. The scholar may, for instance, read the “Notes and Asides” as not merely a slapdash appendage, included by Pietsch to contextualize the incomplete sections and illustrate Wallace’s unrealized intent, but as, in fact, integral to the text, as much a “part” of the novel as the fifty numbered sections that precede it. Why not, for that matter, include Pietsch’s explanation of the section as well, insofar as it may impact the character and meaning of the text by virtue of its inclusion? Such an approach would be unconventional, but a work structured in such fashion would not be entirely unprecedented. Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962) – a work, let us note in passing, that conspicuously shares an adjective in common with the novel in question – is comprised of two parts, the first of which is a long poem by a fictitious poet, and the second a series of inept annotations of that work by a bumbling and likewise fictitious would-be scholar. More pertinent to the present discussion, Eliot’s The Waste Land contains 434 notes appended by the poet himself, many of which claim to serve an annotational purpose but which Wimsatt and Beardsley, among others, persuasively argue should be construed, not as a separate or supplemental appendage, but as part of the poem itself.

What happens to The Pale King, then, when the “Notes and Asides” are taken as integral to the text? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Ideas that are underdeveloped in the traditional body of text become more fully realized when complemented by the notations. A plot that was only hinted at emerges, clear in its form and implications. Episodes that had seemed ambiguous can be reread under new light. Characters whose roles seemed vague and unimportant suddenly turn out to be essential, their previously unknown facets brought into sharp relief. It were as if Stoppard’s behind-the-scenes portrayal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern really were integral to Shakespeare’s text. And lest one doubt the aptness of the analogy, let us not fail to note that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in fact name-checked in The Pale King – in the “Notes and Asides.” The abiding effect is the sense that The Pale King is “complete”, albeit in a non-traditional and unexpected way. It is, much like The Waste Land, a work in two parts: the first consisting of a relatively traditional narrative, and a second, coequal section masquerading as appended annotations.

The Pale King will undoubtedly garner considerable critical attention. It has already been the subject of a conference held at the University of Antwerp in September 2011. But the process of publication in scholarly journals being what it is – slow, namely – the first batch of peer-reviewed articles dealing with The Pale King have yet to appear. It is yet to be seen, then, how scholars will approach the problem of intentionality and authorship in this work that poses particularly difficult problems on both counts. Will scholars succeed in discussing The Pale King without dwelling on Wallace’s presumed intentions, or will discourse about the novel turn out to be a mere extension of existing discourse about Wallace’s biographical details and the rest of his oeuvre? Will The Pale King be interpreted as a unified text of ambiguous authorship, or a collection of fragments to be attributed to a single name? Undoubtedly the “Notes and Asides” will be relied upon in myriad ways, though as text or supplement, it remains to be seen. Lurking beneath these questions is a larger question that touches at the heart of critical theory and its internal theoretical consistency: can the trap of intentionality truly be avoided, or is the offense implicitly and inevitably committed in the very moment that the critic identifies this or that piece of writing as a text worthy of his attention, at the very moment he chooses to write about The Pale King or The Waste Land with preexisting knowledge of the author in hand? Rarely does radicalism come to the defense of the status quo, but if scholars of The Pale King succeed in maintaining the theoretical consistency of their discipline, it will be because they have approached their subject from a radical position indeed.


[1] Barthes R (1967) The Death of the Author. In: Image, Music, Text (Trans. Stephen Heath, 1977). New York: Hill and Wang. 142-148.

[2] Mallarme S (1896) Crise de vers. Trans. R Lloyd (1999). In: The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, 2nd Edition (Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, 2010). New York: WW Norton & Company. 734-740.

[3] Eliot TS (1919) Tradition and the Individual Talent. In: The Waste Land and Other Writings. New York: The Modern Library, 99-108.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Beardsley MC and Wimsatt WK (1946) The Intentional Fallacy. The Sewanee Review (54:3): 468-488.

[6] Foucault M (1966) What Is an Author? In: Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, 1977). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 113-138.

[7] Pietsch M (2011) Editor’s Note. In: Wallace DF The Pale King. New York: Back Bay Books. ix-xiv.

About the Author:

Jarrod Dunham is pursuing graduate degrees in literature and publishing at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. His studies focus on the development and dissemination of literary avant-gardes. He previously authored the paper “The Fanonian Dialectic: Masters and Slaves” in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born“.