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How to Teach Literature With Commercial Books, David Foster Wallace Has Something to Say


The art behind the literary programs and syllabi is often devaluated. Foster Wallace made his an incredible one that re-categorises “light” literature.

David Foster Wallace has a gift to address people. Whether one loves or detests him (which is not rare), his way of reaching out is unique and persuasive, but above all it is concise –– simple. A good example is the speech he gave to the graduates of Ohio’s Kenyon College in 2005, which was a notably risky and lucid lecture that had a clear hint of cruelty –– and perhaps that is the note that makes him so vibrant and makes a long-lasting impression on our memory. He reminds us that we should not let life escape from our hands without having examined it first. And this is a form of freedom.

For many years, Wallace was a literature professor. In 1994 he prepared a type “dream program for his class” (much like Auden did), to teach fiction in the Illinois State University. Thanks to the University of Texas, who scanned some of the documents from his residence, we are able to read a copy of the syllabus he gave his “English 102-Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction” students, which reveals the pedagogic side of the wonderful literary beacon that he was.


For those of us who love literature, the copy sparks just the right amount of envy for the class of 94. After giving the ISU definition of what the class was about, Wallace translates it into his own words.

In less narcotizing words, English 102 aims to show you some ways to read fiction more deeply, to come up with more interesting insights on how pieces of fiction work, to have informed intelligent reasons for liking or disliking a piece of fiction, and to write—clearly, persuasively, and above all interestingly—about stuff you’ve read.

This “informality” in his approach proves to be the most persuasive resource. And his selection of texts is quite interesting, considering he has been criticised for being pretentious. Wallace prescribed “airport-shop readings” for his class, what he calls “popular or commercial fiction”, like Carrie by Stephen King, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris or The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. In order not to discourage his students with the syllabus, Wallace notes the following.

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.

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