November 29th, 2011 / 2:44 am
Behind the Scenes

Privacy, Personal Papers, Pricks, Rumps


Do we have the right to read, discuss and analyze the personal papers of famous writers, often who have died? I think about this a lot because I am as curious (nosy) as I am uncomfortable with the idea of intellectually traipsing through a writer’s personal papers. In Slate last week, Katie Roiphe wrote about David Foster Wallace’s syllabus. Her article wasn’t particularly noteworthy but I was reminded of how often writers write about DFW and, increasingly, draw from his personal papers. Who knows how many hundreds, if not thousands of articles have been written about the man, the writer, and the scholar, each one trying to offer some kind of new insight into the man and his work. Certainly, there’s a lot to be learned from most things related to DFW including his syllabi. He had a unique, at times incisive approach to communicating to his students the material that would be covered in his courses as well as his general expectations of students in his classes. At the same time, as a teacher, I shudder to imagine anyone reading too much into my syllabi because I know how the sausage gets made.

Syllabi are not private documents but they are not exactly public documents either. Teachers create syllabi to give students a sense of a course’s material and to outline formal policies, often mandated by the university (disability services, sexual harassment, plagiarism, grading, attendance, etc.). The audience for a syllabus is limited and focused as is the amount of information a syllabus can realistically communicate. Studying a syllabus for deep and significant meaning often involves studying a document a teacher created the weekend before a new semester starts. This is not to say teachers are careless about their syllabi or that DFW was anything but meticulous in drafting his own syllabi, but like most people, teachers are as prone to procrastination as anyone else. Sometimes a syllabus is just… a syllabus.

The DFW archives at the University of Texas include books from DFW’s library and the marginalia within. I now know that on Page 54 of Carrie, he wrote, “VICTIM,” and “Closet as symbol,” and underlined a passage toward the bottom of the page.  He wrote with a red marker, a felt tip pen I think. This doesn’t really mean anything to me but it is satisfying to that curious (nosy) part of me to see how a famous writer read and made notes. If you visit the Ransom Center in person, you can access a much greater selection  of DFW’s personal papers and a selection of books from his personal library. Certainly, his estate authorized the sale of DFW’s papers but I still think about how these artifacts, the marginalia in these books were not necessarily created for an audience beyond the writer himself and how the syllabi weren’t created for an audience beyond his students. I wonder what it must mean to be so culturally significant that people care enough to obsess over the ephemera from your life. I wonder if it’s right to write about the private papers and private thoughts of famous dead writers. We know all about what James Joyce had to say to Nora when they exchanged “filthy” letters (” My prick was stuck in you for hours, fucking in and out under your upturned rump,” and so on).  It’s dirtily delightful to know these intimacies but we are only privy to them because they were written by Joyce. His fame supersedes his right to privacy, Nora’s right to privacy. That is the cost of fame, even if the height of that fame comes posthumously.

Most writers would probably think twice if they thought their personal papers would someday be revealed to the world.

Why are we so insatiably curious about the personal papers of famous writers? DFW is but one of many writers whose personal papers are now part of an important library collection. Is the value of perserving such collections more important than the value of a writer’s privacy? Somewhere, there exists a random note written on a napkin by a writer who is not yet famous but someday will be. Even farther into the future, someone will study that napkin in a fancy library and assign all kinds of meaning to it. That is fascinating and terrifying and a little absurd.


  1. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      I know I am interested in personal drafts of published writing I liked because I want to see how much of the initial work was left intact prior to publishing. That is, I want to see how much of what I read and loved was drafted in that raw moment of conception, because, Idunno, the purist in me believes that the first drips of ink that drop onto the paper are the most honest.

      I’m also interested in drafts from a competitor’s perspective. I want to know if the writers I love needed to work harder at their craft than I do, and if they did, it helps remind me they were just dudes and ladies doing the same thing I am, and that anyone can really make it with hard work, blah blah. In the same vein letters are fun to read because they are more likely to have spelling/grammatical errors. I believe in not forgetting that everyone bleeds, no matter their level of talent or fame.

      As for privacy, I mean, I think writers are supposed to be the strongest supporters of the truth, so for them to hide any personal writing for the sake of preserving a legacy, to me, sounds contradictory to the point of being a writer. I guess if you’re alive and you just don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings that’s fine. But I mean, when you’re dead, fair game, let the vultures pick at your stupid dead carcass.

  2. Katie Smither

      Well the DFW collection has already changed because of issues of privacy, if we remember back to this article : : written a few months ago.  Part of the collection that was public is now private again.  It’s a fascinating and delicate situation to witness as this collection becomes more public and more researched.

  3. gene

      all that lurking feels pretty weird to me, but i can understand on some level why it interests people. if anything, i don’t mind looking at early drafts of later published works, but the personal letters and marginalia in books and all that only add to the mythologizing of the author. take it a step further and you’ve got the cottage industry of sanctifying and preserving writers’ homes. i do think this immersion act of seeing every angle of a writer’s influence, from the literary to mundane, is largely driven by english lit programs that force students and professors to find new angles on long dormant/dead horse beaten texts. i dunno. or maybe we all just like getting a peek behind the curtain.

      for me, i don’t care about barry hannah’s chair or receipts because we’ve all got ray. 

      what’s really going to be weird is the signing over of e-mails to libraries, which some “big-name” authors have already been doing. how much control do they have over which e-mails get sifted through? and a librarian friend told me the library of congress is documenting every single tweet (unless private, i assume) ever tweeted because it looks at tweets as a viable source of documentation. i’m not saying they aren’t, but it’ll be funny to see future text scourers trying to parse say, this tweet from blake: “slipped into my hoodie backwards w/ the hood hiding my whole face &
      realized this may have been the originally intended usage for humans.” it’s like we’re playing a joke on the future.

  4. Trey

      when the person in question is dead, I think their notes are fair game. I’m not too worried about their living intentions, if the stuff is available and I want to read it then I will

      also, if assigning meaning to that napkin is absurd then I think people will recognize that it’s absurd. at least there’s the opportunity for people to think, “hey, this came from some guy’s dashed off note on a napkin when he was 20, it’s probably not as big of a deal as this article author wants me to believe.”

      or whatever

  5. Leapsloth14

      What personal papers? Won’t many writers legacies now be electronic, bits and bytes in the mist? Are we going to have an e database to their emails and Word drafts?

  6. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I’ve fantasized for years about people cataloguing my things and writing articles analyzing them after I die. Or like I used to think about what I wanted to have inside my wallet when I left the house every morning in case the cops found me as a corpse.

  7. Ashley


  8. Bobby Dixon

      DFW still wrote primarily by hand, not like many of his “peers” and younger writers. So there’s lots of scribbles to catalog. There were also at least two hard drives found after his death, but I haven’t checked the manifest to see if the Ransom center in Austin has them. 

      In the future, since most of our info is in bytes in the ether, a big issue would be whether we maintain this info as totally private, personally private, as open to the public or w/ proprietary access. It may very well be that — just throwing it out there — Tao Lin would offer proprietary access to his gchats, Google emails or Google docs drafts. 

  9. jeff noh

      It’s a real tragedy that all of DFW has been flattened into “E Unibus Pluram”, “This is Water”, and the stuff at the Ransom Center for people to dig through to prepare for the next article on DFW.

  10. lorian long

      can someone please stop katie roiphe from writing anything ever again?

  11. Roxane

      That would be such a public service. 

  12. Roxane

      I’ve never thought of our current electronic nonsense as playing a joke on the future but that really does fit so nicely. 

      The lurking feels weird to me–compelling but weird and the significance that is often heaped on this kind of marginalia is so strange. Are we that hungry for modern myths?

  13. Roxane

      I did not know that. Very interesting and yes, a rather delicate situation. 

  14. Jason Jimenez

      Seriously. I mean I don’t see what the big deal is with DFW’s syllabi. Seems like he was just having fun with a typically rote part of teaching. Even when I was teaching HS I played with it (and I’m obviously no DFW). If DFW’s syllabi are evidence of anything, they simply show he cared enough to ‘talk’ to his students. Which is, ya know, something all teachers should do. 

  15. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Why ew? Was it the carcass thing?

  16. lorian long

      yeah, but i also think it’s pretty damn sweet how he threatened to kick yr ass if you rolled your eyes or made fun of anyone’s comments in class.

  17. Jenny

      he was a good dude

  18. c2k

      Syllabi are not private documents but they are not exactly public documents either.

      Syllabi are also copyrighted material. Who owns the copyright depends on the university/college at which an instructor works.

  19. Lachlan

      The notion of privacy in the case of deceased authors is a really fraught one. There are so many cases where papers have been specified by the author to be destroyed after death, only for them to be preserved and later accorded huge literary significance (think Kafka’s drafts and Patrick White’s letters). It’s a hard call, but I tend to feel their value to the living trumps the wishes of the dead. Most of the time.

  20. Belle Jar