Michael Pietsch: Editing Infinite Jest

07.03.09 | 20 Comments

Michael Pietsch is Executive Vice President and Publisher of Little, Brown and Company, and was David Foster Wallace’s editor. He adapted the following from “Editing Wallace,” a Q&A with Rick Moody, published in Sonora Review 55, May 2009.

In April 1992 I received on submission from David Wallace’s agent, Bonnie Nadell, around 150 pages of Infinite Jest, the opening section. They were wild, smart, funny, sad, and unlike any pages of manuscript I'd ever held in my hands. The range of voices and settings sent me reeling. The transvestite breakdown on the subway, the kid in the doctor's office. The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. The Lung. Young Hal with his little brass one-hitter. Gately, Troelsch, Schacht. The names! Erdedy, Wardine, Madame Psychosis. I’d read chapters from it published as short stories in magazines and here at last was the gigantic construct that linked those wildly disparate pieces. What I remember is that David knew his book was going to be very, very long, and he was looking for someone whose editorial suggestions he thought he might listen to. I was lucky enough to be working at Little, Brown, a company that was willing to support this kind of endeavor. We signed a contract and waited.

When he was around two-thirds through the novel David sent me a giant stack of pages and asked for my thoughts. I protested that without the whole story it would be impossible to know what ultimately mattered. But I tried to give him an accounting of when I found it intolerably confusing or slow or just too hard to make sense of. I banged my head hardest against the Marathe/Steeply political colloquies and the Orin Incandenza football stories and David revised those strands considerably.

We’d agreed early on that my role was to subject every section of the book to the brutal question: Can the book possibly live without this? Knowing how much time Infinite Jest would demand of readers, and how easy it would be to put it down or never pick it up simply because of its size, David agreed that many passages could come out, no matter how beautiful, funny, brilliant or fascinating they were of themselves, simply because the novel did not absolutely require them.

Every decision was David's. I made suggestions and recommendations and tried to make the reasons for them as clear as possible. But every change was his. It is a common misconception that the writer turns the manuscript over to the editor, who then revises, shapes, and cuts at will. In fact the editor’s job is to earn the writer’s agreement that changes he or she suggests are worth making. David accepted many cuts—around 250 manuscript pages is what I recall. But he resisted others, for reasons that he usually explained.

Here are a few of those responses and explanations. They give a sense of how engaged David was in this process and of how much fun it was to work with him.

p. 52—This is one of my personal favorite Swiftian lines in the whole manuscript, which I will cut, you rotter.

p. 82—I cut this and have now come back an hour later and put it back.

p. 133—Poor old FN 33 about the grammar exam is cut. I’ll also erase it from the back-up disc so I can’t come back in an hour and put it back in (an enduring hazard, I’m finding.)

pp. 327-330. Michael, have mercy. Pending an almost Horacianly persuasive rationale on your part, my canines are bared on this one.

Ppp. 739-748. I’ve rewritten it—for about the 11th time—for clarity, but I bare teeth all the way back to the 2nd molar on cutting it.

P. 785ff—I can give you 5000 words of theoretico-structural arguments for this, but let’s spare one another, shall we?

I keep trying to imagine encountering David’s books separate from the tall, athletic, casual, brilliant, concerned, funny man I knew—the way we encounter most writing, bodies of work whose creators we never meet, complete years before we encounter them. It is one of the great miracles of life, our ability to apprehend a human spirit through the sequences of words they leave behind. And I have to say that the David we encounter through Infinite Jest is pretty amazingly like the David I knew. When for a moment I manage to imagine myself as a reader opening up a copy of Infinite Jest for the first time, the way I opened V or Soldier’s Pay or Suttree or A Handful of Dust or The Canterbury Tales, I think Yeah. Wow. Yeah.