What kind of a contract is the Foreword?

When the Dave Wallace narrator of Chapter 9 addresses the expectations readers have when reading a nonfiction work, he says the following:”as everyone knows, whether consciously or not, there’s always a kind of unspoken contract between a book’s author and its reader; and the terms of this contract always depend on certain codes and gestures that the author deploys in order to signal the reader what kind of book it is, i.e. whether it’s made up vs. true. And these codes are important, because the subliminal contract for nonfiction is very different from the one for fiction.”

The idea that a book’s ability to connect with the reader is dependent on a certain contract has implications that go beyond the fiction/nonfiction issue (although that is definitely important for this book). It usually goes unsaid that when a book is read an exchange occurs between the writer and the reader, though they do not encounter one another–there’s time spent on both sides, effort expended, and presumably attention paid by the author to the potential reader, and by the reader to the intention of the author. Foreward Dave describes “our mutual contract here” as one which depends on our “understanding that any features” which might undermine the book’s “veracity are in fact protective legal devices, not unlike the boilerplate that accompanies sweepstakes and civil contracts, and thus are not meant to be decoded or ‘read’ so much as merely acquiesced to as part of the cost of our doing business together, so to speak, in today’s commercial climate.” This calls for an examination of what we have agreed to and why when we decide to spend time with this book, and what kind of “commercial climate” is calling for the “business” of book-reading to be undertaken in this way.

I think that the fact that this book is asking the reader to, in a sense, agree to a certain set of conditions (but then making these conditions themselves pretty confusing) undermines the statement that “the subliminal contract for nonfiction is very different from the one for fiction”. The chapters we’ve read demonstrate that a writer can use nonfictional-seeming elements (his real name and address, the footnotes) to convey total fictions about Illinois’s tax history and fictional-seeming elements (such as, potentially, the story about Chris) to convey things that may have been true about his own experience. During the life-changing speech in chapter 22, Chris reflects that he “became aware for the first time that ‘authority’ was actually something real and authentic…and that the authority relation was not a ‘democratic’ or equal one and yet could have value for both sides, both people in the relation” (227 in my book). I think that this description, meant to describe the impact of the substitute Jesuit, can also be applied to the type of contract we have agreed to in reading the Pale King — we are not sure whether we are reading the real-world truth, but there is something about the experience of reading that will be valuable to us if we take the narrator to be an authority of some sort.

I also think that this issue of connectedness necessitating some sort of spoken or unspoken agreement is very present in Chapter 22. In the Foreword, the contract enables a connection between the writer (narrator?) and the readers, but in this chapter, we see: the “social contract, where the obligation to pay one’s fair share of taxes comes in”, Chris’s suggestion that his dad’s “primal, prehistoric fears that you would somehow miss getting to eat your fair share of the tribe’s kill” kicked in before his death, the litigation following his death, and the suggestion that the “Service” (whether military or Internal Revenue) might be the way of maintaining one’s obligations to the country (both of these types of service are also described as “voluntary”, which brings up the issue of what it means to be free within a contract).

All these examples make me wonder: is it only because we live in such a “commercial climate” that the word “contract” is evoked to describe our connection to the author of a literary work? Or is there something to the idea that there is a real relationship between contracts and connectedness? What are our obligations while reading the Pale King, and how does the fact that the book plays with fiction shape them?



7 thoughts on “What kind of a contract is the Foreword?

  1. I think our obligation with The Pale King is to take everything with a grain of salt. The quote you mentioned–“legal devices…are not meant to be decoded or ‘read’ so much as merely acquiesced to as part of the cost of our doing business together”–also applies to the book. The contract that he’s asking you to abide by is again a sort of self-referential irony, in that by coming forward and presenting “truths” and asserting himself as a nonfiction writer when most of his details are fabrications, he really wants the reader to examine the work closely, as one should with boilerplate agreements in contracts. He wants you to know you are being duped, in a way, which adds to the commentary he makes on boredom. Will you be able to keep from being bored enough longer to sort out the fact from fiction, or will you eventually glaze over and believe him?

  2. I was struck by some of the same questions. The passage that reads: “That’s why I’m making a point to violate protocol and address you here directly, as my real self; that’s why all the specifying data about me as a real person got laid out at the start of this Foreword. So that I could inform you of the truth: The only bona fide ‘fiction’ here is the copyright page’s disclaimer—which, again, is a legal device… the disclaimer is, when you come right down to it, a lie” (69-71), for instance, almost seems like a way to pull you deeper into the story. It actually reminded me of the marketing for the Blair Witch Project, a way of making you wonder what’s really true– but maybe this is itself a way of addressing whether or not it is strict truth that matters. Does knowing that the Social Security number he uses to identify himself is not accurate change the way we read this?

    Thus when we get to the part about conditions that we must accept so that we can enjoy the story, ought we to take it all as fiction, or imagine that some of it is true? If there are certain codes or signals that imply a work is fictional, it doesn’t seem that they are being used here, so if we accept that such codes exist, they might suggest that this section is truthful. Further, is accepting these conditions a microcosm of accepting the laws of a country to enjoy its security or benefits, so that this book uses such ideas as a metaphor for the importance of the IRS?

    • I’m inclined to think that this: “this is itself a way of addressing whether or not it is strict truth that matters” is probably close to the right way to think about this sort of question, particularly given our discussion of authorship in class on Tuesday. If the author and the author’s intentions are irrelevant to interpreting the work (which it seems like Wallace largely believes, though that seems itself irrelevant) then how much of a jump is it to the “veracity” of events? Clearly, there are certain genres where factual accuracy are important (histories that place their whole importance on the facts, for example), but even in these genres, the narrative communicates other things. Take The Blair Witch Project, other “found footage” horror films, or even the boilerplate “based on a true story” disclaimer that comes up in all sorts of movies. Is the actual truth of any of these events important? (It doesn’t seem like it, since we know that there aren’t any witches.)
      Instead, the audience believing or “believing” the truth of the narrative is important to the way the text is received. Wallace’s Foreword doesn’t just present you with a titty-pincher or whatever, it also forces you to ask a ton of questions about the veracity of events while also providing just enough details that you let your guard down a bit. If that makes you more receptive to the rest of the novel (and, in the case of the Foreword, Wallace’s possible point regarding dullness) then it seems like fake veracity is successful/has done its job. Maybe the point of the “contract” is that readers understand a certain amount of this fudging is going on in the pursuit of some deeper “truth,” as long as they don’t feel like they’re being jerked around.
      As an aside, there’s a funny relationship between this sort of narrative “truth” and the way Wallace characterizes truth throughout the novel. We get a dismal view of interpretive, English-y truth in Irrelevant Fogle’s monologue, but we also get a sense that the interpretive act itself (in terms of contextualizing and organizing data) is the primary source of meaning for Fogle, considering his epiphany in the Advanced Accounting class.

  3. This isn’t a direct response to any of the questions you pose toward the end, but I do want to talk about this: “we are not sure whether we are reading the real-world truth, but there is something about the experience of reading that will be valuable to us if we take the narrator to be an authority of some sort.”

    While reading chapter 9, every time Forward Dave mentioned this kind of contract or tried to assure the readers that the story is a non-fiction memoir, I was reminded of John Green’s disclaimer from ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – “Neither novels or their readers benefit from any attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.”

    So, what do we gain/lose from non-fictionalizing works of fiction (as Wallace attempts in the forward)? And what do we gain or lose from fictionalizing non-fiction (as John Green did with TFiOS)? In other words, what kinds of truth (or Truth) do we access when we read works of fiction, and can those truths fully be accessed through non-fiction? I’d definitely love to discuss this in more general terms.

  4. Here there is an important connection to the Jameson text. Jameson claims that due to the depthless nature of Postmodern culture “the existential model of authenticity and inauthenticity” has been repudiated (12). Moreover, this depthlessness is a result of what he calls “the fragmentation of the subject” (14). Without a clearly delineated subject, he claims, the concept of inauthenticity becomes incongruous, illogical.

    In the Forward, DFW aggressively asserts the existence of a fully formed, easily understandable subject -> himself. And even though he is often being inauthentic, he also aggressively asserts his own authenticity.

    Yet, inauthenticity complicates things, and the strange entity that is concocted in chapter 9 isn’t quite DFW and isn’t quite not… hence the name, Forward Dave. This leads to the question: does the existence of a subject, of an ego, require authenticity? DFW seems to playing with this idea when he brings non-fiction into the midst. To establish himself as the non-dead author of the text, he claims memoir. Of course he is simultaneously tossing falsities at the reader, and so, purposefully destroys his own credibility.

    The purpose of this post is not to, in a few paragraphs, grasp and articulate DFW’s intricate relationship with postmodernism, but it is a convoluted attempt to answer Taylor’s question. By trying to non-fictionalize his work, by making authenticity a relevant and important issue to his novel, by asserting his existence as a subject, I believe DFW is attempting to have the reader scour his novel for Truth (not truth). Whether it is there or not is something I’m not sure about.

    • Completely agree with you here. I would like to add the point that cropped in my mini-argument with Colin (I think) that day in class. That while DFW is non-fictionalizing his work, at the same time, he is also fictionalizing it, by opening his ‘inauthenticty’ about the wrong information he provides (Pia gave a whole lot of those instances in the class) to any reader who would care to doubt him (and as a consequence, this whole aggressive marketing of the authenticity).

  5. I’m sorry that I am so bad at blogs! Thank you for engaging with my questions. I don’t mean to change the subject entirely, but I just started reading The Known World, and I think that maybe there will be similar issues coming up with this book. The moment where the author invokes a historian who wrote a book about the Manchester County’s history. It seems like there is something ironic about this mention — it seems to be a criticism of historical scholarship, articulated using a fictional historian who focuses on “quirky” stories like two-headed chickens, while the rest of this fictional book is dealing with characters who face things that humans did historically face.
    I don’t think if I have answers to Taylor’s questions about the upshot of “nonfictionalizing fiction” in the case of DFW, but they definitely seem to apply here also — the technique here seems pretty similar, but the tones and the messages (if I understand them) are very different. Is that just because of the difference in the seriousness of the surface level subject matter — slavery vs accounting? Or because one is about how we engage with arts (like reading fiction, in theory, at least, for pleasure) and the other’s about how we engage with politics and history via academic and non-academic literature? Is this technique effective in one or the other case, and why or why not?

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