NEW YORK - David Foster Wallace is widely recognized as one of the most original American authors of his generation with the sweeping encyclopedic novel, Infinite Jest published in 1996 now widely recognized as one of the great fiction works of the late 20th century. Material by literary figures as recent as Foster Wallace rarely appears at auction, yet in 2013 an archive of letters he wrote to his writing professor Richard Elman sold for nearly ten times the auction estimate at Sotheby’s New York.Today, The End of the Tour, a movie based on a series of interviews Foster Wallace gave to Rolling Stone magazine during the promotional tour for Infinite Jest, was released to acclaim. The film stars Jason Segel as Wallace, who died tragically in 2008 at age 46. We spoke with Richard Austin, Head of Sotheby’s Books Department in New York, for his take on the legendary author.


Richard, you’ve worked with books spanning hundreds of years, from the greatest literary figures. Where does David Foster Wallace fit into that canon?

Foster Wallace is really nothing short of a phenomenon. For an author of recent vintage to have established such a firm place in our cultural history, with enormous critical and commercial success, a major biography, papers in one of the great American research libraries, and now this movie, is really unique.

So what is it about him that makes him unique?

He speaks to a millennial generation. As an intern at the University of Texas told the curator when they were thinking of acquiring the Foster Wallace archive a few yeas ago, “you have to do this, he’s our James Joyce.”


What is it about his writing that captures the imagination of that generation in particular?

Like many of the great authors, Foster Wallace deals with vast sweeping subjects – Infinite Jest is nothing less than an encyclopedic overview of the human experience – but he does so in a way that this new generation, as well as those of us who have been around longer, can relate to. The old boundaries between memoir, confessional, fiction, reporting and so much more, just aren’t there in his writing, the footnotes in and of themselves become this wonderful rabbit-warren. The glory of Foster Wallace is that you think you’re reading about, say, tennis, but in fact he’s taking you on a journey that’s far bigger than that.  

Sotheby’s sold its first David Foster Wallace material in 2013 when a group of letters estimated at $10,000–15,000 sold for $125,000, why was that?

We had this wave of interest from people that had never stepped foot in Sotheby’s before but who had this fascination with him. They competed against a couple of our biggest clients and the bids just kept going up. That price is virtually unheard of for an author of such recent vintage.

Shouldn’t a price like that bring out a wave of other lots?

I would love to offer more Foster Wallace material and we know he was a highly prolific correspondent, but although I speak to people fairly frequently that have letters from him, the content is so personal and intimate that they are highly reluctant to sell them. Foster Wallace didn’t have boundaries like the rest of us, which I think is what makes him such a fascinating figure.