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Replacing David Foster Wallace: Pomona College’s “Lit Prof Idol”

Earlier in March, word of the literary archives of the late David Foster Wallace landing at the Harry Ransom Center at UT-Austin caused considerable fanfare, for understandable reasons. Now fans and scholars — not to mention biographers — would have a chance to delve inside the working mind of the author of Infinite Jest (who committed suicide at the age of 46 in 2008) and pore over notes, an eclectic book collection, letters to and from noted literary colleagues like Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, and course syllabi for the many classes Wallace taught over a decade and a half, most recently as a tenured (and highly-regarded) professor of English Literature at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Since his death, Wallace’s position at the college has been left vacant. But this spring, after a quiet campaign taking place over the course of several months, Pomona College will choose among three candidates — Jonathan Lethem, Chris Abani, and Edie Meidav — to succeed Wallace in the Roy E. Disney Professorship for Creative Writing.

According to Pomona’s school newspaper The Student Life, which has covered the professorship search extensively, the college garnered 75 applications for the position after placing ads in publications such as the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement and reaching out to 36 writers deemed to be fitting candidates. From there the search committee interviewed seven candidates via video conferencing, and then whittled down the list to four finalists, each of whom would visit the campus to give a seminar and read from their most recent work.

Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize winner for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, had already visited Pomona in the fall of 2008, where students praised him for sharing “his compelling upbringing and potent wit.” The paper reported, however, that Diaz withdrew from consideration for personal reasons. (Attempts to reach Diaz were not responded to by press time.) That left Lethem (The Fortress of Solitude, Chronic City) and Meidav (Crawl Space), both of whom visited Pomona in mid-February, and Abani (Song for Night, GraceLand), who did the same on March 4-5, in the running.

Each candidate cited differing reasons for throwing his or her hat in the ring for the professorship. “As I watched myself teaching more and more often… I began to envy some of the people who had that security and health insurance and sense of community and the sense of being situated,” Lethem told the student newspaper in mid-February. “Those are not small things for a writer to think about, because it’s a very exciting, but a very unsteady career… You do sometimes pine for a little more of a sense of continuity and placement.” Meidav, who currently teaches at Bard College in upstate New York, cited Pomona’s reputation and missing her home state for her interest, while Abani, a professor in USC’s Creative Writing program, referenced being “blown away” by his earlier experiences teaching at the college in 2005. “The classroom is an exchange,” Abani told The Student Life on March 4. “The professor is learning as much from the students as the students are learning from the professor.”

Student participation played a key role throughout the search process, according to Kevin Dettmar, chair of the English Department. “We had two students (a sophomore and a senior) with experience in creative writing workshops on the search committee; they participated in screening applications and in interviews,” Dettmar said in an email message. “Each visiting writer conducted a demonstration workshop with 12-15 students, including the search committee members. And finally, when faculty met to begin discussing and ranking the candidates, that discussion was begun by presentations by the student reps on the feedback they’d received from other students. Our student search committee members didn’t have a vote in the process, but their input has been taken very seriously.”

Replacing Wallace, of course, is no easy task. When he took on the professorship in 2002 — after being at the top of the college’s wish list — many wondered if a writer of his stature could continue to work at the same high level while having additional teaching and administrative responsibilities. But by all accounts Wallace excelled as a teacher, and the April 2011 publication of his unfinished novel, The Pale King, will allow for ultimate judgment on how he juggled working on his most ambitious project post-Jest.

At first blush the edge would seem to favor Lethem, since he has the greatest name recognition. Unlike Meidav and Abani, however, Lethem lacks an MFA and isn’t affiliated with a specific university, though he has taught at Columbia and NYU as a visiting professor in the past two years (fun fact: James Franco’s recommendation of Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste came about because the Oscar-nominated actor was assigned to read the book for Lethem’s workshop.)

The decision won’t be sudden — Dettmar said that the prevailing candidate will have a few weeks at least to weigh their options, and is subject to the approval of Pomona’s Board of Trustees — but will finally go at least some way in moving out of David Foster Wallace’s giant shadow.

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