While readers familiar with Wallace’s Kenyon speech will find that most of the content has maintained intact, This is Water does include a single, but very substantial, revision that has raised some criticism. Following Wallace’s point about the mind being a “good servant and a terrible master,” Wallace states in the original speech: “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.” In This is Water, the final sentence from the quote above was taken out. This line was, in fact, a go-to line for the authors of many of Wallace’s obituaries, who see in this moment an ominous foreshadowing of his eventual suicide. For Tom Bissell, the textual excision is understandable because “Any mention of self-annihilation in Wallace’s work…now has a blast radius that obscures everything around it.” Thus, Bissell suggest that the oft-cited line might distract readers from the core elements of the speech.
Reception of the posthumously-published edition of Wallace’s speech has been divided in ways that point to, on one hand, the lasting power of the content of his speech, but also a concern about its place and meaning of a society that has had to “commence” going on without him. While reviews of the content of the speech have been almost uniformly positive, there has been criticism of the format of This is Water. After all, one may ask, does the omission of the line “they shoot the terrible master” and the stretching out of Wallace’s prose into sentence units refigure and protect an image of Wallace as the “Wise old fish?” Zach Baron of the Village Voice points out that lines like “I am not the wise old fish,” take on the feeling of zen mantras, certainly gaining emphasis, but perhaps doing so in the wrong way. Ultimately, he cannot shake the feeling that the format goes against the principles of the speech: “The net effect is to imply an entirely different kind of wisdom–of the Tuesdays With Morrie variety–than whatever actual wisdom is contained therein. ” Fans of the book, on the other hand, including the most “liked” Amazon review of the text, argue that the book format finally gives the speech the “stature it deserves,” and argue that the knee-jerk resistance tot he speech is evidence of the kind of cynicism that Wallace speaks out against in the speech. These debates also inevitably intersect with the question of whether Wallace’s speech was mostly to be taken as a survival guide to life within modern capitalism or an affirmation of it.