I kept hearing his name, usually associated with the question, “Have you read…?” Have you read Reality Hunger? Have you read the new Salinger biography? Have you read How Literature Saved My Life? I believe the word is buzz.
By almost any standard, David Shields has been enjoying quite a ride. Since 2010, when Vintage Books published Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Shields has written or edited 5 books. Most recently, he co-authored Salinger with Shane Salerno. Shields also appeared in the PBS documentary produced and directed by Salerno.
On occasion, Shields has been pilloried by the controversy surrounding Reality Hunger, a book comprised mainly of appropriated and loosely attributed quotes by various writers and artists. He is unabashedly proud of the book, calling it one of his most personal and passionate. After exchanging a series of emails and speaking with him on the phone, what becomes readily apparent is that Shields cares intensely about reading and writing. His books are an extension of his deep abiding search for meaning, an exploration he calls a ‘radical epistemology.’
Shields’ writing pushes boundaries, often enflaming critics and detractors. At the same time, his style continues an ongoing conversation with literature that is certainly not new. Our interview ranges from Stanley Kubrick to Walter Benjamin, from Virginia Woolf to J.M. Coetzee, from V.S. Naipaul to David Foster Wallace. Shields is a prolific writer, a thoughtful and deep reader, and an artist not afraid to transcend boundaries.
RF: Anne Carson writes, “I’ll do anything to avoid boredom.” There’s a similarity of intent between Carson’s work and your work. And what’s interesting is that you both do a lot of the heavy lifting for you readers, so that what is produced is anything but boring. The work appears effortless, but I suspect the exact opposite is true.
DS: That’s high praise, on a number of levels. People say, “Oh what did you do, come up with this clever idea and then look for passages that would fill up the book?” I don’t see how that kind of book would be any good. It would just been a one-trick pony. A lot of my friends, quite justifiably, think of Reality Hunger as my most personal and my most passionate book.
The book began when I started teaching a graduate course in fiction-writing at the University of Washington. I had this huge blue binder of full of quotations of stuff I really liked: passages from Heraclitus to D’Agata that were articulating and embodying what began to feel like a new aesthetic: not fiction, not as journalism, not scholarship, but essay as “radical epistemology.” Work that uses the frame of “nonfiction” to explore the most serious questions about existence: What’s real? What’s knowledge? What’s memory? What’s truth? What’s a self? How much can a self know about another self?
So I was gathering all these quotes. The packet was full of repetitions of the same quotes, misspellings, doodles. I started organizing passages into little rubrics or chapters. And year by year this course packet deepened, and then I realized I had the rough draft of a book, at which point I really went to work on it.
It’s a strange book. People think it was some kind of IED, some sort of attention-getting mechanism, but I thought twenty people would read it. I thought it would get published by a university press. It was intended for fellow writers and readers and students: for those of us bored by conventional fiction and conventional nonfiction, here’s a way forward. But because of the book’s purposeful withholding of standard citation, the book developed a kind of bad-boy aura.
RF: You take the novel to task pretty hard in places, but I don’t think you’re attacking the novel so much as you’re attacking genre. Is your argument more about genre than it is about fiction versus nonfiction?
DS: Right. One of the book’s epigraphs is from Walter Benjamin: “All serious works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.” I think it’s so ridiculous that so many people who are supposedly serious writers get praised for being Dickensian writers or Tolstoyan writers. Dickens and Tolstoy were great writers, but the reason they’re great is that they pushed the form forward, “altered the face of an art form” in Pauline Kael’s phrase. This is even truer for Flaubert or Virginia Woolf or Beethoven or Monet or Picasso.
I listened to a guide in the National Gallery who was asked what makes Mark Rothko a great painter. And the guide ended up saying, “Rothko’s great because he changed the weather for everyone who came after him.” Everyone afterward had to deal with Rothko. That’s the standard I’m trying to hold up for myself and fellow artists. It’s not that I have some minor quarrel with writer X, Y, or Z. The novel is supposed to be something new. That’s what “novel” originally meant. And yet it’s become unbelievably formulaic. I really care about the future of literature, and I’m trying to push it in an exciting direction and away from a dead direction.
RF: I wrote a portion of my critical thesis in graduate school on Leonard Michaels’s “In the Fifties.” I read it and treated it as fiction. After all, it was included in a story collection. But then a classmate of mine treated the same piece as a nonfiction list essay. This really annoyed me for awhile, until I recognized how little these distinctions mattered. It’s simply an elegant piece of writing.
DS: The only thing that matters is how Michaels arranged the material into a meditation on how the private narcissism of the fifties became the public violence of the sixties. I think that’s all that really matters. Plath. Catullus. Berryman. Whitman. We grant poetic license to the speaker. I’m seeking the same freedom for the essay as we’ve always had for the poem.
RF: Patricia Hampl talked about starting out as a nonfiction writer. She said they didn’t know where to put her books when she first started out. I know you quote her in How Literature Saved My Life. I had the chance to spend some time with her in Vermont a couple of years ago and heard her say that it shouldn’t be called creative nonfiction, but non-poetry, because the writing is closer to poetry.
DS: I think I quote her in Reality Hunger rather than in the later book. She talks beautifully about how related the poem and the essay are. Both are meditative, contemplative, consciousness-drenched forms.
I’ve learned a lot from Trish. So many people, when they write an essay, think if they just the story of what happened, that in itself is compelling, but it’s not. Hampl is very good on this, as are Gornick, Lopate, D’Agata.
The essay is a meaning-making machine. That’s what’s so exciting about it. It says, Okay, I served in Fallujah or my sister is an alcoholic, whatever the situation is—some aspect of dramatic existence. But then what the essayist has to do is to wrench that into meaning, often by wiring the material through the self, by making the self complicit with the experience. It’s not reportorial journalism; it’s not academic scholarship, although it might partake of both. You’re trying to arrive at nothing less than wisdom, which I think is what makes the form so, so exciting.
If you write a bad essay, people think, I really don’t like you. But if people really like your essay, and you’ve said tough-minded things about yourself and others, and people still connect to you, that’s a very serious embrace between writer and reader. That’s a serious, existential act. You actually have made the world significantly less lonely. David Foster Wallace is really great on this: We’re existentially alone on the planet. I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling. You can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. And writing is a bridge constructed across the abyss between the loneliness.
Wallace goes awry when he goes on to say, “Don’t worry, all the little contrivances of fiction are hoops we can jump through and still cross the abyss of human loneliness.” It’s completely obvious that far and away Wallace’s best work is found in his essays.
Did Trish Hampl critique anything of yours?
RF: She read a fiction story of mine and tore it up pretty good, but that opportunity, to have such an experienced writer cut through all the “workshop bullshit” and tell you the truth—that was invaluable.
DS: It’s interesting that you mention “workshop bullshit,” because it’s absolutely the prevailing mode of contemporary literary discourse. Just read “major” reviewers: they’re basically still reviewing work according to the workshop model, which for me has nothing to do with what it feels like to be alive now. There are works of fiction that definitely surprise me and that I love with all my heart and soul. Say, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.
RF: I once heard Robert Vivian talk about “vestibular space,” which is the space you pass through before you enter the sacred places you write from. Do you ever contemplate your vestibular spaces?
DS: I do unbelievable amounts of research before I sit down to write, even something quite short. I gather all this material, and I just gather all the notes: stuff from the web, books that I read, journalistic reportage. I develop this huge, very rough, very loose, inchoate mess of stuff. I find that a terribly useful process. That’s my vestibule, for sure.
Then I just marinate in it, to mix metaphors. I just spend a huge amount of time with that material. I develop material around a very broad topic: death or love or art or celebrity. Then I try to find the very occasional passages that have for me some potential, some life. I often color code the passages, endlessly rewriting them. Then I try to put the passages into a trajectory both within a chapter and within the book. In a way it’s not time- or cost-effective, but I need that endless luxuriating in the material. Other people can apparently just sit down and write a five-thousand word essay and, in a way, I’m just amazed they can do that. It’s not the way my mind works. I seem to need all those data points, just to hold in my hands. A box of rocks, say; I find the 127 rocks that really glint and throw off light. Then I shape the rocks, sharpen them, and then I put them, very crucially, into the right order. For better or worse, that’s how my mind thinks.
RF: There’s a documentary about Stanley Kubrick called Boxes; it documents the trove of material the great director gathered around him when shooting a scene. For one particular scene in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick had thousands of photographs taken of doorways and gates in England. He spent months documenting and examining these photos for a single shot in a single scene. I think there might be some resonance between Kubrick’s method and your own.
DS: I’d like to watch that documentary, but it also sounds like a bit of a cautionary tale. One can definitely get trapped in one’s own processes. I certainly like some Kubrick quite a lot. Dr. Strangelove is great, as is Lolita. But there are some films in his last couple of decades in which he got so attuned to his own mental processes that the work suffers. I’d have to go back and watch all of Kubrick. For all I know, those films hold up beautifully. He’s obviously a major artist. But I can see how, in this process, which I do, and which Kubrick does in his own way, there’s a real danger that that all you’re doing is staring at your own reflection.
That risk interests me, but I work incredibly hard to avoid those traps. I try to make sure the work is about something more than my own reflection. If you write a poem, there is a danger that you’re performing only a series of technical verbal maneuvers; when you write a novel, there is a danger that you’re only carnival-barking, merely entertaining. And if you write personal essay or even literary collage or collage essay, you run the risk that you “writing only about yourself.” You want to go so deeply into yourself that you come out the other end into a “universal” space, or as Montaigne said, “Every man contains within himself the entire human condition.” That may sound grandiose, but in the great essays, we recognize that nothing less has happened.
RF: A lot of the experimental work pushes boundaries. That seems to be what you are drawn to, both as a reader and as a writer. Is that true?
DS: I’m definitely not interested in experiment for experiment’s sake. V.S. Naipaul says, “If you want to write seriously, you have to be willing to break the forms.” Coetzee deconstructs his own work: it’s not great because it never deformed the medium in order to say what only he could say. If you’re not doing that, why bother? Writing ought to be a deadly serious act of investigation and exploration. It shouldn’t be you with your little sewing kit trying to make a perfect little hand puppet. “Is this workshop-worthy? I’ve put all my soldiers into a perfect order, but I’ve produced this perfect little dead thing.” That can’t be a living model.
—David Shields & Richard Farrell
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.
David Shields is the New York Times bestselling author of fifteen books, including The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead; Salinger (co-written by Shane Salerno); Reality Hunger, named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications; Black Planet, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Remote, winner of the PEN/Revson Award; and Dead Languages, winner of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is the Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington. His work has been translated into twenty languages.