Flipping into Wit
An Interview with David Shields
In 2010, David Shields whipped critics and scholars into a frenzy over his manifesto, Reality Hunger (Alfred A. Knopf). An examination of the role of authenticity in art, literature, and popular culture, the book earned Shields both fans and enemies. In support of his new book, How Literature Saved My Life (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95), Shields visited the Twin Cities and sat down with Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer to discuss the provocative new book, the state of contemporary literature, and the status of Shields’s manifesto in the face of a changing cultural landscape.
Eric Lorberer: Let’s talk about your new book, How Literature Saved My Life. One thing that dawned on me as I was reading it was that this book is inevitably going to be read as a “sequel” to Reality Hunger. How did you process that inevitability in your own mind while writing it?
David Shields It took me a while. It’s funny, I hadn’t thought about it very much before writing. As I wrote the book, I didn’t even know what it was about for the longest time. It wasn’t as if I thought, “I need to write a sequel or a prequel to Reality Hunger.” I was just writing stuff here and there, I’d write a section or a fragment. It all seemed to be part of something about life and art, but I didn’t know where exactly it was headed. Then as I started to put the book together, the title came into focus, and after I read Ben Lerner’s book [Leaving the Atocha Station] and used that to write the prologue to my book, I newly saw the structure of my book.
In a sense, Reality Hunger burned things down. There’s a flat earth effect: you can’t do straight memoir, you can’t do straight novel, you can’t do straight scholarship, can’t do straight journalism, so what’s left? I was questioning some of the premises and assumptions and philosophical naivetés of standardized genres, so I feel like there’s a sense in which How Literature Saved My Life had to be an attempt to reconstitute what literature is for me.
You might say it’s to reanimate the joy I always felt was always in Reality Hunger. People sometimes misconstrue that book as being about two things, neither of which is that crucial to me: 1) that the novel is dead, and 2) that it’s okay to steal stuff. Those were never core arguments of that book. They were part of the argument, but those became the controversial talking points about that book for some people.
EL: It tapped into a kind of zeitgeist.
DS: Without really meaning to—I don’t think you can will that. It obviously caught hold of a funny moment. In How Literature Saved My Life, I wasn’t trying to “kill the patient,” but I wanted to reiterate that the patient is definitely terminal. It’s an attempt to push things forward. There’s a really nice review, probably the smartest thing I’ve ever read about my work, that Minna Proctor wrote inBookforum—she called this new book something like “the heart to the manifesto’s mind.” That seems right to me—it’s the more visceral, the more vulnerable version; it’s the application of what I theorized in Reality Hunger.
That’s terribly clear to me now, but weirdly I didn’t get that when I was writing How Literature Saved My Life. I felt more like I was shooting film in the dark, doing a riff here, a riff there. Ben Lerner helped me see how to structure the book, as I mentioned: going from ambivalence to love to melancholy to death to modernist art to an affirmation of art to questioning if I even love art, to finding a very tentative affirmation of a certain kind of highly self-doubting art. There’s a real movement to the book that is not dissimilar to Ben’s movement in Leaving the Atocha Station. The point being that I didn’t have it figured out beforehand, I wasn’t trying to write a sequel or prequel, and certainly not an apology for Reality Hunger. I’ve seen a few people saying it’s a kind of backing off, but I don’t see that at all.
EL: They’re misreading the former book. I was disappointed in people—this is not an uncommon feeling for me—who responded to Reality Hunger as if it were analytic. I see it as an effort to find a role for the human, the personal, in a world where paradigms change necessarily.
DS: That’s beautiful, Eric; thank you. The idea that it’s somehow sober criticism that’s meant to be a kind of articulated theory of art—that seems a bit dull to me. That is, the book gestures toward critical thinking, but it’s meant to be an unbelievably naked book.
EL: I feel the same about certain works of philosophy. It’s crazy how totally marginal these works are in our culture. How is it that this word “philosophy” only comes up in an academic setting, when how to live is a question we all face?
DS: The paradigm of that for me is when I was an undergraduate, I went to a lecture called “Coming into Being and Going Out of Existence: A Philosophical Meditation.” I thought, “My god, this is going to be everything!” The entire talk was of course just A+B-C= D; it got nowhere near birth and life and death. So many of my favorite writers, as I imply in the book, are either literally philosophers or they’re philosophically minded: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Pascal, Cioran. So many of my favorite writers are thinking really hard about existence. Even writers who are quasi-fiction writers like David Markson, JM Coetzee, even Ben Lerner. I quote in the book that line of David Foster Wallace’s: “If we’re existentially alone on the planet, you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling, and I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling. Writing at its best is a bridge across the abyss of human loneliness.” I take that seriously. I think that’s real. Writing obviously really matters to me. The writing I really love foregrounds that. It’s not, “Oh yeah, I’ll write a novel called Freedom and it will be vaguely about human freedom.” I tend to use Franzen as a punching bag, and a lot of others novels that are pretty good novels—McEwan, et al.—because such books think they’re assuaging human loneliness because the writer and reader are reading about six characters on a farm in Ohio. To me, though, I like work that is absolutely, overtly about how the writer solved the problem of being alive. I quote Samuel Johnson in the book: “A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it.” The books I love are all about the enduring.
EL: Both now and in the book, you articulate strongly some limitations of fiction, and also how the fetishization of fiction, especially of the novel, no longer matches our needs as a society. Do you get any blowback from that?
DS: I try not to look too much at Facebook or Twitter stuff—I post stuff, but I try not to do that thing where you pretend you’re dead and imagine what people are saying about you at your funeral. Before I realized how snarky Twitter was and stopped looking, I would just see such passionate drive-by shootings of the messenger. In no way do I take it personally. One guy would endlessly tweet whenever I got a pushback review; he would jump up and down and promote this review. I keep thinking, "You’re betraying way too much anxiety about your own project, my friend.”
I’m obviously questioning the form. I have this image of hundreds of novelists writing this unbelievably antediluvian thing called a traditional novel which in no way speaks to the culture in a real way. It just doesn’t. I know it doesn’t, and people know it doesn’t. But there’s this Potemkin village going on in which we pretend it still does. And you write your novel and it sells 3500 copies and you get your teaching job and you tell yourself you’re somehow a part of the world of literary art. I don’t care about you and your novels, but I do care about art moving forward, and I am invested in trying to push literature in a forward direction.
The blowback is kind of fascinating. I got a hostile email last night.
EL: I get that people feel attacked: we’re promoting experimental work, hybrid work, and it’s as if we’re somehow saying that traditional realism is worthless, and people feel that they have to be defensive. But if you really believe in your form, don’t retreat to a defensive posture.
DS: I know what you mean. There’s this unbelievably rote gesture of “How dare you question the greatness of Flannery O’Connor and Chekhov?” All those writers are undeniably great. The question is how are we going to write now, in 2013?
EL: And there are writers who are figuring it out. David Foster Wallace was one; Coetzee is another. These are people who are exhibiting how to do it. It’s certainly an undercurrent in your book throughout, but at one moment you talk about how visual art seems to have no problem with this; it has an understanding of appropriation that is still contentious in literary art. It struck me that perhaps the reason that Modernism is still so relevant is that it seems like the one moment that literary art kept pace with visual art.
DS: So many times visual artists or musicians will read my book and say, “What’s the big deal?” Appropriation is all self-evident to them, whereas in the literary cosmos, this is all still contentious territory. For a long time, from Montaigne to Burroughs, this idea of appropriation and remix was a relatively understandable idea. But we’re now in an incredibly litigious world—it’s what I call the “trial-by-Google” world. In literature to a large degree, nonfiction was being defined downward in what philosophers call a “category mistake.” Nonfiction was understood to be a vetted article in the New York Times. So now we get articles that take on topics such as whether a particular author of a major work of book-length essay fudged a few of the details. It’s simply the wrong question. That kind of book-length essay isn’t a subset of journalism, it’s a subset of literature. Thucydides invented the general’s speeches in The History of the Peloponnesian War. This is a founding document of Western civilization, and he made up the general’s speeches. What more do you need to know about the endlessly debatable territory of nonfiction?
In a way, my position is somewhat heretical. I’m actually saying how it feels at ground level to write a work of book-length essay. I’m acknowledging what you’re not supposed to say: composition is a fiction-making operation. Memory is a dream machine. I’m trying to say that a work of essay ought to be viewed for its depth-charge: how much verticality it has, how deeply it investigates the issue it’s exploring, as opposed to whether it has a prestigious topic such as the Holocaust, or if it has sixty pages of footnotes. Do you know that film by Christian Marclay called The Clock? I was lucky enough to see about half of it in London a few years ago. It’s such an exciting work—he gathers twenty-four hours of endlessly remixed fragments from other people’s films and he doesn’t cite any of them. The work just builds extraordinarily into this meditation on time and mortality. I learned all this when dealing with legal issues prior to publication of Reality Hunger: there’s fair use, there’s public domain, and then there’s transformation. Fair use and public domain are fairly obvious. But in your remix of someone else’s work, have you transformed it? Lawyers hate this idea, and publishers hate it, but it’s the area in which most good work has always happened. Naipaul: If you want to write seriously, you have to be willing to break the forms. Benjamin: All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. I’ve listened to a lot of hip-hop; I’m influenced by visual art. It may sound like a false ingenuousness, but I didn’t think Reality Hunger’s strategy was that big of a deal. I think perhaps part of the problem is that literature is written in words, the law is written in words, and somehow lawyers and late-market capitalism are trying to fill every nook and cranny with legal handcuffs. And so there’s a ton of straitjacketing: let’s all be dutiful citizens and write our vetted memoirs, our sober scholarship. What gets lost is artistic transgression, boundary jumping, our moving forward. It’s as if the law is driving literature. That ain’t good.
EL: It doesn’t even need to be legalese—it’s the culture that tells you what’s right and wrong and people do that. You see it all the time in cultural codes. To me, and this is a very high compliment, this book feels up there with Barthes by Barthes as an attempt to make the outside be inside. Poets already know this, but since nobody reads poetry it’s not on the map in terms of culture.
DS: Thanks, Eric. That’s high praise. I love Barthes a lot. S/Z is a crucial book to me. I’m visiting Columbia University next month for this nonfiction conference, and my assigned topic is the idea of marrying of the personal and the impersonal. It gets me going—that idea is everything to me. There’s a film that means a lot to me, Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March. Do you know it?
EL: I love it deeply.
DS: I was lucky enough to have dinner with Ross a couple of nights ago in Boston; he’s become a friend. I love his work. That film absolutely changed my writing life. I just happened to catch it on PBS twenty-five years ago. The way that he brings those things together is not some trivial trick. It’s a deep understanding of the world. Every moment is political, every moment is culturally loaded. And also, every politics has its person behind it. It’s a really serious understanding of the world.
EL: And you have to act it out; you have to realize it in your work. You can’t just theorize it.
DS: That’s right. The perceiver by his very presence alters what’s perceived. And once you absorb that into your bloodstream, you can’t write a pseudo-objective work of nonfiction. It’s over. You can’t do it. I take that quite seriously. There’s something very exciting in certain vertiginous works in which, as you say, the outside and the inside are so beautifully overlapping. And almost without exception in the works I love, whether it’s Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage or Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Markson’s This is Not a Novel, Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries—almost without exception they’re doing that thing where it’s layer upon layer.
EL: While we were talking about other art forms, you talked about how hip-hop handles the appropriation of other music. There’s a short passage in the new book that deals with rock music especially, though it’s not about appropriation. It’s about the kind of existential energy that underlies that form. You’re discussing Built to Spill in that moment, but that sort of yearning that the best rock music can create is everywhere in the latter half of the twentieth century. I wondered if there are aspects of that musical form that you felt influenced by or attracted to—that you try and make your writing live up to.
DS: The people who come to mind for me—people like Lucinda Williams and Roseanne Cash—do that terribly well. It’s not exactly “rock.” Certainly Bob Dylan a long time ago. Neil Young. The people I’ve gone to school the most on as albums are, for lack of a better word, stand-up comedians. Performers going all the way back to Lenny Bruce and coming up through Rick Reynolds and Chris Rock and Sandra Bernhard, Sarah Silverman.
EL: It’s another hybrid form . . .
DS: Exactly. As a kid, I had a horrible stutter. I would walk around with a radio. On Saturday mornings I listened to this station that would play stand-up comedy for four hours from 8am-noon on KSFO. I remember loving those voices that were so oral: how they would take their rage and pain and flip it into wit . . . That was defining for me. Comedians have hugely influenced me.
I could mention dozens of musicians, of course—I really love the band Rancid. There’s this one song of theirs that I play all the time; I absolutely love their energy. I’m also interested in how a song can be immensely sad and melancholy, but the song is really upbeat because of the sheer lyricism of it. I think of How Literature Saved My Life that way—people sometimes call this work dire or dour, and I don’t know what they’re talking about. This book is meant to be ecstatic. It tries to be honest about the so-called human condition, but it’s meant to be, I hope, joyful. The joy comes through the sound, the language, human beings talking and just the sheer amazingness of the human voice either on the page or spoken. I’m really fascinated by songs that sound ostensibly sad, but there’s a weird joy that’s built into them. And yet it’s crucial that you never articulate the joy. Don’t ever tell us that it’s finally joyful. Tell us how terrible everything is. We’ll get the pleasure. Don’t tell us that you really love her; pretend that you can’t stand her and we’ll get the other thing. That’s an important thing I’ve learned from music, from Sinatra to Springsteen to Lucinda Williams.
EL: Nietzsche said that—
DS: Niezstche’s aphoristic compression—do you love him, too? How could you not?
EL: I love in this book how at a key moment you bust out a list of fifty-five works you swear by, and you alphabetize it, which is shrewd . . . One, I love how it speaks to the ecstasy of what it means to be alive, love of life and of passions and of whatever works of art mattered to the point of life: all writers should have to bust out their list at some point. Two, I loved the range—I mean you have Richard Brautigan on this list, such an important and yet misunderstood American writer—
DS: Trout Fishing in America; that’s a crucial book to me.
EL: —and then of course you’ll have Proust or someone more expected. You’re covering a lot of ground here. But the third great thing about this list, and what really makes it yours instead of some pro forma rundown of “great art,” is that you really privilege works that strive for hybridity, works that manage a double-pronged attack on the imagination. I wondered if that constellation of works was a discovery for you in some sense, in having to go ahead and enumerate these works. I love lists partly because the interactions can be surprising—even in alphabetical order, you have three aphorists in a row, for example.
DS: It becomes a bit of a litmus test, this chapter, because some people think, “Why does he take up fourteen pages with just a bunch of books that he likes?” But that’s not a very careful reading of what I’ve done. One thing that my editor said she liked about it, which I think is true (and this goes back to your idea of the inside and the outside) —and that is that it’s a weirdly complete self-portrait. Even though I’m looking at these fifty-five books, and I’ve probably mentioned fifty-five other books throughout the rest of this book, here are fifty-five of my favorite books, fifty-five books that formed me. Here I am looking outward at these books that I love, and I’m trying to write these brief appreciations, admirations, genuflections to these works. But what you’re supposed to feel incrementally developing is that there’s an inscape going on, and you really get not only what my own aesthetic is, but also, weirdly, who I am and some of my hunger, my desperations, my joys, my bottom-line survivals.
In a way, the book is over after that. It’s all dénouement after that. We downshift. I appreciate your careful reading of it.
I forget how I even developed the list—I think I just kept on noting stuff that I liked. I don’t know if you know my earlier book Remote, where I do a whole chapter of bumper stickers. Originally I just collected bumper stickers I really liked, then I realized I could reorganize them to tell a story about an American man’s life. In the same way, I was sort of doing this for my students: here are fifty-five books you ought to read if you’re interested in my angle on literature. Then I realized I could do something considerably more: here’s how these books argue for an essayistic tradition, here’s how they argue for, as you say, a doubling tradition. And then finally, it’s a weirdly confessional piece. Just as we were saying that underneath the sad song is a kind of ecstasy, underneath this list of books is a relatively serious self-portrait. That was the challenge, I think, of writing the piece.
EL: You’ve already clarified earlier in this interview by mentioning how important certain kinds of stand-up comedy was for you, how it hybridizes instinct, but it really struck me that Larry David is on this list. That’s a key moment.
DS: Yeah—hey, we can go anywhere! Great work is all over the place to me, from Heraclitus toShit My Dad Says. I’m not kidding. You mentioned Barthes by Barthes . . . is there something in particular about that book? I haven’t reread it for a while. Some other books of his are more important to me than that—I mentioned S/Z, and I love Pleasure of the Text—though I liked how terribly interior Barthes by Barthes is—how he’s trying to push through himself and past himself.
EL: I think it’s an incredibly powerful corrective to the idea that this thing we call “I” should be so uninterrogated. The “I” written down cannot ever be free of this thing you are writing—it’s a performance. Of course, other writers and artists had expressed that, but never had an academic readership been exposed to how you could transform reading that way. It was powerful for me
DS: It makes me want to go back to that book. I remember early in Reality Hunger I quote a passage of Barthes’s in which he talks about the essentially fictional nature of the I. At its worst, this kind of writing is indeed solipsistic, narcissistic, self-referential. That if you read Barthes ungenerously you’d say, “Who cares about this guy’s life? It just seems very interior in a rather bourgeois way.” That’s just a challenge of the form to me. So many of my students say, “I just don’t get how I can grant yourself license to write about myself. I’m just a regular person from Winnipeg, Ontario. Why should I write about myself?” I love the idea that every form has its limits. The novel at its worst is mere entertainment. The poem at its worst is merely form. The movie at its worst is merely sensational. The essay at its worst is navel-gazing. Ninety-nine percent of memoirs are worthless. But the occasional one, the magical work—that book knows the self is a complicated bag of tricks. And such writers are using the self to endlessly investigate everything. It’s the Montaigne line that I always come back to about how every man contains within himself all of humankind. Obviously, not very many books do that, but that’s got to be the goal. I’m not that interested in myself—I’m a theme-carrier. It’s always in service of a greater investigation.
EL: While we’re on the topic of the self—I tend to avoid questions I consider “personal” or “prosaic”—but maybe it was the roving nature of the list of fifty-five books that brought me to it, but I started to wonder in what sense you think of yourself as geographically rooted. You’ve been on the west coast for a while now. Do you feel like a west coast writer?
DS: It’s an incredibly complicated question for me. I was born and raised in Los Angeles and San Francisco, went to college at Brown, then I went to Iowa, then I lived on the East Coast for the next ten or fifteen years, and then I moved back to Seattle. I enjoy being on the East Coast, but there’s a museum quality to life there that I find odd. “Ain’t culture grand?” No. The point is to move culture forward. Prokofiev: If you want to create masterpieces, you have to stop worshipping masters. There’s a huge amount of worshipping of past masters on the East Coast. I flatter myself to think that in my distance from that prevailing wisdom, it gives me a hunger and a desperation, and it also gives me a desire to create something that’s new and weird and different and good. I still love being in New York, but there’s a certain fat-and-sassy quality one can get when one feels one is part of the mainstream of culture.
EL: It’s so remarkable how much geographic variety there is in the U.S., and you can’t predict the cultural output and how we take it in.
DS: I hate how cartoonized it is. It’s just endless. I wish I’d taken a picture of this when I was in the Boston airport a day or two ago, and there was an advertisement for an accounting firm. The ad said something like, “Performance is producing information for 50,000 people a day. High performance is producing information for 50,000 New Yorkers a day.” As if people in New York are somehow process information differently, or are more intelligent. I’ve never found that to be remotely the case, to be perfectly honest.
EL: It’s also ironic that industries like accounting or programming, these “high-intelligence industries,” don’t actually have to be connected to any one place or another. They’re mobile industries.
DS: That’s a great point.
EL: One of the things that impresses me is your generous sense of not only what’s come before, but what’s coming now and what’s coming after. In light of how much you respect writers like Ben Lerner and Sarah Manguso, I feel like previously generations were pretty rigid about fraternizing outside their generation. Do you feel like that’s loosened up in the writing world? Is it less important to identify with your generation than it once was?
DS: The culture’s gotten hugely decentralized in a good way; it’s impossible to say there is any one writer setting any kind of agenda. I was born in 1956. I definitely don’t identify per se with that whole group of writers born around the same time as I was—say, Jay McInerny and David Leavitt and Tama Janowitz and Mona Simpson and that whole group. I began as a fiction writer and so I was aware of them, and I respect their work, but they’re not the writers who are my immediate points of departure. I don’t know how it is in fiction, but regarding the work I’m interested in, the writers who have affected me the most are, say, John D’Agata, whom I met almost twenty years ago when I was visiting the Iowa workshop. I critiqued something that John wrote and I liked it quite a lot, and we’ve been friends ever since. He’s had a big influence on my writing and I’ve perhaps had some influence on him. I do think of myself in relation to people like Sarah Manguso, Amy Fussleman, Maggie Nelson, Ben Lerner, John D’Agata, Wayne Kostenbaum. Wayne’s about my age, but all the other writers are a whole generation younger; they’re all in their mid-thirties to mid-forties. I think it’s partly that you read stuff online more; Geoff Dyer is almost exactly my age, and I like Dyer’s work a lot, but then there’s someone like Markson who died a few years ago in his mid eighties, whom I think of as an absolute core influence on me. And then someone like Coetzee, who’s in his early seventies, whose work has had a huge influence on me, especially Elizabeth Costello. And then obviously ancient writers, I love Heraclitus’s Fragments—there’s nothing that’s influenced me more. I wonder if it might be an essay tradition, which builds on itself self-reflexively. Do you see it in the other forms, too, in say poetry and fiction?
EL: To an extent I do. There’s a new respect and/or interest in the younger writers, in a way that there wasn’t twenty years ago, when it was just assumed “You’re young, you haven’t done anything yet. You’re going to have to be an apprentice first, or you’re going to have to pay your dues” or whatever. I feel like that’s gone away. Sometimes it’s remarkable, and it yields real respect—
DS: I do feel it’s one of the more renewing aspects of my life: I teach graduate students, I teach undergraduate students, and I’m wired for better or worse into contemporary writing. It’s terribly gratifying sometimes for someone to say “Your work has had some influence on me,” and that’s what it’s all about for me—influencing what comes next. I was at the National Gallery and some guy was talking about Rothko, and he said, “What makes Rothko great isn’t that he painted beautiful paintings or got paid a lot of money or that people had written books about him, but that he changed things for the next generation.” You couldn’t deal with painting without having to deal with Rothko, whether rejecting him or accepting him, but he forced the next generation to think about stuff. It would be vainglorious of me to say that I’ve done that, but that goal matters to me.
EL: As it should, I think. So, aside from all the beautiful writing in this book, one of the things I really enjoyed about it were the photographs that we see in each chapter. It’s not only an interesting use of the design, but it seems to speak to the unraveling of the theme of the book. I’m curious how that came about.
DS: Thank you for noticing that; I swear you’re the first person to put the photos together. Tom Collicott, who is a photographer in Seattle, and I worked these up. Those photos are largely Tom’s execution of the pictures, and Tom and I worked up the specific ideas of them, whether it’s mainly, at the end, three books forming a little house in which to live, or the gunshot through a book. I’m fond of this idea that collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled. That basically, when you are writing a work of literary collage, there is no overt plot, but there is thematic momentum. So you have to figure out ways, whether through chapter headings, subtitles, subsection headings, or in this case, photographs—anything you can do to help the reader follow the underlying argument. I love this line of Picasso’s, which is, “A great painting comes together just barely.” I want the collage to come together just barely, so the reader gets that there is a real argument unfurling. Those photographs, I think there’s a total of nine of them: they really track, quite specifically, the emotional, intellectual, and philosophical stakes of the book. So by the end, you’re supposed to realize, “Oh my goodness, David Shields has built a house for himself out of books—that’s the very thing he told us he was going to do.” They’re not there as mere woodcuts, or some kind of decoration. They’re meant as absolute thematic orchestration.