Interview with David Shields


David Shields is the author of ten books, the last seven of which blur genre through a spirited collage of autobiography, fiction, cultural analysis, and criticism. His forthcoming “anti-manifesto manifesto” Reality Hunger (Random House), is a call for prose writers – and writers of conventional fiction, in particular – to acknowledge that the real obstacle that confronts them today is not a screen-addicted culture, but a persistent refusal to dispense with narrative techniques and priorities better suited for “Edwardian England” (read: plot, setting, character development, etc.). Reality Hunger is a collage of quotes from other writers, artists and original writing, and includes a begrudging, legally mandated appendix citing authorship of those quoted writers and artists that Shields recommends you tear out and throw away. In this interview, which was conducted via emails a week before the book’s release, Shields talks to a current student in an MFA program that, like most MFA programs, separates genre by department, and by consensus privileges those narrative strategies and ideals Shields urgently takes to task in Reality Hunger.  

—Anthony Antoniadis

Salt Hill: Let’s begin with the end. In the appendix, you allude to Alain Robbe-Grillet's For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, as being a catalyst for your engagement of the ideas that drive Reality Hunger. Tell me about your experience with that book, and how it led to this.

David Shields: I read that book of his a very long time ago, I must admit. What I remember is the title essay. Quite great, especially the way in which he shows how certain realist strategies (e.g., transparent language, coherence of plot, well-“developed” characters, omniscient narration, etc.) have strong equivalences in philosophic positions: the world makes sense, god exists, communication is possible, we’re freely functioning beings rather than darts on a dart board, etc. I’ve never really recovered from this essay. I can’t go back. I’ve been there before.

SH: One of the audacious elements of this book is your appropriation of words/ideas spoken and/or written by other writers and artists -- from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Virginia Woolf to Lee Perry and Jean Luc Godard -- without quoting them right there in the text. Instead, they are sourced in the appendix, which you apologize for to your readers and which you recommend that they tear out without reading. How does this conceptual engagement of "plagiarism" tie in with your argument for where prose ought to go if it is to become more relevant?

DS: In my view, they’re one and the same: just as I want the reader to not be sure if it’s me or Lee Perry or Virginia Woolf or somehow all of us, I want the reader to come to experience my argument about genre. That is to say, in both instances, I want the book to be an ode to doubt, to uncertainty, to slipperiness, to vertigo. The book is arguing this; it must embody it via dubiety of the first-person pronoun. The book’s three epigraphs, taken together, pretty much spell this out. Art is theft. All great works of literature either invent a genre or dissolve one. When we are not sure, we are alive. I hope I’m remembering them correctly. In any case, that’s the book—the relationship between these three ideas.

SH: Once I knew Reality Hunger was composed largely of quotes, I had to fight myself from going back and forth between the text and the appendix. My desire to know who said what may as well have been sedimented in my DNA. I imagine it will be the same for many readers. Do you think letting the reader feel this tension justifies and/or redeems your (mandated) inclusion of the appendix? Or would it have been even more compelling to, say, sidestep the mainstream publishing industry altogether and self-publish this, with your name and reputation attached?  

DS: Many people have told me this—that they warred between checking the cites and not checking the cites. Fascinating how the reader is caught betwixt and between, in exactly the way I hope he or she would be, thereby experiencing the very vertigo the book means to apotheosize. Does this justify the mandated appendix? Maybe a little; I also like the disclaimer I wrote before the appendix, urging reader not to read appendix. If I had my druthers, I’d say no: no appendix.

      As for sidestepping the MSM altogether, I certainly considered that, amidst legal back-and-forth with Random House. In an alternate universe, I would like to see how that would have played out. 

SH: I think one reason why including the appendix works is that it also sates our "reality hunger" in the sense of delivering information. I’m thinking about Steve Erickson's novel Zeroville, in which he references dozens of films that many readers wound up Netflixing. It's interesting to think about how prose writers can reassert their cultural relevance by becoming custodians/re-assemblers of information.

DS: It’s certainly a mixed blessing. Is Erickson’s novel new? I’ve always admired his work, especially his book about a presidential election [American Nomad].

SH: So when you were cobbling together all of these bits of text on writing, did you encounter resistance from any writers who did not want their words to be used in a book sure to become controversial, used as a sort of polemic?

DS: Precious little. Almost everyone grasped and valued what I was doing. One or two people declined to be part of the festivities.

SH: What were some other resistances, external or internal, you encountered while writing the book?

DS: That would take another book to explain. I’m not sure I encountered much internal pressure. I wanted very much to publish the book without citations. I argued this forcefully with Random House’s legal department, but—here’s a shocker—they prevailed, so the book has citations, and I gained permissions from everyone who is in the book.

SH: Barthes's essay, “Death of the Author,” seems like a big influence on this text, in terms of its persistent argument that no one writer owns the ideas and narrative conventions that form his or her work -- that all texts belong to the public and era in which they were written.

DS: It’s a pretty great essay, isn’t it? I love Barthes a lot. You’ve summarized well what I’ve learned from him. S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text are to me the crucial Barthes books.

SH: Your book is a collage, a narrative amalgam of unquoted quotes, excerpts from interviews, novels, letters, your own words, etc. Do you feel collage is most perfectly calibrated to resonate with the contemporary reader?

DS: I believe this is what is known as a rhetorical question. I do indeed. I say in the book something like collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled; it’s an evolution beyond narrative. Obviously, consider the source: I’ve written almost exclusively collage for the last 15 years. Still, the books I love reading and the books I try to write are almost invariably modular in nature.

SH: You also mention throughout the book the mode/genre of the lyric essay -- how it can satisfy our “reality hunger” while also accommodating the writer's desire to invent, to embellish, to erase, to ignore.  Where and how does the lyric essay fit into the equation of the collage? Or is it a separate genre? Can a lyric essay also be a book-length collage?  

DS: Seems to me a huge amount of overlap. “Lyric essay” is John D’Agata and Deborah Tall’s term, which I use throughout the book. I mention them in the appendix. In any case, yes, a huge amount of overlap, it seems to me. The way that I define lyric essay, via D’Agata, it becomes virtually indistinguishable from collage, or it winds up often being collage. Not always, but often. Collage is a very specific thing, though, to me: 1 out of 1,000 collages work, but when they work, my goodness, nothing is more exciting to read.

SH: 1 in 1000 isn't a great ratio. What are some collages you've found really worked, literary, visual, musical, etc?

DS: It’s no higher or no less for any other genre: screenplay, novel, poem: Maggie Nelson, Bluets; Renata Adler, Speedboat; Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave; Flaubert’s Parrot; Moby-Dick; Report on Myself (Bouillier); Trout Fishing in America; Plainwater (Carson); Cheever’s Journals; Maps to Anywhere; In the Land of Pain; For the Time Being; Cambodia; The Crack-Up; The Two Kinds of Decay; The Pharmacist’s Mate; The Book of Embraces; Boomerang; Sleepless Nights; A History of Bombing; David Markson’s last four books; The Art Lover; Shuffle; Tristram Shandy; Within the Context of No Context; Letters to Wendy’s.

SH: Tell me about your experience reading Speedboat, the novel by Renata Adler, who’s also worked as a journalist, film critic, and essayist. Have you ever spoken with her about the book, its influence on you as a writer and its privileged position in Reality Hunger as an example of what can be done with collage?

DS: I would love to speak with her about the book. I’ve written about it in many essays and books; perhaps she’s seen my odes. I’ve read that book easily 30 times. I can’t read it anymore. D. H. Lawrence said better to know six novels well than hundreds of novels passably. I couldn’t agree more. Speedboat is one book I’ve read so many times that I feel, absurdly, almost as if I’ve written it. In any case, I learned how to write by reading that book until the spine broke.

SH: I love that quote. It reminds me of a scene in a documentary on Derrida, when he shows the filmmaker his enormous private library. She asks him if he's read them all. He says, "No, just a few–but very closely."

      So, back to your list. Wenderoth's Letters to Wendy's is also a great example of a book that mashes up genre, not just to deconstruct but to postulate a new form. Does poetry need to turn in its badge too, as a discrete genre with its own formal rules and styles?

DS: Letters to Wendy’s is indeed a barely disguised manifesto for exactly that; it’s one of the works that pushed me in this direction. I love that book with all my heart and soul.

SH: So what exactly is happening at that live interface of reader-collage, e.g. when we read Letters, that is not happening when we read conventional novels or poetry collections?  

DS: You, as reader, can feel the writer working very hard, in every line, to figure out something. Great collage (see above) is about what it’s about. It’s actually trying to investigate something about the self and the world. There is no wasted motion. Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled. It’s an evolution beyond narrative. Have I already said that? Great collage is pulled tight to within an inch of its life. In great collage, you can feel the writer working with his/her materials and solving the materials, just barely.

SH: I like the idea of problem-solving. In that sense collage seems to work more like consciousness, urgently trained. The stakes shift from character to author. I definitely felt that sort of work going on in Reality Hunger.

DS: Nicely said. Thanks re: RH.

SH: So how does the process of ordering these discrete texts within each chapter work? You've been writing in this genre for 15 years; I'm assuming you taught yourself. Does it get easier to know how different pieces fit together, or is it always like starting over with each book?

DS: I love the idea that I know nothing. I’m working on a new book now—3,000 pages of notes. Haven’t the faintest idea where it’s going. I do feel like I know how to get into and out of a collage-mode, on a theoretical level, but on a practical level, I’m always lost. “When you’re unsure, you’re alive,” as the Graham Greene epigraph says before Reality Hunger. Ordering works like this: gather stuff, push it into rubrics, push the material in rubrics around till it has a weave, an argument, a momentum, push rubrics around till they have a weave, an argument. Do this for years on end.

SH: You make some compelling points about why conventional fiction, with its deliberate "artiness" and pretensions toward what now feel like tinny ideals set centuries ago, is a dinosaur in 2010. That said, is there no room for the conventional novel in the contemporary bookstore?  Is it always retrograde to write a novel that hews to these old laws of craft?   

DS: This is the “baby with the bath water” question. Aren’t there some novels so good that, despite their conventionality, still resonate for me? No.

SH: Ought we read your text as a polemic at all, as a manifesto?

DS: Not sure what the difference is, but to me it’s an anti-manifesto manifesto. The book constantly undermines itself, quotes against itself, works to question its own premises, etc. I’d hate it if it were a straight manifesto.

SH: In the book, notions of cultural relevance and obsolescence feature prominently.  I could see how a less charitable reader could say that synchronizing one’s narrative strategy (in this case, collage) with current public appetites doesn’t always lead to the best work. The focus group thing.

DS: It’s an interesting argument. I hope that the book isn’t arguing for tweet-ish relevance per se. I trace the lineage of the work I love back millennia—it’s the same gesture from Petronius to Maggie Nelson. That said, I do seem to be urging people to write work that is congruent with their age, that captures what it feels like to be alive now rather than in 1840. And I argue that the work’s form should reflect our brain-pans now and not how we thought in Edwardian England. I don’t know from focus groups. I’m not interested in popularity per se.

SH: It’s so great to read a book about fiction that does not spend its bullet on the usual apocalyptic narratives that circulate -- print vs. web, literary vs. visual, long form vs. shrinking attention spans. This book feels so much more positive, and reads like a how-to book written by a writer who has nothing but very good, pointed questions.     

DS: Thanks. Not sure it’s a how-to, but I’m certainly all for questions; I have Zeroville answers.

SH: So let me follow that up with some other questions. What else do you think prose could use, in addition to the invention and dissolution of genre, to "catch up" to music's and film's ability to go viral? Does prose need to make a more total shift to the digital world, since this is how we increasingly acquire, engage, and store media? Or is prose fucked by the digital format, i.e. who wants to read Moby Dick on a Kindle?

DS: Reality Hunger is pretty much the tool kit for that, ain’t it. Speed. Brevity. Collage. Momentum. Nakedness. Risk. It’s all there, people.

SH: Lil’ Wayne killed the mixtape, but you're telling us the novel is already dead. If generic dissolution is the future, what happens to the graduate program system, which is neatly divided into departments by genre: poetry, fiction, journalism, creative non-fiction, etc?  

DS: Oh my goodness; if this book gains any traction at all, it’s the end of that antediluvian rubric.

SH: My bags are pretty much packed.  

DS: And Chekhov-Munro is not the station.

SH: You graduated from Iowa in the 80s and published a formally more conventional novel shortly thereafter. When you were at Iowa, at the height of the K-mart realism fashion, did you feel any sort of tension between what you were working on and what was possible with narrative form?

DS: Iowa was great for me in that I worked very hard there to write according to the reigning aesthetic. Having done that, I realized it wasn’t for me and I better find my own damn thing to do.

SH: But there's the old adage -- you have to know the rules before you break them. Does this apply to young writers who may want to move directly into collage, without first engaging the mode of conventional fiction? 
In other words, do the concerns of conventional fiction have anything significant to teach the nascent collage writer?

DS: I go back and forth on this. I wrote three works of fiction, each less conventional than its predecessor, before I began this move toward essay and lyric essay and collage. I think it helped me to learn the rules. However, it’s just the way that my work evolved. If a young writer is already heading toward collage, I’d be the last person to say, “No. Stop. Write a doorstop novel first.”

SH: Musicians like Lee Perry and visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg seem to be cultural symbols for collage. Does literary art have a patron saint of collage, so to speak?

DS: I’m angling for the crown.