David Shields: Interview

Monday, May 23, 2011

Author and essayist David Shields’s latest book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, was released in February 2010. More than a year later, people are still abuzz about the experimental nonfiction book that encourages its reader to abandon the traditional novelistic form. Written in the collagelike form of scraps and ideas that Shields advocates, Reality Hunger comprises bits of thought and quotations that work together to promote new styles of writing. Citations for these quotes do not appear within the text but instead are included in a minimal list at the back of the book. Shields initially wanted to exclude the citations altogether, claiming that citations belong in journalism and scholarship, not in art, but his publisher insisted.

A recipient of an MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Shields is Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington and member of the faculty in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers in North Carolina. His books have received various awards, including the PEN/Revson Award for Remote: Reflection on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity (1996) and the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award for Dead Languages: A Novel (1989). His nonfiction book Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season (1999) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His upcoming book, which he coedited with Matthew Vollmer, titled Fraudulent Artifacts: An Anthology of Pseudo Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found Texts,” and Other Dubious Documents, is due out in August 2012.

Shields visited Northwestern in March as a guest of the Fourth Annual Spring Writers’ Festival. He sat down with TriQuarterly Online to talk about his reaction to the Reality Hunger hoopla and his vision of the future of publishing. Though his ideas are loud and bold, his demeanor is genial and relaxed. What follows is the candid Q&A.

TriQuarterly Online: Reality Hunger has been out for a year now and was received with a polarized mix of praise and controversy. Are you tired of talking about it by now?
David Shields:
There’s a sense in which I am. I don’t really read reviews anymore. There is still commentary about it on the Web, but I’m ready to move on to new stuff. I’m really excited that the book generated as much attention as it did — not for the book’s sake or for my sake, but in my view, it might have altered the frame of discussion for contemporary writing. I hope that’s not too grandiose to say. It raised some important issues that people are talking about, so I’m terribly grateful for that. It would be churlish to complain about it, because most books, including a lot of my own, get published to thundering silence. But there is a part of me that’s a bit weary of it. One of the things the book emphasizes is to never stay in the same place, and I don’t want to be guilty of staying in the same Reality Hunger place.

TQO: The book certainly did generate a lot of discussion, but do you think people are talking about the right things?
That’s a good point. I am grateful for the discussion, but really the discussion had relatively little to do with what the book was about. The main discussion of the book has to do with pretty insular issues that perceive me either as an exponent of the death of the novel or as saying that I think it’s okay to steal stuff. Those are minor ideas that I toy with at the edge of the page, but the core of the book is an argument for the excitement of certain kinds of philosophically minded, poetically charged nonfiction. I know that’s not a very sexy topic. A juicier thing to discuss is copyright or the death of the novel. Discussion of the book was framed in ways that were quite different from what the book actually is.

TQO: Why is the book structured as an exhibit rather than a straightforward discussion about the ideas you wanted to bring to light?
It’s just the way I think. It wasn’t some kind of conscious decision, like “I’m going to write this work in a pointillistic way.” I think I am giving a thorough discussion of the issues, but I tend to eliminate the transitions and just go with the highlights. I assume and hope the reader can fill in the gaps between them. If I had written the book differently and unfurled it as a painstaking argument, that would be in complete contradiction to everything I’m saying in the book. Content tests form. What a book is about ought to mirror the way the book is structured. One of the things I’m happiest about is that the work’s content and form are pretty perfectly aligned. You can’t even talk about the form and content separately. The book completely embodies the argument.

TQO: The number of sources you include in the book is impressive. You go all the way back to the Bible and up to contemporary writers. How did you gather all this information?
I didn’t say, “Okay, I have this argument, and now I’m going to find a bunch of sources to prove it.” Rather, those are just the books I naturally read over the past thirty years. Every time I read something I love, I underline it, highlight it, or clip it. I was hired to teach fiction writing at the University of Washington twenty years ago. I felt like I was taking money under false pretenses, because my interest quickly migrated toward nonfiction. I wasn’t reading, writing, or teaching fiction anymore. So I developed a course packet — this big, blue binder of hundreds of quotations by myself and by other people that were my mantras. Year by year, I taught this course, and each year the course packet became more and more coherent. After a certain point it became unmoored from the course, and that began the book.

TQO: In the back of the book, there is a note that urges the reader to cut out the pages of citations that acknowledge the various voices in the book. Why did you not want the citations included?
Now I’m happy that they’re there. But at the time, I argued for exclusion of the citations because the book is arguing for the excitement of work that bends genre. A wonderful way to embody that was for the reader not to be able to tell who was saying what, and I still hold to that. I have version of the book that I printed for myself at Kinko’s, and it has no citations. That’s my favorite version of the book. I lost the argument for exclusion because the publisher just said the wouldn’t be published without the citations. I could take my book and go home if I wanted, but they were not going to publish it that way. We worked out a relatively happy compromise, in which the citations are minimal in the back and there is a disclaimer that instructs the reader not to read them. At the time I was quite upset about it, but oddly, it’s the one thing that has generated the most discussion. There is hardly a review of the book that doesn’t talk about my ambivalence about including the citations.

TQO: What does the future of writing look like to you?
Reality Hunger is a manifesto for the obliteration of distinctions between genres, overturning the laws of appropriation, and a call for artists to create new forms for the twenty-first century. I support moving forward. In music, we don’t endlessly recompose Beethoven’s First Symphony. Contemporary artists don’t paint portraits of sixteenth-century royalty. Visual art and music have been moving forward for at least a century. I want writing to catch up. I hope Reality Hunger is a prediction of where things might head. Three of my favorite recent works are The Clock, artist Christian Marclay’s twenty-four-hour video; musician James Blake’s self-titled album; and the visual art of Glenn Ligon. All three of their works are composed almost exclusively of remixed materials from other people. We have access to immense amounts of material on the Web. We’re surrounded by digital culture, so I do think literature is going to move forward. We can’t endlessly rewrite the nineteenth-century novel. Also, I think that publishers will vanish. Writers, like musicians, will post their work on the Web and will eliminate the “middleman”—agents, editors, and publishers.

TQO: What advice do you have for new writers?
DS: Don’t be afraid of how you actually think, and write how you actually think. If you have a chance to be an interesting writer, then you will try to find a form that releases your best intelligence. Don’t just add more driftwood to this already established pile of wood. You can write another memoir, and of course your memoir will have its own stamp because yours will be set in Omaha instead of Lincoln. You’ll have your own story to tell. But it’s really just one more relatively formulaic work that’s not advancing the art. If you have a chance to produce interesting work, it will be the direct result of your willingness to face the unusual nature of your own intelligence. Find a form that embodies that.