The Rumpus Interview with David Shields

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David Shields, author of three novels and seven works of nonfiction, attempts to demolish the foundations of literature in his latest, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. His target: the culture. He argues that there has been a dreadful trend in fiction, and not just genre fiction and the mass-market best seller, but within the entire literary spectrum. Stories using too much detail, too much description, stories within stories within stories deviating and dwelling in obscure tangents and conventional formula.

David took time off from his busy schedule to meet in Wallingford, a neighborhood just west of the University of Washington overlooking Lake Union and the Seattle skyline. He suggested a coffee shop but I convinced him to forego the lattes and chai teas and we went to a bar. He sipped water to my beer. I came armed with what I thought were sure-fire arguments to convince him that there is value in the story, and that the writer should pursue traditional fiction while perhaps evolving to a more precise, compressed, and minimal aesthetic. I’m not sure if I succeeded in making him budge, but he may have pulled me a couple inches closer to his line of reasoning…

The Rumpus: You excoriate the traditional novel and fiction in Reality Hunger, yet you began writing fiction. It turned out not to be your forte. Why the attack? Isn’t it like an impotent man vowing abstinence?

David Shields: That’s a funny analogy. And I’d be a fool to think that type of criticism won’t emerge. I’m continually forced to reconsider and defend my views. I have a couple conversion areas in which I talk about impasse, my impotence vis-a-vis the novel. Zadie Smith, when she wrote about Reality Hunger in The Guardian, brought this up as if I hadn’t thought of it. Of course I’m aware. The origin of this book is my response to my fascination, bafflement, and bewilderment at the fact the novel form has died on me. You could say, ‘Who cares. So the novel went dead for you…that’s your problem.’ But I don’t think it was a coincidence the novel went dead, nor do I think it’s just my problem. For those who buy my argument I’m the canary in the mineshaft. For those who don’t…well, they’ll just say, ‘That’s David Shields opinion. He’s foisting his own foibles onto the culture.’ It’s like the abortion argument: If you’re against abortion don’t have one. If you want to write the old-fashioned traditional novel…all the more power to you. No gun to your head. If you think traditional novels are exciting stuff, like those written by Ian McEwan and Jonathan Franzen…that they capture what it feels like to be alive in our mass media dominated culture, well, you have my permission to go on writing and reading those books. I’ll think you’re foolish, nostalgic, a dinosaur etcetera etcetera.

Rumpus: You dismiss fiction as entertainment.

Shields: Too often it is.

Rumpus: Many fictional stories, though, are art, and the author is not concerned with entertainment per se.

Shields: Give me an example.

Rumpus: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Nine hundred pages of traditional fiction.

Shields: Haven’t read it, though I’ve heard it’s good.

Rumpus: You watch Slumdog Millionaire?

Shields.  Yes.

Rumpus: It’s the polar opposite. After about page one hundred you realize everyone will die or wish they had. That’s difficult to achieve.

Shields: Obviously there are exceptions. But what I find repeatedly is that a very intelligent writer will begin with a great idea, I know it’s an easy target, but I’ll use Jonathan Franzen. His idea is that we tend to overcorrect…on a personal level, a psychological, a familial, a geopolitical, an economic level…so he has this idea of writing The Corrections. And he wants to trace this over families and generations, and I’m really interested in that…but what does he do? He gives up way too much ground; he sacrifices too much on the altar of plot. He’s there, essentially, to hold the reader in his grip while the really interesting ideas he initially wanted to explore are barely scratched. Instead, he spends time trying to keep the middle-brow reader riveted. And I don’t think of myself as a middle-brow reader. I’m not held by plot, I’m held by thoughts…by ideas, by consciousness. We’re lonely. We’re existentially lonely. And the work I love the most shows you this for two hundred pages. What happens to me in book after book after book is the opposite, the most recent example is Louise Erdrich’s roman à clef about her marriage with Michael Dorris…he committed suicide, their marriage ended blah blah blah. I haven’t read the book, just a review, but what I want from her is a searing excavation of the pain…not a story…not a novel, because a novel is basically a story telling mechanism that exists to hold the reader riveted…it’s there to sell a book.

I love ideas and contemplation. The energy of the word as the writer wrestles with some personal or cultural cataclysm. Take Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, a very short book composed of nothing but discreet paragraphs, ostensibly about her breaking up with this guy. Lots of memoirs and novels would just trace the relationship…but what she does in a series of beautifully far-ranging paragraphs is explore why the human animal is so melancholy…why are we so blue? And she explores…she flies all over, and for me that is a far richer meditation…whereas the traditional approach would be unending chapters about how this couple broke up. So many novels are hamstrung by the formulaic execution of scene, setting, dialogue, character development, back story, narrative, momentum, epiphany, closure…there are exceptions, but the books I love tend to be anti-novels. They foreground contemplation.

Rumpus: To write the traditional novel, though, you must become an authority. You want to write about prostitution in Thailand, so you need to know about AIDS, pregnancy, adoption, Thai culture…It’s like Hemingway’s tip of the iceberg, knowledge underlies a powerful story. Research may be boring, but to just reflect on your literary aesthetic, and explore your own problems, seems like a basketball player who only wants to scrimmage. No free throws, no laps, no weight room, just scrimmaging…or the musician who just wants to jam, no scales, no rehearsal. You write passionately about the panoply of your likes and dislikes…but once you’ve mastered craft and voice you’re just jamming. Where’s the exertion, the authority?

Shields: That’s a brutal analogy. Hmmm, to say that the writers I like…are just scrimmaging or jamming. Brutal. If I felt that way…I’d be bummed out. I can see how, to a lot of readers, that the kind of writing I love might feel to the casual eye that it’s loose, it’s open-ended…

Rumpus: There’s a place for it, and you capture it well. It’s definitely not easy, you have strong voice; sensitivity to literary nuance…you must be fucking intelligent and talented. But still it’s…Here’s what I like and it’s good! Here’s what I hate and here’s why!

Shields: You know, I’m definitely questioning what you say. I ask myself if I’m, maybe, shirking the big game because I’m not drawn to it…it’s the idea of boredom, I don’t want to bore or be bored as a reader or writer. Yet the work I love has this unfettered, naked, reformative, self-revealing and self-excavating quality, think…Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Cheever’s Journals, George Trow’s Within the Context of No Context…work that can go anywhere, that fluctuates between memoir, confession, stand-up comedy, cultural reportage, journalism, philosophy…And what I feel so often in the novel is the writer’s allegiance to a form. I can tell the writer’s terribly smart, but I don’t feel all this because they are straitjacketed in this well-established format. I don’t think I can remember the last time I was held, truly riveted, by a conventional novel or short story…I just felt like, you know, I don’t think I’m getting your best intelligence. I’m getting individual paragraphs. A glimmer…What happens in so many novels is furniture moving and throat clearing…just get to the fucking point. The work I love explodes in every paragraph.

Rumpus: I’d say the problem is too much description. It doesn’t matter if the characters are beautiful, all we need to know is A wants to seduce B…B is repulsed. Or…how many words does it take to describe a tropical beach? Two: tropical beach. But many writers spend paragraphs.

Shields: That’s a good point. Exactly. Novels that persist in writing this way are ignoring the fact that cinema, TV, and the Internet have completely usurped this function. I agree emphatically…there was a recent story in The New Yorker by Ian McEwan…I guess I’m using him as a battering ram because he expends huge amounts of time, an endless investment, on verisimilitude. He builds a package of details to convince you the scene is real. Ninety percent of the story becomes cultural tidbits about the guy’s cufflink or what books he’s reading…

Rumpus: A little detail can be important…

Shields: He’s not exploring anything but his own attempt to recreate this verisimilitude, it’s absolutely preposterous.

Rumpus: Right. You’re always talking about existential doubt…abstract art. But you say abstractness is existential, existential doubt is meaningful, the only true meaning is abstract and so on in circles. A story can produce doubt, but there is also a truth.

Shields: Do you have an example?

Rumpus: You walk into a store and hand the clerk a twenty to pay for fifteen dollars of gas. The clerk hands you back three fives. You do not discover the mistake until you are driving off. What do you do?

Shields: Did this happen to you?

Rumpus: Yeah, first time I kept the money. A couple years later, in college, I returned it. That’s what you do. You give it back. That’ s absolute. But as a young twit I justified it as sticking it to big business.

Shields: That’s a great example. I really love the story about whether or not to return the ten dollars. I could think about it forever, the pros and cons of giving the money back, and we’ve all acted incorrectly depending on our mood and our maturity. I mean, even a book like Reality Hunger has plenty of stories. I mean, I love stories, but I want succinct. I just want the story, no details, and then I want to hear you thinking about it for ten pages. All of my work, even a book as relatively abstract as Reality Hunger, The Thing About Life, Remote, Black Planet, they’re full of stories.

Rumpus: Ah! You love stories.

Shields: But they’re lashed to an idea, a philosophical investigation. Those books are a foreground to exploring race, media, death, celebrity, art…the stories  are serving a larger investigation as opposed to taking a severe back seat to, say in your story, focusing on the gas station’s grease, or what the attendant’s playing on the radio, or if he has a mustache…who gives a shit? Just tell us one brief story and give me pages of Caleb worrying himself sick about whether or not he’s doing the right thing.

Rumpus: What I take is this: you’re not so much against story. You just want a new approach.

Shields: Yes. I think of a couple lines…one is by Alain Robbe-Grillet, something like…we’re not against storytelling, but we’re against naïve storytelling. It’s the faux naïve crap. Alice Munro being an example. It’s like she’s writing in 1880, very innocent and not congruent with the 21st century. There’s a line by Borges I use in my book where he says if you can summarize a book in ten sentences then why not just say it in ten sentences? What happens in three hundred pages is that the writer starts with something like a failed marriage, nerves and guts, but ends up just cranking through this narrative with the in-laws and the children and the blah and the blah blah and who cares.

That’s just it. I’m not necessarily against story. I’m trying to change the culture, and so I wrote Reality Hunger. Because we need to write compressed stories that produce a ton of thought rather than elaborate stories that produce none.


Caleb Powell enjoys travel, art, culture, food, drink, conversation, friends and family, and he's usually up for a beer. More from this author →