Shields traded contrarian ideas with Nicholson Baker, Stephen Colbert, and Rick Moody, among others, and provoked stalwarts Michiko Kakutani and James Woods. Such fiery debate rare for a work of literary criticism, leading to the February 2011 release of the book in paperback. Within Shields argues for a certain aesthetic, a blurring of genre, a future without novel, a literature that penetrates “reality at ground level,” specifically: the lyric essay, collage, and other non-traditional forms. One cannot deny his manifesto has stimulated debate, and that the art he loves can be quite stunning. However, the underlying jeremiad against fiction has proven troubling, though attempts to persuade Shields of his follies prove futile. Christopher Hitchens might get better odds in convincing The Pope to renounce Catholicism. Nevertheless, I offer this salvo, not so much to dissuade Shields, but to promote the value, going forward, of the novel.
The Rumpus: A long time ago someone close to me told me she was raped, that she had been impregnated by her stepfather, and then had an abortion. When she told me I acted like she had a venereal disease. I avoided her. I lost contact. Years later I felt regret, and I wanted to understand her experience. I read Bastard out of Carolina. Through story, character, even setting and plot, through a novel, I learned about her reality at “ground level.” This reality obliterated something inside me. You’ve stopped reading novels…are you certain they can offer nothing?
David Shields: The question doesn’t really make sense. One idea is not connected to the other. What I think of is the novel Louise Erdrich wrote “about” Michael Dorris’s suicide. Everyone understood that the novel was a roman à clef, but it didn’t scrape to bone in the way that I wanted it to. I’m not sure what to say other than that for myself and other like-minded writers, I’m establishing an aesthetic of radical compression, naked discomfiture, etc. Louise Erdrich is a born novelist, and that is her métier, and she’s good at it, but what I found in that book, and what I find in 99.99% of novels is that the armature takes over – the impulse to keep the reader turning pages. What I want from work front and center is the writer struggling with nothing less than how he or she has or hasn’t solved the problem of being alive. A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it. Almost all novels do the former; I want the latter.
Rumpus: How to escape? How to endure? Dorothy Allison’s novel asks: How can a 12 year-old child solve being raped by her stepfather? What can this child do when her mother does not believe her? How should she stay afloat when her mother ultimately chooses her stepfather? Thus specifically: “How can a child stay alive when she is raped and has no one to turn to?” The novel concludes with hardcore doubt. It’s a grueling lesson, and struggles mightily with how to endure, not escape. I question your certainty thus:
A. David Shields is certain the novel does not solve being alive.
B. There are novels that struggle with the problem of how to be alive.
C. David Shields’ certainty is called into question.
I would say most novels are “entertainment.” You say “almost all.” You pull out your exceptions, and then label them anti-novels, but I’m trying to show, by one exception, that you may be wrong. That a novel, even if it’s a roman à clef, offers compelling art. I’d say that 99% of novels don’t do it, but this may also be the case with 99% of lyric essay/collage etc. The novel is equal to other forms in this respect.
Shields: Sure. If you found the Dorothy Allison novel powerful, go for it. Not sure what to say. I’m just saying that for myself, I was looking at the New Yorker last night. Thought I’d look at the first sentence of Tessa Hadley’s short story. It seemed to me a gesture made so many millions of times before that we can’t read it anymore. It’s played out. At least it is for me. I’m fifteen years older than you are. I’ve read a lot more. I’ve read all of these things. I’ve read all of these novels. Forms evolve. Art, like science, progresses. Why should a novel written in 2011 take very nearly the same form as a novel took in 1880, with minor variations? Is this true in music? In visual art? No. Then why should it be true in literary work? How can we not take full advantage of the digital materials now available to us? I can’t argue with your experience or anyone else’s. I’m just saying that for me I can’t read such works anymore. They feel hackneyed and predictable. I’m trying to develop an aesthetic flag to fly under for people who share this. Hundreds of people write me to say, “Thank you for writing this. I never knew what form I was trying to get to. This is it.”
Rumpus: Hey, I’m as picky reader as you, I’ve got my eclectic mix of nonfiction and fiction, essay, journalism, cultural flotsam…I want art full of life, language, and I want to get into the mind of a fucking genius.
Shields: That’s all I ever want to do, too – get into the mind of a genius. But I want the mind. Almost no novels major in mind. I love the exceptions: Sterne, Markson, Proust, etc.
Rumpus: Fair enough. You’ve done tons of interviews, and pretty much everyone has come up with these so-called “exceptions”… I’ve got mine, Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin…man, that novel fucks with your brain. But I’ll stay with Bastard out of Carolina…the power comes from three hours of intense reading. A lyric essay could never match that. When you describe novels you aren’t describing this…unless you despise “real.” These are novels for the 21st century, for now, for the future, and they could not have been written in 1880.
Shields: My goal was never to convince you or anyone else. It was just to write an ars poetica for myself, to figure out what it is I love and why, and if there are any like-minded individuals who find the argument useful, then I’m delighted. This probably sounds like an evasion on my part, but it’s the “truth.” One novel that I read fairly recently and loved, and that is utterly traditional, is Coetzee’s Disgrace. I haven’t read those novels you mention, but whenever I do read such novels that everybody else admires – e.g. Philip Roth’s The Human Stain – all of the armature inevitably defeats me.
Rumpus: Who’s everybody else?
Shields: Conventional wisdom, I suppose. The gate-keepers.
Rumpus: I’d say you’ve developed an inveterate bias.
Shields: No art without bias.
Rumpus: The artist should embrace all forms.
Shields: Nope. Gotta choose.
Rumpus: I love what you love…fiction also. But I’ll admit…I’m concerned for the novel’s future. I see literature becoming less and less important.
Shields: I’m trying to save it, I promise you.
Rumpus: I think about David Foster Wallace’s take on poetry, that poetry is only written for poets, experimental writing is a lot of work with little reward…new forms capture the same landscape. I say the novel offers the best chance to avoid this.
Shields: As I mention, there are definitely some novels that I like, but they aren’t novelly novels. They might have a somewhat fictive rubric, e.g. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, but they are not sacrificing investigation for entertainment. They are all about the investigation.
Rumpus: So I ask…do you think lyric essay and collage face the same danger as the poem? What about literature in general? Will there be a day when the only people reading literary art are those who create it? And how important is this to our future?
Shields: I suppose that is a real concern, isn’t it? This is the elitist idea? I guess I don’t think in those terms. I just am trying to stay alive as a writer and reader and teacher. Almost all fiction writing bores me out of my mind. I’ve found, to my great relief and joy, work that thrills me and that I want to write. Many writers who are 55 are phoning in their SOP by now. I feel proud that I’m still completely confused, completely feeling my way in the dark through this new form, this nonfiction drawer labeled nonsocks. People will always read and write. It will take utterly new forms. And one of the main ways we’ll get there is by embracing new technologies and new modes rather than pretending “literature” consists of replaying the hits of 1908.
Read Caleb Powell’s first Rumpus Interview with Shields here.