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The Rumpus Interview with David Shields

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Reality Hunger: A Manifesto was David Shields’s self-described ars poetica for a burgeoning group of artists using the lyric essay and a multitude of other forms to break larger and larger chunks of reality into their work. It was an ambitious defense of the collage-form lyric essay in the form of a collage-form lyric essay.

Shields’s impassioned arguments for emerging forms of literary modernism, and his pointed claims that the “traditional literary novel” and the conventions of copyright law have become antiquated and outmoded, provoked a spirited public conversation and a wide-ranging critical response. Sarah Manguso praised Reality Hunger as a “necessary and thrilling book.” Chuck Klosterman said it “might be the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last 10 years.” Zadie Smith wrote that it was “thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it.” Wen Stephenson argued that it was actually a jeremiad.

The Rumpus previously interviewed Shields in 2010, and again in 2011. I spoke with Shields more recently, by telephone, on the eve of the recent snowstorm that buried the Northeast. He was gracious, spoke in a lilting California accent, and peppered his thoughts with congenial you know‘s, sort of‘s, and I hope‘s. We talked about his new book, How Literature Saved My Life, whether it’s necessary to draw sharp distinctions between literary forms, and his celebration of literature that collapses the distance between the artist’s life and work.

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The Rumpus: How would you describe the relationship between Reality Hunger and How Literature Saved My Life?

David Shields: I like my friend Jonathan Raban’s description. He calls it a surprising sequel. It’s a sequel, but it’s maybe not the sequel you expect. I think, to a certain degree, Reality Hunger burned literature down to the ground for myself, and apparently for some other people, too. I think How Literature Saved My Life kind of reconstructs literature, for me, and I hope for others.

I also think of the book as an attempt to practice what Reality Hunger theorizes about. It’s much more visceral to me, much more vivid, much more vulnerable. It’s an attempt, I hope, to anatomize or embody or exemplify the things I talked about in Reality Hunger.

Rumpus: How did Reality Hunger burn literature to the ground for you?

Shields: Well, maybe that’s a rather highfalutin way to say it. I guess I was taking a lot of chess pieces off the board for myself. I was saying to myself, Okay, you don’t want to write a traditional memoir, or a traditional novel, or straight-faced journalism, or straight-faced scholarship. But if you take all of those moves away from yourself, what’s left?

In this book, I hope to celebrate dozens, even hundreds, of books that beautifully answer that call, whether they are canonical works like Moby Dick, or works like Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries, or more contemporary works, like Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians. And then, I hope, I’m also constructing an example of a work that effectively jumps boundaries.

Rumpus: Is it necessary, though, to make pronounced distinctions between genres, to say that particular literary forms are restricted in their ability to do certain things? I think a lot of novelists would say, “I also want to make things new and describe who we are and how we live.”

how literature saved my lifeShields: That’s a fair point. And I think sometimes I may use the conventional novel as a bit of a paper tiger. But I also find that, personally, even supposedly radical experimentations within the novel form end up giving up way too much ground, even if you’re undermining narrative or playing with plot or whatever. I don’t know how to say it, exactly, but I find the game is very rarely worth the candle.

Take David Markson’s last four books—Reader’s BlockThis is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novelwhich I absolutely love. They are, for me, beautifully crystalized meditations on monumental subjects. Whereas the book that preceded them, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which a lot of people think of as this great experimental novel—I find that book to be actually quite straitjacketed by its plot. He doesn’t really care about it. He wants to get to the meditations. The later books, in which he dispenses to a very large degree with narrative machinery, I find to be much more powerful.

Rumpus: You begin How Literature Save My Life with a meditation on Ben Lerner’s novel, Leaving the Atocha Station.

Shields: I really love that book.

Rumpus: You write that he is your dopplegänger for the next generation. What do you mean?

Shields: I think that, in Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben is wrestling, in a serious and rigorous and unsentimental way, with the question that animates How Literature Saved My Life, namely: how can we feel or experience anything, exactly, in our completely saturated environment? And the connected question is: how can we create art in this contemporary, post-digital world? His book is an explicit meditation on those two questions. And those are the questions with which I’m also concerned.

Rumpus: At the risk of spending all my time hammering away on the question of form, isn’t his novel a perfect example of how the novel can do all of the things that you said in Reality Hunger novels can no longer do?

Shields: Well, I think you are perhaps misunderstanding or misremembering what I said in Reality Hunger. All I’m interested in is exploring consciousness. And there are plenty of novels I love that do that. Camus’s The Fall, Remembrance of Things Past, Moby Dick, Tristram Shandy, Elizabeth Costello, Sebald, Leaving the Atocha Station. So, you know, in no way am I “against the novel.”

I really love a statement of David Foster Wallace’s; he says we’re existentially alone on the planet. I can’t know what you are thinking and feeling, and you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. Writing, at its best, is a bridge across that existential abyss. The works I love wrestle explicitly with that question. They foreground the question of how the writer solves being alive. Samuel Johnson: “A book should either allow the reader to escape life or teach him to endure it.” Well, which one strikes you as more essential?

But let’s be honest. Ninety-five percent of novels published do that relatively traditional novelistic thing. I’m just trying to argue that genre is a minimum security prison. The moment you are wrapped comfortably within genre, whether a romantic comedy, a sitcom, or a novel, or a sonnet, I find it’s rare that you are doing work that is congruent with how people are actually living now and how they are actually thinking. Alice Fulton has a great essay on this: we have moved from formal verse, to free verse, to fractal verse—Newton, to Einstein, to quantum physics.

Rumpus: I guess it depends on what you mean by “conventional novel.” What does it mean to say that the novel has become imprisoned in its genre, or its traditional devices?—which is what I understand you to be saying.

Shields: I’m terribly enamored of two lines. One is by Walter Benjamin: “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.” The other line is by V.S. Naipaul. He says: “If you want to write seriously, you have to be willing to break the form.”

I love those lines to death. And I just think what they are saying is true. I love novels in which absolutely nothing happens, and a person just thinks about existence. I find them loneliness-assuaging. “Plots are for dead people.”

But I’m just trying to write books, you know? I’m trying to write books that explore and embody these ideas. Because I really care about literature moving forward. But if you don’t don’t agree, that’s fine, too. I’m not in charge of anything.

Rumpus: There’s a compelling story at the heart of How Literature Saved My Life, about how literature gave you a way to be a person, to be in the world. But then at some point you lost touch with that.

Shields: I think that’s a beautiful way into the book. Some friends of mine have called it a detective novel: there’s a heart-pounding story underneath the collage mix of things.

reality hungerThe Ben Lerner prologue is crucial to establishing the question the book is trying to explore. And that’s followed by eight very targeted chapters, which are meant to make eight specifically philosophical moves. I cop to my own ambivalence, for example, my inability to commit to any one thing; the difficult beauty of love; then how deeply melancholic I am. I talk about the limits of the human body, just the fact that we’re mortal and that I’ll be dead in fifty years. I even flirt—not terribly seriously—with suicide.

Then I find a partial solution in literature. I convert my stuttering into an embrace of literature. I embrace modernism. But that starts to pale for me, so I crave a much more naked art, one that constructs as thin a membrane as possible between life and art.

And then I say: I’m not sure I even like art. Do I just like artfully-arranged life? And then, if this detective novel is still happening for the reader, I find, barely, a solution of how to live with my own mind, with the contemporary world, and I affirm a literature I love, in which ironically, or paradoxically, I affirm the redemptive grace of consciousness itself. The very thing that plagued me—an acute self-consciousness—I try to affirm that as the very grounds of an art that bridges the gap between people, that makes us less lonely and more understanding of the interiority of another person.

We walk around all day trapped in our own consciousnesses. Each person on the planet—all 7.8 billion people: to each of them, their own consciousness is irreducibly real. No one else’s consciousness is remotely as real. In books that I love—Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries, say—you as reader get so inside the consciousness of the narrator, the author, that your loneliness is assuaged: you are actually inside the mind of another human being. The existential abyss is bridged.

In Bookforum, Minna Proctor articulated this ten times better than I am here , but I do think people who like the book clue in to this existential detective story.

Rumpus: The film Sherman’s March, which you discuss in the book, also seems like an example of the self-reflexive artistic ideal you are describing.

Shields: That film absolutely changed my life. I saw it by chance on public television twenty-five years ago, and it took my breath away. It still takes my breath away.

What Ross McElwee does in that film is so beautiful. He takes a broad subject, General Sherman, and at the very beginning he has his former teacher, Richard Leacock, the advocate of cinema vérité, narrating the film in this Mission Control voice, talking about General Sherman in a very traditional documentary way. And then you could say that McElwee drags the needle across the spinning record. He stops that voice, and in the next shot we see him sweeping up his empty apartment and he’s talking in an ordinary human voice.

For me, that film is about how the perceiver, by his presence, inevitably alters what’s being perceived. McElwee understands that there is no absolute knowledge. He sets himself in relationship to a subject and yet he’s still consciously exploring it.

The main thing I love about that film is that it has four tracks—the rise of nuclear weapons, General Sherman’s march through the South, McElwee’s courtship of Southern women, and then his attempt to make a film about these subjects; they all seem like they might be parts of a shaggy dog story. But those four apparently disparate threads come together quite magically. The movie violates and transcends its subject. It pretends to be about General Sherman, but it’s really about something more complex and profound. I don’t know if I can even articulate it.

Rumpus: He’s trying to be a documentary filmmaker; he’s trying to be an artist; he’s trying to find someone to love, and be a man who is worthy of love. The problem is how to be a person. He starts out doing what he thinks he’s supposed to be doing, which is making a documentary about General Sherman, but then his existential circumstances don’t allow him to make the film. He can’t do it.

hqdefaultShields: That’s lovely. And I would just add that the connection between nuclear war, a filmmaker, male sexual drive, the North’s colonization of the South, men’s colonization of women, a film’s colonizing of its subject, a nuclear weapon colonizing the space that it destroys—it’s pretty clear that the film is a deadly serious meditation and critique of what you might call masculine imperial power and desire.

But it’s really aware, and self-aware. It’s a highly self-critical contemplation of colonization, the male gaze, the idea of colonizing space through a weapon, a gaze, a camera, a penis—it’s really on on that subject.

Rumpus: All presented by a soft-spoken, gentile, sensitive man.

Shields: He’s a soft-spoken Southern gentleman wrestling with and invoking the power of an inherently manipulative medium. It’s a great, great film.

Rumpus: In the book, you write about trying to find a way to become a writer, which is one way of trying to figure out how to be a person. At first you’re writing novels. Then, as you write, the novel goes dark for you. So you have to find another way to write, because you’re committed to writing. It’s what gave you, a stuttering young man, a voice.

Shields: Well, there’s definitely a kind of a Bildungsroman going on, isn’t there? But I don’t pretend to have the purchase on an audience that a monumentally famous writer might enjoy, someone about whom we might be interested to learn how he or she became a writer. But that question of how a person becomes an artist is very much the subject of a book coming down the road, a book I did with a former student.

Rumpus: This is the J.D. Salinger biography?

Shields: No, that’s separate. That I can’t talk about because I signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Rumpus: No!

Shields: Yeah, you were probably building to that one.

Rumpus: So there’s even another project?

Shields:  Yes, there are four new books I’ve recently finished, and one is a project with Caleb Powell, a former student of mine, called I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. The way I think about that book is he always wanted to become an artist, but he overcommitted to life, and I always wanted to become a person, but I overcommitted to art.

So, much of that book, which we hope will come out soon—I don’t know if you know the films Sideways, or The Trip, or My Dinner with Andre?

Rumpus: I liked Sideways. My Dinner with Andre is one of my favorites.

Shields: Well, it sounds like we have not entirely dissimilar tastes, although I gather you’re something of a skeptic toward my aesthetic—

Rumpus: Well, I heard Elif Batuman say something about how curious it is that, when you go into the bookstore, the most privileged distinction between the books on display is between fiction and nonfiction. But why does that have to be the most privileged distinction in literature? All writers are, in different ways, telling stories. That idea was sort of the source of my earlier critical questions.

Shields: Yes, can’t we just demolish these distinctions?

Rumpus: Well, maybe not demolish them, but recognize their limitations, or that they aren’t always all-important. A novel can do a lot of things we understand memoir to be doing. A memoir can do a lot of the things we understand the novel to be doing. One picks up where the other leaves off.

Shields: Well, I agree with that. How could one not? I mean, I open the book with a genuflection to Ben Lerner’s book, so I obviously adore that book, which is, let’s face it, more of an anti-novel. Ben, or his alter-ego, just hangs out and thinks about language and despair for two hundred pages. He’s with this girl, then he’s with another girl, then he shows up at a conference, does a reading, a bomb goes off; there’s no plot.

There’s another wonderful thing Elif Batuman says, that she almost always prefers the e-mails her writer friends send her to the books they write. And I know maybe she’s joking a little bit, but I think that’s such a beautiful and true thing. So many people, when they write, put on their capital “W” writer’s cap or their capital “N” novelist cap. But when they actually just write in a more—I don’t know what I would call it—naked way, I find the work so much more alive. That’s why I like Cheever’s journals infinitely more than his stories, Simon Gray’s diaries infinitely more than the plays he wrote; Wallace’s essays are so much more compelling to me than his novels; I love the preface to Scarlet Letter so much more than the novel.

Portrait of author - David ShieldsFor me all the exciting stuff is happening in the essayistic realm because, these days, I find the kind of immersion in consciousness we are discussing to be much more prevalent in the book-length essay; it’s inherent to the form. It was a key component of the modernist novel. I mean, that’s what Joyce, Proust, or Virginia Woolf were about. And there are a few people still doing that in novels. In general, people with this tendency have migrated to the book-length essay.

But the thing I love about the best kind of collage is that every page, every paragraph, every line is trying to be dense with that kind of investigation. I like work where you get nothing but the really great stuff.

Rumpus: There’s an immediacy to it.

Shields: That’s a good word. “Get rid of the boring parts,” as my students summarize it. Or as a recent review by Mark Athitakis had it, David Shields’s aesthetic is “sex on the first date.” The removal of a scrim between the reader and writer. Maybe I just have a low boredom threshold. Maybe I have encroaching ADD. Or maybe stuttering as a kid and into adulthood has made me impatient with wasted language. There might be all kinds of reasons, but I know how few books, to be honest, I can read these days with ecstatic pleasure, and invariably they are books with a high power-to-weight ratio—very compressed, very concise, enormous velocity.

And some people say I have a a rather extreme or limited aesthetic. But a lot of people find what I’m saying to be useful. They say, I thought something was the matter with me because I didn’t want to write a conventional memoir, or novel, or story. And if you want to write in a more pointillistic way, there is, in fact, a tradition, going back to Heraclitus’s Fragments and coming all the way up through Maggie Nelson’s Bluets—a form that houses books that look, to the inattentive reader, to be disorganized, but are actually organized to within an inch of their life. Such writers exist. Such books exist. I want to contribute to that way of writing and reading and thinking.


Sean Carman has contributed to four McSweeney's humor anthologies, and has been a contestant in Literary Death Match, a finalist in NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Contest, and a winner of The New Yorker's weekly Twitter contest. His story "A Hard Rain. A Really, Really Hard Rain" was a runner-up in the Out of the Storm News Bad Writing About the Weather Contest. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works as an environmental lawyer. More from this author →