Toward the end of my MFA coursework, Geoff Dyer assigned the book Reality Hunger to our class. In case you are unfamiliar, Reality Hunger is a collection of aphorisms lifted from other works (though some are written by the book’s editor, David Shields). Listed numerically, they go uncredited until the end of the book. Shields has been called a plagiarist by some critics, but Reality Hunger upended my expectations for how works of literary nonfiction should operate, and forced me to reconsider the nature of truth in my own work. The book was nothing short of life-changing. I had the chance to see Shields and Caleb Powell, the co-author of his new book I Think You’re Totally Wrong, speak in Seattle early in January, and was not disappointed. The pair argued, throwing harsh accusations at each other—Shields is a narcissist, Powell has to make everything political—and the atmosphere for the audience, though uncomfortably tense at times, was electric.
I Think You’re Totally Wrong is constructed as a transcript of a conversation that took place between Powell and Shields over the course of a weekend. Their aim is to try to determine if there are any legitimate divisions between life and art. What must the artist sacrifice to remain true to the craft? For Powell and Shields, one answer seems to be a stable personal life. There are many secrets revealed within these pages. Shields’ struggled to embrace fatherhood. Powell once had a romantic encounter with a transsexual (before his marriage). Other admissions about their wives (who were not afforded speaking roles in this book) were never meant to see the light of day. It’s an intensely confessional work. But to what end?
Intimidated by Shields’ aggressive attitude toward his writing partner, I inched my arm up at the reading, intending to ask the authors about their purpose in including so many personal anecdotes in the book. Shields cited Joan Didion, who once said that all writers are betraying someone (but wasn’t that Janet Malcolm?), and Richard Nash, who infamously suggested that “the business of literature is to blow shit up.” Shields contends that the book is trying to illuminate the fact that a life dedicated to art has consequences, that he nearly sacrificed the happiness of his family in pursuit of his passion—an explanation that simultaneously elevates Shields’ personality and disparages it.
For me, Reality Hunger blew shit up—in fact, it blew up 20 years of reading and writing. But I Think You’re Totally Wrong—which addresses the contentious issue of where art ends and life begins, if there’s any difference at all—feels like a series of freestanding and increasingly personal stories strung together about two people who I didn’t get to know any better. While this makes for an arresting examination of how different personalities evaluate the quality of a piece of art (for Powell it seems as though there must be some political attachment for a work to be considered valuable, a point Shields vehemently disagrees with), I wonder if perhaps Shields and Powell were, in editing this book, too attached to the ideal that I Think You’re Totally Wrong must be an exploration of where The Artist stands in the world.
There is no question that this is a conversation worth having, and I think Shields is one of the only people who could successfully launch it. But I found myself oddly detached from a book that lays bare some of it’s authors’ darkest moments, perhaps because the reader is aware that all this gushing on their part is, to some degree, not arising organically from the course of the conversation. All this is revealed to the reader so that the authors can expound further on the intellectual question of the difference between reality and art, and that mission left me cold. Whether or not I learned more about them as people is besides the point, because what I was supposed to learn about was the complications that arise when you choose the life of an artist.
But artists are people, not just vessels for heated debates on the nature and meaning of art. I think, I hope, that both Shields and Powell would agree with me on that point. To some degree, I think this book is trying to get at the fact that artists can’t escape their humanness—we are bound to our earthly needs, for better or worse. As much as I wanted to love I Think You’re Totally Wrong for delving into a topic that is constantly on my mind, there isn’t enough of humanity here, despite the book’s effort to present itself as intimate. (Perhaps an acknowledgement that they are sharing details about their wives and children when those voices have no chance to speak for themselves might have helped.) The ego of the artist is at the helm, and that feels alienating.
Shields’ impulse to experiment and shatter traditional forms of literature will never cease to impress me. Perhaps I just prefer David Shields the man, in constant turmoil over what it means to write non fiction, over David Shields the artist.