February 2010

Catherine Lacey


An Interview with David Shields

I first learned about David Shields when a professor brought a box of galley copies of Reality Hunger to class last January. Reality Hunger quickly became a topic of hallway discussions that semester and everyone was trying to borrow or make a copy of one another's galleys.†

That spring I was in charge of putting together a panel discussion about issues of truth in nonfiction, and I invited David to be a panelist. Afterwards, I quickly read two of his ten other books, a memoirish book titled Enough About You and his New York Times bestselling work The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead. Shields latest tome, Reality Hunger,†seems to complete a trilogy started by those two; one examines the curious need to catalog a personal history, the next examines the eventual end of that history, and in the last, Shields conducts a chorus of voices debating the meaning of reality. Through all three, we see Shields searching for the line where his influences stop and he begins, and in Reality Hunger, there is a kind of poetic union of the two. This interview was conducted via emails that we sent over the course of two days.

My friend's toddler scribbled on a page while the book was open in my lap and I told her, "Go ahead, It's not even a real book."

I love this. Toddler reworks Reality Hunger in exactly the way the book reworks previous books. Toddler tale is the book in a single anecdote.

Also, I have to admit that Reality Hunger is the first book I have ever argued with. I wrote sardonic comments in the margins.

Such as? What were the kinds of things that maddened you?

Well, let's see. I'll just take something out of context since everything in the book is naked of its original context. Section 172 reads, "Good nonfiction has to be as carefully shaped as good fiction, and I'm not bothered at all by this artifice." I circled this and wrote: "Why call it artifice?" It felt a little odd arguing with some words when I didn't know whose mouth had spoken them. Also, section 250 reads "What's appropriation art? It's when you steal but make a point of stealing, because by changing the context you change the connotation." This sort of illuminated the whole book for me, in a way. At first I just thought, "Oh, David had cleverly culled all these neat words together and is putting them in one book for my own convenience." But by this point, about 87 pages into your collection of quotes, I realized that the act of lifting many writers' thoughts and putting them in this book had fundamentally changed their meanings. It seems a little dense to only realize this 87 pages in, but what can I say? It charmed me.

Difficult for me to overstate how exactly this embodies the reading experience I was trying to create. That for me is the book (again: see toddler anecdote above). That is, the three epigraphs are: Art is theft; All great works of literature either invent a genre or dissolve one, and when you are unsure, you are alive. (More or less, those are the quotes.) The whole point is to argue for works that defy genre, and to try to replicate that experience for the reader in their confusion regarding the quotes. Thatís the book.

I was also mesmerized by the rhythm and texture that all the quotes created by building up on each other. Gradually, I stopped arguing and started listening more carefully. While you were writing Reality Hunger, what kind of reaction were you expecting to get from this book, especially considering the fact that the word Manifesto is on the cover? Did you expect people to argue with it? Also, how much were you thinking about the reader in general (i.e., who they would be and why they might want to read a manifesto)?

One early review said that calling this book a manifesto is like calling a nuclear bomb a weapon -- something like that. I took it/take it as high praise. Writiní is fightiní, as Ishmael Reed once said. But I didnít think at all about the reader when writing this book. The origins of Reality Hunger lie, believe it or not, in a course Iíve been teaching for many years -- a graduate course in the lyric essay and self-reflexive documentary film. Over many years, Iíve been putting together a course packet full of scraps of material that Iíve read and loved. I didnít really care/donít really care who said what. None of the quotes had citations; I was just trying to get the class to respond to the provocative statements, especially since they were and are graduate students in fiction, and my course is kind of the Anabaptist at the Baptist convention. All this material started becoming a book when I realized I could slide some of the material intro thematized rubrics, otherwise known as chapters; each chapter could have a movement, an argument; and the book as a whole could go from A to Z, could unfold an ethos, an ars poetica. What drove the thing from the beginning was that I needed to explain to myself why I donít write fiction per se anymore, and why with various few exceptions I canít and donít read it, and why a certain kind of philosophically inclined nonfiction thrills me to my toes, how exciting this work is, how exciting it always has been, going back millennia.I just wanted to understand this for myself and, in a way, my students and the culture at large, because I do think the shift is in no way only in me.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about the structure, too. Reality Hunger is structured in this mini-section format; some sections are a page or so long but most are just a few sentences or a paragraph. Each mini-section is numbered and seems to stand on its own, though each builds on the last and their order seems to be anything but haphazard. There is nothing particularly new about this style -- Nietzsche often used it -- and many contemporary books operate in a similar if not identical fashion. David Markson's Reader's Block and Maggie Nelson's Bluets are just two that come to mind, but there are many more. With all the thought that you've given the current hunger for reality, what do you make of this trend? Does it reflect the way our modern minds catalog ideas?

I swear to God, I canít read a book unless it has miniature numbered sections. I exaggerate, but only slightly. I think of so many books that I love and so many of them are numbered: Pascalsís Pensees, Maggie Nelsonís Bluets, Wittgenstein, The Pharmacistís Mate, 8, Wenderoth, Lindqvist, Pessoa, Daudet, Cheeverís Journals, Rochefoucauld, James Richardson, Donald Patterson, Cyril Connolly. Iím not 100% sure that all of these books are numbered, but they have at minimum some kind of numerological structure, and the key thing for me is that the numbers pretend to be a rational order, and the work blows that apart. The tension between the order of the numbers and the chaos of life I find, Iíll say it, erotic.

There is a parenthetical phrase in the first chapter that I haven't been able to stop thinking about since I read this a year ago. It said, "What, in the last half-century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder's Super-8 film of the Kennedy Assassination?" I sardonically noted that the actual event of Kennedy's assassination had to have had more influence than the Super-8 footage, but now I am not so sure. Do you think that recordings of major events like this end up being more influential the the events themselves (i.e., 9/11, the moon landing, the speeches of Martin Luther King, etc.)?

I do think this is so, donít you?

No, I don't, though that quote makes me wonder.

Obviously, the events matter, but we are incapable of thinking about them independent from their repeated representation. ďThe work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.Ē Thereís a line in the bookóa rare moment where I directly quote someone; I believe I specifically quote Freud saying, ďWe have no memories from our childhood, only memories that pertain to our childhood.Ē What does this mean? It means for me that memory is a dream-machine; composition is a fiction-making operation; history is the conventional wisdom the victors tell. That just seems to me to be true, and in a way the book derives from this post-structuralist idea, that the perceiver by his very presence changes whatís perceived. Itís important to me to see that reality hunger is within quadruple quotation marks. We have a hunger for something that we want to be real, something that we want to be framed as real, but itís evanescent. We canít get to the real, only simulations of same.

In a recent essay in The Guardian, Zadie Smith seemed to be a little distracted by a few quotes in Reality Hunger that encourage novelists to be more risky and write novels that don't look like novels. She even compares the excitement that many writers have about this book to dancing on the grave of the novel. The tone of the essay was very surprising to me because the book actually made me want to write a novel, not dance of its grave. It seemed to say, "Yeah, go ahead and write a novel that is nothing like a novel." Do you feel that Reality Hunger ended up being a magic mirror that reflects back the fears or desires of the reader, a book that causes you to see what you want to see, whether its a reassuring vision or an attack?

I think thatís a lovely way to think about it. I find that itís that way for myself as well, depending on my mood. I love what you said that for you it triggered a lot of excitement about writing the anti-novel novel. Henry James said, ďThe only rule is never be boring.Ē And that in a way is all Iím saying. A huge number of novels are to me unconscionably boring. They donít have an idea in their head, and if they do, they do absolutely nothing with that idea. Weíre on the planet for a very short time. Writing is our one chance, or perhaps our best chance, to understand what is really going on in another personís consciousness. Donít waste this opportunity telling me a good-night story -- a pre-fab narrative. In book after book after book of fiction,† I see writers begin with a good idea and they throw it all away to crank through a conventional novel. Iím saying, Um, please donít do that anymore; do something more amazing and arresting.

What was the last novel you read, or are you still suffering from novel nausea?

I read a lot of novels and love a lot of them, but none of them are what Geoff Dyer calls novelly novels. I love Camusís The Fall. Coetzeeís Elizabeth Costello. David Marksonís last four books. Are these novels? Not really. They dwell exclusively and obsessively in human consciousness. They spend the entire book trying to figure out something that matters. They expend zero or next-to-zero energy on narrative machinery. Those ďnovelsĒ I can read and love to death. Carole Masoís The Art Lover. Thomas Bernhard. A Fanís Notes. Sebald. Letters to Wendyís. Proust. Duras, The Lover. Moby-Dick. Speedboat. The Anthologist. Flaubertís Parrot. Tristram Shandy.

One of my favorite sections of Reality Hunger is Let Me Tell You What Your Book Is About. It's a compilation of emails you've sent to writer friends of yours reacting to their latest works-- nonfiction, poetry and novels. On reason I liked it so much is because it was a voyeuristic look into your correspondence with writers I've also read, though even the emails about books I had never heard of were also interesting. You also once told me, based on a one-sentence synopsis of my book-in-progress, what my book was about and I took it kind of seriously. What have others told you that Reality Hunger is about?

What did I say your book was about, Catherine?

You told me it was about secrets and you were absolutely right. It's odd because at that point I was a year into my book and for some reason that had never occurred to me, though it now seems obvious.

I wonder why I thought it was about secrets. Thatís very me -- hearing two sentences and rotating the thing up and out toward pure abstraction. What have others told me Reality Hunger was about? I think my favorite reactions are from close friends of mine who see how utterly personal the book is. Itís nominally a work of criticism or provocation, but for my closest friends itís far and away my most personal book, which I agree with. It took me several years to compose the book, but Iíve been living with these thoughts for in a way thirty years, and quite passionately for at least the last fifteen. There is something very stored-up about the book; something that I had to write, and some friends see that, and thatís really nice.

I was happy to see sections about Danger Mouse's Grey Album on the same page as a mention of Ezra Pound and only a few pages away from a section about reality television. Do you feel that reality television and hip-hop music have as much influence on your writing as books do?

Less reality TV and hip-hop and more stand-up and self-reflexive documentary film. Iím hugely influenced by, especially, the filmmaker Ross McElwee, whose Shermanís March changed my writing life forever. His other films have been enormously instructive for me as well; he showed me how to (among many, many other things) blend the private and the public, the confessional and the reportorial. I feel like the tone of my writing -- the way I write for the ear -- toward what I hope is a payoff, sometimes comic, paragraph by paragraph -- has been affected a lot by great monolgusts like Spalding Gray, Sandra Bernhard, Denis Leary, Chris Rock, Rick Reynolds, Joe Frank, Laurie Anderson, Richard Pryor, Catullus.