Monday, May 10, 2010

3 Quarks Daily - Colin Marshall talks to David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto


I've long been a fan of David Shields, but I have yet to read Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which sounds like a book I would definitely enjoy. One of the last novels I have read was Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography, which I liked. Back when I read a LOT of fiction, I liked A Handbook for Drowning: Stories.

Before checking out this excellent interview from 3 Quarks Daily, here is a brief review of the book from Sarah Manguso:
"I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels," David Shields acknowledges in Reality Hunger, then seeks to understand how the conventional literary novel has become as lifeless a form as the mass market bodice-ripper. Shields provides an ars poetica for writers and other artists who, exhausted by the artificiality of our culture, "obsessed by real events because we experience hardly any," are taking larger and larger pieces of the real world and using them in their work. Reality Hunger is made of 600-odd numbered fragments, many of them quotations from other sources, some from Shields’s own books, but none properly sourced--the project being not a treasure hunt or a con but a good-faith presentation of what literature might look like if it caught up to contemporary strategies and devices used in the other arts, and allowed for samples (that is, quotation from art and from the world) to revivify existing forms. Shields challenges the perceived superiority of the imagination and exposes conventional literary pieties as imitation writing, the textual equivalent of artificial flavoring, sleepwalking, and small talk. I can’t name a more necessary or a more thrilling book. --Sarah Manguso
Now on to the interview.

Dissolving forms and genres, breaking apart illusions and reading self-help for the very smart: Colin Marshall talks to David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

David Shields is a professor of English at the University of Washington and author of fiction, nonfiction and various hybrids thereof about sports, autobiography, celebrity and death. His new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, uses collage writing to challenge preconceived ideas about form and genre in art, especially as they pertain to literature. Shields advocates disregarding these hardened constraints, a move which will allow art to use more of and become more like life itself. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]

Shields1 In reading the book, which I really enjoyed, I try to picture what it would be like if I was reading in a complete vacuum, absent all the talk that's been going on around it — and there's been a whole lot of it, as you know. This is probably the 1,000th interview you've done about the book.

I think, okay, here's a book: 618 numbered sections, a lot of collage writing, a lot of remixing of writing from other sources, it advocates the spaces between genres, the spaces between forms, between truth and falsity. All this cool stuff that I like and think is important, but it would seem to me that it's going to be a niche book, it's going to be an academic book, maybe. Maybe it's not going to get a wide readership. But now, in the real world, this book is one of the most talked-about in recent memory. What do you think is going on here?

That's a good question. I totally agree with you! I was shocked that it was published by a commercial publisher. I got a tiny advance for it; I blush to mention how low it was, a virtually nominal advance. I think the publisher never expected it to have a great amount of attention either. I was, of course, hoping for it; every writer does with every book.

But what happened? I'm not sure. I couldn't point to a single review. Obviously it's gotten hundreds, even thousands, of reviews and blog mentions and things like that, but I can't point to a single review that was the catalyzing review. The only thing I would say is, I think to a certain degree, the book's arguments got cartoonized as two points: one, the novel is dead, and two, it's okay to steal stuff. Those are part of what I'm arguing — not even what I'm arguing in either case — but I think what happened is, those hot-button topics got grooved into the cultural discussion.

It's not like I don't partially agree with those statements, but those are far more nuanced in my book. That's not even the ultimate target of the book. Frankly, the book just came at a time when it is talking about stuff that people are concerned about. The book probably came along at a time when these topics were really crucial. What's my point? My point is that the book got cartoonized and the book came along at a time that these things had to be talked about: what is the fate of writing now? How do we want to think about copyright in a digital age? How do we want to think about the blurring of genres? Do people still read conventional novels? The book articulates all that.

I do think the killer app of the book was the disclaimer and the citations in the back, in which I refuse to provide citations, but then, with a gun to my head, I provide citations. Somehow that became, without any planning on my part, the book's killer app.

You mean the pages at the end where you mark down, if you can remember, who the writing that you remix, revise and put together from other sources came from?

Yeah, and I also preface it with a disclaimer. That was the book's killer app, almost, where I say, "I didn't want to provide these citations. The citations are in microscopic type. Many of the citations are misleading. The publisher made me do it. Please, for the love of god, don't read the citations. Stop, read no farther."

I think that somehow became a door that a lot of readers and critics and bloggers could enter, like, "Oh, okay. I can talk about all these issues of copyright which have been swirling around us for the last ten years, the last five years especially." We're very confused about appropriation and copyright in literature, and that one-page disclaimer of mine became almost a Trojan Horse for people to enter the gates of the city.

The reason that's there, of course, is the writing you used from other sources, used for your own arguments. I like how that was done, and I like the arguments you use those in service of making. But here's the reaction I have, and maybe you, as the author of the book, think the same thing. What you say about how the novel as we know it isn't so relevant, about how genres aren't so relevant, about how they might hinder art, about how plots and stories may be hindering art — and the type of collage writing you use: should any of this stuff be controversial in 2010?

I agree with you. The book has received a lot of reactions, somewhat contradictory. Some, "My god, this is the most radical thing I've ever read. I can't believe you're talking about this stuff." On the other hand, people like you, who are more forward-thinking, it's almost like, yawn, it's all self-evident. If the book hadn't had all those citation issues, the book might not have entered the jetstream the way it had.
I had reached an impasse in my own writing life. I no longer could read or write fiction. I wanted to figure out why. I wanted to articulate, for myself and my colleagues and my students, why a certain kind of nonfiction, often collage-like, is terribly exciting to me. It's almost a book that I needed to write in order to go on as a writer. I agree with you; I don't think that a lot of the arguments are terribly radical, but perhaps that's because you and I are drawn toward the same aesthetic. To me, it was almost like a kind of gathering for fellow travelers, like, "This is what we all believe, right?"

I have a whole group of fellow writers, like John D'Agata, Vivian Gornick, Philip Lopate, Sarah Manguso, Amy Fusselman and Maggie Nelson, who I feel a tremendous amount of blood loyalty with. It's almost like, this is is the really cool stuff. It's kind of against the conventional novel, against the conventional memoir, in saying, "Look, this stuff that blurs boundaries, that opens up categories, that appropriates at will, that's creating new forms, that isn't bound by genre..." It's almost an articulation of stuff that we already knew. It shouldn't be terribly upsetting, but for a lot of people, it is, to my astonishment.

Can you remember the last time, in your own life, you were satisfied with a traditional sort of novel or a traditional sort of genre of art?

That's a great question. There are novels I like a lot, but they tend to be almost exclusively not very novelly novels, as Geoff Dyer calls them. I love J.M. Coetzee's book Elizabeth Costello. Is it a novel? Not really. It's published a novel. I like David Markson's last four books, all of which were published as novels. Again, they are not by any means really novels.

I guess if you're asking, "Tell me the last time you really admired a work of art that was totally, faithfully tucked within genre," where my mind flies to is movies. I feel like I gear down for movies, no offense to movies. I like a lot of great experimental film — self-reflexive documentary films were, in many ways, the origin of this book's aesthetic, people like Ross McElwee and Errol Morris and Frederick Wiseman. If I go to the movies with my wife and daughter, and we're just going to go to a good movie, I feel like I sometimes am satisfied.

For some reason, the movie that comes to mind is No Country for Old Men, which I thought was simply good. I just simply liked it. I wasn't particularly dissatisfied with it, but I feel like I was gearing down, that I said, "Okay, I'm going for essentially an existential thriller." It purports to be a thriller, but really, it's getting at something very, very deep, namely that in the absence of god the father, all bets are off. Life makes almost no sense. How do we start to function in a life completely drained of meaning? That film is really investigating that, and I thought the ending worked really beautifully. It's not a film I'd go to my grave for, but I thought it was a good, well-made film. Film I feel that way toward, where I say, "Okay, this is a good, intelligent film within a pretty circumscribed commercial framework."

And No Country for Old Men has been called a film that uses genre to attain better, maybe higher things. Do you think that's possible in text?

Obviously, in a way, this is finally just my aesthetic. I don't want to become the arbiter of these things. People say, "My goodness, you couldn't have read this book or that book, because this is just an incredible novel. Surely you haven't read Roberto Bolaño's 2666 or DeLillo's Underworld." I can't recall the last conventional novel that I was able to get traction on and read with genuine pleasure.

I have a whole theory of it, that so many of the novelistic gestures are no longer congruent with what we understand life to be. Just to take the most obvious example, the glacial pace of most novels seems to me not to conform in any way to contemporary life. The ways in which plots are coherent seems to assume a kind of meaning or purpose to existence that we tend — at least, I tend — not to think life has. The conception of character, which is backformed by psychology, seems to be to not give credence to what we know about DNA and genetic and genomes. It's as if our entire sense of character derives from how we were treated by our parents. Also, the whole sense of setting. So many novels have a strong sense of setting, place, and I think that, increasingly, where we live matters less and less to many people in Western democratized societies.

The novelistic apparatus seems to me just antiquated. Inevitably, the books that get traction for me are books that just simply are not making novelistic gestures. I read books that are supposedly very good novels, and for some reason I always mention — probably because they're honored so much — Ian McEwan, who's a much-applauded British writer, and Jonathan Franzen, who's a much-applauded American writer. They're both enormously critically praised and commercially successful writers, and their work is just, to me, completely dead on arrival. I can't believe anyone finds that work having anything to do with contemporary existence.

I don't know what to say, other than the fact that I can't think of the last conventional , well-made novel I could get traction on. I guess J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace — I really remember loving that book — but that book was also written about 20 years ago. That's an awfully good novel. I'm talking about books now, though. That book goes back some time.

You mention Ian McEwan, and I heard you mention him in this context as well; I saw you speak at AWP in Denver and, more recently, the L.A. Times Festival of Books.

Yeah, I must not be his favorite person!

I was reading a review of his newest book, Solar — which, I admit, I have not read — and the review had a line that seemed to me to tap into your criticism of McEwan, and others' as well, more concisely than I've ever seen it put. The review said, some books are so bad they're good; they get to good by being really awful. McEwan's books are the inverse; they're so good that they're bad. Is that something you might agree with?

That was a review by Walter Kirn in the New York Times Book Review. It was the first paragraph of the review. I was so excited, I sent Walter Kirn an e-mail saying, "Walter, I just loved this review." I read it a couple times. He couldn't have been barking up a more similar tree if he'd tried. He, finally, is a novelist; he's written quite a few novels. He's the author of Up in the Air, the novel that became the George Clooney movie. He and I have somewhat different aesthetics; he's not as invested as I am in the lyric essay and the personal essay and literary collage. But I do love the whole review, and I love that paragraph in particular.

So much of literary excellence seems to be related to being a kind of good citizen, and that's not what art is. Art breaks forms. Art is, in a way, misbehaving. Great art breaks from the past. It learns from the past, but it breaks from the past. When Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was first played, people went screaming into the aisles, appalled at the cacophony of these new noises. So with Manet's paintings, and so too with Joyce's Ulysses and Picasso — virtually every great work of art is a break from what we've had before.

So much of what happens in contemporary literary culture is works which are essentially working off of a completely desiccated 19th-century model, essentially a Flaubertian model of realism. Flaubert was a great writer, Tolstoy was a great writer, Dickens was a great writer. But those books go back 100, 150 years. The idea that we endlessly praise writers now for mimicking their forebears from seven generations ago, to me, is preposterous. It would be as if you were praising a composer now who was composing the 1812 Overture, or a visual artist who was painting, in a straightforward way, a realistic portrait of George Bush. It's just not what art does.

Art, to me, like science, moves forward. Forms evolve, forms die, art advances. I'm trying to figure out how writing in 2010 can speak to our moment and not only offer nostalgia, bubble wrap, dreamtime in which we essentially turn to literature as escape: Harry Potter, Dan Brown, Stephen King, the Twilight series. It's almost as if higher literature is serving the same function on a slightly more sophisticated level, whereas the books I want to argue for, some of which I've already mentioned, really show you how the writer solved being alive.

Samuel Johnson said, "A book should either allow you to escape existence or teach you how to endure existence." I feel that way too many of the books that are praised allow us to escape existence, whereas the books that I really love put front and center the question, how does another writer solve being alive? Nothing more and nothing less. Those books strike me as fully adult, fully contemplative and truly exciting on an existential and literary level.

This quality of escapism — is that the reason this model of the 19th-century psychological novel has persisted so long and so invulnerably?

It's a really good question: why has is persisted so long? Why is literature, unlike the other arts, so reluctant to advance? Again, I'm not a historian or a scholar. I'm not really a critic. I'm just a writer trying to stay alive as a writer, so I don't have a hugely coherent answer for you. It begins, for me, with the fact that the novel began with the rise of the middle class, the rise of the bourgeoisie. The novel, from its very beginnings, has been tied with the middle class and presenting an essentially flattering portrait of the middle class, flattering in the sense that if finds its foibles and its mores fascinating. Those have always been the readers of novels. Disproportionately a female audience, from the 18th century onwards. The novel has been tied in always with the idea of finding middle class mores fascinating.

Obviously, there has always been experimental art at the margins, in literature as well. I guess we just find that form endlessly interesting, an attempted reminder that our lives are coherent, that our lives are interesting, that god's in his heaven making the plot work, that where we live really matters, that our little piece of the universe is fascinating, that all of our actions carry moral weight. I think you're right: it's essentially a deeply flattering and deeply escapist narrative. I'm capable of falling into it. I became a fan of Mad Men for a while, and I like a good, well-told movie.

Somehow, in the art I practice, in the book, whether you call it novel or anti-novel or lyric essay or book-length essay, I seem to want something more. I want work that really wrestles with existence. I'm very aware of this idea, which is derived partially from David Foster Wallace: we're existentially alone on the planet. I can't know what you're thinking and feeling, and you can't know what I'm thinking and feeling. The very best work constructs a bridge across that abyss of human loneliness.

For me, work which is over-invested in narrative and setting and character development and dialogue puts that question at a far remove. The works I love the most — and I have a list of them, called "A Very Partial Reading List" of my 120 favorite books ever written, that really put this existential question at the very center of their existence. This is a long-winded answer to your question. Yes, I do think a huge reason that the novel has persisted is that it essentially offers us a coherent dream escape from our increasingly chaotic and somewhat confusing lives.

Some of the warier or more angered or scared reactions to your book and to the evident fate of the larger arms of the publishing industry, which appear not to be long for this world — you'll hear readers, the group of people who read novels a lot whose demographic you described, get a little bit frightened. "Oh no, what's going to happen to my beloved novels? Are they going to go away? We can't let this happen. We've got to fight to preserve the kind of novels we have been reading for the last 100, the last 200 years."

What I wonder is, the kind of books you love, the books you advocate for in Reality Hunger — do you think those might have the power to widen the definition of who his a reader? These readers getting scared, they're the ones wedded to this very particular type of novel that's established. They're not a big group, but they're a large percentage of the people who are currently reading fiction.

I think they are a relatively large group. You're talking about the group that reads novels, or just the people that read novels in general? Obviously a huge number of people read novels, but which group are you saying, Colin, is not a very large group?

It's just a common refrain that "people don't read novels anymore." Of course people, do read novels; we can point to the people who do. The group is not imposingly big. As a fraction of people who are reading all fiction, big novel-readers make a decent chunk of it. But do the books you love, do you think they might have the power to widen the total chunk of humanity that counts as fiction-readers?

I think that's the core of my project, really. In a way, my book is a very simple thing, and in a way, if the book had been published like this, which isn't the way I wanted it to be published, it probably wouldn't have gotten anything like the attention it's gotten. The book has been fascinatingly miscategorized, or misunderstood, as embodying those two ideas I mentioned earlier: the novel is dead and it's okay to steal stuff.

I mention hundreds of titles throughout the book, and in a way the origin of the book was simply me teaching a course in the graduate program at the University of Washington in which I had to justify my existence to myself and my colleagues and my students. I was hired as a fiction writer, and I was no longer reading, writing or teaching fiction. I had to explain to myself and my colleagues why I found a certain kind of off-axis nonfiction so exciting. I'm providing almost a reading list or an Ars Poetica. Here are these books I love to death. Here's what is so exciting about them. It's nonfiction at the highest reaches of literary art, and I'm trying to say, "These books are so exciting. Come on, people, you've got to read these books. They're so incredible. Here's what the books are doing."

I don't think of myself as particularly esoteric. The books I love, I don't understand how every reader would not just pick up these books and find them utterly thrilling. The book I've reread a lot of late is a book I've mentioned a lot called Bluets by Maggie Nelson. It's published by a tiny press called Wave Press. It hasn't gotten very much attention, except some of the attention I've tried to bring to it. It's just a tiny book, only around 80 or 90 pages, it's made up of about 200 short fragments, and it's just an amazing book that I guess a lot of people would find frightening for its intellectual power. It really is wrestling with nothing less than the melancholy of the human animal: how come we're so sad? How can we live with loss? How can we live with the ultimate loss of death?

The books I like, you could say, are self-help books for very smart people. They're books that are wrestling with what we're doing on Planer Earth. How can we live our lives in the most serious possible way? The books I love, whether it's Simon Gray's The Smoking Diaries or Amy Fusselman's The Pharmacist's Maid or Spalding Gray's Morning, Noon and Night or Sarah Manguso's The Two Kinds of Decay. To me, they're books that are just so essential, they cut to the absolute bone of human existence. I don't see how everyone would not want to read these thrilling books that make you want to live your life but not live your life under illusions.

I guess I'm sort of anti-illusions. I don't like illusions. I don't think that's the point of art, to maintain our illusions. I love books which break apart the iconography of illusions. I'm not sure that the books I love will redefine what we love as novels, because not too many of the books I love are published as novels, although a few of them are. The books I love tend to be published as quasi-nonfiction, but they're by no means nonfiction as journalism or scholarship or memoir. They're nonfiction as existential investigation, and I just find those books absolutely thrilling. Those are the books I try to write, those are the books I read, those are the books I teach. The whole book is doing nothing but trying to call attention to the excitement of this kind of art.
There's much more - go read the rest of the interview.

No comments: