At first glance, David Shields' latest book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, is daunting. First, you have 618 numbered passages—some written by Shields, along with many appropriated from other artists and writers, from Borges to Godard to Charlie Parker—compiled neatly into alphabetical chapters. Then you have whatever prejudice that you might bring to anything called a manifesto.
I had my own biases against it because of the title. The 2000s' fascination with police procedurals and quaint personal essays about "my quirky childhood" have long made me weary of the word "reality."
But this book isn't about that kind of reality. Well, not exactly. This is a book about figuring something out, a book in search of its own genre or form, which, finally, is quite compelling. In Shields' own personal, meandering way, he is calling for a shaking up of the old genre system. It's a change that's been under way for a while, with cross-genre, essayistic books coming out of small presses or fictional nonfiction books (by Bolano, say, or Sebald) coming from other countries. But having these arguments laid out in a book from a major U.S. publisher gives them a visibility that they haven't really seen outside of MFA programs.
When I sat down with Shields recently at his house, he offered me tea and a delicious cupcake made by his teenage daughter. As he talked about the book, he revealed how malleable a substance it really is, and how much he is still working out some of these thoughts.
ArtsNerd: I've been trying to figure out the best way to approach talking about the book because there are sort of two different ways to look at it: One is from the personal side and the other is from the mechanism of what you're doing. So, I think I'd like to start with the personal. Can you talk a little bit about... maybe not exactly why you wrote the book, but how you came to write it, how it came together for you.
David Shields: I think that's great. I even like the fact that you're somewhat self-conscious about asking the first question because so much of the book tries to espouse the glory of self-consciousness. I also like the idea of the personal and the mechanism interests me a lot too because so much of what I'm arguing for is the excitement of work that of course blends those together. I'm not really interested in the personal without something sort of formally interesting. I'm not interested in the formal without a deeply personal context. I'm terribly interested in the merger and marriage of those two things. But the personal stuff interests me a lot.
I mean, where does the book begin? I could tell you a very long story about it all but I would just partly begin with both of my parents being journalists, which I sort of allude to in the book, at least glancingly, and that I very much wanted to be a fiction writer and became a fiction writer and wrote three novels. And then, midway through my fourth book, Remote, I kind of hit this immense wall where novelistic architecture just bored me to tears. So, that book, Remote, became a work of nonfiction rather than a novel. I feel like Alice down the rabbit hole, and I've never quite come back up to terra firma ever since. So, in a way, it started there.
And then, a big origin of it for me was: I've been teaching a graduate course [in the UW creative writing program] for the last, probably, ten or more years in which I basically made the case for the necessity and the excitement of nonfiction. While I taught that course, I had literally hundreds if not thousands of passages I'd gathered from interviews with Phillip Lopate, great volumes of Nietzsche, lines I'd written, passages from previous books of mine, stuff friends of mine had said. In a strange way, that was really the origin of this book. It was a kind of course pack, really.
And I didn't ever put citations on thing. I didn't want you to think, "This is from Emerson. It must be boring." Or "This is from Nietzsche, it must be great." Or "This is from me. It must be stupid." Or whatever. I wanted a democracy of voices so the students did not bring a prejudice to each articulation.
And then the big break in it, either in terms of the course or a book, [was when] I realized "Ah-ha!" all of these quotes, literally thousands of them, could be broken into what I would call rubrics or categories or chapters, so these (mimes putting quote into a box) could fall into "memory" and these could fall into "hip-hop" and if you pushed them into categories they were making a kind of argument. And then of course I would rewrite each passage a lot, so that it had my voice in it. Then I'd re-arrange passages of any chapter. And then I'd re-arrange the chapters. I was constantly adding and subtracting, adding and subtracting, and dividing. So, I've given you a very long answer, but the origins were in a way my parents' journalism, my own impasse with the novel form, and then this course I taught. And I think, in a way, they all are really crucial to me. But in a way the most obvious catalyst is the course, of all things.
AN: This really reads like a writer's memoir. You're essentially asking questions like: Why do I write? What do I want to write? What do I definitely not want to write? And sort of narrowing that down through all these chapters...
AN: ...to manifesto.
DS: That's the way it feels to me. What I like about the book is that it has this quality of healing. It's a deeply personal book. In a way, I've been living with the issues for 30 years, if not longer, figuring out my relation to fiction, nonfiction, journalism, art, reality. So I feel like, at its best, you can feel that in the book—that it's stuff I've lived with for a very long time and I've thought about for a very long time. It does seem to have a kind of lived-in quality. These aren't just ideas I've plucked out of thin air. I like the way the book feels like something I've dredged up from many years of thinking. I hope. I don't know. Each person will find their own way. Finally what matters is what's on the page.
AN: With your parents being journalists, you have an interesting relationship with reality, with the truth, and facts.
AN: And I wanted you to talk a little bit about the—wait, I wrote it down—"the reality continuum"—somewhere between J.R.R. Tolkien and a list of facts.
DS: Right. I talk about this guy who actually died a year or two ago named Shields who live in Eastern Washington. He kept the longest-running journal ever. He kept a journal of every single thing of every day. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pages. That would be close to something quasi-real. And someone like Tolkien is obviously quite fantastical and even there, people who knew him say how unbelievably autobiographical that book is if you know how to read it, because it all just tracks very closely to his own life in a strange way.
The thing is, I have a really vexed relationship to reality, in a sense that, there are people who are great fiction writers, or relatively pure fiction writers who are great fabricators, they're great creators of worlds. Tolkien would be an extreme example. And then there are, say, journalists who really believe in the real, and who believe in facts, and they're just very literal-minded.
And for better or worse, I'm sort of in neither camp. I seem to want to pull the best from both camps. I'm terribly interested in work that has a non-fictional frame, that purports to be real, but worries hugely about the inaccessibility of reality. To me, a work of nonfiction that questions the subject of nonfiction becomes ipso facto a deeply philosophical work because you start asking questions like: What's real? What's knowledge? What's truth? What's imagination? What's history? What's itself?
And so many of the works I love the most have a nonfictional frame to foreground contemplation, but they really, really worry reality and they worry the artist's relationship to reality. And I don't know if this is sort of my mini-rebellion against my parents because my parents were journalists and I began as a journalist. I was the editor of my junior high school paper. Editor of my high school paper. I worked at my college paper. And after a while I got tired of what seemed to me like an overemphasis on reality and truth. I sort of knew in my heart of hearts that this idea of journalistically transparent truth seemed to me preposterous. I just knew it from a very young age.
I grew up with a bad stutter. So I really got from a very young age how language is a really difficult substance and I got how language is, above all, always communicating itself. Language is not transparent, it's a medium that has reverb to it. You can't really get through language to reality. Language takes you deeper into the language.
It's taken me a long time, but some of the work I love has a nonfictional frame to give the work a sense of urgency or risk or discomfort or nakedness or authenticity. So many of the works I love the most want to investigate the world rather than entertain the reader.
But I'm just as much opposed to, say, a straight-ahead memoir as I am to a conventional novel because they both seem to me to be way too comfortable with conventions of genre. There's a line in the book where I say, "genre is a minimum security prison." And also there's a wonderful line by Walter Benjamin in the book, "All great works of literature either invent a genre or dissolve one," which I really love.
To me, what happens when you dissolve a genre, you get to this: "When we are not sure, we are alive." The ones that really knock me out are works in which we're sort of off the click track and we don't know where we're going. Again, going back to Maggie Nelson's book (which we had been talking about earlier): What is that book? Is it a memoir? Is it a philosophical meditation? Is it a history of the color blue? Is it a cri de coeur about her breakup? Is it art criticism? You don't know where you're going from paragraph to paragraph. All that you do know is that you're going deeper into, you know, a human heart. I just love that feeling, and I think the best books have that quality. I'm interested in work that hovers between things because when you hover between things you can go anywhere you want and your loyalty as a writer becomes investigating something rather than going through the paces.
AN: Is that sticky when you're working with your students? You're working with people who are learning to write. Do they need to fully understand the genres they're moving between before they start moving between them?
DS: It's a tough question, and I don't have an obvious answer. I do think I might have stumbled into doing it "the right way" in that I wrote a very conventional novel, I wrote a less conventional novel, and a less conventional novel still. I almost sort of moved book by book to this rather funky aesthetic I have now. I did sort of know what I was rejecting, I don't know how consciously, but I was familiar with the forms.
I feel somewhat ambivalent. I'm teaching collage, say, sometimes to junior undergraduates. Are they pretty much ready to write literary collage? Yes and no. I do think they're getting the more traditional stuff in other classes. You know, they're taking a literature component. They're getting a more traditional aesthetic from some of my other colleagues. All I know is that I personally can't teach the other stuff. I'm bored by teaching "a great story" by, say, James Joyce or something. Probably I'm not the best person to teach it, because even though I sort of admire it, it's not really where I am as a writer now.
I think [the book] is articulating a somewhat pervasive feeling that business as usual is not getting the job done, and that just writing these sort of relatively plodding 19th century novels in 2010 is just nostalgic beyond belief. It's just amazing that anybody writes them, that anybody reads them, and I'm trying to say, "Enough." Obviously some people are going to agree, and some people aren't. But I do want to start the conversation and push it forward. That's not the only thing I want the book to do but it's one of the things.
AN: People who feel the same way, where do they go to find books to read? I would say small presses, but that's my bias.
DS: (Laughs, pointing to the galley) I already give you the reading list. I give you the books. They're all there. There was a nice review in Book Forum where the reviewer said, this is basically an MFA curriculum right here. Again, that shows its origins as a course packet. I was trying to say, listen, there's this amazing stuff, there's this amazing tradition that goes back at least to St. Augustine and continues on through, again, Maggie Nelson. And it's a great tradition that could stand with any other literary genre. I probably list a couple hundred books here.
A lot of the books published by commercial publishers are using a desiccated business model where it's just like, okay, let's just give them what they liked in 1954. But it's not 1954. And I think we're still trying to figure out what we're trying to do in this post-Gutenberg age. It's a totally electronic age. I'd be shocked if there were publishers in, say, 20 years. It seems to me that it'll all on be on the web, if there is even a web.
AN: And they print way too many books.
DS: Exactly, it's a ridiculous model. We're clearly on the verge of this thing in which, you know, if you want to read my book, you go to my website and click and somehow slide $2.95 my way, then you just press a button and it comes out on your screen online or maybe just a form to do a little mini book right there on your desk. I can't believe that we're very far from that.
And I think there's a huge amount of argument about who's going to own it, whether it's Google or Amazon or the publisher. I love the democratization of culture. This book is an attempt to be part of that in a variety of ways.
AN: I want to talk a little bit about the whole concept of theft. The first sentence is about smuggling, and then it ends with banditry. And I'm curious about how that fits into this for you. Because the way you've described the book coming together, it's like you've incorporated so many of these quotes into your life, they've become part of your voice.
DS: Exactly. That's a beautiful way to say it. I've lived with these passages so much and obviously I cite people at the end of the book, I say, this is from John D'Agata, this is from Sonny Rollins or whatever, and finally those passages are, you know, essentially theirs. What I want a reader to do is watch me think, for 600 sections, watch how I'm putting things together, not be saying, okay, this is Emerson, this is Nietzsche, this is Adam Gopnik. Who cares? I want you to be following the flow of my argument and above all I want you to get lost. I want you to get lost in the thread of the argument. And also I want you to be unsure who's speaking. I want to argue for work that is generically sort of genre defined in exactly the same way I want the lack of citation to create doubt about who is saying what. So to me, the thievery is a meant as a metaphor for the excitement for generic and existential readerly uncertainty.
The whole book is an argument in favor of doubt, in favor of the uncertain. First of all I'm making the argument on the overland pass and then on the underland pass I'm not giving you citations. I'm giving you a rational argument about doubt, and then down here I'm giving you the irrational experience of doubt. So that's, to me, the way it works and it frankly took me a long time to understand that. I feel like when I talk to myself and I say, how does this work, how can I justify this unusual approach, that just made unbelievable sense. I stumbled into it without even realizing it.
And frankly, my druthers would be to have no citations. If I perhaps published it myself or with a small publisher, I might have been able to do that. But Knopf is part of Random House, Random House is part of a billion or trillion dollar corporation called Bertelsmann. I went back and forth with the lawyers for months, but they finally said, you can argue all you want but we're not going to do that, we're not going to put ourselves in legal jeopardy like that. So, I obviously could have withdrawn the manuscript or I could have published with a small press, but there is value to having a book published by Knopf. It gets a wider megaphone than if you publish with a small press.
AN: At what point in the process did you come up with the title? Reality hunger is interesting to me but there's also reality weariness, which I get, a lot.
DS: I do too. It just captures for me, when I think of the books I love, so many of the books have what I would call reality hunger: they know, of course, that in no way are the books reality, that's physical, biological fact. But they have a kind of hunger to not fabricate for fabrication's sake. And to me the moment you say reality hunger you sort of know that it's a hunger that can't be fulfilled. It's not reality fulfillment. It's reality hunger, like that we want reality, but we know we can't get it. I think of works that I really love, whether it's Simon Gray's Smoking Diaries, Spalding Gray's Morning, Noon, and Night, Amy Fusselman's The Pharmacist's Mate, Sarah Manguso's Two Kinds of Decay, Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage, there's this hunger to penetrate existence on some level. They're not just like, okay, I'm going to tell you a story and I'll try to sneak in some wisdom now and then. It's like, no, look, I'm going to try and really wrestle with something on every page. I really love that. And that's what the book tries to do, too.
AN: Did you know all along it was a manifesto?
DS: Well, yeah. I thought it was a good way to take the heat off a little bit. It's not the Communist Manifesto. I don't have everything all figured out. But I think in some ways it's an anti-manifesto manifesto because I'm arguing for the value of uncertainty. I thought manifesto was an honest accounting of it. I feel quite passionate about these issues. At the time I started the book, I was weary of fiction's condescension to nonfiction, and now, I think, if anything, it's probably the opposite. Nonfiction is so ascendent right now in a certain way. But I think the tone of the book is somewhat hysterical, it's pitched very high—it's like, listen, I hate this stuff. I love this stuff. This stuff bores me to tears. This stuff excites me to tears. And part of it is part of an intentional thing where I just wanted to shout to be heard. I believe pretty much every thing I've said here. Sometimes I just put in stuff to present the counter-argument. There definitely are lines here that you're meant to think are wrong. You know, it's pretty obvious.
Anyway, the title came to me three years ago and the manifesto seemed a good way to acknowledge, in a way, the ridiculousness of any manifesto, because the whole book is in praise of doubt. The whole book is sort of like, listen, I'm certain about doubt. I don't know anything, but I'm certain that we're uncertain.
David Shields will read from Reality Hunger tonight at 7 p.m. at the University Bookstore.
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Arts & Culture
"Genre is a minimum security prison": A Conversation with Author David Shields
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