It’s not that David Shields hates novels—he just thinks the traditional ones are irrelevant to contemporary life. Author of 20 books, Shields garnered notoriety for 2010’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, in which he rejects traditional literary genres—the novel, in particular—in favor of artistic collaboration and a “collage” approach. The professor’s own collaborations include 2015’s I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, coauthored by intellectual sparring partner and former student Caleb Powell. The two followed up with a road trip film by the same name, directed by actor James Franco—yes, that James Franco—another onetime pupil. Then, earlier this year, Shields debuted Other People: Takes and Mistakes, an essay collection concerned with how humans try, and so often fail, to connect. An acerbic gadfly in the movie, Shields comes off as gentle and vulnerable in the book of essays. But then, such contradictions seem integral to the Shields experience—were he easier to define, he’d probably be far less fascinating. —Jessica Voelker
The saving grace of human existence is self-consciousness, to be aware that we’re not just bears in the woods who attack fish.
Emotional nakedness is my mantra. I love actors and stand-up comedians and writers who are weirdly without vanity. And nothing drives me crazier than a writer who is morally vain or an actor who is physically vain.
I’m an expert on acting now, having been in one movie.
Not that I’m so comfortable on camera, but just because I’ve been teaching for a while, I become a bit of a ham or something in the movie. I’m like the problem child, stirring everything up. I’m almost talking over the movie into the film editor’s booth.
I became a writer of nonfiction and then this kind of weird genre-troubling work, genre-blurring work. I think that Seattle, in a strange way, encouraged me to be that writer.
You’re just supposed to live in Brooklyn if you’re a writer. Or you’re in LA and you’re part of the film industry. I don’t know, I guess I’m probably ambivalent about every place, so I’m ambivalent about living in Seattle.
I think there’s something that’s very deep in me that’s like: “I’m going to shout because you’ve got to hear me across 3,000 miles.”
That’s kind of a corny metaphor.
I grew up in a super politically engaged family. Seattle’s politics are very much the politics that I grew up with, toward which I’m very sympathetic but also skeptical.
I yield to no one in my hatred and fear of Donald Trump. But the ways in which everyone is virtue-signaling their own Trump hatred is not useful. It’s a kind of competition to see who can assume a higher moral ladder. And not in any way that’s interesting.
I’ve been here 29 years teaching at UW. I must like it pretty well.
My role as [James Franco]’s former teacher and occasional collaborator is to say, “Come on, you can go beyond this.” He’s a smart fella who could’ve been a capital A actor—Ryan Gosling or someone like that. And then, for whatever reason, that just broke apart for him. That reminds me, as I told him, of my own path 20 years ago, when I got bored with the novel. In our mid- to late 30s, the form that we had inhabited went dead on us.
I get a lot of pushback from conventional novelists in their 30s and 40s who, I think, cartoonize my position as only saying the novel is dead per se. It’s not what [Reality Hunger] is really arguing. It’s saying that kind of realistic, conventional, lineal, traditional novel, what does that possibly have to do with how we live?
I’m a useful scapegoat for people who know how dead the conventional novel is. They go: “Well, let’s harangue David Shields rather than wrestle with the real question.”
If we disagree, that’s okay. Let the future decide who is the more exciting writer, Arnold Bennett or Virginia Woolf? She broke apart the form, he kept the form the way it was. Is anybody reading Arnold Bennett? No one even knows who he is. Do we all worship Virginia Woolf? Yes, because she pushed the form forward.
I turned 60 recently, not that 60’s so old. But the tone of Other People, to me, is slightly accommodating. You know that Dennis Leary line, “Life sucks, get a fucking helmet?” It’s something like that.
It’s like: Here’s life. It’s tragic, but we do our best to live with it.