In David Shields’ latest book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, he trashes traditional fiction and defends the artist’s role as plagiarist. Shields, the author of ten books, three novels and seven works of nonfiction, calls on writers to reject the novel and seek other forms, the confessional and the existentially abstract, within the lyric essay.
We met on campus at the University of Washington in his office at Padelford Hall, and discussed Reality Hunger, Rothko, his take on being a parent, V.S. Naipaul, and life in academia; thus, David offered himself not only as writer but as person.
Caleb Powell: Let’s begin with your take on abstract art and see where that leads. Rothko.
DS: I adore Rothko. As that passage where I go to the National Gallery probably implies. Someone asks, “What makes great art? Is it because it costs a lot of money? Or because people have written about the art?” The guide answers, “No. It’s because he changed the weather for everyone who came next.” I think that’s a beautiful definition. Because I’m not that corporeal. As opposed to a grounded writer . . . say Raymond Carver. I mean, I like Carver, he’s a wonderful writer, but with Reality Hunger it’s pure abstraction. Aside from a few touches. The fact Rothko is interesting to me is terribly revealing. I’m an abstract guy. I think it’s my strength, but I also I think you could see it as a part and parcel of my impatience with very grounded novels. It’s like, my god, I’m just drowning in minutiae, get me abstraction, get me thought, get me contemplation. In any case, I love Rothko to death, his work means the world to me; it has immense emotional power. It gets rid of the detritus, I’ll just show you this color and it’ll knock you out. Forget all the other details. I just love work that winnows out the bullshit.
DS: Do you not like Rothko?
CP: I’m not a fan.
DS: With Rothko either you get . . . do you like Jackson Pollock? I love Pollock.
CP: Not for me . . . I think you have an ephemeral attention span. You’re easily bored. It’s a strength and weakness. Do you think this makes you prone to zeniths and nadirs?
DS: It’s a great question. It’s really central. Yeah, you phrased it right, because there are very real strengths and weaknesses to it. The strengths would be . . . that Henry James line where he says the only rule is to never be boring. When I was trying to write Remote, fifteen years ago, and was bored to death by its novelistic apparatus, I had either the will or the impatience or something to say: Okay. I’m not going to crank out a boring novel. I think ever since that book I’ve said: If I’m bored, then the reader’s going to be bored. And the work I love, the work I tend to espouse, tends to have tremendous velocity, tremendous compression. Compression is very important. My work, at its best, cuts to the chase. No dead time, no dead weight, no dead wood. There are people . . . whether Renata Adler, or David Markson, or whatever . . . and their work feels very vital. Urgent. Meaningful, and it’s not mere entertainment. If there’s a weakness, I think, it’s that . . . that my work, at its worst, would be something like all ESPN highlights. It’d be nothing but the reel. Dunk! Dunk! Dunk!
CP: That’s a good way of putting it.
DS: A student gave me a good analogy. A rocket going to the moon finally has to jettison the engines, and it has to get to the moon. In collage you’re going to the moon in every paragraph. Whereas in a conventional story you’re on this long journey to the moon and you finally get there. I’m more interested in going to the moon in every paragraph than the long, slow, patient journey. The strength of the work is that it is unbelievably compressed, dense, and I hope deep and significant. The weakness is that it’s all highlights.
CP: I basically agree with you about most novels.
DS: The game’s not worth a candle in 99.9% of all novels. Part of it me is like I’m lacking this crucial DNA called “The Plot Gene.” When we cavemen sit around and listen to how caveman number two killed the wild boar . . . I’m bored. I don’t have a narrative gene. I want story to be completely wedded to idea.
CP: I liked your line about the boring novel that evokes Iceland. Go to National Geographic if you wish to see Iceland evoked. Let’s move to nonfiction that’s not memoir or autobiographical. Jon Krakauer. Thomas Friedman. Freakonomics. Robert Kaplan. Any interest you?
DS: Into Thin Air sounds good. Krakauer’s obviously a good writer. As are all those others. But for the most part, they don’t interest me. For a crucial reason, I mean, I’m very interested in nonfiction as a philosophical form. I’m interested in work, this may sound a little fancy, that problemitizes its relationship to reality. The works of nonfiction I really love . . . they question the very premise of the existence of the form from the beginning. They ask what’s real. What’s a self? What’s memory? What’s self-knowledge? What’s knowledge of another? What’s true? What can we know? Etc.,etc. And so that, to me, what’s so beautiful about the best film and literature, and to a certain degree music and painting, is that it’s nominally true, but uses its essential frame as truth to ask the most serious epistemological questions about existence. So if a work is transparently nonfiction ala Friedman, Krakauer, I might turn pages because I want information, but I’m not interested too much in journalism.
CP: That brings me to Naipaul. He wrote: “An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies, it reveals the writer totally.”
DS: That must be a really early Naipaul line.
CP: Seventies. From the essay “The Killings in Trinidad.”
DS: It might sound right. It’s an interesting idea, but you have to experience it on the page. I’ve read Naipaul’s fiction and it seems rather conventional and predictable and not very exciting. I don’t know if you’ve read Naipaul’s A Way in the World. It’s a great great book. Many writers are far more exciting as essayist than as fiction writer, everyone from Hawthorne to David Foster Wallace. And I would include Naipaul.
The books I really love . . . Mary McCarthy, Memory of a Catholic Girlhood, Lauren Slater’s Lying, Goeffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception; Proust. I use Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life as a negative, though. It’s too easy to say at the beginning “memory distorts” . . . and now can we please read it as nonfiction. That seems, to me, to be essentially false. I want the work, in its every twist and turn, questioning knowledge, its access to knowledge. This Boy’s Life is about a pathological liar but it doesn’t put any pressure on the narrator’s memory. And that seems to me very problematic.
CP: Good. Change of subject. What sort of father are you? The Thing About Life you wrote as a son. What might your daughter write? What’s your philosophy of fatherhood?
DS: That’s a great question. Natalie and I right now . . . we have a pretty good relationship. She’s a serious visual artist, graphic art, design, she has a website: Pâtisserie Natalie. She’s quite the baker . . . the photographer. Anyway, she just did a comic about the Holocaust. I had her read Maus for research. Her comic was incredible. I’m helping her think about colleges, literature, stuff, the last year’s been a good year in our relationship.
A friend of mine said something to me that was interesting . . . it rang true . . . what’s that actor’s name . . . Sideways . . . the doofus—Paul Giamatti. This friend knows him and his wife, and she said, ‘It’s so funny how similar you and Paul are toward your daughters.’ I said like how? She said, “You two have a lot of ironic distance. You always treat your daughters as peers. There’s no baby talk and there’s never any patronizing.” And that’s true. I just talk to Natalie as if she’s a student in my class, apparently. My friend said I am, in a way, distant, but very loving, because I give the kid space to work. I’m not hugely in her face. I’m here, any time you need me I’m here. If I can be of value I try to be. But I treat her as if we’re just talking. This friend knows us very well, and has known Natalie since she was four. You can see how that is maybe related to my stance as a writer. I’m very ironic, distant . . . abstract. But I feel underneath that abstraction there is, I hope, passion. And I think that’s a way to connect it to my writing. I’m not a smooshy bear. It was a great question. It got us back to the work.
CP: Okay. Let’s see, you’ve been teaching for, what, twenty years. What’s next?
DS: I’ll be 54 this year. Who knows? Who knows what will happen next. I think, I know what you mean, for better or worse . . . I’m in academia. The books I write don’t make gobs of money. This book . . . I hope it’s a success. It’s obviously not going to be a huuuuuge moneymaker. I’ve been teaching for a while, since 1985, at the UW and elsewhere, steadily for twenty-five years. I define myself first and last as a writer. I try to be a good teacher, but I’m a writer. My daughter’s starting college in a couple years; I have to pay for that. I only teach two quarters a year, I’m off spring and summer, I have sabbaticals, I only teach four months out of the year.
CP: I saw an article. Can’t remember where. It said “college professor” is the best job in the U.S.
CP: Best for hours and salary.
DS: There’s a wonderful quote by an actor, Rod Steiger. He says you define a successful person as someone who, eighty percent of the time, gets to do what he wants to do.
CP: That’s a good definition.
DS: It’s a brilliant definition.
CP: You already have left academia, in a sense, if you’re only working four months of the year. I wouldn’t quit that.
DS: I know what you mean. Reality Hunger came totally from teaching a graduate course I taught in the essay. And I think Remote came from teaching a course, as well. So definitely two books derived from courses I’ve taught. I’m terribly grateful for that. Students keep me on my toes with idioms, slangs, current modes, just a way that makes my work feel contemporary. I don’t feel like some middle-aged drudge, and maybe if I were living in a cabin in Vermont my work would feel that way.
CP: You’re not as entrenched in academia as I previous thought. You have a lot of freedom.
DS: And also, people say, “Oh, I could never be in academia because there are so many committees.” I teach. I do as good a job as I can, and that’s it. I come home and write. I don’t serve on committees deciding what books the library should order. That’s not what I do. When you said entrenched, what did you mean?
CP: Nine months a year. Constantly judging contests, editing and guest-editing lit mags, reading for the National Book Critics Circle Award, smaller contests, grants, fund raising.
DS: There’s a little bit of that.
CP: Obviously, you read a lot, you give time to people . . . your former students, probably many emails. One more concern. Let’s see . . . Timothy O’Brien’s quote in The Things They Carried, “Somebody tells you a story, let’s say, and afterward, you ask, ‘Is it true?’ And if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.”
DS: In earlier drafts of Reality Hunger, I may have included that Tim O’Brien line but I finally realized it doesn’t advance the discussion; it goes around in circles. I like work that in a way empties out this statement by making every syllable of the work the embodiment of the very questions that this statement raises. If I loved novels to death I’d write a book like How Fiction Works by James Wood.
CP: I’ve heard he’s interesting . . .
DS: Uh? Auuugh! Oh my…the book is one hundred percent in utterly square opposition . . . I’m hoping he’ll review my book, because he’ll hate it. And it’ll be hilarious.
CP: I no longer read “writing advice” books. But I remember liking John Gardner’s, but not liking his fiction. Very boring.
DS: He’s a horrible writer.
CP: But he won the National Book Award.
DS: That means nothing. He’s such a clunky writer, line by line.
CP: You said it. Great way to end.
Caleb Powell has work forthcoming or in various literary magazines, including The Baltimore Review, descant, The Texas Review, and Zyzzyva. He lived overseas for eight years and his nonfiction guide, The World Is a Class, was published in Canada by Good Cheer.
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