One of the most commonly held misconceptions about David Shields is that he thinks fiction is worthless. “Reality Hunger,” the author’s 2010 manifesto about the destruction of traditional narrative modes of art, caused many critics to vehemently attack Shields for what they perceived as his inconceivable crimes against the literary novel. What these critics missed is that Shields’s ideas about literature come from a place of deep love; he’s not trying to destroy but rebuild what is already broken. In his new book, “How Literature Saved My Life” (Knopf), Shields puts the ideas of “Reality Hunger” into practice, crafting a fragmented but layered meditation about the role of art in our lives. In a sprawling phone conversation, ARTINFO spoke with Shields about self-conscious art, being a slave to narrative, and looking for a new grammar.
After reading “How Literature Saved My Life,” I was thinking about the title quite a bit. Maybe it should have ended with a question mark? You don’t necessarily land on an answer if literature saved your life or not.
I love the idea that it can end in a question mark. I came up with the title very, very late in the book. I was just sort of writing in the dark and just pushing things around on the book for years, ever since I wrote “Reality Hunger” three years ago. I think, slowly but surely, it all came together. It is, I hope, a meaningful title, in that the book is really about that. It has this prologue where I use Ben Lerner to ask questions of how can one feel, and how one can create art in this oversaturated, over simulated, over mediated post-digital culture. That prologue discussing that book by Ben Lerner sets the agenda for the rest of the book and then I go through my ambivalence, the limits of my ability to love someone, my deep melancholia, my obsession with my mortality, my flirting with suicide – a not very serious, adolescent flirting with suicide. Then I find and affirm, about two-thirds of the way through the book, a high modernist art, trying to convert my adolescent stuttering into the verbal beauty of literary art. I first of all want a really naked art; then I wonder if I even like art or I just like life that looks like art. Then in the very last chapter of the book there’s a kind of irony or paradox, or a circling back, in which the very thing that has plagued me throughout the whole book, and throughout my whole life – self-consciousness – becomes the very ground in which the art I want to affirm stands: namely, a highly self-conscious, collagistic, highly autobiographical, ironic, inward turning art. That artwork is actually the work that I think forms a bridge between people as they understand what one another thinks about things. That is my rather longwinded answer to your question. I do think it’s a detective story or a kind of journey I go on. The book is really about how literature saved my life, and obviously in no final sense does literature save anyone’s life – we all die, and no one has written a perfect book yet. No book has ever gotten anyone into heaven, it’s just a book finally, an imperfect human art. But, to the degree I’ve found a way to live in the world, to love my fellow human beings, to love myself, to love being in the world, to love being alive, I feel like literature has definitely taught me how to do that.
You mentioned a naked art, an art of everything being stripped away. In the book you discuss film a few times, especially Ross McElwee’s “Sherman’s March” as a film that meant a lot to you.
An awful lot.
And I was constantly thinking about film when reading this book. Have you ever heard the phrase the “cinema of inbetweeness?” It’s more commonly used as a descriptor of certain foreign filmmakers, and is close to what you talk about in the book in regards to literature. Is the naked art you discuss more common in literature outside America?
The idea of inbetweenness is a good phrase – I like that. Boundary jumping work is the way I think of it. I’m not sure I’m hugely up on every experimental film as I was a while ago, but there’s always going to be a dominant narrative mode in which there’ll be a very popular sitcom, a very popular movie, a very popular novel, a very popular memoir. There’s always going to be the mainstream doing relatively traditional things. You go back to the ’60s and ’70s and the films that won the Academy Awards, I assume, were these very conventional movies as opposed to all the amazing films being done that were never recognized. Later, people go back and realize how great that film was. You probably know Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see it.
I just saw it recently.
Did you see the whole thing?
No, I only saw about two hours of it.
What did you think?
I enjoyed the atmosphere. Some people were sleeping, others were eating, and people were coming in and out. It reminded me of what people described as seeing a Warhol film in the ’60s.
That’s a good analogy. I saw quite a few hours of it in London a few years ago. I happened to be in London and went to maybe eight or ten hours of it. I love that film a lot and can’t think of a more beautiful model of what I’m trying to do and talk about. He has no citations of those films, he just hopes you get it or you don’t. He would never think of getting permission or citation. He uses all these blocks of other people’s films in order not just to jumble them together to make a shaggy dog story, but to create an indelible film about time and mortality. It’s undeniably about time leaking out of your life. There’s a whole tradition of self-reflexive filmmakers. In terms of filmmakers now, it seems like Todd Haynes is a little bit interested in that. Steven Soderbergh a little bit. Herzog is crucial; Ross McElwee is crucial. Errol Morris is interesting. That’s plenty. I can feed off them for years and years. I’m trying to think of a board-based film as of late that really blew apart genre.
Did you read Soderbergh’s recent interview in New York Magazine?
If we’re talking about the same interview, it’s the one where he says something like, not only is he thinking about retiring and moving on, but also, specifically, how he feels utterly tired of being a slave to narrative. I love that line. He’s obviously had a wildly successful career as both a commercial and as an artistically adventurous filmmaker, but in my own little career as a writer I wrote three novels, none of which have a hugely heavy plot, but I too, in my own way, felt bored out of my mind with the development of narrative lines, and tension, character arcs, all that. I want a work that really grapples pretty directly with the questions of existence, which I guess is really closer to a kind of philosophy. I really love this line from David Foster Wallace that we’re existentially alone on the planet; I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling, you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling, and writing is a bridge across that existential abyss. I love the idea that the very best work is not just vaguely fulfilling that but in its every line overtly wrestling with that idea. That’s it for me.
Speaking of David Foster Wallace, I was interested in the section of your book where you talk about how he became a fan of country music by imagining the singers’ were singing about themselves. Every love song becomes a love song about them. You talk about finding new ways to write, but what about new ways to read?
I know what you mean. It’s kind of an aesthetics of reading that I offer. It’s kind of weird to mention another review, but there was a review in the Toronto Globe & Mail, which wasn’t necessarily a positive or negative review but was just thinking about the book. He said it’s a damned annoying question Shields asks about what is this thing we do when we read but it’s really interesting to think about. What is this thing we do called reading and what’s the point of it? Maybe he had some quibbles with my book, but it served as a useful trigger. I really like that idea that for a lot of people it’s just a book, it’s fun, it’s a mystery novel, a detective novel, a literary novel, a poem – it’s just good. OK, great, give me some more. What is this reading thing? What is this all about? I do think about that a lot. I do love reading – almost as much, if not more, than writing. I love that feeling, as we all do, when you have a book that’s so compelling that you can’t wait to get back to it. I guess for me, that can’t wait to get back to it is almost never one of a fire-breathing plot; it’s almost always the sense of an incredibly intimate conversation between two people, where it almost feels like an act of love, or intimacy, or human connection. Going back to that Wallace quote, when you feel that incredibly intimate conversation I feel less lonely in the world. That, to me, is the great accomplishment of art. If every human being had that exchange they would understand each other better and there would be less bloodshed. I get it, I get what’s inside of your consciousness, and each of us in a way is imprisoned within our own consciousness, and when you really feel that inside of someone else’s book it’s like, god, another human consciousness is as real as my own. Which I think all of us have trouble, frankly, granting; our consciousness is so bloody real to ourselves. And we think, is anybody’s consciousness as real to them as ours is to us? When you read a book that’s so powerfully immersed in that other consciousness, like Cheever’s journals, or Simon Gray’s diaries, I just feel this tremendous feeling of being less lonely in the world. I have, I don’t know what, maybe impossible standards of what I want a book to do. If it’s not doing that I’m kind of bored.
I know you’re a teacher. Does teaching literature influence these questions you’re asking about reading and writing? Do you feel the students responding in a positive way to the questions?
I think so. I think students have an Oedipal thing where they try not to be, at least my students, overly impressed with their teacher. Perhaps they read my work, I don’t know. I do feel like my teaching has hugely influenced my writing. Like every writer, I probably complain about trying to balance teaching and writing – and it’s definitely a challenge – but the first book I wrote that was directly influenced by my teaching was called “Remote,” which goes back 17 years. I taught a course on mass media and collage and my book was, in a way, not exactly workshopped but I figured out how to write the book through that class. “Reality Hunger” began as a course packet – I would just bring in hundreds of quotations and disseminate them to my students. For a long time I taught the standard books in class – famous novels, or the “Norton Anthology of Short Fiction” – and a lot of the way my writing has changed came from the fact that twice a week I have to go into a class room and teach this work. I found myself hating my voice as if I was saying stuff I didn’t really believe. I said, well, I want to be able to teach essays, and write essays, and read essays, and in many ways the teaching was a litmus test in which I had to believe the words coming out of my mouth. Teaching has been this incredibly important laboratory for me to try to find a reading and writing that I can live with and believe in.
“All great works of literature either invent a genre or dissolve one” is something you repeat in the book, and you also used it in “Reality Hunger.” Is it possible that works of art, or works of literature, that are inventing or dissolving genre can become their own genre? Where do you go from there?
That’s a great point. That can become its own cliché, like super bad experimental art or visual art in which you come in and run a jackhammer over moose antlers, literary art where every third word is missing the vowels, or whatever the thing is. It can become its own convention of breaking convention. Has that become, for me, or for other writers, anyone, its own predictability? It’s an interesting question – I’m not sure I have an answer other than I’m on guard against that all the time. Every work starts out for me as something of – I love the idea of the origin of the word essay is the French essai, from the Medieval French, meaning to try, to experiment, in a way to fail. I really love that idea of the essay as an investigation. That’s all anyone’s life is. I try to change subject matter from book to book – whether it’s about celebrity, or race, or mortality, or art – but I do know what you mean. I don’t want every book to be the same, a one-hundred-and-seventy-four-page collage. I wish I had a better answer. With “How Literature Saved My Life,” I didn’t know what I was doing; it’s not like I pasted on my forehead a 3 x 5 card that says, “OK, remember David, invent a genre or dissolve one.” Or that V.S. Naipaul line, “If you want to write seriously you have to be able to break the form,” which I also really love.
Maybe the answer’s not thinking about it. I wanted to talk about Renata Adler, who you discuss in the book. I’ve not read “Speedboat,” but I’m familiar with her film writing, and I was reading an interview with her where she basically made it clear she was a fiction writer first and foremost. It immediately brought to mind Susan Sontag –
Exactly. That’s the name I thought of the moment you said that. Sontag-alert.
Sontag always made it clear that her fiction was more important than her essays, which is where, I believe, along with many others, her true talents were. A certain generation of writers held the idea of fiction on a pedestal above the essay, which might be why the ideas you pose are controversial to many writers.
I think it probably explains the vehemence with which I sometimes go on about how excited I am about the essay. I too, even though I’m a whole generation younger than Adler and Sontag, grew up with this idea of the great American novel. I think it’s true, they give lip service to the alter of the novel. You still see it all the time. The one big bright book of life is a novel. When you think of the Nobel Prize in Literature, it tends not to be an essayist; it’s usually a novelist or a poet. Obviously I care quite strongly about the essay, and I think the line of essayists from ancient essayist to now is easily as great a literary tradition as the line of poets and fiction writers.
For Sontag, and many others, they felt they had to go back to the novel to break new ground formally. It makes me think back to the Soderbergh interview we discussed earlier. I wrote down this quote from it: “I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere.”
I love that. That’s so beautiful. I love the seriousness. He’s bored out of his mind with the grammar. I like to think of myself as sharing that seriousness.
But what surprised me about Soderbergh was that, even though he is looking for a new grammar, and tired of being a slave to narrative, he is planning on directing theater, and he has been focusing on painting.
Painting? And theater too, of all things – I can’t tell you the last time I saw a play. Really? People walking in costumes across a wooden floor? It just seems so quaint. I thought he might stumble into something involving the web, or Twitter feeds, or Tumblr, or Instagram. I think that’s the next grammar. Someone needs to figure out a way to make that gorgeously artful. Christian Marclay is a step in the right direction, for sure.
The new grammar – in the future, are you thinking about getting off the standard publishing train? Are you considering using Twitter, or Instagram, some different form to challenge yourself?
The only rule is never be bored. I don’t know what is next but I wouldn’t rule it out. I’m playing with some ideas with friends, some collaborative things, and all sorts of ideas. I would hate to be that person who is, you know, the mystery writer who has to deliver a book every year to publisher X. OK, here’s my check, now I get to buy fancy wines. That’s not my goal in life. I have a teaching job that allows me to pay the rent and affords me to, frankly, write the books I want to write. I’ve always loved this line that Pauline Kael said about “Last Tango in Paris,” which has burned into my mind. She said it alters the face of an art form. That’s got to be the goal. If you’re not trying to do that I think you’re shooting a little bit low.
This interview has been edited and condensed.