Just Talking: David Shields and I

28 Dec

Reality Hunger by David Shields

Reality Hunger by David Shields

Writer and University of Washington mentor David Shields and I began conversingsometime in the mid Nineties and that dialogue has been renewed a number of times since, most recently this past spring as Shields criss-crossed the country touting his new book Reality Hunger (Random House) Some of the conversation that follows relates to that tome which claims to be a manifesto. Shields has written in” Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps”:

… when I began, I was just trying to follow the Kafka dictum, “A book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us.

You should be forewarned that David and I open with a brief discussion of the Seattle Mariners prospects(Shields has written excellently on the non-pareil Ichiro and also the NBA) and segue into chewing over East coast cultural mythology and then, well, read on.

Robert Birnbaum: How are the Mariners going to do this year?

David Shields: Well, I’m a little bit worried about Cliff Lee but they look like they’ve got it together.

RB: He’s got a hip injury?

DS: Abdomen issues and something else. They’re going to put him on a platelets diet, or something. How do you say it?

RB: Platelets?

DS: Platelets. Whatever, some kind of special diet. Anyway, he’s supposed to be back by mid-April and I mean, who knows how…I like the fact they’re spending money. I like Jack Zduriencik, the GM, and I like the manager. Don Wakamatsu. And they have some good ballplayers. You know, all I’m asking for is a competitive season.

RB: Who’s playing third base?

DS: Third? Let’s see, they moved Beltre, of course, but the Red Sox will find out that he’s nothing.

RB: No, I don’t believe it.

DS: You’ll see. He had a good season with the Dodgers that one year—it was clearly steroids. There’s a pretense that it wasn’t, but it was steroids. He’s a good-field-no-hit kind of guy.

RB: He’s the only Nicaraguan left in baseball, you know.

DS: Is he really? I forget who the Mariners’ third base move is. It’s a good question. We could have the whole interview pimping on that if you like. But I don’t actually know off the top of my head.

RB: So you think that Mariners are competitive? Are they competitive?

DS: Well, I mean they’re at…maybe if they win 90 games. If they could win 90 games…

RB: They’ve got two really good pitchers. If Lee—

DS: If he comes around, he should be fine. There’s 50 games right there. And then you need another 40 from the rest of the staff. I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll see. I mean there’s a different gold standard. You know, with the Red Sox, say, you’d almost want to be in the World Series or whatever. But for the Mariners, I don’t know. There was that thing in the paper today that the Yankees pay their players better than any team in all of professional sports. You know, I despise baseball with all my heart and soul. It’s not a sport, it’s a bank, as we always say. It’s not a sport. It’s just a banking system. And so, given that, the Mariners do relatively well. You could just say, “Why don’t they spend more money? The owner of the Mariners is the owner of Nintendo so he could spend all the money he wants.”

RB: Yeah. But it is a small market.

DS: Relatively. Kind of a medium sized to small.

RB: How are the fans? Are they relaxed fans or are they crazy fans?

DS: You see, I really resist that. This whole notion, which is a total myth, that somehow East Coast fans are somehow intense and educated and West Coast fans are somehow laid-back and uninformed.

RB: Who said that?

DS: It’s a very commonly held myth. But yet, you go to, say, a Yankees game or a Knicks game, and just like fans anywhere, they walk out of the game when…you know, this idea that only Angels fans leave in the seventh inning with the team down six to two. But it happens at Yankees games, it happens at Knicks games, it happens at Jets games. I’m very interested in these mythologies of geography, whereby there’s a tiny, tiny element of truth to it, and then it gets blown up and then endless reiterations get found of it. And then the contrary—there’s this idea that Madison Square Garden is the Mecca of basketball. The Mecca of basketball? It’s more like the Hades of basketball.

RB: You have to create an alternative media center.

DS: Well, I think it’s called the Web

RB: Yeah, but then, New York-based people will still dominate.

DS: Oh, God, not the Web.

RB: You don’t think so?

DS: I don’t think so.


DS: Well, it depends which sites you look at. But they’re not the sites I look at, that’s for sure.

RB: OK, that’s a digression. I agree with you. But I still think there’s a ghost of a power structure there and it’s geographical, despite the fact that the Internet is not geographical.

DS: Well, it goes back a little but I remember being mad at this question you asked Charlie Baxter once. I forget if you were asking Charlie Baxter or if you saying to someone about Charlie Baxter, actually, you said, “If Charlie Baxter lived on the East Coast, he’d be a much more admired writer.”

RB: Yeah, I said that.

DS: That is the wrong question. That is the wrong question. I mean, Charlie Baxter is wrapped into the Midwest. That’s like saying if Proust had only lived in London, that he’d have written Bleak House. Proust did live in London, he wrote something else.

RB: Well, it’s a confusing question, but here’s the thing: Jim Harrison spent time in New York City, it didn’t change his writing. All I’m saying is, locationally, in the book industry, you get more attention when you go to the parties.

DS: It’s a dead model.

RB: New York-based writers do not have more attention on them?

DS: It’s a dead model for me. I mean part of it is that I’m somewhat defensive on the issue because I’ve spent sort of a quarter of my time on the East Coast and three-quarters of my life on the West Coast, in my 53-year-old life. I mean, just think, it’s just not true anymore. There’s a paragraph in my book, in Reality Hunger, about that.

RB: Is that why you mention that Seattleites have a different kind of ambition?

DS: Yeah. But also I talk about certain kinds of writers on the West Coast—Eggers, Wallace, Bernard Cooper, Douglas Copeland.

RB: Eggers is from Middle West.

DS: Think he’s been living in San Francisco for the last 15 years. There’s no writer who’s gotten more attention in the last ten years than Eggers, and Michael Chabon is in there. There’s just too many exceptions. Of course there’s a handful of writers who live in Brooklyn, but I just feel like it’s a self-perpetuating myth that really has very little basis in reality.

RB: Ok, there are three. On the East Coast there I think there are 3 clumps of writers, three huge clumpings of writers: Vermont, Brooklyn, and North Carolina. Who gets the most attention out of those clumpings? Do you disagree that that’s the way?

DS: Well, for me, I don’t even care about those writers. For instance, it’s sort of like, Oh gee, what did Jonathan Franzen say? I couldn’t care less. The work I’m interested in—and part of Reality Hunger is—I’m trying to find a whole different tradition, a whole different lineage. They’re not working a tradition out of which I’m interested. So I don’t even care. I’m interested in ancient tradition, a lineage going back to St. Augustine then coming up all the way through Kundera. I’m trying to argue for a very different tradition. And those writers have lived everywhere, and nowhere, and they’ve lived all over the world. I don’t really care if in the book industry if you’ve sold 20,000 copies of your novel because you live in New York as opposed to 12,000 because you live in Minneapolis. It’s a completely meaningless distinction. I mean, it’s such a dead zone. It’s the tallest building in Kansas City.

RB: OK. So, are you the only person who says about themselves that they write “autobiographical nonfiction”?

DS: No, plenty of people do.

RB: But do they say they do that—actually make that claim?

DS: It’s something I noticed early on in my writing life, that—my first three books were works of fiction—an interviewer would ask, Tell me how autobiographical the work is? And the answer is always, Oh no, it’s not autobiographical at all. I was just staring in my study and an image came to me of a bird hopping down the highway and I followed that bird to a work of fiction that’s a complete masterpiece. I mean, that’s the answer you’re supposed to give. I saw out of the corner of my eye an image of a car going down U.S. 80 and I had to figure out what that image represented. I mean, every writer, every novelist always says that. And I would always say, Yeah, of course Dead Languages comes from my life.

RB: Does anyone argue that the underpinning of all writing is autobiographical?

DS: People will argue, of course, the emotions come from my life, but the whole thing is completely invented. In one of the passages I like in Reality Hunger, I talk about that Lorrie Moore story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” Which is obviously the best thing she’s ever written. You know, she—I know her slightly and I don’t want to quarrel with her greatly—but it’s very important to her and to sort of like-minded fiction writers, to really create this frame around their fiction, in which they say it is a work of fiction. Whereas, I’m just saying I’m working out of a different aesthetic. It’s so much more interesting to say, No, it comes from my life. Of course it does. It’s so much more nervous-making and discomfiting. It’s more psychically interesting. The temperature in the room goes up. To me, I’m terribly interested in trying to reduce as much as possible the mediation between writer and reader. I’m very aware of the fact that we are 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. And writing at its very best is a bridge constructed across that abyss of human loneliness. And so I like work in which the writer is trying to show how he solved being alive. Nothing more, nothing less. And part of that attempt is to try to reduce that mediation as much as possible between writer and reader, and to try to make as thin a membrane as possible, always acknowledging it’s going to be a composition and, in a way, a work of fiction. So, for me, I’m terribly interested in the kind of existentially exciting gesture of a writer trying to get to absolute bone. That interests me greatly. I realize it’s a somewhat doomed project. But I’m really bored by fiction writers always having this escape hatch with which to say, Oh, by the way, I’m Harry Houdini, I can escape from the fiction. There’s nothing truly at risk in the work. Whereas the works I really love the most—Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries, Spalding Gray’s Morning, Noon, and Night, Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere—I could list book after book after book. There’s a nakedness—an actual risk-taking adventure—that I find thrilling. Part of the book is arguing against the conventional novel. There are novels I really love, like I love J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Barry Hannah’s Boomerang, and I love David Markson’s work, which he calls novels. But in general, the novelistic apparatus, I find—hoo, boy—takes you so far from anything interesting.

RB: Name some books. I have to say, can I say that I really admire and like Robert Stone. So tell me some novels and writers whom you cannot stand. Some specific books.

DS: Stone. Stone I really do not admire.

RB: Books. Name some books. None of his work?

DS: I don’t admire Robert Stone’s work at all. I don’t admire Franzen’s The Corrections. I don’t admire Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Book after book that you probably admire is going to be a book that I’m not going to admire. I mean, it’s not necessarily like, Oh, gee, I found Franzen’s book bad. It seems to me that like part of the argument of my book is that writers—

RB: —I don’t think it’s an argument.

DS: But I mean it’s not like I’m really invested in saying Franzen is good and Ford is bad. I want to say something like, that writers have got to obliterate distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—

RB: Why?

DS: Well, wait, let me finish. That they have to overturn the laws regarding appropriations and create new forms for a new century. The novel for me—the conventional novel, the memoir—seems to be describing a reality pre-21st Century. Franzen’s novel, say, Robert Stone’s fiction, Ian McEwan. They’re essentially, to me, 19th Century Victorian novelists who dress up their material. They dismiss the same way for me. Their material is contemporary, but the form in which they pour it—

RB: You mean the nouns, the descriptions that surround—

DS: I was looking at a book, for some reason, I was looking at Sabbath’s Theater last night. Roth’s novel. Friends of mine just love that book. So I said, Okay, I’ll try it. And, man. I like some Roth, I’m reading Operation Shylock, and I like it a lot. But that book is so wedded to formulaic, novelistic moves that I can’t get to the actual material.

RB: You don’t like it because it’s predictable to you? Because you know what’s going to happen?

DS: Well, not necessarily because it’s predictable, but just that so many of the moves are just cast in concrete. We introduce characters and we create scenes and we have dialogues and we have a back-story and we have flashbacks. We have these climaxes and these cathexes, and it just seems what happens in novel after novel after novel. Franzen to me is a good example, I seem to use him as a bete noir everywhere I go because in The Corrections he started out with a great idea, to me. Namely that, as psychological beings, as global society, and as economic engines, we tend to overcorrect. That’s a real insight, I think it’s a great idea. But what happens in that book is he gives only the thinnest lip service to that idea and instead creates, to me, a very conventional, virtually 19th Century family album, family reunion thing, and he doesn’t really explore the ideas it wants to explore. There’s a patina of intellectual and emotional investigation, and really it’s just a big old baggy family novel.

RB: So what’s a story to you? What do you think is a story?

DS: I want story wedded to a matrix of ideas. Like I love Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces.

RB: What about his prior books? Because the prior books were in the same mode.

DS: Galeano’s?

RB: Yeah.

DS: Those were way too polemical to me and way too preachy. I love stories, I just don’t love story. A wonderful line of Robbe-Grillet’s, who says that story has lost its innocence, is that we can no longer tell stories the way that we once did. Post-Freud, post-Heisenberg, post-Sasseur, post-Wittgenstein. I mean, to me, the perceiver by his very presence alters what’s perceived.

RB: That’s Heisenberg? Or Schrodinger? What’s the Schrodinger’s Paradox?

DS: Schrodinger’s Cat is this amazing parable where you put a cat in a box and you can only figure out if the cat is dead if you open the box.

RB: Why is that not the same sort of statement? You change the experiment or you change something by observing it?

DS: They’re related. I’m not enough of a physicist or a philosopher to be able to distinguish. They’re clearly related, Schrodinger’s Paradox and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. But to get back to your essential question, for me, I do go back to this idea that we’re alone on the planet. I want to know what it’s like inside your brain, I want to know what it’s really like to think and feel inside of you. I take writing unbelievably seriously. I think that writing really, really, really, really matters. And the writing I love the most, the writing I try to embody, the writing I teach, the writing I read…it puts as its absolute center the writer struggling to figure out something about existence, whether it’s Proust, whether it’s Moby Dick, whether it’s Tristam Shandy, whether is Coetzee, whether it’s David Markson or it’s Ann Carson, some of Amy Hempl. So much fiction for me, and certainly a huge amount of memoir, is so wedded to a kind of commercial mood in which the writer essentially wants the reader to turn pages. To me it’s a decision between two kinds of boring. There’s good boring and bad boring. The bad boring for me is a writer cranking through the pages trying to make sure that the reader keeps turning pages. It seems to me fundamentally a waste of time. It’s there as entertainment. Whereas there’s a good kind of boring, which for me is the writer’s actually “boring” in. He’s actually investigating it. And you can feel it on the page.

RB: What diminishes the notion that the writer wants the reader to turn the pages? That’s simply the writer wanting to be read.

DS: Sure.

RB: What’s so illegitimate about that?

DS: Cynthia Ozick says, “I don’t find entertainment entertaining.” I find utterly entertaining the books I’ve mentioned. To me they’re not esoteric, or they’re not homework, or hard—they’re thrilling. Because they put at their absolute center the writer and reader’s existential investigation. And I’m trying to say this is incredible, exciting work that I want to make incredible claims for. It goes back centuries. Part of it is I’m trying to rescue nonfiction as art. I’m trying to rescue, from the clutches of journalism, the clutches of scholarship, nonfiction. We always conduct these trials by Google of nonfiction, whereby every work of nonfiction gets vetted as if it’s an article in The New York Times. But there’s a tradition going back millennia in which the writer uses a nonfiction frame to foreground contemplation and uses it to explore something essential, existentially thrilling about existence. For me, a huge number of novels and memoirs are way too wedded to a commercial or capitalist gesture of page-turning entertainment. I’m just saying. I realize it’s a minority opinion, but I want to rescue my fellow travelers and say, “Hey, don’t apologize for this stuff. This is the most exciting thing on the planet. Let’s keep writing and reading this and back-forming a tradition out of it. And it’s the coolest thing around.”

RB: Okay. You like Proust. I like Garcia-Marquez. What is the difference between you and I? Am I a lazy reader?

DS: Hardly.

RB: Or brainwashed by commercial capitalists?

DS: I don’t know if you chose those on purpose because I talk about it in the book, but it’s a good example. Obviously Garcia-Marquez is a wonderful writer and I do love Autumn of the Patriarch a lot. That’s a beautiful book, it’s my favorite book of his, actually. But what is it about them? Obviously, in a way, I’m just saying, Hey, here’s a very subjective take on my part. I realize they’re both wonderful writers, and why do we have to choose? I guess, for me, what it is about Garcia-Marquez is…there was a real moment in my writing and reading life—I was traveling, on the proverbial post-undergraduate backpacking trip through Europe—and I had Proust and Garcia-Marquez with me. All I can say, for me, and I just have to trust my own nerve-endings as a writer, and I’m reading them both in translation, so it’s a bit unfair, but in the case of Garcia-Marquez, the essential motor of the thing is carnival barking to me, to be honest. This thing happened and then that thing happened, and isn’t this amazing? And then this thing flew through the air and this turned into snow.

RB: But in the stories, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, I don’t think he has people saying, This is amazing. I think the interesting thing about it is this stuff is all matter-of-fact. This is the way these people live and perceive. I think if there’s carnival barking or cheer-leading, it’s coming from somewhere else.

DS: The most interesting thing about the book is the way Garcia-Marquez talks about it. He basically just wanted to render the very literal tone that I think his aunt or grandma told stories in. That they would tell the most amazing things—that a rooster flew across the courtyard or whatever—but they would say it in the most natural way, and Garcia-Marquez talks beautifully about that. He talks beautifully as well about the process by which he came to write the book, you know, false start after false start. He was a relatively middling journalist in Mexico City and he found this way into the book and it’s really amazing. But all I can say is that about a hundred or two hundred pages into the book I realized I wasn’t really learning anything. I am really wedded to wisdom, I’m really a wisdom junkie. I really want knowledge, I want someone to understand what we’re doing on the planet. I want someone to overtly and discursively talk about existence. And then I’d read Proust, and he’s actively trying to figure something out. He’s actually wrestling with existence. Whereas the Garcia-Marquez, you could argue, is wrestling with existence by implication. And all I can say is I prefer this other tradition.

RB: Because it’s more aggressive for you, and more immediate for you.

DS: It wrestles with existence more overtly.

RB: Have you read things, have you experienced things, whose impact somehow had a resonant aftertaste that you didn’t get as you were experiencing it? Did you ever hear a piece of music that haunted you a month later? That didn’t happen with Garcia-Marquez, but who’s to say that the things you read don’t accumulate and recombine in some other ways, internally?

DS: I think that’s a fair thing. Sort of different strokes for different folks, and if you’re against abortions don’t have one. If you don’t agree with me, don’t get on my bus, that’s fine. I’m just saying, here’s this tradition I find exciting. I gave a talk about the book at a writer’s conference—I’ve actually given a lot of talks about it, because I’ve been publishing excerpts from the book for years and galleys have been circulating for months, so I’ve been talking about the book for years—

RB: Well, you’ve been talking about these ideas, I think, going back to the nineties?

DS: Yeah, going back to Remote. So I’m obviously interested in these issues. Part of it is I’m baffled by, or fascinated by, the novel form. I’m a bit of a spurned lover who’s sending poison pen letters to my ex-lover. I’m fully aware of that and I cop to that, totally. Both my parents were journalists, I became a fiction writer, I wrote three novels, I was trying to write my fourth book as a novel. The novel form collapsed on me and I took this fascinating, to me, left turn into nonfiction. I’m both baffled by and excited by that move. In a way I’ve spent the last ten or fifteen years trying to explain it to myself, or figure it out.

RB: Why call this a manifesto?

David Shields photograph by Robert Birnbaum

David Shields photograph by Robert Birnbaum

DS: I think it’s an anti-manifesto manifesto. What’s it a manifesto for? I guess it’s a manifesto for a few things. It’s a manifesto for so many different things I don’t know where to start. For me, at the most basic level, it’s a manifesto for the excitement of a certain kind of nonfiction that defines nonfiction “upward” in this precise way. A huge amount of the discussion of nonfiction defines it downward, as I said earlier, sort of vetting it as if it’s an article in the Times, basically conducting this “trial by Google.” In a way it’s sort of interesting to me, because I was teaching—I teach at the University of Washington—and this book began as a course packet. I was hired as a fiction writer, and after awhile I stopped writing fiction. I felt like on some level I wanted to justify to myself, my colleagues, and my students why I was no longer a fiction writer. So I collected thousands of quotations from different people, everyone from Thucydides to Wayne Koestenbaum, talking about why an existentially minded nonfiction is so interesting. I collected these quotes over years and years, and the course pack started to assume a kind of shape. I pushed the quotations into chapters and rubrics and categories, I started to reorganize the passages by myself and by other people. Year by year, it started to assume more and more shape. The essential thing, if it is a manifesto, it’s essentially an argument for the excitement of nonfiction, for me, that defines nonfiction upward. To me, ordinary nonfiction—your basic journalism or scholarship—really takes quite seriously ideas of verifiability, truth, facts, and reality. Whereas if you define nonfiction upward, you use the very parameters and premises of nonfiction as a trampoline of which to bounce into really the most exciting questions. What’s true? What’s knowledge? What’s memory? What’s self? What’s an other? What can we know? To me that’s really the essential thing I’m trying to do. I’m trying to rescue nonfiction as this thrillingly, epistemologically rich art form that goes back milennia. And that excites me a lot.

RB: I think that probably there is a diminution or a degradation of fiction writing. The British call novel writing or fiction writing the “senior service,” or something like that, giving it higher status. I don’t know where that comes from, but I liked Cynthia Ozick’s quote about the essay. The dichotomy should be essay/fiction. That’s it. Everything that’s not fiction is essay.

DS: As opposed to “nonfiction”? I agree with you. There’s a wonderful line in my book by somebody, I can’t remember who, which says, “Calling something ‘nonfiction’ is like having a dresser labeled ‘nonsocks.’” I love that one. It’s sort of like, what does that term mean? It’s such a meaningless term. I guess what I want to do is put a huge amount of pressure on the word “non” and say, Yes, exactly, what does that mean to say that it’s “non” fiction? It’s literally true. Really? What’s truth? You’re a journalist or a scholar so you have unique access to truth? I guess what’s so interesting to me, when a work gets framed as nonfiction, is that all these “truth” claims are real. You’re actually making all these claims for truth. For example, I’m loving Operation Shylock, but I’m getting to the end of the book—it’s basically about this guy who’s impersonating Philip Roth in Israel, and it’s a hilarious and wonderful book—but I really hate the last line of the whole book. The very last line of the book is a note to the reader from Roth in which he says, “This book is a work of fiction.” Because the book is subtitled, “A Confession.” And it’s so exciting you can’t tell if it’s true or not true, there’s a huge amount of references to Philip Roth and Claire Bloom and Roth’s brother, Sandy. It hovers so excitingly between fiction and nonfiction. It’s a bit complicated at the end because at the end Roth says this confession is false. It’s not clear if he’s saying this last paragraph is false, and so therefore it is in fact a work of nonfiction.

RB: Who are some of your “fellow travelers”?

DS: Well, John D’Agata, Philip Lopate, Vivian Gornick…

RB: Essayists?

DS: Yeah. Maggie Nelson, Sarah Manguso, Bernard Cooper, Sally Tisdale, Wayne Koestenbaum, J.M. Coetzee in his essayistic mode, David Markson, whose books are published as novels.

RB: Has he published anything recently?

DS: Markson? Well, he’s written these four books that I just love. One is called This is Not a Novel, then there’s a book called Reader’s Block, one called Vanishing Point.

RB: What about Wittgenstein’s Mistress?

DS: That one I’m not a fan of, believe it or not, because it has this whole corny plot with it. I guess I’m just missing the plot gene, the plot DNA. I’ve said to people, like you, bring the arguments to prove me wrong. And people bring excellent arguments, and it’s true, for them.

RB: Well, I don’t think it’s an argument. Why is it, for instance, I can read your work, and—other than some minor ideological irritants—I can enjoy and be stimulated by it, but also read all the stuff you seem not to like?

DS: I know what you mean, people say that. I guess for me, I’m not very catholic. I remember having an interesting debate with David Gates, the novelist and critic, and I was saying, “David, I don’t see how you can like Beckett as much as you do.” He loves Beckett, but then he also loves Franzen. I don’t get it, because to me, you have to choose. He wrote this positive review of Franzen’s The Corrections, and I was like, really? I don’t have anything against Jonathan Franzen. He seems like a nice guy and he’s a serious writer, the novel’s okay. But, to me, I didn’t get how you could love Beckett as much as Gates does and then praise Franzen. I have sort of my guys and my girls, and I love them to death, and I try to carve out this aesthetic. Part of it is that the tradition in which I work is somewhat under poeticized in the sense that fiction has a poetics. All these people have been talking about what fiction is going back to Aristotle. Poets have a poetics going all the way back to the beginning of time. Nonfiction doesn’t really have that poetics in which we can talk about it in really exalted terms.

RB: What does John D’Agata do in the front of his two anthologies? Does he not have introductions that glorify the essay? Not to mention that every year when The Best American Essays gets published the guest editor has some commentary about the form?

DS: Sure. John is a big influence on me, and I love John’s work. All I’m saying is we need a book-length appreciation of it. I don’t know what to say other than that John is a part of it. But then the damndest things happen. John published his wonderful book called About a Mountain. And then in The New York Times Book Review a novelist named Charles Bock, who wrote the novel about Las Vegas—

RB: Beautiful Children, I think.

DS: Right. He basically liked John’s book a lot, but then at the end, the last third of the review is him criticizing John for having an afterword at the end of the book in which John says, “Oh, by the way, I compressed a few events in the book, I compressed the timeline for narrative clarity.” So Charles Bock spends a third of the review, three or four hundred words, talking about what a terrible sort of failure this is. So, if you do change things and don’t say anything, someone will point it out to you.

RB: Do you actually take seriously the kinds of reviews that take place in newspapers?

DS: I take them seriously as symptoms of anthropology.

RB: Like commercial, capitalistic degradation.

DS: Yeah. It’s a symptom of the way nonfiction is discussed. Of just how unbelievably, to use your word, degraded the discussion is. I’m not saying that I’m first or last or best, I’m just saying the more that D’Agata and Lopate and Gornick and I and everyone else can talk about it, the more that we can raise nonfiction to the level of artistic excitement. And nonfiction writers can stop being judged as journalists or liars or memoirists or scholars, and they can be understood as artists of the absolute first rank. There’s no book I’ve loved more of late than Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. It’s a 120-page book, a brief meditation on the color blue that morphs into this incredible book that becomes a cri de coeur about her inability to get over a love affair that she can’t get over, and then talks a lot about her friend who has become paralyzed by a car accident. The book keeps on getting larger and larger and larger through a series of about 600 very short paragraphs. It’s short, pointillistic paragraphs, like mine, and the book ends up becoming about sort of like the melancholy of the human animal. How do we live with loss, how do we deal with ultimate loss. It’s an extraordinary book and it’s deeply, deeply serious. A deeply adult book in a way that I find very few novels are. Maggie Nelson’s investment in that book is to wrestle at the most serious level with existence. I love Nietzsche, I love Rousseau, I love Pascal. That’s my tradition and I want to make sure everyone knows about it.

RB: What strikes me about the way you talk about the things that you like to read is you feel like—and you can correct me—you feel like you’ve gotten to the person. You feel like you know as much as one can know another person. You feel like that person has exposed themselves to you.

DS: Exactly. I think that’s a very good articulation of it. As you were talking I sort of knew you were going to say that, I could hear that. It’s this amazing intimacy, I feel it in the best work. To me, it feels as good or better than sex, the kind of intimacy you get between a writer and reader. When a writer is being really, really serious, you are assuaging that human loneliness to an extraordinary degree. The writers I love, they foreground that to the nth degree. And I feel like those are the works I want to go to the mat for. And some of those happen to be novels. Or at least have been published as novels. Markson, Proust, some Kundera.

RB: It’s funny because I was thinking about Reality Hunger, and I don’t know what I would think about this book if I didn’t know you. Certainly I know many of the premises and where you’re going with it, and I’m certainly sympathetic with it. Although part of me wants to say, “What’s the big deal?” I think this is kind of obvious. It’s almost like you’re making an apology for something because you feel its due by commercial establishments.

DS: All your points are interesting. What’s the big deal? I mean, there are people who’ve read it and said, “This is the most radical thing I’ve ever read,” but there are also other people who’ve said, “Yawn, this all so obvious. “So, I don’t know what to say about that other than the fact that some people still need persuading. Some people are terribly upset about the book. If you find the argument rather comfortable, if you’re like, okay, this is interesting, but why does David need to go off on such a tear about it? Then maybe you’re already pretty hip to the argument.

RB: The book is still interesting because of the snippets you’ve brought in there. Did the legal department really force you to notate?

DS: You know, I argue in the book that all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. To me, the best works create in the reader a sense of vertiginous existential doubt. And I wanted to mirror that exactly, emblematize it, and vivify it by having the reader not be sure if this Sonny Rollins or Schopenhauer or Shields or Robert Birnbaum. Or is it some weird mix of all those, or none of us. How much have I remixed? Who’s the speaker? What’s invented?

RB: But then after some notes you say, I can’t actually remember. So what’s the good of the notes if it doesn’t give you any legal addendum?

DS: Sure it does. Basically, those notes are genuine. I tried as hard as I could to find every citation I could, and in a few cases I simply ran up against the brick wall of human knowledge. I couldn’t get to everything. One of the big arguments of the book is the imperfection of human knowledge, the incompleteness of it, and the way the best works of nonfiction explore and embody that. And so, of course, I wanted to embody that in my book itself. On the one hand, I do take care of my legal requirements, there are citations, albeit in very small type, some of them are incomplete, and I preface it with a disclaimer in which I say, “Please, for the love of God, don’t read these citations”. Anyway, I had a months-long debate with the publisher in which I said I thought it would be much more exciting to have no citations and have the reader and have the reader slowly realize how much of this is quoted, and then sort of do a lot of research by Google. But I’ve come to live with the citations—I think they’re an interesting part of the book. I’m fine with them.

RB: How was this book edited?

DS: By the editor? She barely touched it. It wasn’t edited. Why do you ask?

RB: I’m just trying to understand how it was put together.

DS: Well, I’ve already started to edit it. I would hesitate to show you my copy of the book, which is edited, and that will be the paperback edition where I’ve already changed the order of the epigraph and I’m moving stuff around, slightly. But to me the order is very carefully wrought. You know, there have been a lot of reviews of the book and some of them interest me more than others. But the ones that are most disappointing are the ones that say it’s just a random collection of 618 paragraphs. It’s like, please. They’ve been very carefully ordered to make a very specific argument in both each chapter and in the book as a whole.

RB: Why didn’t you use pictures?

David Shields Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

David Shields Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

DS: Why didn’t I use pictures? Well, I didn’t want it to become a gimmick. I used pictures in Remote, and that book is obsessed with images, celebrities, beauty, the difference between reality and mediation, whereas this book is very much about text. People ask me why I didn’t use pictures in Black Planet, because obviously images of black men’s bodies are crucial to the way the NBA gets marketed. But I didn’t want to become “the picture man.” Like, [WG]Sebald does his books using pictures, or most books have pictures. To me, it was very much a solution to one book, the pictures in Remote. And, I don’t know if you’re kidding, but I thought of pictures in Black Planet but certainly not in this book. I mean, what are we going to do, have pictures of Wittgenstein at table in Vienna or something?

RB: Well, actually, I was really thinking more of sort of a web annex that included musical and maybe video clippings. Because you talk about Sonny Rollins, you quote Bob Dylan, there are some rappers that you quote. Which reminds me—there’s one writer that I’m astonished that you never mentioned, I think he has some parallels with you in the way he does his work. Lawrence Weschler.

DS: I really like Lawrence Weschler. Do I never quote him? I like his work and have been influenced by it, especially his book about the museum of Jurassic technology. Also, I love his book on Robert Irwin. Do you know that book?

RB: Yeah.

DS: It’s a wonderful book. To me, there’s no pretense of being complete. I’m not like, Oh, gee, I better get Weschler. He’s awfully good, I agree. He’s totally relevant to my project and I asked my publisher to mail him a copy of the book because I hope he would find it of interest. He’s barking up so many similar trees as I am, absolutely.

RB: I thought his book Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences was pretty interesting, too. It’s a most explicit statement about the way he sees the world.

DS: Tell me about Convergences. I’ve heard of that but I haven’t read it.

RB: It’s this book in which he shows a picture of one painting, some Dutch master painting, that later is reflected in the execution of Che Guevara, a picture of Che when he’s, you know—

DS: Wow, sounds amazing.

RB: Yeah.

DS: And is each chapter an analysis of one such convergence?

RB: No, it’s not that organized. That would be very linear.

DS: That sounds very interesting, I should read it.

RB: Actually, to him I owe my discovery of Eduardo Galeano. But you should look at his books, his books are on all different subjects.

DS: I mean, I’m familiar with Weschler, and I like the ones I’ve read. I just haven’t read all of them.

RB: He wrote an immense book on the amnesties in Brazil and Argentina after the military regimes were gotten rid of it’s called A Miracle, a Universe. He sliced a bit of it out for The New Yorker, in which he went to Uruguay and met Galeano, who had come back from Spain. I always loved that he quoted Galeano, he said, Why do you live in Argentina? You’re both Argentinian and… Galeano said if I lived in Argentina and got killed, people wouldn’t know if it was a friend or an enemy. In Uruguay, it would clearly be an enemy. It’s a wonderful statement on the duplicity of Argentinians.

DS: Why would it be an enemy?

RB: Well, because he’s a leftist and Argentina is not necessarily hospitable to leftists.

DS: Why would it not be clear in—

RB: —in Argentina?

DS: Yeah.

RB: Because people are duplicitous in Argentina whereas in Uruguay they’re not duplicitous. They wouldn’t pretend to be your friend.

DS: I’m sure there’s duplicity in all countries, but maybe not the degree to which it’s a shadowland. He comes through in The Book of Embraces. I think it’s a great book.

RB: So, anyway, now you’re forward to the paperback, which will be re-jiggered.

DS: Very small, I’ll be making some very tiny changes, tiny edits, small citations I got ever so slightly wrong. But no, I’m going to be flipping everything around. Real small changes.

RB: So, how much past a particular project do you look? Are you intensely focused on the thing that you have in front of you, or do you sort of work up something and then sit somewhere and think, oh, maybe after this I’ll do that?

DS: Well, first of all, I’m talking about Reality Hunger, and I’m also editing a Norton anthology on mortality where twenty contemporary writers confront death. I’m co-editing that with Brad Morrow, he and I have done the introduction and we’re editing the twenty essays.

RB: Are you still editing Conjunctions, or involved with it?

DS: I’m a senior editor there, yeah. So, I feel like I’m marshaling these three books toward print.

RB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s a trend that has seemed to have ramped up a little bit—the idea of a writer finding a subject that they’re interested in—death, marriage, their first sex, their favorite book and rounding up a group of writers to expound on it.

DS: To worry that, yeah. To me, if a magazine has a theme issue, I’ll definitely read it. But if the magazine just has a bunch of things, I’m not as drawn to it. I think perhaps it’s influenced by This American Life. At its best—which it isn’t always, of course—that show will take a theme and they’ll run variations on that theme. And at its worst, it’s simply, okay, here’s a bunch of things about money. But at its best, each segment sort of hands the baton to each new segment, and the result is you get a really powerful meditation on that subject. By minute 60, you’re in a deeper place than you were on minute two. I think it’s perhaps the influence of both the Harper’s reading section from the early nineties, when it was really great, and This American Life. Also just the web-based, digital nature of contemporary culture. You can pull this stuff together pretty quickly, you know. We begin to see so much of our function is to edit. I forget if I say it in the book or not, but I think of myself less as a writer and more of a film editor. My art, if there is any art to my art, is something like being able to juxtapose in an interesting way all kinds of stuff.

RB: I think of myself as a curator.

DS: In what sense, exactly?

RB: In the sense that when I’m thinking of putting something under one umbrella, one color, it’s because I’m not interested in writing a biography of something. But I am interested in having people talk about a subject when I don’t know what they’re going to say.

DS: Well, that’s very close to my aesthetic. I’m terribly interested in gathering the threads in a really, I hope, rich way. I’m not hugely interested in spelling it all out. So what is it in us, Robert, that’s drawn toward that presentation function? What is that aesthetic, do you think?

RB: For me, I just think that lots of people are much more articulate at talking about things, describing things, and formulating things than I am. I do think I have a slight talent in sensing those things and observing those things, and I have a decent memory so I can remember how some of them can be connected. But I don’t think I’m terribly creative in that way. Otherwise, I’d be writing fiction.

DS: Well, I don’t know if I’ll accept that! There’s that wonderful line of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s where he says it is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent. Genius borrows nobly. There is no pure originality. I really agree with that.

RB: I sort of like to think that my conversations with people are as interesting as the standard magazine Q & A’s.

DS: Far more so. I often have fun reading your pieces. At their best, they’re sort of these insane jazz riffs that create a kind of marvelous momentum. And at their worst they’re a trainwreck, you know.

RB: [Laughs] That’s me. Okay, so I think we’ve done good.

DS: No Ichiro? No Milch?

RB: I was going to ask you about Milch. I wanted to ask you about what he did with Deadwood.

DS: What? Is it no good? I’ve never watched it.

RB: It was great, but he claims he never read Pete Dexter’s book, Deadwood.

DS: Is it pretty much the same material? Why didn’t they just option it? That’s bizarre.

RB: It’s the same sensibility, for sure. Do you know Pete Dexter? He lives in your area. He’s really a wonderful guy.

DS: I like his work. That collection of newspaper columns I loved. I was actually on a national panel for nonfiction and I argued for that book to be a finalist.

RB: I think you would like his new book, Spooner.

DS: Is Spooner a memoir, kind of?

RB: It seems to be based on his life.

DS: Is it a novel? I thought it was presented as memoir.

RB: He called it a novel, yeah.

DS: I see.

RB: It’s just one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, and not in a silly way.

DS: It takes place outside of Philly?

RB: No, it’s set all over his life.

RB: Okay, one more question about Ichiro. Is it the case that last year he perked up because Junior came to the team?

DS: That’s the myth, and who knows how true it is. There’s something a little corny about it that I somewhat distrust. There’s a certain element of truth to it in that Junior could do stuff like—and I’m calling him Junior as if I know—but Ichiro hates to be touched, and Griffey would come and tickle him in the stomach for five minutes. You know, Ichiro truly does admire and love Griffey. There’s something a little bit recusant about Ichiro. He’s sort of Bartleby-like. You know, he’d prefer not to. There is something that is selfish about Ichiro.

RB: Isn’t he the best player in baseball?

DS: Well, now we’re back to east and west again, you know. He’s an amazing baseball player. I’m sure you know my Ichiro book[Baseball Is Just Baseball : The Understated Ichiro] and I did a Times magazine profile on him. The most fascinating thing ever said to me about him was something Mike Cameron said. He said the second baseman would be standing six feet from second base, and in order to bird-dog back the runner on second base, the second baseman would take one step closer to second base, so now he’s five feet from second base. Ichiro would hit the ball exactly where the guy had just vacated. And he would say, how do you do that off of a 95-mile-an-hour fastball? That’s just uncanny. It’s one of my favorite passages in Reality Hunger, I have an Ichiro passage, and Ichiro is really, really, really there, he’s present. Like that amazing thing that Ichiro did when he caught a ball to win the 114th game in 2001. The sportswriter said, “How did you know you would catch it?” and he said, “I knew it when I caught it.” He’s so great at that. He is Reality Hunger in a lot of ways. What do I know, but friends of mine who are sportswriters in Seattle told me that it really did happen that Griffey just demanded that Ichiro be a silly part of the team. That he did not allow him to be so serious. And that’s a gift, a great gift. Griffey’s amazing that way.

RB: Yeah.

DS: Well, thanks Robert, it’s always great fun to talk to you.

RB: Yes, sir.


2 Responses to “Just Talking: David Shields and I”


  1. Faux Sure « ourmaninboston - November 19, 2012

    […] my most recent conversation with David Shields, mostly about his manifesto, Reality Hunger. It also features his absolutely, […]

  2. Just Talking: How to Do Things with Words | ourmaninboston - March 2, 2015

    […] David Shields […]

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