It’s a book that defies easy classification.
An argument. A clarion call. An affront. A life story.
An unapologetic assault on the literary status quo.
An essay-memoir-pointillistic-literary-collage-and-exercise-in-appropriation-art, one which argues that a new artistic movement is forming, a movement which prizes as its virtues things like randomness, self-reflexivity, reader/viewer participation, and the total obliteration of the line between fiction and nonfiction.
The book has been greeted as a revelation. A game-changer. A thunderous ars poetica.
The book has been greeted as reprehensible. Tired. An irresponsible attempt to subvert existing copyright law, all while generating a massive wave of cheap publicity.
Writers in particular have reacted strongly to the book. Some with venemous anger; others, a fit of nervousness; others still with unbridled enthusiasm.
“To call something a manifesto is a brave step,” writes Luc Sante in the New York Times. “It signals that you are hoisting a flag and are prepared to go down with the ship.”
Shields—as far as I can tell—is still afloat, and he was kind enough to speak with me recently about his life, his work, and his assessment of the cultural moment.
This book has angered a lot of people.
You can calculate the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it. (Flaubert)
Early in the book, you say: “Painting isn’t dead. The novel isn’t dead. They just aren’t as central to the culture as they once were.” And then later: “The novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps.”
So which one is it? Is the novel increasingly peripheral or is it dead? Or is it both?
Distinction without a difference.
So peripheral means dead?
Good point. Peripheral doesn’t have to mean dead. It’s just: let’s be honest. The novel, the traditional novel, is now the equivalent of chamber orchestra or ballet: coterie activity for a handful of people who believe they are maintaining civilization by writing as their 19th century forebears did.
Just because you don’t want to write traditional novels anymore doesn’t mean that the form is dead—does it? Isn’t this just a simple matter of personal taste?
If it were only a simple matter of personal taste, why would Reality Hunger have generated so much attention? It clearly “clocked or locked a feeling in the air,” as one reviewer put it. Some find the book catalyzing; others find the book threatening. Pretty much what I expected.
A quote from Gabriel García Márquez:
“The intellectual is the worst thing there is. He invents things and then he believes them. He decides the novel is dead but then he finds a novel and says he discovered it. If you say the novel is dead, it is not the novel. It is you who are dead.”
How would you respond to that?
I disagree. I don’t respond to García Márquez’s work, so the quote doesn’t really mean anything to me. To me, he’s a good example of a very old-fashioned storytelling. It’s essentially Faulkner rebooted. It doesn’t interest me. A crucial moment in my reading and writing life was reading García Márquez and Proust back to back one summer, and I saw that, for me, Proust was a way forward and García Márquez wasn’t. Reality Hunger is arguing for the emptying out of genre. I love a lot of novels, but they are almost never novelly novels. I’m arguing against memoiry memoirs and novelly novels.
On the issue of plagiarism, you say you feel no guilt. You use no quotation marks in your book. You sample freely from other artists and engage in “the art of appropriation.” Had you been able to do things your way, without interference from the Random House legal department, you wouldn’t have attributed the material you used in the book—no end notes. Why?
So that the reader would feel on his pulse the dubiety of the first-person pronoun and thereby experience what I’m saying about genre.
What are you saying about genre?
The book is arguing that the best work, or the most exciting work, or the work that I find most exciting, is work that defies genre. The trope for that throughout Reality Hunger is that in exactly the same way I want the reader (or wanted the reader) not to know who’s talking. Is it Shields? Sonny Rollins? Montaigne? Nietzsche? Frank Rich? What possible difference could it make? In exactly the same way, the best work resists generic classification. “When we are unsure, we are alive.”
Another quote from the book:
“Copies have been dethroned; the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection, and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. Art is a conversation, not a patent office.”
This sort of idea must not be too popular at, say, Random House. Who will publish your future offerings if the current economic model fully collapses to dust?
I certainly hope we don’t have publishers to deal with soon, don’t you? It’s a model that has far outlived its usefulness.
How should an artist feel if, say, his work is appropriated and he receives no attribution, not to mention compensation? How will artists make a living in the kind of environment you advocate for—one in which the current understanding of copyright and fair use is pretty much obliterated?
Have you heard of music?
I keep hearing pop songs in Cadillac commercials.
The current music model is that music is free, but it costs to attend concerts. I’m virtually certain that this is the direction in which “publishing” will go. Everybody will have his/her book available on his/her website for $1.99. Why in the world do we need publishers, bookstores, reviewers as middlemen?
This could be a slippery slope, couldn’t it? What about academia? You’re a teacher, after all. If I’m one of your students, and I’ve got a dissertation due, can I just appropriate the work of other writers and students, slap it all together in some kind of orderly fashion and hand it in?
I’m not a copyright absolutist. I’m arguing for the connection between the creative act and plagiarism. I’m not arguing that my daughter should steal her paper from Wikipedia.
And what about possible negative effects on creativity and imagination? Does art by appropriation stifle creative drive in some way or remove a key imaginative element?
No. And no one is saying that appropriation will be the only art form. It will continue to be, in our digital age, an increasingly crucial one. Artists have “plagiarized” from the beginning of recorded civilization 5,000 years ago. Roman sculptors directly copied Greek sculptures. Two-thirds of Shakespeare’s Henry VI is directly derived from Holinshed’s Chronicles. Danger Mouse remixes the Beatles and Jay-Z.
I was fascinated to read about how this book was born, relative to your work as a teacher. Can you talk about that a little bit?
I was hired to teach fiction writing at the University of Washington, in Seattle, twenty years ago. As my interests moved away from fiction writing, I felt as if needed to justify my existence, since I no longer read or wrote fiction. I developed a course in which I could talk about what actually excited me—nonfiction as art. The book-length essay as a work of literary art at the highest possible level. Each year, the course packet changed: I began with hundreds upon hundreds of quotations that were sort of my life-raft, quotes by everyone from Montaigne to Trish Hampl about the excitement of the essay form. Year by year, I edited and transformed the quotes into Reality Hunger.
You quote Dave Eggers at one point. An interview he did with The Onion several years ago. Says Eggers: “I’ve always had a hard time with fiction. It does feel like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody.”
In the end notes (which I know you didn’t want me to read—sorry!), you mention that Eggers no longer feels this way. Do you have any insight as to why he changed his mind?
You would need to ask Dave Eggers; I believe his sense is that he is now writing more fiction.
You posted an essay over at The Millions recently called “Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps,” which functions as both a Reality Hunger primer and a provocation. The comment board responses are fascinating—the level of vitriol in particular.
Some samples (appropriated—appropriately?–from The Millions):
a.) Is anyone else tired of Mr. Shields’ desperate and defensive attempts to justify his “manifesto?”
b.) Wake me when you’re done pretending this is a post-narrative world.
c.) David Shields is nothing more than a dried-up hack who dresses up his acts of plagiarism with layers of B.S. When will his 15 minutes be over?
d.) OK, David, if you really want the death of copyright, how about this: Please stop attributing your writing to yourself. No pseudonyms either. And make sure you don’t collect any money for your writings.
Your thoughts on these kinds of reactions? Do you ever stop and think to yourself: What in God’s name have I done?
No. See Flaubert (above).
You call the advent of collage art the most important artistic innovation of the twentieth century. Any thoughts as to what the most important developments of the twenty-first century might be?
Appropriation. But really, I have no more of a crystal ball than you do…have no idea, I must admit. I wrote Reality Hunger to suggest a map for how I hope and want things to go. I’d say Winnebago Man and Shit My Dad Says are examples of where art is heading for now.
Another passage from the book, a thought from Brian Christian:
“I’m finding it harder to just ‘write.’ The seeking and sculpting of found text or sound have become my primary ‘artistic’ function. Actually generating that text or music seems increasingly difficult. Lately I’ll sit down with a blank pad and feel like I really have to dig down deep to get my own voice to come out over the ‘sample choir.’ It’s a very strange feeling, like a conductor trying to sing over the orchestra, and is, I believe, a fairly new one for artists.”
Is it really new?
Brian was my grad student a few years ago. And yes, it does feel relatively new to me—the cascade of information available to us not just 24/7 but instantaneously. We’re all quite confused as to how this will affect art, but the solution isn’t to pretend that the web doesn’t exist and doesn’t completely dominate our lives.
Is Brian a new kind of artist?
Don’t you think he might just be blocked?
Don’t you think he might just need a Ritalin prescription and a six-week Internet detox?
I was on a panel a while ago with Rick Moody, and Rick had some of the same responses that you do: “Maybe Brian is just lazy or bored. Maybe he needs to work harder.” Actually, Brian is working hard on a new book that is in a way a contradiction of this statement. It’s not all quotation at all. We all change our views frequently, but I found and find this statement of his quite provocative. It captures the dilemma beautifully. We all apparently have different solutions to the dilemma. Reality Hunger is one solution.
And where are you headed? What’s next for you? Working on another book?
I’ve just finished co-writing an 800-page book about a famous American author–pub date TBD. Details forthcoming soon. And I’ve also co-edited a Norton anthology of essays by contemporary writers about death, which will be out in February 2011.
Sounds interesting. Thanks so much for your time, David.
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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